Design tools: the Jump Cut, the narrative device that games forget

thirty-flights-car

[~2700 words; ~1600 on jump cuts; ~1100 going off on tangents towards the end]

#WallOfText #AlmostNoPics

I was musing about video games the other day and for some reason, out of nowhere, I got this vision for the use of a sequence of jump cuts that I don’t think has ever been seen in a game before.

And the more I thought about it the more I realized that the act of suddenly, and without effect, cutting from one scene to another is almost never used in games. Almost all games have an uninterrupted, linear sequence of events that play out through an unbroken span of time. The breaks that do happen are between levels, if the game has levels, or through cutscenes that create bridges between two different locations.

So, I decided to talk a little about this narrative device in games. And then this led me to go on a couple tangents about the general lack of artistic devices in games and the attitude some people have that games are fundamentally different and/or better than any other art forms.

So, here is my first example of hypothetical jump cuts, which is what popped into my head while I was idly musing.

HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLES:

Example 1:

the-elder-scrolls-v-skyrim-the-undead-approacheth

You’re in some location, maybe an infested space facility, and you’re shooting space monsters with your laser guns, and there’s monsters running at you and—

*SNAP* Cut to you riding on a spaceship.

assassins-creed-ship

It travels towards the facility in which you’re about to do battle. You chat with your squad mates through a dialogue tree. You test your equipment, inspect your weapons—

*snap*

skyrim-zombie

You’re back fighting monsters right where you left off and again you’re fighting and shooting and—

*snap*

assassins-creed-islands

You’re back on the spaceship. You can see the facility out the window. You do some computer scans of the facility. Your Sergeant briefs you on what to expect. You look through a pair of binocula —

*snap* You’re back in the battle! Blam Blam Bang SNARL ETC.!

And so forth and so on.

You could even use the jump cut in that situation a little differently. Instead of cutting backwards in time the cuts could jump forwards in time to after the battle is over and you’re exploring the facility amidst the carnage. You have less ammo and you can see corpses of monsters that you have yet to fight in the battle sequences which would be some great foreshadowing. Some masonry crumbles from the ceiling and lands next to you; the hand of a defeated enemy twitches briefly and then grows still. And then you cut back to the battle scene.

Or! The sequence could forego the battle altogether. It could simply jump cut back and forth between the approach aboard the spaceship and the exploration of the facility in the aftermath of the battle. You never actually play through the battle and what happens during it is simply implied.

Example 2:

Let’s say you’re playing as a treasure hunter or something, a tomb raider, if you will. You’re having a conversation with someone in a torch lit, Moroccan cantina.

mass-effect-cantina

You’re navigating a dialogue tree with this character because you know that he knows the location of a fabled artifact. The character you’re talking to leans forward and says, “The amulet was buried in the temple of Angkaman, hidden in the jungles of Borneo.”

*SNAP*

You instantly jump cut outside the temple of Angkaman in Borneo.

halo-forerunner-tower

No traveling there; no leaving the cantina, no getting on an airplane, no hacking through the jungles of Borneo; no cutscene, no loading screen. Just instant jump cut.

And this could be extended. As you explore the ancient temple you’ll come across a trap or a puzzle —

*snap*

Back to the conversation and after navigating the dialogue tree you ask, “I’ve seen etchings from certain tablets depicting a strange creature. What is it?” And the character responds, “That is the depiction of the frog god Memenkotup. Priests would carve his likeness on temple walls to warn each other of the presence of poison dart traps. Or so they say.”

*snap*

Back in the temple and now the player knows to look out for areas marked with that carving.

And so forth and so on.

There are so many clever ways that a simple jump cut (or sequence of jump cuts) could be used in video games, but you don’t really ever see them. I think that says a lot about something.

TRADITIONAL GAMES AND LEVEL TRANSITIONS:

So, something similar to jump cuts has, in a way, existed in video games in the form of jumps between levels. Often you’ll have a level end by mentioning some other location and then the next level you’re at that new location; the game doesn’t show the travel between the two places. For some reason Thief 2 comes to mind when I think about this. You discover some piece of information that means you’ll have to travel to the Mechanist Temple and then the next level you’re right outside the Mechanist Temple. No traveling there, you’re just there. Something along those lines.

However, these transitions are often bridged with cinematics or mission briefings which detracts from the dramatic effect; the level transitions don’t have the same dramatic impact as the jump cuts in books or movies.

And, of course, these cuts almost never happen within the same level. Once a level begins it pretty much continues without pause or break. Each level consists of one unbroken space and one unbroken period of time.

Which isn’t a bad thing by itself, but when it’s the only way things are done in almost every single game then it’s kind of boring, and it’s evidence for how immature the medium still happens to be. And no, being a young medium is not an excuse for this. A jump cut in a video game functions basically the same as a jump cut in film or literature, so games could very easily adapt the device to their own medium. The problem is that there isn’t a real strong cultural push for developers to explore the use of these types of devices.

THIRTY FLIGHTS OF LOVING:

One game comes to mind that DOES use jump cuts to a very dramatic effect: Thirty Flights of Loving by Blendo games, aka Brendon Chung. (Side note: Dear Brendon Chung. If you ever happen to read this blogpost let me say I love your games. This very blog’s name, “Electric Cartilage”, is an homage to your game Gravity Bone.)

thirty-flights-borges

In Thirty Flights there are segments where you start in the middle of an action scene and as you play you suddenly jump cut to a peaceful scene looking out of a balcony at night eating oranges. And then you might cut to a high speed car chase.

thirty-flights-police

It’s a fantastic use of cuts that rivals the artistry of film or literature while still being executed in a way that takes into account the properties that make games immersive and enjoyable.

Maybe there are other games that also use cuts like this, although none come to mind at the moment. (Maybe Indigo Prophecy, aka Fahrenheit, had a scene where you jump cut between two characters as one searches for the other. I don’t know, maybe it was just two separate levels.)

Actually, now that I think about it, Brendon Chung has used jump cuts in most of his games, actually.

Anyway, if anyone is reading this and you can think of a game that uses jump cuts in an interesting way, or at all, feel free to let me know.

I think the recent Firewatch game also does some jump cuts, but I’m not sure how effective they are. Points for including them though.

WHY SHOULD MORE GAMES USE JUMP CUTS:

An additional tool in the designer’s toolbox can only broaden what games are capable of accomplishing. It can only improve games in the long run.

With cuts you instantly bring emotions and knowledge from one scene to the next. One scene is feeding off the work of another without having to build up to those emotions again. You’re not losing anything by going through a narrative lull.

Or, you could do the opposite. You could use jump cuts to deliberately break up the emotional consistency of a scene. Take a very heart pumping situation and break it up with calmer more thoughtful moments.

Jump cuts can be used to really amp up the pacing and urgency of a situation. Kind of related to the first point, when you jump from scene to scene you’re not losing any sense of action that you would lose if you have to travel empty corridors between those scenes or if you have to watch a cinematic.

By having jump cuts you can actually make the experience feel more purposeful and rewarding; the player isn’t wasting time doing things that aren’t directly and immediately relevant to what’s going on.

Jump cuts can add symbolic weight to a meaningful juxaposition.

Jump cuts can be used comedically as we’ve all seen in films and tv shows.

This isn’t to say that every game should start using jump cuts. I’m not arguing that it’s the end-all-be-all of artistic tools. And, I’m definitely not saying that jump cuts should be the ONLY way for a game to transition between scenes.

What I AM saying is, why not use it? Why ignore this tool when it could be added to the developer’s toolbox and used when the moment is right? It could only improve things and add depth to a medium that despite all its innovations is still very immature.

(At the very bottom of this blog post I’m keeping an ongoing list of games that do use jump cuts.)

TANGENTIAL THOUGHTS ON THE LACK OF ARTISTIC TOOLS/DEVICES IN GAMES:

Thinking about all the interesting and inventive ways that jump cuts could be used in games and then looking around and seeing almost no games using them is really disappointing.

In terms of technology there’s no excuse. Something like the jump cuts in my examples could have been implemented in games as far back as Quake, if not earlier.

And this disappointment is kind of a microcosm for my general disappointment in the lack of artistic innovation in games.

Yes, there are games that are innovative and push the medium forward. However, most developers, even indie developers, tend to focus more on innovating mechanics, systems, or the visual presentation of games. They tend to focus on iterative gameplay, not artistic gameplay.

Yes, some games do use interesting artistic devices, but when they do it happens sparingly. They’re a tiny part of the game, a painted fingernail, they’re almost never used as the skeleton or the muscle. I know that was a weird analogy, but it’s the best I have at the moment.

In my opinion there isn’t a real impetus, from fans or from critics, to really push the medium to the fringes of what it is capable of. Developers aren’t really being motivated to explore the weird fringe of what video games can do.

The medium still hasn’t accomplished even half of what it could (despite the innovations we have seen). The medium is still very immature and being “young” isn’t an excuse.

There’s plenty of examples of deep artistry that can be found among indie/alt games, little known modern games, old forgotten games, or even small, overlooked sections of games that everyone knows. Out of the last 15 or so posts I’ve made about 12 that look at aspects of games that I think most people haven’t.

The inspiration and the lessons don’t have to come from just games. There’s plenty to learn from other art forms such as poetry, music, literature, film, and theatre, which have been exploring their artistry for decades, or centuries, or even longer than that.

Of course the problem with that last paragraph is that there is an attitude going through parts of gaming culture that specifically recoils at the idea of comparing games to other mediums of art/entertainment.

TANGENTIAL THOUGHTS ON THE INSECURE, ISOLATIONIST CULTURE IN SOME PARTS OF THE GAMING COMMUNITY

There seems to be an attitude snaking its way through gaming culture that savagely rejects any comparisons to other mediums like literature or film. It’s an attitude born of insecurity which tries to isolate games in order to hide from judgement.

This attitude has morphed over the years:

“Games are a young medium; they haven’t had as much time to grow.”

“Player agency makes games different than other mediums of art.”

“Games tell stories by letting the player tell stories, which makes them great.”

“Games are fundamentally different than anything else that’s come before them.”

“Games do something so unique that other mediums can’t even comprehend it.”

“Games aren’t art because they’re better than art.”

(That last one, which is basically like saying “pizza isn’t food, it’s better than food”, is the title of a blog post by an indie developer that was posted in the middle of me writing all this. I’m not going to link it because I don’t want him to get notified and a possible internet argument to spring up.)

These responses are predictable and unsurprising when you view them as reactions to feelings of insecurity and embarrassment. It starts off as making excuses for perceived negative qualities, then rationalizing the negative qualities as inevitable, then reframing the negative qualities as positive qualities, and then finally escalating to appropriating the perceived negative qualities as signifiers of separateness and superiority.

Of course, those arguments and statements are nonsense. Games are NOT fundamentally different than other artistic mediums. Games are fundamentally the same; superficially they are different.

Those arguments don’t represent reality because they only exist to dispel cognitive dissonance. It reminds me of a child in school who gets bad grades and reacts by saying, “I don’t care about grades. Grades are bullshit. School is bullshit. I’m not going to be like those losers who waste all their time studying all day.”

I think this inferiority complex goes all the way back to when Roger Ebert erroneously stated that games couldn’t be art because they lacked authorial control. Which of course was nonsense especially since there already WERE games that were art before he even said anything. Nevertheless, the statement freaked out the game community for no reason and ever since then there has been a vocal population that feels inferior to other arts and therefore rejects them with the attitudes I listed above.

I find this attitude (that games are unique and different (and better)) than other forms of art to be tremendously frustrating because it accomplishes nothing. This attitude doesn’t push the medium forward and it doesn’t encourage innovation. It stifles innovation, holds back the medium, and encourages isolation from all other artistic communities.

“I don’t care” isn’t an impetus for innovation. “We’re better” doesn’t motivate growth.

When this attitude encounters someone trying to compare games to other art forms there’s an immediate backlash; I’ve experienced this firsthand. It’s almost as if these gamers and game developers are afraid that if they look towards other mediums for inspiration that this is somehow admitting defeat, or something equally stupid.

I find it unsurprising that some of the most creative and innovative developers either openly state their passion for other mediums or began their careers in a completely different artistic field. Brendon Chung himself is an avid cinephile and low and behold he takes jump cuts (used most notably in film) and uses them in really interesting and engaging ways in his games.

Ultimately, video games are still a very immature medium. But, they’re not young. They’ve had plenty of time to grow, experiment, and make leaps forward. Most of these leaps, however, avoided the artistry of games in favor of interesting mechanics or cool visual design.

Where is the use of chiasmus and caesura in games? Where is my gameplay denouement at the end of a level; or where is my level denouement at the end of a game? Where are my game mechanics that act as analogy, synecdoche, or metonymy? Where are the uses of anaphora and zeugma?

I mean they’re out there, but you have to dig and dig before you can find them hidden, perhaps existing in a game only on accident.

Where the hell are my JUMP CUTS?

ADDENDUM: EXAMPLES OF JUMP CUTS IN GAMES

I’m going to use this space at the end to list games that DO use jump cuts in interesting ways. Feel free to leave a message about any other games you’re aware of that use jump cuts.

A recent (2016) indie game called Virginia came out which uses Jump Cuts in some very interesting and unique ways (unique at lease for video games). You play an FBI investigator and the game jump cuts between events and between times of day that I really am impressed with. There’s an interesting Game Informer interview on youtube with Virginia’s writer and director Jonathan Burroughs talking about the use of Jump cuts in Virginia.

In the recent Titanfall 2 there’s a section that makes use of Jump Cuts in a science facility where the player cuts back and forth in time. It’s not exactly used as an artistic device since ultimately it’s foreshadowing a time jump game mechanic the players use throughout the rest of the level, but I still thought it worth mentioning. The level is actually pretty awesome, and here’s an interview at Waypoint with senior designer Jake Keating about the making of this level.

Recently, youtuber HBomberGuy posted a video about what “outdated” design elements in Yooka-Laylee could be used to improve modern games. One of the things he talks about is how level transitions allow designers to avoid the restrictions of a consistent physical reality, or as he puts it, “the wealth of design possibilities opened up by placing level design and convenience for the player over physical coherence”. Effectively, these level transitions are a video game version of jump cuts, where the designer can instantly transport the player from one location of a world to another. One example he gives is a moment in Yooka-Laylee when you enter a tunnel at the bottom of a mountain and immediately jumpcut to the tunnel’s exit at the top of the mountain; in this way, the player doesn’t have to waste time moving through the actual physical space of the mountain. Using this type of jumpcut the designer also doesn’t need to provide some narrative explanation for this (like by placing a teleporter or a transport tube so the transition “makes sense”) because it is tacitly understood that the transition is non-diegetic.

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