In 1998, Square was at the top of its game. After the success of games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and Final Fantasy VII, the company’s teams could afford to do whatever they wanted. They were the big dogs. Even today, I can’t think of a brand more synonymous with the original Playstation than Squaresoft. But the company wasn’t happy playing it safe anymore. So after the success of Final Fantasy VII, it decided to do something a little different. And that something became a game called Parasite Eve.
From the start, Parasite Eve was marketed as a “Cinematic RPG.” In Final Fantasy VII, Square blew people away with movie-like CGI cutscenes that looked absolutely amazing compared to the Lego-fied models used throughout the playable portion of the game. For Parasite Eve, Square’s goal was to insert such high quality cinematic scenes more frequently throughout the game, driving the narrative forward and achieving a more cinematic experience.
Two hours into Parasite Eve, I counted no fewer than 7 non-interactive cutscenes. Not only does this outpace Final Fantasy VII’s quota of cutscenes, but the majority of them are a lot more involved and well developed than those in the previous game. Let’s compare a pair of early scenes found in the two games. Final Fantasy VII’s scene shows the train Cloud and the others are on rotating around a plate in Midgar for a few seconds; Parasite Eve’s focuses on the disturbing transformation of a rat into a monstrous beast. While one scene succeeds in giving the player a sense of space and scale, the other gives players their first glimpse at what kind of enemies they’ll be facing throughout the game. I think both accomplish what they set out to do, but for me, Parasite Eve conveys its moment more effectively.
The word cinematic is defined as “of, relating to, suggestive of, or suitable for motion pictures.” By billing Parasite Eve as a “Cinematic RPG,” you know that Square wasn’t looking to make the deepest, longest game imaginable. It wanted to make something that could mix the strengths of a movie with the strengths of an engaging RPG. To do this, plenty of Americans with Hollywood experience (unique at the time for a Japanese company) were hired to build the CGI scenes. These cutscenes are the cinematic bloodlines of Parasite Eve. That scene where the rat transforms works so much better as a CGI cutscene because using the in-game graphics wouldn’t feel anywhere near as terrifying or gruesome. Parasite Eve lives up to the label by not only being a fun and interesting game, but providing plenty of CGI cutscenes that do a better job of moving the action forward than the in-game engine would.
Even beyond the cutscenes, Parasite Eve takes a few other cues from film. For one, the game is short compared to nearly every other RPG of its time. You can easily finish it within 10 hours or less, something unheard of when you think of Square RPGs. Compared to today, where shorter games are more accepted, the length of Parasite Eve actually hurt the game in some reviewers eyes, but in actuality, this made for a well-paced game that didn’t drag players through dull side-quests, meaningless back-tracking, and repetitive grinding. Movies don’t dwell on and force people to watch the same scenes play out again and again. Neither does Parasite Eve. It’s a game that is constantly propelling you forward.
In many ways, Parasite Eve can be looked at as a precursor for games like Heavy Rain or Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which blend gameplay with cinema in a way that promotes the story. Some developers feel like the cutscene approach is the wrong way to tell a story in a video game because it takes away from the hands-on time that makes a video game an interactive medium. Still, if you look back on the cinematic presentation of video games, cutscenes have always been at the forefront of design when a game wanted to express something more than it was capable of with button inputs.
WHEN CINEMA MEETS GAMEPLAY
Looking back to 1980, the Pac-Man arcade game is recognized as one of the first games to use cutscenes. These short, comical interludes were no longer than a few seconds but they nonetheless gave both Pac-Man and his ghostly adversaries an extra bit of personality that would have never come across in the gameplay. Even in their primitive state, these cutscenes could use the same graphics as the game and still enhance the overall presentation.
The more they advanced, the further games pushed their cinematic presentation. Video games were no longer about shooting blocks or collecting dots. Some were aiming to tell more sophisticated stories (okay, maybe not sophisticated) unlike anything people played before. 1988’s Ninja Gaiden is an example of an NES game that used still images and text in a sort of comic-book style cutscene that developed the plot further in between the playable levels. The art for these scenes were developed solely for the movie and looked like something you would see in a comic book rather than on an NES cartridge. To this day, Ninja Gaiden is one of the few NES games that are not only remembered for its story, but also because of how it was told.
On the other side of gaming, PCs were being introduced to what we now refer to as adventure games. Some of these titles include King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, and Day of the Tentacle. While these games didn’t exactly have the cinematic flair like Ninja Gaiden’s cutscenes did, they were games that put a much heavier focus on the characters and the story than most other video games in the 80s and early 90s. What I think makes these games a part of the evolution of storytelling is that they didn’t split the storytelling with the game. For the most part, scenes played out within the game engine giving players a greater sense of control over what was happening to these characters. A lot of the time, you actually could make choices and decisions that could end up killing your characters, a feat normally reserved to a lack of dexterity and button-pressing skill. It was these games that really feel like the building blocks to such titles as Heavy Rain or Life is Strange.
Dragon’s Lair showed up in arcades in 1983 blowing people away. Yes, it was short. Yes, it was difficult in a way that would suck quarters out of kids. But it was an interactive movie. It literally was a game about watching a cartoon movie and making quick inputs at certain points to move forward. And if you did it wrong you died. This idea of an interactive movie became a lot more popular in the late 80s and early 90s as video recording tech got better, and the media itself could sustain the size of these files. Games like The 7th Guest used live-action footage mixed with puzzles that was one of the first games to really sell the CD-ROM. But while these FMV (Full-Motion Video) games certainly got people talking and a whole new audience to even look at video games, many just weren’t all that fun to play. They lacked substance in favor of the flashy cinematic presentation.
In the build-up to Parasite Eve, Square began putting a greater effort into their storytelling. Ever since the first Final Fantasy, it was easy to see the company liked to set out to make games with a story. The original Final Fantasy had players completing a lengthy quest to save a princess all before the title screen even appears as if telling players, “We have a lot more adventures to go on, get comfortable.” But most of these early games didn’t do much more than include lengthy text-based conversations and the occasional piece of unique pixel art before or after the credits. It wasn’t until Final Fantasy VI where things began to really get spicy.
With such memorable scenes as the opening march on Narshe and duh, the famous opera house scene, Final Fantasy VI went above and beyond what was expected of storytelling in video games. It gave us one of the first glimpes of video game setpieces, each with its own unique art, music, and pacing that stood out from the rest of the game. Really, Final Fantasy VI is full of moments that take away full control from the player but still let you experience an engaging piece of the story with limited interactivity. With Final Fantasy VII, they pushed the visuals even further by creating these CGI cutscenes that would pop up spuratically throughout the game during key moments in the plot. While they took away the interactions, these beautifully rendered movies felt like rewards for making it to the most climatic areas of the game.
Parasite Eve is a product of the evolution of video game storytelling using the cutscene. Personally, I think it does a pretty fantastic job of using the FMVs at the perfect times to drive home events and actions that simply wouldn’t be as impactful using the in-game graphics. But what’s really impressive is that despite their catalog, Square took a chance on creating something that tried to push the genre forward, merging it with a motion picture. It’s not exactly the route most games went afterwards, but nonetheless Parasite Eve is a game that feels like it tries to take the best of both worlds from video games and film. For the most part, to me, they succeeded.