Narrative Design: Pacing, Difficulty and How Metal Gear Rising Got it Right

I’ve never really understood why so many people complain about the length of the cutscenes in the Metal Gear Solid series. As a young, impressionable boy, cutscenes were the reward you worked toward. A golden bastion of gratification. Getting to the next cutscene was an achievement, a signal that you could at least do the game when your friends and relatives and nearby inanimate objects weren’t about to be better at it than you. And when it came to Metal Gear Solid, a game I’ve repeatedly, voraciously EATEN for many years (that’s right folks, I’ve EATEN it) I simply considered the reward to be greater, as of course was the gameplay, and every other aspect of that glorious, life-affirming masterpiece. Being aghast by a long cutscene would be akin to loudly complaining that your expensive steak was too succulent, and subsequently grabbing the waiter by his tie and demanding he stir in some soggy cardboard or you’ll start flinging chairs about the place. Maybe I really do have an eating issue.

Anyway. Metal Gear Rising, Platinum Games’ alternative take on the iconic series, approaching the classic Stealth-’em-up from a brand new hack/slash/block/die/cry angle was, upon reveal, met with a barrage of dissent. ‘You can’t change the Metal Gear formula!’ cried the type of people that would complain about winning a year’s supply of unbridled happiness. Albeit, there was an undoubtedly potent amount of risk involved. The game was a roaring, slicing, dicing success though, and if you’ve not played it, Respawn officially demand you go out and do so immediately if not sooner. It’s balanced, strategic and best of all, a guffawing barrel of fun.

And one way it achieves its rotund barrel-esque shape and said enjoyable innards is the way its cinematics, or more, the big narrative moments are thrust indignantly at you.

Increasingly, games are weaving in enrapturing ‘blockbuster’ storylines, jammed with grandiose peaks of simmering intensity that get the player pumped to be in control.  Something I’ve found to happen all too often in these games though is the instance wherein a level of challenge in the way the gameplay mechanics function at these specific, pivotal points, actually detracts from the momentum of the story it’s worked so hard to bring to a boiling, reverberant pinnacle. I’m not saying games should be less challenging (I think quite the opposite in fact) I’m saying narrative design needs to be taken into account in a more gameplay-centric manner at these particular moments.

I can only imagine the frustrated, baffled expression you’re pulling due primarily to that illegible description, so let me use a real-world example. In Mass Effect 3, as you move to make a swift exit from Rannoch, the Normandy is attacked by a Reaper. In a stirring display of vehement, and fist-in-the-air badassery (I’m sorry) Shepard orders the Normandy pull over, and in a ‘not today’ turn of events, he barks a few orders back to the ship before announcing he’ll ‘finish this thing off.’ It’s an incontestably rousing sequence, made all the more so exhilarating by an incredible soundtrack and as the player resumes control of Shepard, they are full of adrenaline and ready to fight.

For me though, the balance in this section was completely skew-if. It was orchestrated like an ordinary boss fight, when in fact, it could have been so much more. It took a few trial and error runs to figure out what exactly the game wanted from you, before a few more dodges and dives and deaths before you got a formula that would work for actually defeating the thing; by the time I managed it, the energy and momentum of that soaring moment had completely disappeared. In this instance, narrative design should have dictated that, more important than strategy or challenge, was empowerment, in terms of how the player should feel. I don’t want to be made to stop and trial and error and strategize, essentially, at this point in the game.

So then, back to Rising. Whilst it was far from perfect, Platinum’s balance of indulgent, impossible spectacle and thoughtfully aligned challenge made for numerous moments throughout the game that were entirely ‘holy shit, this is awesome’, even when, and in fact especially when, you were still in control. By dimming the intensity of the accuracy required from the player, it kept the pace at a blistering level whilst still providing a significant challenge at the right times – other times. Cinematic dynamicity and out and out awe-inspiring ridiculousness are things Metal Gear Rising gets very right indeed, and something games that perpetuate these big arching moments, could really learn from.

And still these days, when I hit a cutscene, I throw the controller down and bask in the unabashed glory of wafer thin narrative progression, and more military-based macho nacho homoerotic sentiments that detail just how real shit is about to get. I fail most QTE’s thanks to this tendency. Or I end up wildly scrambling for the controller, sending the Kinect hurtling out the window in the process. Although that might be malevolent intention. Rising meant I had to retrain myself to hold on to the damned thing. We reiterate, if you’ve not played it yet, go out and get a copy now. Oh, and stop complaining about long cutscenes.

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Author Description

Rob Vicars

Rob is a writer, wearing many hats that do not belong to him. When not scribbling ardently for his games blog Respawn in... 5, he pretends to be a musician, a videographer, a game developer and an alright guy.

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