David Cage doesn’t know what a game is

This article just went up on Kotaku: http://kotaku.com/#!5775640/a-plea-for-games-to-grow-up

Basically David Cage (Heavy Rain) giving a ‘grow up’ talk, most of it impromptu. It’s really inspiring to see someone so invested in the video-games industry who still believes that he’s made a positive change. He hasn’t, if anything he’s lowered the bar in ever way. Case in point, the handsome Jim Sterling’s article over at Destructoid: http://www.destructoid.com/why-heavy-rain-proves-ebert-right-165034.phtml

More below:

If Heavy Rain is truly the pinnacle of videogame narrative, then I fear our standards are horrifically low. Sending out the message to publishers that this is what we consider an artistic triumph is terrible. Games can do and have done better than this, but we’ve now set the bar incredibly low. The high praise for Heavy Rain has effectively sent the message that game writers don’t have to try and create a tight, cohesive story. All they need to do is clumsily copy a bunch of classic movies with less than half the care and attention to detail in order to trick people into thinking their game is mature. The overall message seems to be this — what would be unacceptable in a movie is okay for a videogame, because gamers are fucking stupid.

Here’s the comment I posted over at Kotaku, in response to a certain quote from his talk that made me quite angry:

David Cage: Game designers think that players can project themselves onto empty shell characters. “I think this is a huge mistake.”

Calling Bullshit.

- Half-Life 2
– Bioshock
– Portal
– Shadow of the Colossus
– New Vegas
– Call of Duty 4
– Far Cry 2
– Mass Effects

You wanna know what makes all of those such powerful and evocative games? There’s no middle-man, no story centred around a character – only around the player. Not specifically centred like he is numero uno, but they are player funded experiences. They are not built around characters with specific personalities and emotions and relationships already invented. This was a flaw with Heavy Rain, aside from the poorly written sequences.

What I’m talking about: [www.destructoid.com]

I’m more worried the speech got such a large applause because it’s an outright design flaw to go against an interactive medium. Interaction means putting the player in control, not controlling the player.

Sick and tired of all this worship of this design flaw with the likes of Red Dead Redemption with that ending and Fallout 3 doing it with the Dad relationship being the main motivation throughout the game. A character I’ve known only for twenty minutes is now the only character I should care about in the story.

What a horrible, horrible thing to say. The blank slate is the ultimate in character development, not of emotional and cinematic exploration, but within the player. People often say going into the army develops character, I say going into any one of the video-games above develops players. Their life, their views, their political allegiance, their thinking, their morals and who they are as a person. We shouldn’t be playing characters, playing as players, we should be in the moment and not disconnected with reality.

The power of video-games is of doing things that humans are incapable of ever experiencing. War scenarios, climbing a fifty foot colossus in the name of love and curiosity, of deciding the fate of an entire species between brainwashing and extinction. People who can’t walk can find themselves in first-person shooters, exploring the human mind and its atrocities in an underwater city. Discovering humanity and realising that they themselves may become more human (has happened, saw this myself).

The power of video-games is not to squander in the old ways of ‘cinematic gameplay’. It’s not to copy films completely and just build our experiences around characters who have no relation to us. We can distance ourselves from them and it can be sometimes powerful (Red Dead Redemption for example) but it isn’t as powerful as that first-person narrative. Not a first-person shooter per say, which is the ultimate in immersion, but a narrative constructed with ‘I’ instead of ‘Marston’, ‘Me’ instead of ‘Ethan Mars’.

David Cage, you sir have shown that video-games can do something more than just shooting and killing; but you haven’t taken the right steps when it comes to player empathy. I admire you, but I don’t admire your way of designing narrative. I’m not saying it should always be a player driven one, as there’s always money and Michael Bay in Call of Duty (Black Ops, I mean, that atomic bomb sequence in COD4 was so powerful because your character didn’t scream or shout or whimper – it was all you).

Please, please change your mind – for the good of mankind and for this artistic medium standing on the edge of legitimization. I don’t want to play with people, I don’t want to be controlled, I want to be in the moment. I want to interact. If our ‘artistic medium’ is driven by the old ways of perspective then that would be a tragedy. We are a medium of interactivity, not of visuals or observation.

I’ve been ranting. Too much?

EDIT: Rest of his comments are fine, what a lot of people have been saying though, still agree with them. Just find the whole ‘blank slates suck’ argument to be completely redundant when you’re dealing with a medium that is designed to let people be in the moment. Not ‘feel the character’ or ‘become the character’ but to literally be within that experience without any middle-man passing on messages.

Another comment about the same quote:

David Cage: Game designers think that players can project themselves onto empty shell characters. “I think this is a huge mistake.”

I agree. Nothing more to say on this.

And another

“David Cage: Game designers think that players can project themselves onto empty shell characters. “I think this is a huge mistake.””

Damn straight. I dont buy these silent characters who you are supposed to feel like. If anything, the constant dialogue happening in front of Gordon Freeman (and things Alyx openly tells you) it just throws me off and just seems awkward. The only plausible reason for having a silent character is if said character has no one to talk to. Period.

Was I the only one who played Half-Life 2? As in, did what Valve designed and basically let me go beyond ‘feeling’ Gordon Freeman (haha) and becoming the character. In fact, beyond just becoming the player character but literally projecting myself into my avatar’s body. Half-Life 2 is a monumental design achievement and I feel a little bit frightened when people think it’s ‘awkward’ when Valve takes years to design conversations so they don’t feel like they’re being talked at the player or with the player character. Name me one scene where Valve wants the player to feel like they have zero control over the scene through dialogue. Obviously, dialogue choices work well in some circumstance but in a linear shooter that prides itself in immersion, a player character would disrupt that rush and connection with the world. It what gives it such a breathtakingly amazing atmosphere. It’s the same with the original Dead Space and Dead Space 2, the original is a damn lot more creepy and atmospheric compared to the second as there’s cutscenes goddamn everywhere.

This is something I’ll be addressing in the second volume of Up, Down, Left, Right but I just wanted to bring it up for now as it made me very angry that the ‘blank slate sucks’ argument is actually said to be valid. That David Cage’s talk got a massive applause and all the Kotaku commentersare agreeing with him. It’s a dangerous thing to be saying that an interactive medium should have less interaction.

5 thoughts on “David Cage doesn’t know what a game is

  1. I agree with you in the idea that not every game should force you to play though a narrative, but some are nice. Look at Braid (okay it’s an indie game, but it did so well)…it was the narrative that moved the game from something interesting to something awesome. Look at Gears of War…the story driven narrative with set characters and character flaws is what made them such a best seller. For the third game they’ve hired a professional writer to develop the story, kudos to that.

    There are other games where the blank or silent character is far preferable for sure. The Resistance series for the PS3 is a great example. Giving the main character a voice in the second game (among the many other bad game design flaws they had) absolutely ruined what had the potential to be a great series.

    I think what Cage may have been trying to say (in his own horribly cryptic way) is that game design won’t keep most people from playing a game through to the end. At some point, they’ve mastered the mechanics, and they’re stuck doing some repetitive process over and over again, and this is where the story needs to carry it’s own weight, getting them so engrossed in the game that they want to find out what happens next. So while they may be physically doing the same button combos over and over again, their minds are active, thinking about what’s going to happen just around the next corner. And he’s right, interactive story telling is far better than sit-back and watch cut scenes. Square-Enix is still stuck in the past on this and you can tell from how their game sales are doing that the gamer culture is moving away from wanting to be forced to watch a movie rather than acting within the scene.

    Now, linear shooters….they’re starting to all blur together. Replace a few skins and you’ve got the same game, and even people who LOVE this type of game have to be getting tired of the same old thing. They want to move and shoot and play just like always….but tell me what the difference is between COD2 and COD4 that makes it worth buying? You’ll probably say something about the types of games for multi-player and the zombie mode right? Well, once every game has copied that, they’ll have to come up with another game play type, eventually they’re going to run out and then….then you need innovation and maybe a little bit of story to keep the FPS market alive and fresh. Already you have Brink trying to pioneer that a bit.

    *sigh* what really bothers me is people seem to be really hung up on his one game as proof that he’s wrong (not you, but have you read the G4tv review? Absolutely horrid)

    http://www.g4tv.com/thefeed/blog/post/710813/GDC-2011-David-Cage-Encourages-Developers-To-Forget-Video-Game-Rules.html

    The biggest thing I hope that devs took away from his speech is not that they all need to become writers, but that they need to realize how important a story is in moving a game from good to great and giving them options for how they can interactively change a story can help give what would otherwise be a one-shot story play-through into a game that will give the gamer many happy hours of replay.

  2. Hmm….do you really consider mass effect to be a blank slate? I think it sounds more like they’re forcing the character to have a very set personality, it’s just you get to forced choose between Good, Evil, or Neutral personality.

    I know that when I was playing the game, I thought of a few other responses / better solutions to options that could have been presented rather than the black, white, or meh options offered.

  3. Each part has it’s place. Interactivity is paramount, however guided narrative must not be left behind. It has a part to play.

    A strong narrative with a fully fleshed-out character is just as effective (depending on the game) as a blank slate for the player to make their own. Personally I had no interest at all in ‘Heavy Rain’, seemed like it lost the point of what a game is.

    However you do mention Red Dead Redemption in the same article and to negative effect. I must disagree with you on that point as, no game has spoken to me more narrative & character-wise than Red Dead Redemption. John Marston and my journey with him is one of the greatest gaming moments of my entire gaming life.

    Not to say that time spent with a character that was all my own in (for example) Morrowind wasn’t spectacular, I just didn’t have any connection with the me that was my Morrowind character.

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