One of the most common trends in games has nothing to do with gameplay at all. Cutscenes are basically little movies that force the player to sit and watch. They can be used for many different things and can have positive or negative effects on the overall game experience. I will look at the good and bad of cutscenes.
Where it all started
Cutscenes started off as simple filler between levels. The old Pac Man game had a simple cutscene of pac man and the ghosts running around. Some early games had a short cutscene that introduced the story. These early cutscenes were seconds long. They were not too flashy or that important. If the option was there many players skipped them and went on with the game.
One of the more famous cutscenes was at the beginning of the first Double Dragon game. It was short but set up the story well enough. In the few seconds it plays you understand that a girl is kidnapped and you have to save her.
The early Ninja Gaiden games for NES showed the first hints of cutscenes to come. They were not long but much more fleshed out than most. Camera angles changed and plenty of dialogue was said. Here is part one of a compilation of the cutscenes in the first game.
Eventually game designers decided to add a bit more dialogue to the scenes and try and flesh out the story a bit more. Early RPGs usually had long extended scenes that had the player just reading what other's were saying in the game. It was a natural progression to move these moments into scenes with better direction. Gameplay would stop as the characters moved around the screens themselves and set up key story line points.
Final Fantasy VI is know for its longer cutscenes. While still done in 2D sprites you can see how the game was striving to be cinematic. In the most famous cutscene from the game you watch an opera.
Finally the Playstation landed developers and found themselves with powerful new hardware that ran CDs. CD gaming offered much more space to play with than cart based games. Designers found many ways to try and fill up their game discs. One of these ways was having long cutscenes done in stunning graphics. They were usually rendered in higher resolutions and saved as movie files on the disc. These were show pieces for the hardware and the format. After this the modern era of the cutscene was born and popularized.
Again it was a Final Fantasy that took the cutscenes further. Final Fantasy VII featured longer scenes that were directed as almost mini action flicks. It successfully brought the RPG genre mainstream in North America and it did so mostly because of the cutscenes. Ever since RPGs have been know for their cinematic scenes, as a way to push the story forward. This particular scene depicts the death of Aeris.
Cutscene as a Reward
One of the more common ways many games, even not particuarly story driven ones, use cutscenes is by offering them as a reward. Cutscenes are a way to play out some action and story without involving the player. This may seem counter productive to the artform, but when done properly it is satisfying. Players can get fatigued while playing and sometimes are forced to do the same type of gameplay over and over again for a long time to reach their goal. Once their goal is finished it can be nice to drop the controller down for a bit and watch the outcome unfold.
After beating a level in Halo 2, the non-stop action takes a break from the player and you watch what happens at the end of the level. Its a clean way to give the player a break while at the same time keeping up the mood.
The main reward of a game is the ending, and cutscenes owe a lot of their history to endings. Since the game is technically over, the player is expecting to be done playing the game. Its a cool way to wrap up the story to have the player watch his accomplishments throughout the game being paid off.
The Tekken Fighting series is know for its well done endings. You get a different and unique ending for each character you beat the game with.
The Interactive Cutscene
The whole original point of a cutscene was to take control away from the player and show him/her what the designer wants without interferrence. However, a new form of cutscene is appearing that not only brings the story forward and has intense action squences but never takes control away from the player. The interactive cutscene is normally only in First Person Shooters. The eyes of the hero are the eyes of the camera. While a major story point unfolds in front of the player he can still move the protagonist around to see everything from different angles. The pioneer of this style of cutscene are the designers at Valve software and their Half Life series. Half Life's basic story is about an alien invasion. Throughout the Half Life games, large scale action squences unfold, sometimes while the player is in the middle of doing something else. In games without interactive cutscenes if a building were to blow up, chances are the gameplay would stop and there would be a new camera angle showing the building collapsing. In Half Life Episode One when the Citadel is exploding and taking out the whole city around it the player is free to look around as he is on the train escaping. He can watch the action unfold, or look down at the ground. It may seem counter-productive to create entire set pieces and only hope the player pays attention to them, but by adding this layer of interactivity it lets the player feel more attached to the character and their surroundings. Taking players out of the gameplay to watch something can take a player out of the game, with an interactive cutscene they are never without the controller in their hand.
Half Life Episode 1 ends with the Citadel blowing up. Gordon Freeman can look and move as he wants to. Because you are seeing the scene through the eyes of the protagonist you are more likely to feel a connection to the scene. It also helps make the game world seem more real since you are never taken out of gameplay.
Bioshock rarely takes the player out of control. You are always watching the game through Jack's eyes. This sets up many dynamic scenarios.
The other type of interactive cutscenes, called quick time events, are a bit less interactive but still encourages players to keep the controller in their hand. During a cutscene that takes the player out of gameplay sometimes a button may flash up on the screen. If the player does not press the button fast enough their hero will die during the cutscene. This ensures that the player has more of an attachment with their character, since they have to play closer attention to the screen, while still being able to create the full cinematic experience of a cutscene.
God of War uses quick time events as an ending to a battle. It allows Kratos to pull off more brutal moves that would not be possible in gameplay alone. This particular battle is from God of War 2 and its intense Pegasus battle.
Way too Long!
Now that cutscenes are common place in a game some designers forget that they are making a game at times. As I said before a cutscene should be a break from the game. Sometimes cutscenes turn from a nice break to a very long interruption in the gameplay. At a point designers need to figure out if they want to make a game or a movie. The Metal Gear Solid Series is a prime example of this. I admit that I love the series but I do see a flaw in how long the cutscenes are. Thankfully the gameplay that is there is so good that it is worth sitting through the long cinematics. A game should not neccesarily play like this however. The cutscene should be a reward for playing; playing should not be a reward for watching a cutscene. At one point I sat through 2 back to back cutscenes that nearly totaled an hour. When cutscenes over stay their welcome the game stops becoming a game, and is now a short movie. Cutscenes can compliment the medium but they can also overtake it.
Why can't I play this?
For me the worst kind of cutscene is one where I sit there wishing I was playing the scene and not watching it. At the best of times cutscenes should show moments that the player could not realistically control. But if you are approaching a character and are ready to fight only to see the battle played out in a movie, it doesn't just take you out of the game it also makes the player angry. There is almost no point to replace a battle in a gameplay with a battle being played out in a movie. A cutscene can play out the end of the fight to give it a dynamic finish, or start off the fight to set it up the exact way the designer wants, but it should never completely replace the battle. If the cutscene can realistically be translated into gameplay it probably should. Hideo Kojima (director of the Metal Gear Solid Series) even admitted to his mistakes when he said, "In MGS4, yes, I put everything in the cut sequences, which I kind of regret to some extent, because maybe there is a new approach which I should think about. I'm always thinking about it -- making it interactive but at the same time telling the story part and the drama even more emotionally"
In Resident Evil 5 you come across a motor cycle gang. rather then having an epic battle with them you are forced to sit and watch the entire fight unfold. It would have worked much better as a boss battle then a cutscene.
Cutscenes can be a great tool for the game designer but they can also put a lot of players off. When used properly they can be a well needed break or reward for the player. When too long or used instead of gameplay they can take the player out of the interactive element of the game. Still it is something every game has to one extent or another, and everyone has their preferences on how they should be used.