Sunday, July 29, 2012

I like my women like I like my keyboard shortcuts...

I keep starting posts that turn into grand, sweeping philosophizing, and I'm trying to get away from that.  (Hence the delay in updating.)  So to make things a little more tractable, I'm going to take a small-scale approach and discuss a common gaming pet peeve: The unskippable cut scene.

There are all sorts of reasons to hate the unskippable cut scene.  For one, cutscenes in general violate the inherent participatory nature of the video game.  The Half-Life games were praised as revolutionary in their time because they were the first games among their contemporaries to tell the story through the game.  You experienced the entire story through Gordon Freeman's eyes, and it was an incredibly immersive experience as a result.  There wasn't a fade out and cut to 3rd person view every time the game designers decided it was exposition time.  Hell, if you wanted, you could just walk away from the people talking to you and start hitting stuff (including the people talking) with your crowbar.  Gordon Freeman is a mute MIT physicist - he's clearly on the autism spectrum, and people will understand if he'll just do that kind of thing from time to time.

Gordon Freeman's teeth grinding and hand flapping proved just too unsettling in preliminary game testing, but if you look closely, NPCs' reactions to it are still coded into the game.

Taken from a human factors perspective, though, I can think of two major reasons why cutscenes can be so annoying.  

Requirements Analysis

First, good design involves a strong understanding of your creation's requirements.  There's quite a bit of formal theory built around requirements analysis, but I'll present one popular take.  There are basically four major requirements you have to work through when designing something:

Functional requirements: things your thing absolutely has to be able to do, and if it didn't, would make people think your thing is broken.  For instance, a calculator has to be able to perform arithmetic (correctly) on numbers that you enter into it.

Indirect requirements: things that have to be present to make the functional requirements possible.  To keep going with the calculator example, you need to have a power source of some kind.  (Don't start with me, abacus nerds.)

User requirements: what's your audience?  What do they know and what do they expect to be able to do with your thing?  Are they men or women?  Big or small?  Young or old?

Environmental requirements: where is your thing being used?  A solar-powered calculator is useless to an astronomer at night.  But then she's probably using a scientific calculator or a computer anyway.

Gameplay and cutscenes have a very tense relationship under this sort of framework.  The core gameplay mechanics serve as a functional requirement (or perhaps an indirect requirement to behavioral reinforcement...), but what is a cutscene?  

In the games that use them, they can serve a range of purposes.  They provide motivation to the player.  They inform the player of the next thing they have to do.  And in story-centric games, they may even be the very thing the player is primarily interested in.  Depending on their implementation, they can be considered a functional or indirect requirement.  So then why do they get so annoying?  For one, they are if they don't accomplish any of the things I just listed above.  If they're uninformative, provide superfluous narrative, or are just plain insipid, you're gonna piss people off.  

Oh, my god, I don't care.  I just want to sneak around and kill terrorists.

Then there are people who have absolutely no interest in the cutscenes, and just skip them because it's standing between them and playing the game.  This can be indicative that the cutscenes are not serving a purpose in the game to begin with, and their presence becomes questionable (sorry if you just wasted hundreds of man-hours making them).  For one, they're failing to meet their requirements, but second, they're actually interfering with the main functional requirement(s) of the game.  As with so many things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  This is why game devs need to sit down and figure out what they're trying to accomplish with their game, and how they want to do it.  Is this going to be gameplay driven?  What purpose are the cutscenes serving?  Do we need them?  What constitutes a justifiable reason to have a cutscene?

But then there's another, even simpler reason why the unskippable cutscene is so annoying, and it's highly related to a concept from user-interface design: flexibility.  


In computing, flexibility refers to the degree to which a computer program can provide an optimal experience to users of different expertise levels.  Keyboard shortcuts are the prototypical example.  In a well-designed program, the functions to which keyboard shortcuts are mapped will be organized in some kind of menu or toolbox structure that allows users to find or stumble upon them.  However, as a user starts using a function more and more often, navigating through menus or toolboxes becomes cumbersome.  Fortunately, through that frequent use, the user notices and becomes familiar with the keyboard shortcut noted on the function, and can use that to access it quickly without having to go through the UI infrastructure.  And so, keyboard shortcuts provide an optimal experience for the novice and expert users alike, while providing a support structure to aid in the transition between those two levels of expertise - all without getting in the way of the different users.  (You'll find many games ignore that last part; the Sequelitis video I put up in the first post speaks to that already.)

Can you imagine how annoying it would be for you if, every time you used your computer, you had to go to the edit menu to copy, then again to paste, every single time you wanted to copy and paste?  It seems so small, but just try doing that for a day.  You won't last an hour.  For an expert user, having to go through the process, as simple and short as it is, feels incredibly slow and frustrating.

Sound familiar?

As a hardcore completionist when it comes to games, I can't even relate to why someone would skip a cutscene on the first pass through.  But as a hardcore completionist, I have found myself on a fifth pass through a game wanting to stab the game dev's eyes out for making me sit through this same cutscene again.  Unskippable cutscenes are a pain because, at the very least, they ignore the principle of flexibility.  They ignore the fact that the player might already be an "expert," intimately familiar with the goals and story of the game, and just wants to get back to the action.  

Unskippable cutscenes are just bad design.

But wait!  There's another side to this coin.  Unskippable cutscenes are becoming more and more rare these days, I'll admit, but this is also giving rise to another problem.  The too-easily-skippable cutscene. I've probably had this problem even more often than the unskippable cutscene, to be honest.

I've lost count of how many times I've been in this situation: You're sitting through a cutscene, no idea how long it is because this is your first pass through the game, and you've really gotta pee.  You don't want to miss anything, but holy crap, your kidneys are gonna explode!  You never had to leave the game mid-cutscene before.  Can you pause them?  I don't know!  This thing just keeps going...  But I can't hold it any longer...  Let's just hit start and maybe that'll--FUCK!

(Or, even simpler, you accidentally bumped a button, and poof!  Cutscene goes bye-bye.)

Now what am I supposed to do?  Granted, a well-designed game will provide you with some kind of redundancy to indicate where you're going next or what your next goal is if the cutscene served to tell you that, but what about the content itself?  That's content you paid for, gone.  If you're lucky, the game lets you re-watch cutscenes in some kind of gallery, but how often do you see that?  Now, that portion of the game is lost to you until you play through to that point again.  Well, ain't that a kick in the balls.  

(I started playing Saints Row The Third recently, and I've already managed to lose a cutscene.  It seemed to involve an energy mascot beating up a gangbanger, though, so I'm guessing I'm not missing anything, but the fact that I don't care speaks to the justifiability of your cutscene in the first place.)

What I'd look like if I had a sweet scar, a more chiseled face, and a better haircut.

Game devs wised up and provided an option to cater to the expert user, but now the first-time player is left hanging in the wind, which is just as bad (if not worse).  So how do we deal with that?  Once again, a simple principle from general UI design: error prevention.

Error prevention is what it sounds like: a means of keeping the user from doing something stupid.  

It's why your word processor pops up a window when you try to close a document that says something like, "Are you sure you'd like to close?  You haven't saved any of the additions you've made to your dissertation in the past five hours, you lunatic."  Or whatever.  No one reads text strings longer than about 5 words anyway.  

Error prevention is also why there's that little plastic door on buttons that do awesome things in airplane cockpits and tricked out cars that you have to flip up like a bad-ass first before you do something that usually corresponds to the phrase, "punch it."

The ideal solution, as you can probably guess at this point, is pausable cutscenes that give you the option to skip them when you pause.  Thankfully, Square-Enix, responsible for 20% of the world's cutscene content despite producing .05% of all games annually, has implemented this in a lot of their recent games.  It's probably one of the few good game design decisions of Final Fantasy XIII.  

 There's that and the Shiva sisters summon who form a motorcycle by scissoring.

Still, confirmation that you're about to do something stupid, at the very least, is a step in the right direction.  Diablo III is the most recent example of this that leaps to mind - you can't pause a cutscene, but at least it asks you if you're sure you want to skip it.  And you get a cutscene gallery in the main menu, so you don't have to worry about missing anything.

Flexibility is a particularly interesting principle with a multitude of implications in game design, so look forward to discussions of that in future posts.

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