Recently, there have been many blog posts detailing the negative aspects of narrative in games. The general tone is one told from a purist game designer's point of view that has many decrying its over-use and inherent lack of immersion. I write this counter-opinion from not only a game designer's stance, but as a programmer and artist as well.
Granted, cutscenes and story are by their very nature static elements, but challenging all games to avoid their use is as futile as removing stories entirely from games. In case that point isn't clear, it's impossible to remove story because every element on the game screen has a purpose and motivation or there just isn't a game to play. The most fundamental game designs are always an abstraction of conflict, even Pong had this element. Now, I'm not saying that a story has to be told with cutscenes; a game can do well without a single one. But automation has been an element of games since the very beginning. The ship respawning and flying in from the bottom to its starting position, the interludes of Pac-man chasing ghosts after a significant number of mazes have been cleared, the hapless toadstool retainer telling us that there's still more to go before finding our princess, and the mysterious lost continent rising from the ocean showing us where our next objective is. Why are these no different than narrative cutscenes now? Is it merely that we as designers and players have breached the threshold of acceptable automation, and blaming narrative for it? Or is it that the cutscenes are showing action we would like to play, not watch, and we feel a little bit of jealousy at our on-screen persona's fun?
Writing is a form of art, and unless the game (any game, pick one) has no visual and audio cues, the game is a culmination of many artistic expressions rolled together into a package. Art has no rules by its very nature; to limit what we can use to express ourselves is simply homogenizing the trade, and becomes the real tragedy. Games may or may not be art, I personally do not care either way, but games are made up of art given a life of its own.
The main character is never you
Let's look at another argument about games: who the main character is. Many anti-narrative bloggers use the example that the main character of a game is "you" as in you the player, and by removing your ability to interact in cutscenes, it no longer becomes your story. A fair point, but my argument to that is, is the character really the player? For example, Half-Life 2's Gordon has no expression at all, to present the argument that "you" are Gordon, that your real-life reactions are the same as his, and there's no need to tell you what you are feeling; you feel what you want. But, keep in mind that if the character was really "you", would these people the game allows interaction with react to YOU - how you look and your attitude and feelings about them - the same way? It is really "you" wearing a costume, one that you cannot control the look of and thus control how the game's world reacts to you. A Disney employee forced to wear Pluto's costume all day long without saying a word while kids run up to hug you, but your true feelings about these kids are not seen nor do they matter - they will only ever see you as a the ever smiling, silent, approachable canine. Yes, I'm aware if you were twisted enough you can break out of the role and curse the little children out or do unspeakable crimes while wearing the costume, but the initial reaction to someone's first meeting with you/Pluto will always be the same. Games may supply the limited option to be out-of-character and your own person, but the passive side of interactivity is lacking.
Of course, some games try to cover up the fact by letting you make an approximation of your character's look so they appear to be you, and give you an illusion of choices to say to appease or anger the target. Maybe even have a clever little switch of dialog if you choose the opposite gender. But the game must go on and will always reach its end. None of these choices ever matters, and no matter how scary or ugly or attractive your custom character model is, or how mean or nice you are to one NPC to show your mood, it is merely an illusion. The next character in the game only ever see an amorphous blob that may have a pink or blue tint to them, and possibly point out that you have funny ears with built-in prejudices that will be quickly forgotten with a few lines of dialog to keep the game moving ever onward.
The challenges of removing narrative
Narrative gives the game a direction. If the game is meant to end, it must end in a satisfactory way every time, aside from the game's definition of "Game Over'. It doesn't necessarily have to be a pleasant ending, but there is a goal to be reached. Yes, giving the player more interaction and choices to play out the game their way is fine and all, but eventually you reach a point where the player's choices nullify the ending criteria. It has happened before in games where killing vital NPCs is possible, or the player crafts a vital item necessary to solve the last puzzle into a broken sword. While interesting game designs, the fact is if the game has an ending, then it must be allowed to end. For example, single player RPGs cannot go on forever; the worlds are too small, there are only so many NPCs and items, and there's a limit to how strong the player can actually get. At some point, even in the most immersive, interactive games, there's just no point to play anymore without a final goal. Yes, we can make our own stories by giving enough freedom of action, but they are no different than taking the tokens from Monopoly and having the dog wear the top hat and walk around the properties saying "Good day!" - amusing, but ultimately empty experiences past the first attempt. Narrative are checkpoints to keep the player pointed toward that ending, similar to time limits on stages. Players are unpredictable, given too much freedom, the game just simply falls apart with no meaning once all these gameplay building blocks are mastered giving no reward. Why did the player build the best weapon and armor in the game, if all the NPCs, good and evil, are dead? Are we designers and programmers prepared to create infinite endings, an entire life simulator, just to remove narrative cutscenes and give total freedom to the player? What would the point of other games be?
On the other hand, games without an ending do not need narrative at all; Tetris is just fine increasing the difficulty indefinitely until no human could possibly react in time to a falling block. The challenge to get farther than the last time is endless, and a fair goal. But not everyone wants to play a game that doesn't end; personally, I don't. I like the part where I win, which never happens when I play my cheating friends in Monopoly.
Breaking down types of narrative cutscenes, and how to meet halfway
Informational/Exposition - These narrative cutscenes are there to inform the player who, what, when, where, why and how. Now, in a first-person game, telling the player who they are is a little more important, but third-person perspective games, you just simply need to see your character. Properly designed characters will tell their entire story with a glance. "Where?" and "When?" can be as easy as looking at the maps around them, artists should be clued in to these questions. "What?" and "How?" is the game itself and the game designer's primary focus. The "Why?" is the only real reason to use expositional cutscenes, and often told at the very start of the game. Mysteries will continuously add exposition as massive amounts of new information is found, but depending on the desired ending and theme of the game, may be done with no actual cutscenes. However, it is nice to be outright told, once in awhile, that you're moving in the right direction if the game has minimalistic narrative. Even Mario needed help like this.
Encounter - A subset of Exposition, this is the often-wordless cutscene used when introducing bosses, an important NPC, or just an ambush. I personally find these the most annoying, because it's just the game essentially pointing out how hard the artists worked on a character or enemy design. I mean, I can clearly see the half-naked goth woman walking up to me on the field, or entering the wrong room with the big ugly dragon already aware of my presence, so why do we need this break from the gameplay? An ambush should just happen, or are we insulting our player's intelligence not to notice an abnormally large amount of werewolves surrounding us? Are we trying to give our players a chance to change strategies? If a fire-breathing dragon showed up outside my apartment door on my way to work while it was on a killing rampage, I am pretty sure we wouldn't just stand there trying to look impressive for a few seconds. If I really wanted to get a good look at the girl and/or dragon, I already have the choice in-game to do it, so a cutscene is a bit superfluous.
Action/Climax - these are often the cutscenes that make the least sense. Exciting, yes, but the gameplay is supposed to be exciting, so why aren't we playing THAT? When being dropped off onto the alien planet, don't we want the player to actually "be there", moving around on the drop ship while we land? Why does our character use such a flashy move just one time to kill an archdemon, when we can't use it normally? I'm not impressed by stuff like this. The character should never break out-of-character, cutscene or not. The game should probably always keep focused on our character or through our character's eyes.
Interrogation - Usually not cutscenes per se, these are interactive exposition. The player is given a choice on what to say that affects their knowledge of events, but does not necessarily change the outcome of the game. Beginning with the most basic Yes/No answers from the earliest games (often forcing you to pick one or the other anyways after a brief reprimand), they have evolved into full personality-laden lines of dialog, and often require a certain choice to fully proceed. Another illusion of immersion.
Resolution - The ending cutscene. The game is finished, so naturally, there isn't any gameplay left. Aside from last minute options that affect the final result, there isn't much else to do here. The resolution may or may not be chosen from a limited selection based on choices or gameplay thoroughness made earlier in the game.
The final point
Narrative is a tool, as well as cutscenes. They can be misused just like any tool, but limiting the craft by avoiding the tool can also be a mistake. You don't always need to use a screwdriver, especially if you're just hanging small pictures on the wall (even though, if you're in a pinch, you can just flip it around and hit the nails with the handle, which I have to do often since people keep stealing my hammers). A game does not always need cutscenes, or even narrative, but the inclusion of either does not somehow invalidate the game. In fact, I like a well-written story, and one I don't have to imply. It sure beats watching TV all week long.