A list of the best cutscenes of all time might be the least inspired post I could possibly make. I think I'll save that, as well as a meta discussion about the whole concept of cutscene storytelling for when I'm really desperate. That's when you'll know it's time to stop reading.
This post is about Thief, the game from nine years ago. I've really keyed in on all the relevant contemporary touchstones. Wait until you see the next post. It's only because I accidentally deleted my essay on BioShock. You know, I have a life.
Here's a cutscene from Thief, which, startlingly, is on YouTube. Don't watch it unless you've played the game. Or read any further in this post. Why am I even bothering.
There is so much that's right about this scene. When you reached this point in the game you'd be totally forgiven for underestimating the storytelling prowess of Thief: The Dark Project. It is a video game after all. The first few seconds of this scene would confirm that the characters Constantine and Viktoria are in fact the villains of the piece -- which you probably were pretty sure of as early as their introduction. They're pretty much the only characters you know, and they talk in sinister tones. It's a reveal the game did a really bad job of hiding.
It helps that Garrett is typically so sardonic. No kidding they're the villains. They were manipulating me all along? In a video game? Well I never. This is no shock. This is an eye-roll. What's kind of a shock, though, is when they mutate into fucking monsters. Constantine looks like the devil. Viktoria is a tree woman. This was a little harder to see coming. And while you're processing that, then -- then! -- Viktoria rips your eye out with a branch! Your fucking eye! Where did that come from?
Thief's lulled you into a false overconfidence -- oh, they're the bad guys? oh, wow -- then immediately throws at you the two craziest things to happen in this game so far. Three twists in rapid succession and you're actually missing an eye, how often does that happen in a game? (A brief digression regarding the merits of cutscenes -- sorry -- here, because of video game storytelling conventions, you know this is permanent and not the avoidable result of you screwing up.)
Then Viktoria and Constantine pontificate very theatrically to themselves. It's not so important exactly what they're saying: I'm not paying attention because my eye is missing from its socket. But it's great, because it's not like "oh no, eye out" --> Mission complete! The horror of this scene is sustained so adeptly; it doesn't even matter what Viktoria and Constantine are talking about, what it's established is that this game clearly took a very bizarre and irreversible turn.
Thief is a very subtle game, both in gameplay, obviously, and in storytelling. It has a slight irreverence to it in Garrett's wry observations. Given that, it's so laudable that Looking Glass commits to going all the way with this completely insane moment and don't pull their punches at all. It's one of the best moments in the game and it's executed flawlessly. It sets you up going in, thinking you know what's up and throws so much crazy shit at you you don't even know where to respond. The whole tenor of the game changes in a minute. It's really quite remarkable.
If Thief II had a moment of that caliber I would have liked it more. Thief II had an absurdly inferior villain. I hope that guy's not on YouTube.