David Cage – What’s in a Game?

Sam Parish
Latest posts by Sam Parish (see all)

Hey kids, guess what! A new David Cage game is out!

So what does this mean for us? Well it means we get to discuss what exactly makes a game a “game”. For those not quite up to speed on this whole debate here are the cliff notes:

David Cage of Quantic Dream Studios fame is considered one of the most divisive voices in modern gaming. Hailed by some as a true visionary who is single-handedly raising the bar for what videogames can be and can mean in terms of artistic and narrative merit, and condemned by others as a one-note hack only able to pump out lacklustre point and click adventure games because he isn’t good enough of a writer to make actual movies.

You see, whenever such narrative-heavy games such as Mr Cage’s Beyond: Two Souls, Heavy Rain or other “art games” as Dear Esther or the more recent Gone Home, appear on the horizon, there is an all too common criticism levelled at them from their detractors: It’s not really a game.

Now this fascinates me. As someone who isn’t quite comfortable with making such sweeping declarations as the above, I enjoy considering where on my personal spectrum of Game-Not Game these titles lay. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to play Beyond: Two Souls so I can’t go into that too deeply, but considering my familiarity with Cage’s previous works I’m sure what I’ll say about similar games can be applied to it quite easily.

Let’s focus on Gone Home. Partly because it’s something I’m familiar with and secondly because it was the project that sparked this whole mishegas this time around.

Gone Home, developed by The Fullbright Company is billed as “A Story Exploration Videogame”. It involves the player taking the role of teenager Kaitlin Greenbriar, just arrived home after a trip abroad. Returning to an empty house, kept inside by a storm you explore the home of the Greenbriar family and through simple interactions with various domestic artefacts (literally just picking up and looking at diaries, flyers, cassette cases and so on) you piece together the various everyday stories of the family. Throughout, you are propelled along the “central” narrative by the disembodied voice of your older sister Sam, narrating passages from her diary.

And that’s the entirety of the game. There are no monsters to shoot, no pick ups or secret collectables to uncover, there isn’t even a jump button. Instead you walk around the house slowly exploring each room until you proceed to the narrative’s end-point. The entire thing takes about two to two and a half hours to finish, or if you’re one of the many derisive Let’s Players out there, less than a minute if you know where to go.

Now on the surface I can see where the criticism comes from. Gone Home lacks many of the archetypal elements that are considered integral to a “good” videogame. There is no risk of failure, nor challenge beyond your own patience and tolerance for the (in my opinion) somewhat underwhelming narrative. Yes it uses the trappings of more traditional “horror” games to create the illusion of risk but at no point can the player actually die or lose the game beyond quitting before finishing the story. Indeed, when playing it feels like little more than a walking tour, albeit a less-constricted one than others such as Dear Esther.

Many times I’ve seen proponents of these games sneer at such criticism, diminishing the argument into a straw man complaining of a lack of guns or power-ups or other such “trivial” aspects and ignoring the actual point of the games in question. But frankly I don’t buy that viewpoint. There is legitimate criticism to be found in asking just how many elements of a game can be removed and still have the final product considered a “game”.

I think the biggest issues here is one of interactivity and player agency. A big part of what makes a game a “game” to me isn’t necessarily found in the mechanics, but in how invested and involved I can feel as a player. I want a game to make me feel like I am actively engaging with it and am integral to the game progressing, be it in a narrative sense or in a more literal “complete-the-level” sense. Here is where I think games such as Gone Home or Heavy Rain hit a snag.

In these games there is a distinct lack of player agency and interaction-yes on a literal level you are interacting with the environment and you are necessary to progress the narrative by moving your avatar around the game world. Unfortunately this isn’t enough; to me this is interacting with the story in the same way that you turn the pages of a book. You progress the narrative but you don’t impact upon it in any way. Instead of being a character central to the progression you are merely a reader, or viewer, passively being shuttled along whilst the story happens around you, giving you a guided tour of it.

Now this kind of passive engagement is fine for books or films, but video games (as much as they might try to ape aspects of them) are not books or films. I appreciate the desire to make the narrative of paramount importance but at the same time I can’t agree that it should be to the detriment of the interactivity or agency of the player. I know it’s an old point, but if I wanted to be told a story I’d read or watch one, not play one.

Actually, let’s harp on about the narrative for a second. In these games narrative is heavily emphasised as the point of the whole experience. You don’t go in to “play” them in the traditional sense; the gameplay is just the means of delivering the story. My question is then why isn’t the story better? Of each of these games I have played I have been disappointed to say the least, actively frustrated to say the worst. With as much due deference to avoiding spoilers as possible Gone Home’s narrative is not impressive. Cute, maybe. Competently written sure-but actually engaging or affecting? No. It cribs much from the young adult coming-of-age novels I read in my youth, novels which do a damn sight better job than The Fullbright Company does. Likewise with Heavy Rain I figured out the identity of the antagonist within minutes of being introduced to all the characters and much of the plot leant on lame detective-story cliché.

This is the most frustrating part of these experiences for my money. When the intention of the piece is so tied to the narrative then you better have one hell of a good writer involved, otherwise the entire thing falls flat and, quite frankly, wastes the creators’ and the players’ time. I say this as someone who for most of their gaming life hasn’t cared a whit toward a game’s narrative. To me a good story in a game was a pleasant extra, like the icing on a well made cake that you ate with your thumbs. I wasn’t actually interested in the quality of the narratives being told until people started telling me that they were making them important.

Funnily enough, despite claims that such experiences are “the future” of videogame narrative, there are several example of games released within the last few years that have raised the bar for story in videogames that still managed to include plenty of interactivity and more traditional mechanics. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is rightly praised as being one of the finest stories and exercises in character exploration in gaming, likewise Telltale’s The Walking Dead is held as the gold standard in gaming story. Both of these games feature more typical gaming conventions-from third person shooting to point and click puzzles and dialogue trees. What makes them good games is their ability to marry story with player agency and choice (or the illusion of it anyway) and that is one thing that such games as Gone Home, Heavy Rain and Beyond all lack. They don’t make the player important. Instead they sideline them in worship of the all-important narrative. That’s fine and understandable in passive mediums but in interactive, player-driven ones it seems, well, silly.

Ultimately, I think one of the main reasons games such as Gone Home et al. get such good critical reception is because they are trying something different, and in a medium as young as ours for many people different equals good. I think that is dangerous territory for a developing art form. Yes, by all means experiment and come up with new interpretations and variations on what “makes” a game, but don’t pigeon-hole yourself into saying something you haven’t seen before is automatically better. It isn’t. At most it should be considered interesting. Interesting merits discussion and evaluation. “Better” merits copycatting and the demise of experimentation as everyone attempts to clamber up the same well-worn edifice in the name of following a trend.

As negative as I appear, I don’t think we should demonise these games for not being familiar enough, nor should we browbeat those who don’t see what all the fuss is. Instead, I feel we should be embracing, if not the end-product, then at the very least the spirit of discovery and experimentation that lead to it. Games are evolving, a big part of that is being willing to try new things and learning from them. If you think it’s a game call it a game and if you don’t, don’t. But above all that be glad that our pastime is growing to where such discussions are worth having, and are important to its development. If we go into the future with open minds-on both sides-we can all learn how to make what we love better.

Call it what you want but to me, that is worth every success and misstep along the way.

About Sam Parish

Sam Parish is a sometimes writer, cartoonist and soon-to-be teacher (God help us all). He has a penchant for pop/geek culture, expensive teas and empty hammocks. He was hoping to end this bio with a joke. He failed. Tell him what you think of him @SamOfAllThings