By Dennis Scimeca
The Game Developers Conference is, in large part, about game designers getting a chance to speak to the next generation of game developers about how to design and execute video games. I wish someone had told David Cage this before signing him up for a panel at GDC 2011.
I spoke to other journalists after attending this panel to see whether Cage was spouting off the same old lines he always does, or whether this was something new. One person I spoke with said that it sounded like David Cage, only much more direct. To wit: Cage doesn’t want the next generation of game developers to bother making games. Not really. Want to know more? Read on.
Cage began the panel with what was ostensibly meant to establish his street cred as a game designer: 89% score for Heavy Rain on Metacritic, the commercial success of the title with 2 million copies sold worldwide (which, to his credit, he noted wasn’t actually a very big number compared to AAA titles), industry accolades, and stated that 75% of Heavy Rain players actually finished the game versus an industry average of 20%-25% for other titles.
While I wasn’t pleased that his panel began as a virtual press kit for Heavy Rain, I’d have preferred it if Cage had stuck to that vein of discussion rather than move on to launching an assault on the entire video game industry that didn’t even make sense much of the time. To wit: Cage argues that most video games are designed for teenagers, because they are based on violence and physical action, i.e. shooting or platforming. He felt that this makes video games meaningless and emotionally limiting.
On the first point, I believe the average age of the gamer nowadays is around 35 years old. On the second point, we can identify plenty of games that involve “typical” mechanics by Cage’s definition which most certainly don’t fit his description. Half-Life 2, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and Mass Effect 2 immediately come to mind.
Glimmers of valid industry criticism broke through Cage’s panel now and again. To a point, video games have been based on the same paradigms for 30 years. Technology might actually have advanced far quicker than game design principles. These points become frustrating when Cage then responds to his concerns by advocating a complete abandonment of video games as we know them. And I quote from some of the PowerPoint slides that accompanied his lecture:
- “Game mechanics are evil!”
- “Forget Video Game Rules. Mechanics, levels, boss, ramping, points, inventory, ammo, platforms, missions, game over, [and] cut scenes are things from the past.”
Questioning convention is healthy and often bears the fruits of creative innovation, but Cage’s solution is instead to make writers and art designers the God of game development (his words) from which all the decisions flow.
There’s a reason why the video game industry is tapping into Hollywood screenwriting talent to craft the stories in games like Homefront and Enslaved. Narrative writing is a specialized skill. I would hazard a guess that most of the students in the audience today were not writers. Most of them were likely game designers, and animators, and 3D artists, etc. Asking them to assume the role of lead writer is like asking the writer on a video game development project to instead sit in for the 3D animator for a day. It doesn’t work, because he or she lacks the specialized skills they require.
When Cage says that we shouldn’t tell stories from cut scenes I can just roll my eyes and think about the tons of cut scenes in Heavy Rain. But when he wound up turning the latter part of his panel into a lecture that sounded more like one of my screenwriting classes in film school versus a discussion of game design, I just wanted to stand up and say “I know those who can’t do, teach, but the story in Heavy Rain wasn’t very good, Mr. Cage, so why are you presuming to lecture this audience about how to tell stories?”
Towards the end of his lecture, Cage mused aloud “Is Heavy Rain a video game? I don’t know, and I don’t care.” And that’s precisely the problem. Heavy Rain was an adventure game at best, but if we’re just going to call it “interactive drama” or whatever genre Cage would like to coin for his work, he may as well just say he’s creating digital Choose Your Own Adventure books. I wouldn’t call those games, either.