A Plea For Games To Grow Up

A Plea For Games To Grow Up

After David Cage’s speech at the Game Developers Conference yesterday, I heard the chatter of people whose minds have been opened, lives possibly changed.

There was a room full of video game creators and press, buzzing about Cage’s big ideas. One woman said her hand had cramped, she’d never written notes so furiously. Admirers swarmed Cage.

I’d caught the final bit of the man’s hour-plus speech, the capper of a lengthy urging by example for game developers to change the kinds of games we get to play.

“Make games for adults,” he was saying when I finally got into the room to hear him close. “Seriously. It’s going to change your life.”

David Cage is the lead creator of Heavy Rain, the bleak story-driven adventure about a father pushed into despearate action by the abduction of his son. It was a hit on the PlayStation 3 last year, selling about two million copies.

His game has a lower bodycount than most PlayStation 3 blockbusters . You kill people in the game only slightly more often than you control the brushing of the hero’s teeth or the helping of the hero’s son to do his homework. It was made by Cage and his team at French development studio Quantic Dream with the intent to let player feel subtler emotions than standard action-game rage: anxiety and worry, concern and the erosion of moral certitude.

When I walked into Cage’s speech, which was delivered in a full room that could seat several hundred, he had reached rhetorical crescendo. “We should be, in our industry, on par not with b-[movies] , not with popcorn movies. We should be on par with the best movies out there, in matter of storytelling and characterisation and emotion, etc, etc, plus we will add the interactive dimension to the experience.”

He was flipping this into a money question, remarking that his 10-year-old son had given up playing expensive games on the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS for one-dollar and free games on the iPad. “How are we going to justify in the future that people play $US69 to play our games?” he asked, translating his artistic plea into one some game-greenlighting suit could understand. “We need to create more meaningful content.”

Cage knows that we live in a world that isn’t just full of people who like video games and people who are horrified by them. We live in a world that also includes people who are bored by them, people who dismiss games the way some might those movies that have a few dozen too many explosions.

I confess that, as impressive as Cage’s presentation must have been, I was a poor judge of its opening. I was there for its first minutes, incorrectly assuming he was covering material familiar enough for me to skip. Across the hall from his speech I went, to one made by a designer at LucasArts named Kent Hudson. The Game Developers Conference is an embarassment of braininess, and I believed I’d made the right call as Hudson tried to explain the better way to tell game stories. Hudson noticed that many game designers create some exceptionally visually impressive areas of their games, areas so attractive that they signal that they are the locations that matter, the places where important things happen in the game. They are, he said, “a subtle dis to the player”, a reminder that what the gamer does in the game isn’t as crucial as the narative the game creator made. It’s a problem, Hudson was saying. It tells the player: “the story is important; you’re not”. That was good stuff, but the Twitter buzz from Cage’s room across the hall was strong.

David Cage on Heavy Rain: “I don’t know how to tell a good story when your hero can only shoot and run.”

David Cage on Heavy Rain: “Feeling subtle and complex emotions was the most important thing.”

David Cage: Game designers think that players can project themselves onto empty shell characters. “I think this is a huge mistake.”

David Cage: “The journey is what matters, not the challenge. Challenge works well with teenagers…but it doesn’t work with adults.”

David Cage: “We need to forget about video game rules – bosses, missions, game over, etc… are very old words of a very old language.”

(All those tweets via 343 Industries’ Ryan Payton, by the way.)

The wise supermarket shopper doesn’t line hop. The wiser one doesn’t line-hop twice. I was worried that I’d compound my error to retrun to Cage’s talk, but as soon as Hudson wrapped, I did. When I got there he was working to his bravura conclusion. He’d been pointing out that most of today’s supposedly great games use the same themes games from two or three decades ago.

Time to make games about something else he was saying. Time to make games for adults.

When he finished, the audience clapped loudly. These people heard his message. Let’s see what they do with it.


  • My 2 cents;

    Has this guy ever played Metal Gear Solid, just because he struggles to include heavy action with a well crafted story, doesn’t mean it’s outright impossible. Also, I’m not sure about others here, but I don’t give a crap what his son does, his son seems to clearly be in the minority.

    Yes there is a place for “adult” games (btw, what does that even mean? Is he implying that games like CoD and such are for kids and that we’re a bunch of simpletons for enjoying them?) like Heavy Rain, but hell I’ll take a good couple of hours racing cars and shooting bad guys over what is essentially an interactive movie.

    • I agree with this sentiment. He is making an argument that we need more adult games, then quoting the fact that his son isn’t play his playstation 3 anymore and instead playing on the iphone/ipad. This seems completely unrelated, in fact it seems to be an argument against adult games and for casual games.

      Good storytelling is something that is always desirable, and rarely done well. I think Heavy Rain had a lot of issues with control and linearity, giving you the feeling that you weren’t really in the control of your character, it was just an interactive movie with predefined actions you could take.

      I don’t want games like this, I’m happy with my shooters and RPGs. There is a reason we have kept with these for decades, we have also kept with the same basic film and writing cliches and tropes for decades. We’ve used the same archetypes in writing for centuries. These are what we enjoy, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for innovation, but just because you say the current system is stagnant doesn’t make it true or put you above it.

      There are plenty of games today that try for strong storytelling and adult content. It is simply unfortunate it is often not the priority or is poorly executed. However I believe storytelling should always be second to gameplay, which I think Heavy Rain got wrong. No matter how good your story is, if the game isn’t fun to play, people won’t want to play it and in the end that is what you are making, a game, not a movie.

    • I have finished MGS 1-4, and honestly feel that they try too hard to tell an intelligent story.

      I feel the games would be more effective if they focused their storytelling rather than creating convoluted webs filled with fancy words to sound like it must be a “smart, adult” game.

      My 2c

      • Also, I am one of the people who loved Heavy Rain, and felt it game me something no other title had before.

        I am usually an action game junkie, but this drew me in for the whole journey.

    • If his arguement is that CoD is for kids and we’re simpletons for enjoying them then I totally agree with him, I feel like a simpleton playing CoD and Halo, they’re games on par with Michel Bay and Paul Anderson films, fun, explodey, but very, very stupid and shallow, they rely on cheap media enflaming shocks instead of impactful built up thrills. Ironically games have the running time to allow for the kind of build up in a narrative in a way movies can’t but that the best TV shows do so well, stuff like Dexter and BSG.

      Regarding Metal Gear Solid, the franchises stilted method of telling a story, ie. run and gun/story info dump, then rinse and repeat ad nauseum, is one of my biggest complaints with the game. I’ve enjoyed every MGS game I’ve played but none of them have ever effectively combined the story telling with the gameplay, I was mortified in MGS4 that you STILL couldn’t continue to control Snake while receiving Codecs.

  • Good. I’m glad there’s a movement to make more ‘mature’ games, not only for us older gamers but for the industry too – the R18+ argument will go better for us with more of these games to point to.

    Also, Raven: I agree, there’s definitely space for both types of games and sometimes I get home from a hard day at work and I just want to pop some heads, but the more involved, more storied games can be great, especially to play with a spouse who is less enthusiastic or anti- gaming, or when you want a long arc of a game that you can really sink your teeth into, like a good book.

  • I agree with some of his points but not others.

    “I don’t know how to tell a good story when your hero can only shoot and run.”

    In Gears of War 2, Halo Reach and Fear all your hero could do was run and shoot yet they told great stories and also had some of the emotion he seems to want games to have. The inability for him to tell a good story in a shooting game is his own failing and not the genre like he seems to be indicating here.

    “Game designers think that players can project themselves onto empty shell characters. I think this is a huge mistake.”

    Halo, Half Life, Portal, Dead Space and Bioshock all featured “empty shell characters” (though halo less so then the others) and are all considered great games with large fan bases. Though I was unable to project myself onto Gordon Freeman and enjoy the game of Half Life a lot of other people were able to. I had no trouble playing as Master Chief, Chell, Issac or Jack.

    “The journey is what matters, not the challenge. Challenge works well with teenagers…but it doesn’t work with adults.”

    Why then are PC gamers, who are mostly made up of adults, always screaming that consoles are dumbing things down and making things too easy? Why can you jump into a million different game forums and see people asking for their games to be harder? The God of War series was praised by many for its difficulty. Adult gamers clearly want a challenge. And why does he seem to think something can’t be both a journy and a challenge?

    • Lol wut? Halo Reach, Gears of War 2 good stories? Are you kidding me? What are you like 12 years old?

      Imagine those two games made into movies, they’d be bad B-grade movies. Games that tell good stories are games like Metal Gear Solid, Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Those games that hit an emtional connection. Those are games that tell good stories, that keep you hooked and make you think. Gears and Halo are all about patting eachother on the bum, big explosions and cracking boners.

      “The inability for him to tell a good story in a shooting game is his own failing and not the genre like he seems to be indicating here.”

      No, I disagree with you here. A game that is about running around shooting people and blowing things up doesn’t make for a good story. I can’t think of a movie or book that told a good story where the protagonist was a chesty 6ft 5″ person carrying a gun with chainsaw bayonet. Can you?

      I think you are confusing first person perspective and first person shooters here. Shooters are shallow pieces of crap – they are purely about action, not stories. I’d rather blow stuff up in an FPS than listen to a 45 minute MGS4-like mission briefing. That’s their purpose.

      You’re not Bleszinski are you? How are those biceps doing?

      • You obviously missed what Gears 2 was really about. It wasn’t just about running around making explosions and stuff. It was about brothership and the terriblness of war. If you didn’t feel any sadness at all when Tai kills himself and you see the look of anguish on Marcuses face you aren’t human. Or when Dom finds his wife. Both heart rending moments.

        Reach’s story would have probably meant more to you if you knew more about Halo’s lore (which I’m guessing you don’t). Ignoring the extended universe and previous games though Reach’s story was still good. It was no better or worse then a lot of sci fi, war or action films out there.

        Just because something isn’t an emotional rollercoster that makes you want to cut yourself and is filled with twists and turns doesn’t make it a bad story.

        • DW and JS: lets stop the hatin’, agree to disagree and show some love for a fellow gamer! while you may have differing opinions over WHICH stories carry more emotional weight, the fact is you’ve recognised that there ARE stories of this nature. you both recognise that there is more in today’s games; than the simple point-and-shoot just won’t cut it for an adult gamer; that we need value, not just in the length of a game, but in the DEPTH.
          will everyone agree with me that RDR was a brilliant story? there will always be critics i assure you. no two people are the same, and that means no two experiences are the same. will every gamer play the “No Russian” mission from MW2? there will be those that skip it, for whatever personal reasons they have.
          if Cage can convince enough people in the industry that a solid story is a worthwhile investment, then he’ll have done us a great service

        • I’m going to give you a free pass on ‘terribleness’ but thats it 😀

          These games (Gears, Halo, CoD, MGS) keep the story telling and gameplay apart, you learn the story through cut scenes and voice overs, then you go back to three dimensional space invaders which is really all shooter games are. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class you’d have heard that the key to good story telling is to show, don’t tell. But games often just tell with no subtlety at all. A few games do it well, good exaple would be the Andrew Ryan confrontation in Bioshock, but the vast majority are ghastly bad at it.

          It’s more of a reason why games are seen as being generally low brow entertainment than the actual juvenile content. Games are interactive but poor storytelling and formulaic controls make them less engaging with an audience than most films.

          Personally I’m pretty tired of shooters, other than better graphics the difference between todays AAA titles and Wolfenstein is pretty smally (oh and more linear levels). So if Cage is inspiring more people to take a chance on games that focus on engaging emotion over crotch shooting I’m drinking his koolaid.

  • I think he’s onto something. The very best game narratives don’t come close to other forms of entertainment. Too many games just put you in the role of some oversized meathead with a massive gun. People don’t generally think of games as stories. Sure there are exceptions (FFVII, maybe Bioshock), but most games out there are either devoid of any real narrative (e.g. Mario Bros), or force subpar narratives on the player (e.g. Bulletstorm). The narrative element of games is no more important than the ludic element. Some sort of balance is needed for a game to be considered decent.

  • I think what he’s getting at is that in the future, these cheap casual games you can buy over psn/xbla/itunes are actually gaining on a lot of the typical action based games. He’s trying to emphasise that developers should focus on distinguishing themselves from these throw away games.

  • He has a point.

    Most games (in my view) are pitched at teenagers or young adults, rarely innovate outside of a few genre cliches and seldom use the interactive nature of the medium to heighten the emotional intensity (Heavy Rain would have to be an exception).

    Think of how much storytelling is told by cutscene – creating a dissonance between ludonarrative (the story gamers can control) and the narrative that plays out over the whole game.

  • He’s got the same fever that everyone in this industry and community seems to get periodically, this defensive, nagging fear of being compared to films or books and coming up short. But it’s a different medium, it has completely different rules. This feels like a thinly-veiled retread of the “games are not art” line that we keep hearing, most recently from Ebert. The difference is he’s saying “well, they COULD be if we all grew up”.

    I just don’t follow it. I played Myst, I played Portal, I played Max Payne (which won a BAFTA), I played Dear Esther, I played ARMA2. Try to put any two of those in the same category. Try to tell me any one of those games needs to grow up. We, as gamers, need to stop joining conversations that begin from faulty premises. The most amazing games are the ones that completely reset your notion of what a game can involve and bring about that sense of wonder. Art as experience, art as joy. I am sick to death of this meme that games are poorly written.

    Avatar had a script written by a monkey’s penis, nobody uses that to suggest that cinema needs to grow up, but the existence and popularity of twitch-based action FPS keeps on being used as evidence that gaming AS A WHOLE is shallow and poorly written.

    • I think I like where you’re taking this discussion, but I’m not entirely sure because I can’t stop laughing at this gem: “Avatar had a script written by a monkey’s penis”.

    • Yes, because he’s obviously saying no games except for his have stories. Hur.

      The argument he’s making is that there aren’t enough games that are driven by compelling narratives – I haven’t played Heavy Rain but I’m guessing that’s the ballpark he’s talking about. Plenty of games, including the ones you mentioned, have quality writing – but a shitload of them do not. Cage’s claims are not a case of knee-jerk defensiveness – it’s a plea to stop churning out meaningless shooters so that we can offer an experience that, given the economics of casual games, people are willing to pay and play and invest in.

  • Interesting that the man who basically made this generations Dragon’s Lair is asking the industry to grow up. Narrative means very little if you aren’t also engaged and feel like you are truly driving what is going on. Heavy Rain was so on rails that there really wasn’t much of a game there at all to be honest. People may have enjoyed the journey/storyline, but was that from the playing, or the watching? I’d bet for most it was the latter. And for a game, that’s a problem.

    This guy seems to have a game designer inferiority complex, a need to be respected by the world, and especially, recognised as an ‘artist’ by other, non-game making, creatives. He comes across like someone who wants to make games be more like movies and tv because movies and tv is what he sees as more valuable or important mediums, rather than someone who just wants games to thrive on their own terms and be the best that they can be in that particular medium.

    It shouldn’t be about making games that bridge any kind of gap, or that try hard to do what other mediums are already doing successfully. It should be about making games that are the best games that they can be. Games that both engage the gamer, and play so well that they want to keep coming back. Games aren’t about the journey, they are about the experience, and once you lose sight of that in this medium then you are truly lost.

  • Half Life 2, Fallout 3 both stand out as particularily impactful games in recent times. I don’t think skill is something anyone should ever move away from in the video game industry. Unless it’s some kind of test of skill, it’s probably not a game.

    Digital entertainment doesn’t need to be in the same category as video gaming.

    And for the record, people are moving onto the 5 dollar or less category largely due to the character these games manage to have. Less people work on them, which means their content is less of a compromise. Older games had this charm, but newer games typically lack the personality they could otherwise possess.

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