David Cage, the writer/director for the upcoming Detroit: Become Human, is best in small doses. Given a single idea, the man famous for designing Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls knows how to pack a punch.
Take, for example, the Heavy Rain DLC episode The Taxidermist. It's an evocative, visceral experience, and not coincidentally, it's also 20 minutes in length.
It's difficult to think of another game designer who has tried so hard, for so many years, to not be a game designer. Cage is notorious for conflicting self-promotion.
His press tour for Beyond: Two Souls was particularly bold: he argued that current games were not living up to their artistic potential and needed to be reinvented as a new form of entertainment.
He criticised other designers' games for rote, 'by-the-numbers' storytelling and mechanics.
And he implored the industry who awarded him many Game of the Year awards to "grow up" and make themselves more accessible to a non-gaming audience.
There are many games -- shooter games even, despite Cage's disdain -- that are emotionally resonant and daring, without getting upon stilts to proclaim themselves as such.
The awkward truth in all of this is that Cage is not the best representative of his message. His ambition often outpaces his writing abilities, and he has a particularly difficult time with staging transitions. Heavy Rain has loose plot threads.
Beyond: Two Souls has awkward tonal shifts; the game feels like a collection of short tales, held together by a single, common character.
But that is the best way to enjoy a David Cage game -- as a series of small experiences, meant to be judged individually, rather than as a cohesive whole. Small moments in many of his games shine.
In Heavy Rain, Ethan cuts off his finger to save the life of his son in a visceral, compact scene.
Tonally, these sequences could not be more different. But what makes them work, especially when they are taken separately from their respective games, is their self-containment. They depict strong, singular emotions -- nostalgia, anxiety, revulsion -- while implicitly addressing larger themes of bullying, peer pressure, and the father/son bond.
The Taxidermist is similarly self-contained. It takes place chronologically before Heavy Rain, and players are cast as journalist Madison Paige.
Madison is investigating a possible Origami Killer lead by visiting Leland White, a 40-year-old former taxidermist. He's not home, so she crawls through the back window of his two-story home to snoop.
Quantic Dream's art designers dressed the house's interior perfectly. Everything on the lower level seems hazy with an inch of dirt and dust. I recently visited the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island, which has an impressive taxidermy collection including a massive whale shark that's suspended from the ceiling.
Nobody has added to the collection in years, so the animals are starting to show their age. A crew of artists maintains it, but inevitably all the animals will become dust. It's the same way that Leland White's house feels -- dirty from years of disuse and neglect, rather than from deliberate action.
Photo of Vanderbilt Museum by Kevin Wong
You can go through all the drawers in Leland's home. In the leftmost kitchen drawer, you find a magpie collection of women's jewellery.
In the fireplace, you find a scrap of burnt women's clothing. You slowly get clues as to what's going on, but there's no explicit 'smoking gun.' Yet.
There are also small contextual details that characterise Leland himself. There's a weightlifting machine, which implies that Leland is probably a strong man -- relevant, since you'll be overpowered should he return home.
In the main bedroom on the top floor, there's a faded black and white photo of Leland's mother when she was young.
There's a child's room on the top floor (possibly Leland's room as a child?), which contains a rack of women's clothing. And then, in the bathroom, you find a grisly sight: a nude woman, dismembered and disembowelled in the bathtub.
At the end of the hall is the pièce de résistance: a massive display room where Leland has stuffed and posed several female murder victims in seductive poses.
One is dressed like a 1950's housewife. Another wears a roleplay nurse's outfit and a smile similar to the photograph of Leland's mother. A third appears to be stepping out of the shower and is posing in giggly, mock embarrassment.
The victims are reminiscent of old cheesecake pin-ups from vintage men's magazines. Like this victim:
Or this victim:
All these accumulated visual details -- the taxidermy, the vintage photo, the child's bedroom, and finally, the stuffed murder victims -- paint a portrait of a man acting out a Stepford-esque fantasy, struggling to preserve some idealised past with his 'dolls.'
At this point, Leland arrives home. The player has a couple of options. You can sneak to the phone and call the police, and then hide from Leland until they arrive.
To hide, as in the main game, you don't simply press the right combination of buttons; you have to hold all four buttons to continue hiding. This adds physical discomfort to what is already a tense situation.
If you don't want to hide, you can try to sneak out of the house. But if you moved anything downstairs, or if you cause the floorboards to creak by walking too quickly, Leland will come after you with a knife. The main game also contains button sequences, that, if mistimed, would affect your story.
But they were isolated events in a longer game; this DLC is more pervasively tense. Every moment matters -- another benefit of a short run time. It's the difference between a shot of adrenaline and a slow drip feed.
If you get caught, you can get killed (and presumably stuffed), and Leland White is never punished for his crimes. If you escape, the police will come to arrest Leland.
But there are all sorts of permutations between these two extremes as well. If Leland discovers you but you still manage to escape, he'll go back inside the house and kill himself. If he discovers you and you decide to fight back, you can disembowel him with a chainsaw.
If you call the police and then get killed, he'll be arrested, and you'll be regarded as a martyr.
This open-endedness underlines The Taxidermist's commitment to choice.
The main Heavy Rain game must loop every segment, regardless of outcome, into a sprawling, contradictory story. Beyond: Two Souls contains even less variation, because Jodie cannot die. But The Taxidermist is unencumbered by this narrative bloat.
Everything in the house works to characterise Leland instead of making some vague, overarching point. Every consequence has finality because of the game's short run time and contained narrative.
Cage is in the spotlight again for the upcoming Detroit: Become Human. The game has already gotten a mixed response from critics who played the demo, many of whom found Cage's central conceit of androids staging a revolt to be staging a revolt to be politically loaded and confusing.
With the promise of a sprawling narrative and dynamic characters, it sounds like a typical David Cage creation. But Quantic Dream’s 2012 tech demo, Kara, which became a part of Detroit: Become Human, shows an emotional intimacy and focus that Detroit could have in its smaller moments, beyond the action-heavy set pieces we’ve seen thus far.
By constraining himself to a capsuled narrative with The Taxidermist, Cage showcased what he's best at. Detroit has the same potential, even if the larger sci-fi narrative collapses under its own weight.
The Taxidermist was tasteless. It had no higher aspirations. But it was compact, efficient, and intense. And by aiming lower, the game hit its target.