Games are an odd medium for telling a story. In most mediums you have one way of telling a story and that’s it. In a book you’ve got words on a page, in a play it’s words and actions combined. Sure, creators will use a wide variety of techniques within that medium, but there’s just one form that the medium takes.
What makes some games different is the combination of interactive and non-interactive story telling mechanics. Essentially you have the sections of the games when you’re in control and then you have cut-scenes (although these can take a variety of forms). There is, as with other mediums, several ways of using each of these styles of storytelling but really it boils down to these two forms of telling your story.
Now I’m not here to say one is better than the other. For example there are cut-scene sequences which are absolutely incredible and are simply not possible to perform in game. For example some of the choreographed fights in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood just wouldn’t look as impressive or feel as important if they were played through rather than being shown to you.
Of course that’s not to say that cut-scenes are the only way to tell a story, or even the best way. Currently I’m slowly playing through Dead Space 2, and the story is told exceptionally well rarely using cut-scenes. The few times cut-scenes do appear they’re integrated seamlessly into the game, with no real break in the feel of the game. Given the level of immersion that Dead Space 2 tries to achieve it would actually feel pretty peculiar if the game suddenly dropped out of the over-the-shoulder camera view to go into a complex, multi-angle cut-scene. You’d feel completely pulled out of the experience, and it just wouldn’t work in that game.
There does seem to be a general feeling that telling the story in gameplay is more difficult than just moving the plot forwards in cut-scenes, and I can certainly see where that comes from. If you’re in the middle of an action sequence you don’t necessarily want the game throwing character development at you whilst you’re blasting down enemies. More than anything it would just draw focus away from the action, meaning either you’d drop in skill, or lose track of whatever plot point is being move forwards at the same time.
Really it’s a question of balance I think. One of the things that put me off Metal Gear Solid 4 is the sheer amount of time the game spends in cut-scenes. Yes, I’m sure that the story is utterly fantastic because of it, and I know some people have a huge emotional attachment to the title. However, it just feels a bit overwhelming for me, even the length and number in MGS2 was a bit much for me personally (although I did still enjoy the game). It just feels a little bit cheap in my opinion when you go that way, it’s the most obvious way of telling a story and just feels a little lazy to me (and boy am I going to catch flack for that one).
Ultimately though developers just have to do what feels appropriate for a game, using their best judgement. I don’t particular like how heavily the MGS series relies on cut-scenes, but I’ll happily concede that it fits the style. If developers find a storytelling style that works for their title then I’m happy, it’s just the games that don’t seem able to strike the right balance that get to me. What good is a great story if you can’t tell it well?