David Cage and what “Maturity” means in Games and Story Telling

It’s no secret that I hold a really dim view on David Cage. It’s also no secret that he says stupid things all the damn time. While I’d probably write my original rant about Cage differently now, I think the general idea holds true. Still, I think there is something to gain by digging into his recent comments a bit

(also, I’m not going to get into the whole role of story telling in games and whether or not it’s even a good idea and when or anything like that)

“I think we should have more courage in our industry and take more risks, because I think this is what the industry needs now. I mean, how many first person shooters can you make? How many monsters/aliens/zombies can you kill in games? There’s a moment where we need to grow up. We need to grow up.”

I had a friend once who said, as a kid, he wondered what an Adult Shop was. Being it was a Shop for Adults, he figured it would be filled with the most boring things ever. Pots, pans, socks. The whole idea of what is “Grown up” and “mature” can seem nebulous. Regardless, there is a strong difference between mature themes and mature story telling. Heavy Rain is mature in the same way Call of Duty is “Realistic”. They’re not. But they have the “Themes” that go with it. In fact, I would say that the thought processes for forming the stories for both are roughly the same. They’re both made with the same immature, “wouldn’t it be cool if…” type thinking. Gotta hit the “alcoholic” check-box, the dead kid check-box, the shower scene check-box, the sex theme check box, the “you played the killer” check box… All these check-boxes we’d say are tropes of the “mature game/movie”. Then you get the rest of the elements — basically “Saw”. It’s Saw, only Ethan is trying to save his kid’s life instead of his own. Is “Wouldn’t it be cool if you cut your own finger off” that more mature than dying in a nuclear explosion? Both games are a bunch of clip shows stitched together. Only difference is the CoD guys I imagine know that they’re making something indulgent and silly (probably too much so, which can lead to them being careless!), while David Cage thinks he’s being mature. How the hell Cage thinks he’s doing mature, progressive stuff while cribbing Saw is beyond me. That’s like, basically the opposite of mature.

Also, showing someone’s nipples wasn’t “grown up” when God of War did it, and it isn’t mature now. Heavy Rain virtually contains everything you’d expect a “mature game” to do, but with no soul. A mature is “theme” isn’t worth much. There is nothing about having the main character being a guy with a dead kid whose works as an architect that makes it inherently more artistic or valuable. Is General Hospital more “Mature” than Game of Thrones?

This is how something like a Pixar movie can tell a mature, human story despite making kids movies. Or something like Dr. Strangelove (the movie that was going to end in a pie fight!) a totally ridiculously “immature” take on a really dark concept. It’s immaturity was only thematic — it did not detract from the weight of the message (and in anyways, enhanced it). Or also how a Python movie like The Life of Brian can be so funny yet have so much to say and what they say has way more “grown up” relevance than “What would you do if your kid was kidnapped by a Jigsaw style serial killer”. Theme is just a tool or a styling for what matters: Sincere, skilled story telling (something in which Heavy Rain fails at on both accounts).

You can have a games like Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls (which are probably the best themed games I can think of) which can elicit so many weird, dark emotions from the player and tackle concepts like depression, despair and obsession. Or you can just get that sense of exploration and wonder in Journey (if you’re a sissy~!). Or you can look at something like Dys4ia that tells an actual, REAL story about a REAL person and her REAL experiences through abstract metaphor. Or you got Shadow of the Colossus which arguably plays on the same thematic elements as Heavy Rain (What would you do for love?) but does it with a lot more maturity, sincerity and grace. Not that any of these games are perfect, but all of them succeed at a level far past Heavy Rain in my opinion. There are also other games I think might fit this bill too, but I haven’t played them and don’t feel comfortable listing them.

So does the industry need to grow up and take more risks? Probably, though it happens more than most people tend to believe… but David Cage isn’t leading us there — Maybe he’s closer to the front of the pack than the average video game story-teller, but for the most part, he’s as immature a story-teller as the rest of us. He only pretends to be mature, by buying pots, pans and socks at the adult store.

7 thoughts on “David Cage and what “Maturity” means in Games and Story Telling

  1. Ditto, really, I’ve nothing else to add. Although, in truth, all that needs be done is make the comparison between his game and the games you cite.

  2. I agree. Some games have themes that are considered mature, but they play like a game for kids. I’m referring to theme of war with hand holding gameplay in a game like Call of Duty. But in CoD the war theme is performed unrealistically, so it really isn’t a mature theme. The mostly promotes war from the American perspective and I’m not trying to sound like a moralist. I’ve played them.

    In my opinion Heavy Rain suffers from “forced emotion”. When playing the game, I felt several times that the developers wanted you to feel a specific emotion in a scene. So Heavy Rain wasn’t just telling a story, but also telling you how you should feel a story. Just my thoughts and again, I agree with everything you wrote.

  3. Pretty spot on, even though I’m probably more on the ‘we need to grow up’ side of things than you seem to be. Even if gaming does need to grow up, Cage is, well, he’s doing it wrong. Yet I can’t help but feel some sympathy in his direction. He has no words yet he must design. I mean, we don’t really have any grounded tools for the kind of storytelling/emotions/etc. Cage wants to bring to the table (at least we don’t have tools for such nearly as developed as those to make most of the games we do today), and I don’t think the man has the talent to make those needed tools on his own.

    My beef? We don’t have enough Dys4ia’s or Journey’s or even (especially, even?) Dark/Demon’s Souls’. It’s almost akin to something you posted in your in-depth on Dark Souls about how there is a gap in design between it and most games of today. We need more exploration of that dark space of design. I’m not seeing that exploration in Heavy Rain though. Kind of saddens me that he’s the one with the AAA space trying make the ‘grown-up games.’

  4. While I’ve never really thought about such things, I’d say your point about “Mature Theme” vs “Mature Storytelling” is spot on. These are two completely different things if you think about it.

    How would you rate the story telling of “Bastion”?

    On a sidenote: I don’t consider Heavy Rain to be a game, more like a fairly interactive movie. It’s certainly not the type of game I like playing, but I really like some Let’s Plays of such titles – Mostly due to the person playing the game. Same for “Dear Esther” – I liked the idea, but playing it myself felt horribly boring.
    For me, gaming is all about gameplay, how things handle. Graphics while nice, are mostly secondary. Also pretty much the reason why I like simple yet challenging games like Super Meat Boy, IWBTG or The Settlers 1/2/3 (didn’t play the rest).
    Although, a big part of what I like is also exploring – not the usual kind of exploring like in Zelda:Wind Waker where you can find a lot of nice stuff. More like finding things, that are not meant to be found by everyone. Actual easter eggs, glitches and things that are left in the game by the developers unused.

    My sidenotes always grow too long..

  5. I don’t entirely disagree, but I think perspective is important. We have more innovative and mature games now than we ever have had before and David Cage is, at best, only a drop in the bucket. This doesn’t mean we’re ‘done’ or don’t need to worry, but ya know, I just sorta hate the ‘everything is terrible now’ mentality a lot of people seem to have.

    We shouldn’t stop aspiring to do more, but we shouldn’t have to believe bullshit to do it either.

  6. I think Bastion did a pretty great job, especially since most of the story telling didn’t interfere with gameplay and existed as a part of the mood of the game.

    Yeah, Heavy Rain is almost definitely more of an interactive movie than anything, but then the question is “Is it even that good at being that?” since the story is so fundamentally flawed, while something like Dear Esther, while not necessarily more of a game (or even arguably that amazing, depending on who you ask) sorta executes it’s goals better.

    Totally with you on the exploring bit. Exploring a games mechanics is one of my favorite parts of a game. I probably enjoy a lot of the peripheral elements of gaming more than you do, but still, without at least competent core gameplay, I can’t really get into things.

  7. I sure hope Heavy Rain is not the future of story telling in games! You can tell stories in a game in a very movie-ish way, but it’s by no means the only way and certainly not unique to gaming.

    To be all cool and fit in, I’ll mention Demon’s Souls. I’ve not played Dark Souls yet, but in Demon’s Souls you are put into a world where you feel completely unspectacular. You don’t feel like the ‘main character’ and the world isn’t there for you. Although there’s a lot of detail in each world, you could run around being totally oblivious to it. Really paying attention to the worlds lets you better understand the game’s whole universe, which makes for a much more satisfying understanding than if you just listen at the moments they spoon feed plot to you. For an example that made me feel dumb afterwards, it wasn’t until my my third or so time fighting Tower Knight that I noticed the red dragon in the distance and suddenly realised why on earth they might need the Tower Knight; it wasn’t all about throwing big dangerous things in my path. It’s like observing a story from outside, and then forcing your way in to alter its path. Surely this isn’t an example of immature story telling, but the main thing you ‘do’ in the game is ‘just kill monsters’.

    Meanwhile there’s Braid which is widely regarded a step in the right direction – a mature game, an ‘art game’- and it has some pretty obnoxious story telling. I could have done with more wordless story telling and less ‘here’s four giant walls of text before you enter a new stage’. Compare that to some goofy old genesis platformers like Dynamite Headdy or Ristar. They told a story and had little to no words! The stories were simple or super silly and certainly not the focus, but I like their methods way more.

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