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Feb 12

Giving Games Meaning: Why David Cage is Wrong About Abandoning Systems

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.

 

Rule No.1 "stop being games".

* Rest assured, most of his talk was also pretty awful.

 

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.

 

I find it odd that this image is among the top results for "bad writing" and yet seems to fit Heavy Rain perfectly.

I find it odd that this image is among the top results for “bad writing” and yet seems to fit Heavy Rain perfectly.

 

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 found it scary when at this particular point, I found that I had naturally grown attached to Midna. Compared to when she was first introduced and I absolutely hated her. Link didn't need to develop as a character, because I was the character and I developed as the story went on.

I found it scary when at this particular point, I found that I had naturally grown attached to Midna. Compared to when she was first introduced and I absolutely hated her. Link didn’t need to develop as a character, because I was the character and I developed as the story went on.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Erik G

A lover of video games and aspiring game designer. My goal is to elevate video games into a higher realm of art and thinking through critical analysis, critique, and a stronger focus in the art that is game design.

1 comment

  1. Lustdante

    Thanks for this article. I was so fed up after watching Cage’s keynote from Danielle’s article yesterday as well.
    I agree that the game industry has some growing up to do, but this does not mean abandoning what makes games special.
    This basically sums up what I felt afterward. Here is my take.

    I agree with Cage to the extent that game should start discussing topics of real life. That’s what Cage did with Heavy Rain where one of the gameplays was about fatherhood and trying to save relationship with his only son. It might not portray fatherhood better than it could have been in film or literature, but it surely was something new. This is a rare sight in triple A titles, which explains why Heavy Rain was so highly acclaimed despite having noticeable flaws. That said, rest of Cage’s keynote was shit.

    First, I’d like to point out that the most common mistake on serious video game discussion is to treat game as one single medium like a film or literature. Cage talked about narrative side of gaming industry as a whole while there are plenty of games that work better when they don’t tell story. Video game excels as means of entertainment and has great potential for narrative side which is yet unexplored. Like you said, this doesn’t mean we should denounce what we are best at and suggest that the whole industry should grow up just as we don’t bother telling TV commercials to have better story.

    Suppose we narrow down our topic to narrative game. Then he is right about most of story-based triple A titles start with player holding a gun or jumping on the platform. He emphasized that industry’s paradigm needs to change, but does so little to offer any practical solution. Taking from his frequent reference to films and other traditional media, he probably meant paradigm change by adopting more from movie side, putting emphasis on story by compromising interactivity to the point where it becomes simple point and click game just like his other games. Shaking hands with traditional media is not a step forward for gaming industry. I’d rather bet on Jonathan Blow’s theory of narrative medium where mechanics play role of storytelling. Point and click doesn’t tell story.

    However, I’m gonna have to hold you on this remark.

    You cannot simply adapt a book into a movie the same way cannot adapt a movie into a game
    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.

    You probably have plenty examples of adaptation gone wrong, but I believe if we support our medium, then we want video game to be able to successfully adopt any literature or film. Great medium should be versatile enough to cover any subject in its own way. Les Miserable as literature was masterpiece. Musical and film adaptation has different focus, but it’s proven to be the best on its own. If we have faith in video game as storytelling medium, there could be great Les Miserable the game that effectively delivers the same theme in a way that video game is best at. (which I personally think Walking Dead was about). Plus, we consider a medium to be mature when it can better reflect ourselves, which is limited if it’s not topics concerning real world.

    Does that mean Cage is bad influence to our industry? His vision may not be the next generation of video game as interactive medium, but no matter how interactivity gets compromised as game borrows from movie, Quantic Dream still pioneers new area of narrative side of video game as a mix of game and film. This appeals to wider range of audience which is win win for our industry as this lets non-gamers to have a taste of what’s great about video game by mixing it with what they are already familiar with. What you fear and what I believe it to be the most dangerous is when game/film becomes the only way to effectively deliver narrative in the whole industry.

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