The video game cutscene has a way of inspiring puritanism in games critics. Like its bastard cousin, the quick-time event, the cinematic interlude is a convenient shortcut for the designer to make the player feel like something is happening without having her do anything. And spending some time with Metal Gear Solid 4, which is barely a game, is liable to turn even the most tolerant gamer into a fanatic on the cutscene issue. Even the industry-standard letterboxing of a cutscene broadcasts the fact that the device is a maladroit shoehorning of an inherently passive technique, drawn from cinema, into a medium whose defining quality is interactivity.
In their defense, It's devilishly difficult to exposit anything of narrative significance while giving the reins over to the player. Even if you assume that the player is interested in a game's narrative elements, you must also assume that the average player of a video game is a creature of the Internet age, and that she lacks the ability to voluntarily direct their attention towards any event for a span of more than a few nanoseconds before she is overcome by the desire to interact with something else. (When you listen to the developer commentary for Half-Life 2, one is struck by the all the subtle artifice required to funnel the player's attention towards the significant narrative elements.) And in most cases, the problem is not one of execution: as Michael Abbott recently wrote in reference to Yakuza 2, almost no-one is really offended by a well-scripted and well-acted cinematic interlude. As the Grand Theft Auto series consistently shows, simple competence in the areas of dialogue and voice acting has a way of making matters of principle seem petty.
And yet when you play a game that manages to craft a satisfying narrative without relying on cutscenes, it's impossible to acquit yourself of the feeling that storytelling in games is at its best when it turns it back on cinematic convention and embraces the techniques that are most appropriate to the medium. I've been playing Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time over the last few weeks, and making my way through that game has served as a perfect illustration of how to tell a story in a game. Much like Ico or Half-Life 2, it's the kind of game that makes you say to yourself: “Oh, so this is how things are to be done.” Now, to be upfront, Sands of Time has a longish cutscene or three in it. While they're competently done they're rendered in a different graphical engine from the rest of the game, which makes them especially jarring despite their graphical superiority.
But the real lesson to be drawn from Prince of Persia resides in the wealth of different techniques the developers draw upon in order to convey a story without breaking up the action. One central conceit is that the prince is retelling the events depicted in the game to the player as she plays them, and this overdubbed commentary is a smart device. In other scenes, the prince talks to himself in the present tense about the events that have just occurred, speculating about the developing relationship between himself and the princess; in others the verbal sparring between the prince and princess transpires in the midst of the action. This sparring is consistently entertaining, especially since some of the funnier bits are clever nods to the artificial devices in the game's design, like the omnipresent slim cracks-in-the-wall that offer paths to the princess. Like the retrospective narration, it has a way of making the player feel like she and the protagonists are in on the joke together, and these fourth-wall-breaking moments in the swashbuckling repartee have a way of absolving the game of its numerous design tics.
The effect of the narration is kind of like the audio guided-tours you get at art museums, and I think this approach is an excellent way of filling in the narrative without taking the player out of the experience; it has a way of enriching the environment you explore without getting in the way of the environment itself. (Come to think of it, the audio fragments in Bioshock are almost guided tours to the doomed city of Rapture. You probably have to return that audio recorder at the exit.)
In addition, it seems to me that Ubisoft Montreal has learned the basic lesson grasped by the producers of every MTV dating show: if you contrive for the romantic interests to collaborate in some kind of activity, no matter how arbitrary or absurd, the romantic connection will seem plausible. Much like dating in real life, the mere act of being engaged in some activity together does ninety percent of job-- it provides fodder for conversation (like the protagonists' repartee) and a sense of shared purpose. Making female non-player-characters useful to the player is a device that has been so often used in games over the last few years now that it almost feels manipulative (there's something almost pavlovian about your relationship to Alyx in Half-Life 2), but in general the moments of shared danger and mutual triumph are key elements of the storytelling in Prince of Persia, and they are noteworthy examples of how you depict emotionally significant relationships through play mechanics.
Games, as a narrative medium, are still finding their way. Sometimes I'm convinced that it's only the hardcore who care about story anyway, and as games become a truly mass medium it seems we're witnessing a movement towards a gaming culture in which story is less and less relevant (Exhibit A: the Nintendo Wii). But I still hold out this hope that designers will continue to take the path taken by Sands of Time, and continue to invent ways of making the things we do with our hands seem like they are the significant doings of human beings.
P.S. Don't sleep on the embedded video; it's the best video from the best song on the best hip-hop album of all time, Aquemini. If you still need convincing, there is a puppet version of Slick Rick.