Are Cut Sequences Extratextuals, and Why Do I Care?

Jonathan Gray's picture

I haven’t had time to the play my PS3 at all lately, but back at the beginning of the summer I was playing Metal Gear Solid 4. This game has absurdly long cut sequences (the end of the game has a series totaling about 45 minutes alone), and most of them are extremely tedious. You know how everyone thought the whole “midichlorians” thing in Star Wars Eps. 1-3 was stupid? Well, imagine a two hour lecture on them broken into fifteen minute chunks, with occasional intrusions regarding a character with bad diarrhea (I’m serious), and this is what you have. So I did what any self-respecting gamer would do – I hit the X key, skipped them, and went back to the game.

It’s the oddity of videogame cut sequences – they’re trying to create a narrative around what is often otherwise simply a list of “go here,” “kill this guy,” or “stay alive” missions. Yet they need to be entirely skippable – unskippable cut sequences are the devil, and the kiss of death for many a bad game. Some gamers just wanna hack, slash, swing, parkour, shoot, and/or chat their way through the different levels.

We should also be honest that many cut sequences are simply bad. Videogame producers often hire their cast and writers on the cheap, leading to facile premises acted out by hack, fourth-rate “talent.” They’ve also been bad at trying to videogame-ize genres, and set pieces within genres, that seem to require the semblance of real humans. For instance, I just can’t take seriously a pixilated couple smoochying, for instance, nor is sexual tension between avatars anything other than sad and silly. Cut sequences are often fond of melodrama, but can’t deliver it.

Anyways, as a result, the cut sequences, though seemingly part of the narrative, and part of the “primary text,” actually take on the same function as bonus materials on a DVD of a film or television show. The latter exist, but don’t need to exist, and they can add layers of meaning, but needn’t. And so too with the former. In short, they’re extratextuals.

Why does this matter? Well, amidst all the excited discussion of convergent, transmedia storytelling, the focus has usually been on examining ways in which a narrative and/or text can “overflow” from one platform to another. The interest, in other words, has been on expansion. But perhaps what cut sequences remind us of is a fact just as important to understanding transmedia – namely that many elements of the “primary text” (and of secondary texts or transmedia extensions too) simply don’t matter, and won’t even be considered part of the text. This will change from audience member to audience member – some gamers, for instance, may be heavily invested in the cut sequences (I know I am for the GTA games) – but the point is that transmedia analysis might tell us more about what’s important in a text, and what’s irrelevant. Our focus could be on reduction as well, therefore.

Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Tue, 26 Jan 2010 22:18:43 +0000