By John Walker on February 7th, 2013 at 6:00 pm.
David Cage has been speaking again. And that means he’s been talking about how games need to grow up, that they’re too focused on shooting and not enough on crying about leaves. “David, honey, would you like a cup of coffee?” “Why don’t they make more games where a child dies?” “Yes David, that’s right dear.”
Describing the games industry as having “Peter Pan Syndrom” during a speech at DICE this year, Cage said the thing he says.
“It’s time to reassess who we are, and what we are doing. Someone who is anxious at the idea of growing up and becoming an adult, and who actually refuses to grow up. And that’s quite a bold statement to make about an entire industry!”
The talk, reported by the heroes at Gamasutra, lambasted the industry’s immaturity, saying it focuses only on a very limited scope of games. He then proved this by saying that the charts are only made up of three genres, “Kids games, Casual games, and violent action games.”
What’s so frustrating here is that while there’s a giant wad of truth to what he’s saying – gaming is a very immature genre when compared to the wider extent of film, literature, etc. And gaming at its most commercial is dominated by familiar shooters and casual output. But it’s so hard to shake the feeling that what he’s really saying is, “Not enough people buy my mad, broken games.” Because the words he uses just aren’t true.
The top selling games just aren’t only made up of kids’ games, casual games and violent action. For crying out loud, sport games! Racing games! They may well still fit into his argument that games repeat the same themes, don’t advance or explore far enough, but it’s horribly undermined when his claims are so obviously problematic. So when he compares Wolfenstein 3D to Modern Warfare 3, on some level he’s correct that there isn’t a massive thematic advancement between the two, beyond technologically. But it’s the wrong argument. If I compare Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand (2013) to Raw Deal (1986) I can claim that both are action movies about small town sheriffs, both have terrible acting and scripts, and both follow similar themes of action movies. But I can’t conclude from this that all of film has failed to advance in the last 27 years.
Just glancing at any best selling games list and you’ll see so much that contradicts his statements. The fourth best selling game on Xbox was Fable, seventh was Knights Of The Old Republic. The fifteenth best selling game on 360 is Minecraft. Nintendo, which for some reason he accepts from his list, obviously wildly contradicts all of his conclusions, and you can include Sonic in most best selling lists too. The sixth best selling game on the PSX was Tomb Raider II. Seventh best on PS3 – MotorStorm, and tenth is LittleBigPlanet. Skyrim appears in every format’s chart. And while PC charts are woefully inaccurate, The Sims dominates by a huge amount, along with StarCraft, Minecraft and Guild Wars.
I’m not claiming that any of the games I’ve mentioned are evidence of an ever-broadening gaming scene – most of them are absolutely derivative of long-established genres. And even though a few are truly original or ground-breaking, what they more importantly demonstrate is the wide range of what is popular in gaming. And that’s not even getting into his peculiar utter dismissal of casual gaming, as if it doesn’t count, when the term more usually means “accessible”.
Even more egregiously ridiculous is Cage’s statement during the talk that, “We need to move away from our traditional market, which is kids, teenagers, young adults.” That’s just utter bullshit, and he has to know it. The average age of a gamer has been in his or her 30s for many, many years, and that’s crept up from 20s in the many years before that. While gaming is certainly a fantastic pursuit of children and teenagers, the majority of people buying the games are much older. And the games are aimed at them too, because they’re the ones with the money. Perpetuating the peculiar myth that gaming is for kids is the purvey of tabloid Glendas and politicians, not games developers. He continues,
“Think about your friends who don’t play. Think about your parents. Do they play console games? Most of the time they don’t play video games.”
Um, okay David, I’m thinking about my dad. And about how every evening I see the Steam alert popping up to say he’s back in Skyrim yet again. And how he raised me with one hand on his gaming keyboard. And I’m thinking about my many friends who are parents who consider gaming to be a main hobby of theirs. And I’m thinking about the many adults who were playing games in the 80s, of whom I would ask for tips, who are now in their 60s and still gaming. And I’m thinking about who I see when I attend gaming shows, or who turned up to Rezzed, and there seemed to be an awful lot of adults amongst them. A majority.
I think I’m primarily frustrated because I frequently lament the sense of gaming stunting its own maturity, of the failure to expand its horizons in certain directions on a commercial level. I want to make his argument, and I really want him to stop making it. Because if Cage’s games are any example of his vision for where gaming should be going, he needs to be lassoed and tied to a tree.
And I like David Cage games! Well, within reason. I don’t like The Nomad Soul – I’m not insane. But I found Fahrenheit, while utterly idiotic, enormous fun. And Heavy Rain, as ridiculously flawed as it certainly was, absolutely did deliver a darker, more morose and adult tone. But they were all batshit, and they all had really terrible stories! Fahrenheit, which beings as what appears to be an intriguing conflation of playing as both killer and police investigating the crime, quickly degenerates into the dumbest sci-fi nonsense imaginable, as you chase an AI across the side of a building, watch girls in the shower, and have a character bloody well called “the Oracle”. Heavy Rain, meanwhile, was so enormously derivative of any number of thriller movies or sub-Stephen King novels that it defied belief that it had been heralded as something so brave and original. Original in gaming, perhaps, if you ignore all of adventure games, but hardly a new direction for narrative. Oh, but multiple endings, so that’ll do!
I enjoy playing his games, and I’m genuinely delighted that he’s striving to be different. But he’s trapped by his own limited abilities when it comes to storytelling. The irony that his writing is so dependent upon mimicking incredibly familiar and hackneyed themes from cinema really does seem to be lost on him, as he continues to decry that the rest of gaming isn’t following his trail.
He went on to lay out a ludicrous manifesto for developers, which if followed would stifle creativity more than any publisher demanding a developer make the same game as last year. “Make games for all audiences” he demands, whether the audiences want games or not. “Change our paradigms” he opines, which is gibberish for “don’t include violence”. Yeah, it’s about time there was a single game without violence! “Can we create games that have something to say?” he says, in defiance of all semiotic theory. “Become accessible” the industry is instructed. Accessible like Nomad Soul, you mean? Lord. “Bring other talent on board” he demands, explaining that his unique use of a singer and an actor is the defining difference between his and all other gaming. Actors in games? What madness! There’s something entirely unintelligible about forming new relationships in Hollywood, then moves on to his frequent lament about censorship in gaming, which is a fair point, although hardly the responsibility of developers.
Amazingly he then declares in his eighth demand that the press is divided in two, with one half analysing the industry, and the other half “you’ve got people giving scores. Just scores.” Whu? There’s a version of my job where I can literally just write a number and get paid?! I think somewhere in this rambling he might be complaining about the growth of user-scores and amateur critics, which I don’t quite understand, and can’t quite understand how it’s something developers can “do” when making their games. Ninth we’re reminded that gamers are important, in which he states that buying or not buying a game is “like a political vote”, which it isn’t.
And if we all do all of this, says Mr Cage, then (and I promise this is the quote reported by Gama),
“Finally, we will have a chance to become mass market.”
My brain just fell out.
Does Cage really exist in a universe where gaming is still a struggling niche hobby, failing to gain mass attention because of all the shooters? It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, a hobby pursued by the large majority of adults and young people, precisely because it does mimic itself, churning out populist crap alongside more interesting content. I fear that Cage is trapped in his own Hollywood bubble of other 40-somethings that missed the gaming boat, and has completely failed to notice the reality of the world around him. Cage really is the one who is failing to grow up here.
I’ve always argued that his games’ greatest role is to try stuff out that no one else is mad to give a go, to see what works. Throw enough batshit at the crazywall, see what sticks. I wonder if Rockstar would ever have tried (the equally ridiculously flawed and daft) LA Noire had there not been David Cage games before it. I’m sure there are many glints and elements of games that have been inspired by moments within his explorations. But he is not the Pied Piper gaming should be following, unless we all want to drown in a river of quick-time events and Indigo Children. The solution for any stunted growth in gaming is not adding a split-screen sex scene. Cage’s obsession with cinema, as if it holds all the answers for gaming, is his greatest flaw. He sets gaming up with the destiny of only ever being derivative of another medium, rather than flourishing as its own (which is doing rather well at, thank you very much).