To preface this article, I would like to say that I was already writing this when I saw and approved Danielle’s article from yesterday. This week was not intentionally planned as a David Cage beatdown.
David Cage and I are pretty similar. We both have non-programming backgrounds, we both love video games as an artistic medium, and we both want to see video games evolve as a meaningful artform. Though we differ on one crucial point. In his talk last week at DICE called “The Peter Pan Syndrome”, Cage talked about how the industry is plagued with games that, while good, have nothing meaningful to say. They are toys and because they take place in a “wonderland”, a dimension so disconnected from our world, they can’t possibly relate to anything in reality. He also gives the industry 9 ways he believes will help the industry grow up, and while some of those points have already been refuted in Danielle’s article, there is one topic that I have talked about before but will gladly talk about it again meaning*. Games are art, games are meaningful, because of their mechanics. Not in spite of.
In a sense, Cage and I want the same thing. We want video games to talk about some of those real-world topics but I think we both have differing views on the right way to go about it. David Cage longs for games that aren’t based on learning or mastering systems, but instead focus on taking the player through a journey. Where the player can leave their game feeling like they just had an experience unlike any other. While he doesn’t say it so bluntly, it’s obvious that Cage is talking using storytelling in games to talk about important issues. He talked about bringing in actors, he talked about giving games “authors”, he even talked about forming a better connection with Hollywood. If Heavy Rain is any indication as well, this means that Cage sees the interactivity in games as another way to tell a story.
But it’s that very point that I think makes Cage a dangerous person to the game industry. All games have systems. All games have rules that you have to follow, you can’t remove them without sacrificing interactivity and I mean real interactivity. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the more of a story you want to tell the less authorship you give the player. It was actually quite remarkable to count how many times Cage compared video games to film and television, as if a medium can only be “art” if it emulates either of those two. Cage exemplifies this phenomenon that David Jaffe explained last year at DICE:
“We were seduced by the power of the language of film and the trappings. We were creating things that looked like movies do. We believed we needed to create things that were like movies, and so people started asking questions like ‘where is Gaming’s Citizen Kane’? I say that’s f—ing bulls–t.” (IGN)
No matter how you look at it, a video game is not a movie. The more it is like a movie, the less it is like a video game. It seems almost foolish to think that a medium like a book would use the same techniques as a movie. That’s almost like the hallmark of a bad fanfiction writer.
David Cage wants games to talk about serious topics. Topics such as human relationships, politics, and homosexuality. He also wants games to get out of that “wonderland” and into the real world. He’s a bit shakey on the how though and there are of course already a ton of games that do explore serious topics like terrorism and problems in third world counties, but I don’t think they are the games that Cage is thinking of. Aside from the fact that most major games take at least a year to produce (making anything based on a current events run the high risk of becoming irrelevant), any game developer must ask themselves the question “is a game that best way to talk about this subject?” Each medium has it’s own qualities, it’s own strengths. You cannot simply adapt a book into a movie the same way cannot adapt a movie into a game. What can a video game do to bring a better light on the plight of the homosexual community? What can a video game do to sway people’s political opinions? Can you, at the same time, make the game entertaining? Even if a movie has a lot to say, if it’s boring then it clearly isn’t a well made movie. If a game is not entertaining then it doesn’t matter what it has to say, and I think this is particularly true if you want to eliminate systems from the game to tell a better story? If the “author” of a game simply wants to tell a story, there are surely better ways than making something that looks like a game, but is clearly a movie.
Now when we do add systems to it, I’m more than sure that games focusing around these topics can be done. I’ve played several games that feature no overall narrative, but instead use a system to explore the topics like corporate control over American politics. Facade is a game that explore human relationships using AI to simulate human interaction, and heck, Phoenix Wright is a game that uses a system that shows just why the Japanese legal system was so messed up. However, I think it’s more important for games to not focus so much on topics concerning the real world, because like I said before, there are better ways to talk about those subjects. Instead, video games should revolve around causing the player to reflect upon themselves. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but I think the better game is the one that lets players express themselves in meaningful ways and to feel genuine emotions of fear, happiness, sadness, etc.
I agree that the game industry has some growing up to do, but this does not mean abandoning what makes games special. The film industry is the way it is now because it has been around for 100 years, with lots of people refining and experimenting with ways to make it better. No one threw up their arms and said “clearly books are the way to go, let’s make movies more like books”, they said “let’s make better movies.” So that’s what the game industry needs to do. We need to ignore people like Cage who wants games to be like movies, and instead focus on how to make games into better games.