In a comment to my June Round Table post Deirdra wondered where the line is between smart storytelling via non-interactive cutscenes and "Hollywood envy".
I don't think "Hollywood envy" is a problem, and I think the "interactive movie blight" is itself a perfect example of why there is no "Hollywood envy" problem. Most of the old "interactive movies" sometimes failed because of goofy or bad "interaction", but generally more often failed because the movies themselves were just bad. As a culture we've tried to forget abortions like Mr. Payback and yet the (sometimes cruel) animated Dragon's Lair continues to find new audiences solely for the warmth and the heart instilled by Don Bluth's animation and knowledge of storytellin and in spite of its simplistic and annoying "gameplay". People point out all of the failures of the "interactive movie" eras, but for every Loadstar (seemingly the bastard sequel to the awful Space Truckers film) or Night Trap there was a Wing Commander 3 or Under a Killing Moon... If you look at even this small sampling I think facts become apparent that the worst atrocities came more from a "Video Game Envy" amongst Hollywood, Dragon's Lair fails as a good video game, but it was an attempt by a well known animator to create an "interactive animated movie". Mr. Payback was an awful attempt by writer/director Bob Gale (whose best works remain his writing for Back to the Future) to bring his storytelling attempts to gaming without any knowledge of how to make a good interactive experience. Rocket Science Games, creators of Loadstar, only started to make good games once they stopped getting money from media conglomerate and co-founder BMG, stopped thinking themselves as a "Hollywood studio" full of rock stars and started hiring real game designers. Wing Commander 3 and UAKM worked beautifully because they were great games, first, and good/great movies, second, and both came from notable (now dead, sadly) game development houses.
The thing to learn from the "interactive movie" mess is not that "interactive movies are bad", it's that you can almost shoehorn a bad game into a good movie (Dragon's Lair) and you can certainly cross a good game with a good movie (Wing Commander 3 and UAKM), but do not ever think that it is a good idea to make a bad movie more palatable by shoehorning in a bad game to the experience. We learn that Hollywood fails to understand gaming as far back as the early 90s and that smart game companies can build good games that make use of Hollywood know-how to intertwine good movies into the gameplay.
To me the "interactive movie" period really was one of the few periods where we saw very much experimentation with "what's acceptable for a cutscene" and "what's acceptable hybridization of Hollywood talents and game studio talents". I certainly don't think that we can derive the "cutscenes are bad, m'kay" logic from this one small area of experimentation, but I've seen people who have tried. We can't let the failures stymie future possibilities without first examining why they were failures and what the successes looked like in comparison.
So where should the line be drawn on what can and can't be done with cutscenes? I really don't know and I really don't think anyone else knows either. I can give you examples of games that I enjoy well enough and have extremely long cutscenes. I think that done well a full 90-minute movie could be embedded into a game and people would entertained if both the game itself and the 90-minute movie were well done and complemented each other well. Heck, how many more people would buy and play the goofy games spun off by movies if the movies themselves were unlockable bonuses in the game?
I have been playing around with something of a "Cutscene Watcher's Manifesto", as I think there are a few common courtesies that any game should have with regard to cutscenes ("Pause Anywhere" being chief among them), but beyond that I think that we don't really have any definitive answers on where we can and can't go with cutscenes, and as I said in the previous article I certainly don't think cutscenes by themselves are necessarily "bad" or "evil". As a fan of both movies and games I think there is a lot of rich territory where the two mix and intermingle and one of these days maybe we'll actually see some cool games that really explore that terrain in ways that truly speak the strengths of both games and movies...
Aside: Hmm, I noticed that Mr. Ebert has reviewed Mr. Payback. I'm betting he still holds that against game companies (rather than the Hollywood system that spawned it) when ranting against games as art...