Growing Up Or Just Getting Old?
David Cage is a poor figurehead for industry evolution - but that doesn't make his arguments invalid
There are few real certainties in this world, we're told. Night will follow day, death and taxes are inevitable, and little else is fixed in stone. Here's a new one for you, though - David Cage opens his mouth, and an internet horde falls over itself to dismiss him as an utter irrelevance and competes to see who can most loudly and haughtily proclaim themselves to be ignoring him.
"We have spent decades coming up with the most remarkable entertainment medium ever conceived - and it is still used primarily to let you shoot or stab people"
David Cage makes games which a lot of people don't like. He made Heavy Rain, which aimed to blur the lines between interactive fiction, movies and games, and now he's making Beyond: Two Souls, which continues focusing on notions such as capturing acting performances or delivering narrative. We haven't seen very much of the game yet, and already detractors are lining up to submit their own pithy version of "go make movies and leave games alone" for perusal.
If you're going to be unpopular with these people - and really, I'm not sure Cage loses much sleep over it - you might as well go for broke. Stand up on stage and tell people that the games industry needs to grow up. Criticise it for being really, really bad at giving players any kind of agency that doesn't involve pulling a trigger. Accuse it of Peter Pan syndrome, of failing to address the vast swatches of humanity who aren't teenage boys of all ages. For a final shot at a home run, imply that the press (who'll be setting the tone of the reporting of your speech) are crap at the job of game criticism and complicit in holding back the medium. All done! Now sit back and let the hatred wash over you - a bracing, cleansing wave of digital bile.
Even as someone who actually quite likes Cage's games (I enjoyed Heavy Rain, for all its terrible flaws, and liked it even more after watching my flatmate playing through it and having a very different narrative experience), I often suspect that he's setting out to yank people's chains. His tone is combative and accusative, his thoughts arranged into soundbites which are honed to incense audiences on sites like Kotaku. I don't buy the notion that he's doing this just to build awareness ahead of the launch of his new game, though - that's a little too cynical, even for me. Rather, I think he simply enjoys the conflict. Bear in mind, after all, that the art of straight-faced trolling and accompanying appetite for controversy were practically invented by French thinkers, creators and artists, long before 4chan was ever dreamed of. In a sense, Cage is following a grand Gallic tradition.
Still, even while acknowledging that he's terribly entertaining and does a good job of throwing these discussions into the public eye, I do sometimes wish that Cage would tone it down just a little. Not because I disagree with him, but precisely because I think the points he makes are important and valid, and I fear that their import is lost or dismissed in the ensuing melee.
"Even more exciting is the arrival in the creative sphere of the generation for whom interactivity is simply the default"
Dispense with the ad hominem attacks and consider the core of Cage's argument separately from the man himself. There's not a lot to disagree with in there. We have, after all, spent decades coming up with the most remarkable entertainment medium ever conceived - a marriage of art and technology which allows designers to give players the freedom to go anywhere, be anyone and do anything - and it is still used primarily to let you shoot or stab people. I'm not remotely prepared to believe that this is a sad reflection of the decline of human society or any such banal guff. It's much more practical than that; it's a completely normal reflection of the mindset you get when you put a load of teenage and early twenties males together to create something, and then allow their creativity to evolve almost completely devoid of external input.
That's what's happened - as simple and clear as that. A medium created by young men has developed in extraordinary isolation, growing up around a closed loop in which young men bought games created by other young men. Some of the young men got older, but that doesn't mean they grew up. Video games - or at least the core of video games, the AAA titles - spent decades as a creative Galapagos, cut off from external influence and denied injections of external DNA. The basic genetic material of video games (a gun in your hand, a horde awaiting its bullets) evolved and branched off into a host of different directions, to the point where those of us on the inside of the whole thing insist that there are a multitude of entirely different genres which just happen to focus on man-with-a-gun, missing the fact that most of them are really just inbred mutations rather than magnificent new species.
Of course, the only reason we're even having this discussion now - the only reason Cage even gets to stand on a stage and make these claims - is because the world discovered our little Galapagos archipelago. New species have been introduced. New people are playing games, and new people are creating them, too. Man-with-a-gun is still king of the jungle in the world of AAA, but lots of fresh DNA is flowing into gaming from other places. People whose creative roots are in literature or theatre or art or music are beginning to chip in, their talents and ideas opening up the potential for new and unusual ways to create and experience interactive entertainment. Even more exciting, perhaps, is the arrival in the creative sphere of the generation for whom interactivity is simply the default - for whom combining narrative and emotion with player agency seems natural, not forced.
Some people don't like that. Some people - some very vocal people, at that - want to jealously guard the word "game", to define the interactivity it suggests in a way which describes that which appeals to them and excludes that which appeals to these other, new people. Some of these new people didn't even grow up with video games properly, for god's sake! They never swapped C64 games by copying tapes for friends and swapping them in the school yard! They never got bullied for liking Elite or Lords of Midnight better than Manchester United!
"Games should welcome and embrace the potential offered by being a medium which can put to use the talents of almost any creative field you care to mention"
I'm being a little facetious, but not entirely. There is a reasonable discussion to be had about the word "game", albeit one which veers into pointlessness if it fails to acknowledge that video games are an apex predator of media, devouring wholesale many aspects of film, literature, theatre, music and art to fit onto the framework of interactivity. However, the force and even viciousness of the response to Cage's criticism suggests that the primary driver of this backlash is not a rational discontent with the definition of words, but an emotional, aggressive rejection.
Part of the problem, though, is undoubtedly Cage himself. He's too easy a target for the ad hominem response - and he almost always oversteps the mark, such as in his out-of-hand dismissal of "kids" games as an irrelevance, which in the process overlooked the entire oeuvre of incredibly important creators and pioneers such as Shigeru Miyamoto. Besides, when it boils down to it, Cage's games are fascinating experiments but not actually terribly good at many of the things he challenges others to achieve. Heavy Rain attempted to draw in cinematic elements, but suffered from utterly dreadful scriptwriting (and for all Cage's posturing about the industry's treatment of women, was shamefully awful in its handling of female characters - Beyond: Two Souls had really better improve on that front) and cack-handed direction. That it was an intriguing experience in spite of those failures is a testament to the power of the underlying idea, not to its execution. Indeed, Cage should be careful what he wishes for - until his writing and direction improves significantly, he of all people should be wary of demanding more rigorous media criticism of games.
The backlash does teach us something useful, though - it teaches us that Cage has a point in another important regard. His instant dismissal at the hands of the internet horde as a "frustrated film director" who should "get out of games and just make movies" really does illustrate his point about the industry's failure to embrace talent from across the spectrum. When novelists turn their hand to scriptwriting, are they greeted with such derision? When artists collaborate with directors to design unique visuals for movies, are they told to hightail it back to the gallery and stop playing at film making? I doubt it. We do need to grow up. David Cage may be a poor proponent of this view, but that doesn't render his arguments invalid. Games should welcome and embrace the potential offered by being a medium which can put to use the talents of almost any creative field you care to mention. Man-with-a-gun isn't going anywhere - but we really must stop getting so upset at the notion that our medium can and must reach out beyond his violent little fiefdom.