In Defense of Long Cutscenes: ‘Yakuza 6: The Song of Life’

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I remember a time when cutscenes were cool.

This was back when games had just transitioned away from 16-bit sprites and into “stunning” 3D polygons on the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn. When the game wrested control away from me and had higher-res versions of the characters I was beginning to love act out (mostly silent) scenes, I was transfixed. This was the future of games.

Then, several years later, the game Xenosaga Episode 1 on PlayStation 2 seemed to break the spell for many people. Its cutscenes weren’t just numerous, they were long. Long as in “you’re going to want to put the controller down and get comfortable” long. I remember reading complaints from reviewers at the time. And I remember being confused, because I loved the cutscenes. I remember reading an interview with the director, where he said, proudly, that the cutscenes, all strung together, would be the length of a season of a television show. A few years later, Metal Gear Solid 4 hit the PlayStation 3 with cutscenes that legitimately bordered on feature-film length.

I understand the arguments against long cutscenes: Games are meant to be played. If a game has hour-long cutscenes, why not just make a movie? Taking control away from the player runs the risk of losing the player’s attention. However, there’s room in the wide spectrum of game types for games with long cutscenes.

The cutscenes in Yakuza 6 are, so far, very, very good.

I’m a Yakuza newcomer. The game does its best to catch up new players with a dream sequence that introduces the major players, and there’s an encyclopedia-like summary of all the previous games. No doubt your experience will be richer for having experienced the previous games, but I’m finding no difficulty in getting into the world of this game.

Part of that is because of its cutscenes. While you do control Kiryu for a few moments early on in the game, you’re quickly thrust into a flashback that explains why he is responsible for, of all things, a baby. I didn’t time this opening series of cutscenes, but it is long. Never once, however, did I feel bored or turned off to the game. On the contrary, seeing such high production values deliver such a compelling introduction made me even more eager to get into the game.

That’s what cutscenes can do. Yes, they take away control, but so what? One of the unique aspects of video games is the many ways in which they let creators tell a story. There is plenty of opportunity to control Kiryu and take in some environmental storytelling; there are plenty of fights to get you pumped up; and there are plenty of well-written, well-acted cutscenes that drive the overall narrative forward.

I’ll have more impressions on Yakuza 6 in the days ahead, but so far I can say the game is clean, polished, and engaging. It’s a fitting send off to a classic gaming character. And it’s made me even more interested in checking out all the games in the series I’ve missed.