David Cage is generally full of Shit

Now, I’ll be honest, there’s really not a damned thing I like about David Cage. I’ve always gotten the impression that he’d prefer to be a Hollywood writer but can’t be, because he sucks at writing stories. He has ideas that can be powerful, but seems unable to put together a story properly or intelligibly. He can’t write kid characters and comes up with wacky nonsense like super zombies. I would frequently joke that Heavy Rain would have been better written if David Cage was fatally hit by a bus before the script was finished and what was there was handed to someone else entirely. Not that I want David Cage to have been hit by a bus — a better game isn’t worth human sacrifice — but it could quite possibly be true.

But that doesn’t matter. I’m not a professional game designer, nor some superior writer (especially not where spelling and grammar are concerned, OH BOY). Nor am I the fairest judge. I wouldn’t like these types of games even if they were great — I am too gameplay focused. I also don’t think David Cage SHOULDN’T do what he does. He gets to experiment and the people who want it can get a rather novel experience. He isn’t changing the industry, so whatever. Only I was just reading some quotes off twitter that were made by him at his GDC talk. I want to address them, because I think they are objectively bullshit.

So here we go, in no real order.

“We need to forget about video game rules — bosses, missions, game over, etc…are very old words of a very old language.” “Everything you can do with (old game) words has already been said. We need to create a new language to create new things.”

You might as well be saying…

“We need to forget about storytelling rules — antagonists, pacing, conflict, etc…are very old words of a very old language.”

Now let’s be clear here, there are good novels without antagonists, pacing or even conflict. But none of these things represent an improvement to writing. They are interesting, unique gems, but they are not ‘casting aside the old rules for new, modern concepts.’ The things Cage list are ways in which game designers have found to convey pacing or divide stories or introduce drama. We have also found NEW ways to do the same thing, without discarding the old. We do not discard the fundamental language of a form of media when it grows to a certain age, we refine and improve it. 2d platformers (a genre that we still haven’t figured out entirely, nor said all there is to say about) now ascribe to newer, more modern rules than those who came before them. Bosses are just a way to project a peak in pacing. Segments like these can be conveyed many different ways. Big set pieces like nuclear explosions, or chase sequences or holding a base — all these things and more can do this, even cutting off some of your fingers. Is cutting off some fingers intrinsically better? Well, it’s shitty game play, but it does, even to the jaded gamer, have a bit of emotional weight to it, which is nice. Presentation wise, it’s also novel, even though mechanically it’s as old and dated as anything else. It’s good to add new words to the language of design.

“Why do you want to create a game where you just shoot everything? Let’s do something more meaningful.”

The terms used in the previous quote is the language of conflict and fighting. Is that because the industry is unoriginal? No. Not to say the industry isn’t unoriginal, but it has nothing to do with it’s reliance on conflict. Games are naturally about conflict. You win or you lose. Things pose danger and reward to you, giving your actions meaning and contrast. You can portray this in different ways. Abstractly, like Tetris, is an option. Or you can be like Monopoly which is non-violent conflict. Or you can embrace honest to god ‘shoot some dudes’ violence. These things are just framing devices for what are meaningful in game actions. When Cage says meaningful, he means, “artistically meaningful”, but that is not the only, or even ‘best’ way to be meaningful (there is no ‘best’).

Exploration gives us meaningful emotions. So does victory and conquest. Completing something difficult gives us a feeling of accomplishment. Actiony games have no fundamental issue with inspiring feelings of excitement and awe, tension and fear. These are meaningful emotions and are difficult to convey through other forms of media. Emotions related to moral ambiguity, or psychological horror, or even self-mutilation are often better conveyed in linear media. Whats worse, popping our own pimple or having someone else do it? Control gives comfort, while moral dilemmas and horror often work best when we lack control — when we feel helpless. A character can make a poor decision due to strong emotions, but we are not likely to do the same thing, because we are not real people… This leads into the next quote.

“If you only have one choice in a scene, it’s linear and boring. If you have lots of choices, you make…players the co-writer.”

This quote strikes me as exceptionally foolish. First, it assumes the player is just as qualified to write the story as the designer is. In Cage’s case, this may often be true, but not usually. Now, that’s not saying you can’t have co-authorship of the narrative — Bioware handles this quite nicely, but it doesn’t displace the need for cohesive narratives. Books and movies survive quite well in their linearity and control because it allows them a way to best execute a desired scene or story for maximum effect.

… But secondly, and this might be the most important part, it assumes that players, since even before days of Mario, have not taken co-authorship of the game world. Due to the nature of games (especially the actiony or cartoony games Cage seems to hate the most), we are constantly enforcing our will upon the world. I can play Super Metroid and at this point, practically do whatever I want and beat the game any which way is pleasing to me. Not having the high jump boots has more influence than missing a few finger joints, as far as each respective game is concerned. I am making REAL decisions with REAL consequences, not decisions that only influence the narrative. A 1up falling toward a pit in Mario is a case of real valuation, with real risk and real reward. These decisions influence the core of the game, not the presentation and trimmings of the game. Without art and narrative, Heavy Rain would be left as nothing but a boring, empty husk, but without art or a narrative, Pac-man, Mario, Super Metroid, Street Fighter, or even a game like Devil May Cry would still retain a large portion of their fun. Some of these games would lose something of significance, but still have enough pure force of game design to survive. In fact, as we replay many of these games over and over again, we strip the game of its art and narrative and stare into its core and use the mechanics we see to enforce our will upon the game world.

When talking about games, what is more important, the narrative that can be done anywhere, or the game design that can only be done in games? Clearly you can (and often should, but not always!) do both and, optimally, merge both types of decisions together. There’s a lot you can do in both design spaces and presentation can be a significant part of a game.

“We tried to move the challenge from the controller to the mind of the player.”

David Cage does not understand videogames. Strategic and tactical decisions have always existed in the mind. Many games do make use of input difficulty as a type of game play (such as my pet-genre, fighting games), but even there, decision making rests in the players head. What Cage wants to do is focus on the least mechanically interesting decisions, thinking that ‘narrative’ and ‘moral decisions’ are where games are at. David Cage seemed obsessed with the shallowest part of gaming — the part most like every other form of media. Now, we need to learn how to do that stuff and do it well, but to put the superficial on a pedestal while cursing the core of gaming is foolish. Whats worse, it’s hypocritical, as Heavy Rain relies so heavily on Quick Time Events, the purest definition of ‘challenge from the controller’.

David Cage seems to love movies more than he loves games and wants games to be more like movies. Interactive movies. Choose your own adventure stories. Things that have been tried since the CD-Rom drive came to computers with FMVs. We see, over the many attempts (Peter Molyneux’s entire career) that moral choice and decision making are not as effective as we wish them to be. Developers like Bioware are showing that it’s possible to tastefully pull off these concepts, but the narrative has still failed to supplant gameplay, the core of the gaming experience, and the games that do things the best, seem to be like Shadow of the Colossus, games where the actual gameplay meshes with the themes and concepts of the narrative. Basically, don’t listen to David Cage; Gaming Hollywood is overrated.