The Gutter of Cutscenes: Pixel v FMV
There is a long-standing personal theory that the increase in graphical fidelity decreased the narrative complexity of video games. I have some evidence to support my claim, but I understand that nostalgia is a powerful effect. However, I question my initial opinion after watching the Youtube group Extra Credits’ video about A Case for Cutscenes. It isn’t that the increase in graphical fidelity has decreased the narrative complexity in games, but that the increase in graphical fidelity has decreased the subtle emotions imagined in earlier games. Where did this shift happen, and why did I amend my theory? Let me take you into the Gutter.
In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains a key feature of the comic medium: the Gutter. The Gutter represents the space between panels. It is where there is no action, and where the reader must use the theater of their mind to connect the images. He further explains that the gutter as the reverse of the Kuleshov effect in films; though the Kuleshov effect is also important to comics. The frames of a film are similar to comic panels; once put together create a moving image. The Kuleshov effect is a trick used by filmmakers to imply meaning to images. Alfred Hitchcock’s’ example of the Kuleshov effect is below. As shown, with three simple images, the character of Hitchcock changes from a caring father to a perverted man.
Originally, I assumed that the Gutter was a technique unused to video games. But upon inspection, I realize that was wholly and completely wrong. The Gutter is a vital piece of storytelling in early video games, through pixel art. To those unaware, early video games relied on pixel art to model characters and environments. These art pieces were limited in their range of movement and appearance due to memory and time issues. As a result, pixel art used a lot of shorthand to show character’s emoting. Below are 3 examples from the NES, SNES, and Atari all showing the frames in a character emoting.
These individual frames created a moving image but were choppy enough that when used in conjunction with stage action and dialogue a type of Gutter formed for the player. In this moment they filled in the information presented to create more depth to the scene. This is where I bring back the idea of nostalgia. These games do indeed hold charm and complex narratives to them, however revisiting them reveals that a lot of the context and emotion I felt for them came from numerous Gutter moments. In my nostalgia, I remember these character doing thing unimaginable by their system components merely due to their pixelated acting.
This revelation, then explains where my issues with modern games started. With the rise of 3d graphics, the reliance on the gutter dwindled, creating a need for a narrative to explain to the player plainly – and usually through bad acting – the exact emotions of the scene. Looking back, it was more like stage acting. The characters over-emoted gestured wildly, and explain in detail their feelings on various situations. It was very Shakespearian. And this drastic, flailing expression of emotions continued until today, until Yakuza 0.
As mentioned in the Extra Credit video, Yakuza 0 is an odd little game to be so pivotal to game-story development. However, as mentioned in the video it is fascinating to experience. Yakuza 0 is the prequel to the Yakuza franchise, a series of games revolving around the politics of individuals tied to a Yakuza crime family. It is ridiculous and feels like an oddball Japanese crime drama. However, unlike other games in the genre, Yakuza 0’s cutscenes – where a majority of its plot is revealed – do not revolve around bit action set pieces or explosions. Instead, they rely on the more intimate moments and blow their entire budget creating hyper-realistic animations.
These scenes changed my theory on video game story vs gameplay. Yakuza 0’s cutscenes have the most realistic and emotive characters I’ve seen in a game yet. There are scenes where you can see a character, over the course of a few seconds, have a complete internal battle with themselves and a range of emotion before ever speaking a word.
This ability to emote naturally is what was missing in games. These close-up shots show how powerful graphics have become and how we can use them to bring about emotional stories in AAA games. We are on the cusp of getting rid of the overemotive play acting of the past 20 years and move into a new period of narrative expansion.
However, this doesn’t mean that the Gutter is gone from Video Games. In fact, it is necessary to stay around. Yakuza 0s budget is impossible for Indy developers to replicate. Instead, depending on the nature of the game they wish to design, Indy devs should consider using pixel art to have the gutter fill in for the sake of cash.
Whelp, I have run out of time to continue this topic. I am leaving for a trip for the rest of the month and will probably not be able to update this blog unless I get a severe bee in my bonnet about another topic. So until next time. Thank you for reading.