Video game director and founder of game studio Quantic Dream David Cage gave an interview with Gamelab, along with fellow developer Joseph Fares, where Cage highlighted the importance of storytelling in games, especially his ability to elicit emotion from audiences. Given Cage’s track record, he may have overestimated his ability here.
Cage certainly knows what he’s talking about, in theory. Video games offer a unique perspective to storytelling, he says, since they “are the only medium in which you create something with your audience.” In other words, unlike film, which is a one-way method of storytelling in which the director creates a story and the audience experiences it, video games allow the audience to participate in the story as well.
This logic holds up, as a player is to gaming what a camera is to film in that both are modes by which a story is experienced, but one is more engaging and personal than the other. For example, narrative choices are often integral in narrative-heavy games, and David Cage’s games, such as Heavy Rain, which features 17 endings, and Detroit: Become Human, which features 40, seem to be no exception.
Cage claims he has a strong grasp on the theory behind video game writing, yet so many of his games receive harsh criticism, regardless. The answer lies behind how David Cage starts his storytelling process. Cage’s games often start with “an emotion… an idea or a moment.” He then works from there, building a world around this emotion. The starting emotions are often incredibly simple. Detroit: Become Human, for example, started as a thought about science fiction novel The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Cage thought that, if he were one of the intelligent service androids in the book and had to wait outside the restaurant while the humans went inside, he might think this was unfair. While the thought of unfair treatment of robots may seem like a weak premise to base a video game on, there’s no reason it couldn’t be salvaged by a good story.
Instead, Cage creates a poorly written civil rights metaphor with little relation to the real-world issues it tries to draw from. The visuals it uses to create emotions are somehow both hamfisted and shallow. Detroit draws on imagery from Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, and Japanese-American internment camps, but it only does so on a visual level, never exploring what may be the real causes of discrimination. Moreover, it tends to tactlessly ignore the fact that the issues that caused the strife the game draws from are still ongoing, and they affect real people. Cage has denied the importance of the political overtones of the game, stating that it is mostly about androids, but this claim is hard to take seriously when the androids have to stand in the back of the bus like a bad parody of Rosa Parks.
HEAVY RAIN played badly is the best slapstick comedy I've seen in years, maybe ever pic.twitter.com/rD1IYgSZKN— Paul Haine (@paul_haine) May 20, 2017
Surface-level imagery over deep emotion is hardly the only problem when it comes to David Cage’s games. In his interview, Cage talks about a chase scene in Heavy Rain, in which a cop chases a subject through various settings. To his credit, he does believe the scene could be improved, saying that a playtester who failed the scene didn’t realize that he had failed, and thought that the subject escaping was just an example of in-game railroading. However, there is a deeper problem with the scene that is revealed by a viral video where every quick-time event in the scene is failed. The quick-time failures, in which the protagonist awkwardly tackles several pedestrians, runs into doors, chairs, and walls, and gets hit by two different cars, are not a tragedy; they are a farce. It’s impossible to watch the clumsy protagonist as anything but a fourth Stooge. If it was David Cage’s intention to create a sense of failure when the player misses the mark, he certainly fell short, creating slapstick comedy instead.
Even the emotional centers of Cage’s games fall flat. Heavy Rain features the character Ethan Mars shouting the name of his missing son, Shaun, with an elongated cry that already verges on melodrama. However, Heavy Rain's glitches take an already overwrought scene into hilarity, causing Mars to shout his son’s name over and over for the remainder of the chapter.
The glitch’s name, “Press X to Shaun,” and its twin from Detroit, “Press Triangle to End Slavery,” reveal the final problem in David Cage’s gameplay. In a game where all choices are determined by menus and quick-time events, the emotions that come with those choices fall flat. Bad choices, such as violence, even for liberation, or hesitating a second to stop a violent abuser, result in bad outcomes, and good choices result in good outcomes. Real life is rarely so simple. When players feel like right and wrong choices are dictated for us, and they are punished harshly, it’s hard to feel what the game wants the player to feel.
Sometimes telling a story that reflects real life is better than presenting choices that fall flat. Davey Wrenden’s The Beginner's Guide is an example of a game that is almost the opposite of David Cage’s game design strategy. It offers only one ending, zero choices, and the player feels like a visitor in someone else’s story. Yet, the player is a part of the game, as they peel off the layers of the unreliable narration and find the truth in an ending that is gut-wrenchingly emotional.
David Cage might be right about game design in saying that it is "all about emotion.” Although, ultimately, David Cage’s games fall short of that goal, since sacrificing character and tone for shallow imagery and canned choices is not the way to make the player feel something.