The Bouncer: Square’s Cutscene ‘Em Up Sandwich

In my last post, I briefly touched on The Bouncer, which headlined Squaresoft’s — let’s say unorthodox — lineup of early PlayStation 2 showcase titles. A mountain of hype propelled co-developer DreamFactory (Tobal No. 1, Ehrgeiz) and Square’s novel vision for the game. Its clout was further bolstered by a creative super team including directors Takashi Tokita (Chrono Trigger, Parasite Eve, Final Fantasy IV) and Seiichi Ishii (Virtua Fighter, Tekken), plus Tetsuya Nomura (FFVII and VIII) on character design.

Shit was hype.
Image: Next Gen Magazine, October 2000 issue

The Bouncer presented itself as a playable action film, promising to immerse players in its high-octane chaos. Blending real-time cinematics, fully-interactive set pieces, and frenetic fisticuffs into a rich, cohesive play experience, The Bouncer was widely anticipated as a next-gen showpiece. For a time.

Ultimately, The Bouncer diluted its ambitions to ensure it released within the PS2’s launch window. It was a simplistic beat ‘em up — but only when it wasn’t a cutscene ‘em up — and its tepid execution transcended neither. The game interspersed slices of brief, repetitive combat sequences amid a feature-length reel of ham-fisted cinematics, and then slathered skill upgrade menus and loading screen lore dumps in between.

The Bouncer aspired to be a hearty stew of gaming and film. Instead, it was a stale sandwich, cinematically bloated and lean on play.

Tetsuya Nomura‘s character designs are bold and vibrant and I hate them.

The game launched to the collective disappointment of critics and players still shuffling off its hype train. Even Squaresoft seemed eager to sink The Bouncer beneath the tides of Final Fantasy X and its other era-defining RPGs. The Bouncer’s legacy, if it had one, would be more cautionary tale than generation-defining showpiece.

NextGen’s The Bouncer review: less than glowing | Image: NextGen Magazine, March 2001 issue

Divorced from those expectations, hindsight remains lukewarm on The Bouncer today. Of course, that’s not to say the game doesn’t have its fans. I may even be one of them, technically. I mean, I at least enjoyed it enough to rewatch replay its story mode five times last week in preparation for this blog post.

At some point, I realized I have little new to add to The Bouncer discourse by reevaluating its merits as a video game, rehashing its inane plot points, praising its visuals and soundtrack, or critiquing its idiotic characters and droll combat. Other retrospectives have long tilled that earth.

What I will say is — even if The Bouncer had realized its lofty, original vision — the ways it approached its film-centric ambitions were always misguided.

Sion Barzahd and Kou Leifoh: Two bouncers with zero business acumen.

Into the new millennium, gaming was amid an arms race of cinematic-style storytelling. They demanded to be watched as much as played. Cutscenes were everywhere. They helped define Kojima’s body of work, of course, and littered everything from Sonic Adventure 2, to WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain to, uh, Frogger: The Great Quest. Cutscenes were en vogue, so it stood to reason that someone might make an entire video game of them. Just as CD-ROM FMV games had done years prior. And Dragon’s Lair before that.

Brief spoilers ahead for The Bouncer, though I can’t see how they really matter at this point

In terms of its narrative, The Bouncer is sort of a cringefest. My brain is still processing/reeling from the creepiness of Sion, the 19-year old protagonist and groomer to his 15-year old love interest, Dominique. It’s later revealed that she’s an android (thankfully?) but Sion didn’t know that when he doted on her for three-quarters of the game.

For narrative-driven art forms, it’s crucial that the chosen mediums are fitting canvases for the specific stories being told, and vice versa. For example, radio and podcasts are a natural fit for murder mysteries, which benefit from lingering, guided imagery and deliberate pacing. Live theater thrives on ensemble productions in an intimate space. Those — along with novels, short stories, music, comics, film, television, etc. — each have unique strengths to serve specific storytelling needs. They also have one thing in common: their narratives are typically static. They are deliberately authored and intentionally performed to tell precisely the story they mean to tell. And they show only what they want to show. Their narratives are dictated to the audience, which is given little to no creative authority beyond how to interpret them.

Stories in games are — ideally — the opposite.

These bouncers take cheating at pinball very seriously.

For games, the best narratives are always the ones told in ways that only games can. They invite — and rely on — the player to take on roles integral to their crafting: performer, co-author, co-director, cinematographer, and active audience participant. Sometimes players are tasked with additional roles like set design (e.g. Minecraft, Excitebike) or casting, hair, and wardrobe (any game with a character creator tool), and whatever else developers can imagine. Or not. In emergent narratives, players co-author stories that unfold well beyond gamemakers’ wildest intentions. And they’re all the better for it.

By fostering creative collaboration between game and player (or GM and player in tabletop roleplaying), games can weave immersive, unpredictable, and uniquely personal tales. They offer the player novel and ingenious ways to help forge their stories through interaction, experimentation, immersion, exploration, luck, systemic reaction/emergence, and countless other means. Given that wealth of potential, it’s a waste whenever game narratives — like The Bouncer’s — constrain themselves so rigidly and ineffectually to the terms of other, strictly static mediums.

In other words, if a video game really wants to be a film, then it might as well just be a fucking film.

Obviously, the skills, perspectives, and experiences suited to making games don’t necessarily transfer to filmmaking. This was especially true back when the concept of melding the two was still novel and spearheaded by career game makers who seldom brought people with such expertise into the process. The technical and artistic demands of game making superseded their cinematic ambitions, which typically took a back seat. Cutscenes and dialogue were frequently afterthoughts, and it was obvious whenever they were. On the plus side, that also made them easier to downplay or ignore in lieu of a game’s other strengths.

With The Bouncer, Square and DreamFactory took a far riskier approach. By making its cinematic production the core foundation of the game’s development, the interactive and play-based elements were relegated to afterthoughts. So when the cinematic storytelling also fell flat, players were left with little to compel them on either level. The Bouncer had few other strengths to fall back on.

Despite the best intentions of several of Square’s greatest creative minds, The Bouncer is Exhibit A in how spectacularly that approach can collapse.

So, no. The Bouncer is not a good beat ‘em up and it’s really not a good cinematic experience. Nobody really needs to play The Bouncer today and, if they’re really curious, they can just watch it on YouTube.

This early bull shot highlights two features which didn’t make it into the final game: interactive environments and Dominique as a playable character in Story mode. Ultimately, their omission was the least of The Bouncer’s problems. | Image: NextGen Magazine, February 2000 issue

Oof. I was gonna end this post here but it grew far more cynical than I had intended or am comfortable with. I like to find something positive/interesting about every game I play — The Bouncer included — but at this point, I could also use a drink. In that spirit, I’m here for the bar.

Fate Bar: The pride of Dog Street.

Just because The Bouncer fails in other ways doesn’t mean it can’t contribute to gaming’s lineage of virtual libation destinations.

I’m a sucker for great drinking holes in video games. Bar Yokosuka in Shenmue? A fine dive. MJQ Jazz Bar, also in Shenmue? Classy, if a bit snooty. The Bridge House Pub in Folklore? Spooky and cozy. Survive Bar and Serena in the Yakuza games? Delightfully homey. I could go on…

…so I will. The Underworld Tavern in Deus Ex and the Seamstresses Union in Shadowrun Returns? Gritty comforts. The Hound Pits pub in Dishonored? Warm, fleeting refuge. Any tavern in basically any RPG ever? A sight for sore bards.

So what about The Bouncer’s bar? You know, the place where our so-called bouncers are supposed to be bouncing? The establishment is called Fate and it gives off big warehouse/garage/barn vibes. Either way, it’s apparently bustling enough to employ three concurrent bouncers so there’s that.

For me, a hallmark of any great bar is its presence of regulars. Regardless of how popular or low key your bar is, if people are willing to spend a non-negligible portion of their waking lives hanging out at your place, then you’ve got something special.

To that end, the patrons seem to feel right at home at Fate, even if half of them are on its payroll.

It’s suggested that Dominique, 15, works at the bar but her main job duty seems to be harassing Sion. So…manager?

I doubt I will ever write a Yelp review — but if I wrote one for Fate — it’d be pretty positive, overall. However, I would suggest they either acquire a few more tables for folks to sit at or build a stage and bring in some thrash bands. Either way, they could make better use of the space. I might take a half point off for that. Plus another for the child labor violations.

Unfortunately, we’re only treated to a few establishing shots of Fate before the plot events kick off and everything goes to shit.

Fate gets trashed just moments into the game. Creepy cyborg ninjas invade, kidnap Dominique, and ransack the place amid a surprisingly dull bar brawl. To its credit, Fate sports solid dive bar vibes, so the busted stools and shattered windows aren’t much of a downgrade.

Last call was early tonight.

With Fate, it seems like Square and DreamFactory were going for a tone akin to Seventh Heaven from Final Fantasy VII. And fair enough. What a great inspiration. Cool shit happens at Seventh Heaven and we, as players, are made a part of it. [Minor/vague spoilers for FFVII…] Darts and pinball are played. Corporate sabotage is planned. Tifa and Marlene run a tight ship, and the regulars are all about sticking it to the man and giving back to their community. We’re privy to its charm and drawn in further as the stakes escalate. We’re also given time to simmer in its space and see for ourselves how Seventh Heaven would be the perfect spot to sip a pint or nine between ecoterrorist shenanigans. During the time we spend at Seventh Heaven, we grow attached to it and the characters who call it home.

By contrast, Fate is kept at a distance, and The Bouncer never invites us to fully inhabit its space. The bar is walled off behind cutscenes and we’re never given a chance to actively observe or engage with it. There are no opportunities to explore or interact with the bar or its patrons in any meaningful way, or even just be there. In the brief glimpses we’re treated to, we are left with little sense of what Fate actually means to the people who spend their time there. We’re left detached from the weight of the story’s call to action, even as we watch it unfold. In a game where Fate was more than a superficial backdrop in a cutscene sandwich, I’d love to be among its regulars.

Just thought of something else I enjoy about the Bouncer: unlocking a bunch of characters to duke it out in a Versus mode battle royale.
On second thought, I take it all back. Some of these cutscenes are pretty rad.

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