If Only David Cage Could Write as Well as He Talks

In Videogames on March 5, 2010 at 7:03 AM

David Cage is nothing if not amusing.  The man is a quote machine – a journalist’s best friend.  His interviews produce fodder a passive observer would consider outlandish, self-aggrandizing propaganda. Unfortunately gaming journalism has devolved into a fanboy convention whose entire purpose is to pour ceaseless praise on anything that looks pretty or claims to be innovative.

Case in point: Heavy Rain.  For the last two months, David Cage has made himself look like the world’s most self-righteous gaming martyr.  He views himself as a modern day Jesus, a man who has sacrificed everything to save to world of gaming one motion captured frame at a time.  From his IGN blog he stated “Sometimes I really wonder why I’m doing this. Some kind of masochism no doubt. It would be so much simpler to place enemies and then wonder where I’m going to put the ammo.”  The irony is Cage’s resume has not one attempt at these games he believes are so easy to make.  Maybe they’re beneath him.  But based on his track record, Cage directing a game as well structured as Half-Life, let alone Time Crisis, seems farfetched.

All the press and praise captivated even me.  I wanted so badly for Heavy Rain to be everything David Cage had claimed.  I too felt his annoyance with the shoot first, think later atmosphere of modern popular gaming.  And upon first look, Heavy Rain appeared to be the diamond in the rough I had been waiting for all these years.

After the game’s media embargo lifted, Cage wrote a blog discussing his pleasure of the game’s reception.  “Most of the articles explain…that the action sequences are gripping and intense. In short, exactly what I had been trying to explain for months, but it’s always better when someone else says it.”  And lo, I felt those exact same emotions upon my first go around with Heavy Rain.  But the second time these sequences felt boring and repetitive and uninvolving.  The demo alone foreshadowed this with its heroic fight sequence, which your button tapping skills either turn Scott Shelby into heroic savior (if performed properly) or the heroic beaten up savior (if you fail enough times).  The end result is ultimately the same.  Once the veil is lifted, the QTE sequences cease to be gripping and intense – instead a chore.

It’s not that Heavy Rain is a completely void experience.  In my first playthrough, Heavy Rain featured legitimate displays of unique and captivating gameplay.  And when I felt like my actions really had consequences certain scenes carried an immense tension.  But the story arc felt childish – a soap opera  pretending to be high drama, featuring equally ridiculous voice acting and overly dramatic camera angles.  Heavy Rain felt like the product of a failed film-maker than a game designer.  Maybe Cage felt it his only chance to be a truly great storyteller, by writing in a medium so devoid of great stories. “I feel a little bit arrogant, but I feel really close to [Orson] Welles,” Cage gushed, comparing himself to the man who revolutionized visual storytelling the same way D.W. Griffith did with Birth of a Nation in 1915.  “With Citizen Kane, [Welles] was the first one to use the camera to tell the story. And I got the exact same feeling in Heavy Rain. In other games, the camera is just a window. We use it to create emotion.”  Unfortunately, the camera felt more like an obstacle than a story device.

The entire game felt like one giant obstacle to reach the inevitable final scene, which only changes slightly based on the character’s that survive long enough to make it there.  However, Cage promised differently, a game where your actions completely shape the narrative scene to scene.  “The point is for the experience to change when you change your actions,” Cage claimed.  Yet, the experience never changed.  Everything stayed exactly the same.  Only a character’s death affected the narrative, and by affected I mean removed every subsequent scene involving that character.  However, I found that getting a character killed might be the most challenging part of the game.  Protaganist Ethan Mars survived a horrifying car crash and fainting in a narrow tunnel from blood loss.  Had I the opportunity to see, he probably would’ve survived electrocution.

But these are hardly flaws to Cage.  He views himself as nearly perfect.  In fact, the only reason he has a staff is his admitted inability to program or code.  “When I started crediting myself as writer and director, I saw that as a political act. This is not a game made by 20 people plus 12 marketing guys, trying to find an average of what everyone likes. I’m doing the work of an author and there is no compromise. It’s really the story I want to tell.”  It amazes that he even bothered to credit anyone else at all.  The opening title sequence may as well have read “God – David Cage” for three minutes while ambient piano played over CG faces staring at me.  Cage doesn’t even need playtesters to point out potential flaws or lulls in the game.  “I know what still doesn’t work. I’d rather spend my time fixing the problems rather than listening to people telling me about them.”  It must be hard work being so perfect.


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