David Cage is a French video game producer, and a bit of neutrality on the man stands to reason considering his polarising nature. Born David de Gruttola, he has been the captain of the good ship Quantic Dream for some 20 years now. As of June 2018, David Cage has helmed five games: Omikron: The Nomad Soul, Fahrenheit (Or Indigo Prophecy – honestly, both titles suck the big one), Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and the auteur’s most recent piece, Detroit: Become Human. Aside from his very first game, his body of work shares similarities that make up a certain “Cagian house style”; narrative-focused games with polished filmic presentation that will rely on quick-time events in lieu of traditional gameplay, as well as foregoing collectibles (for the most part) and cluttered HUDs for a more streamlined experience. Many pundits will tell you that Cage is terrible, that he simply cannot write worth a damn and that the concept of subtext and subtlety is lost on him. Others will defend him vociferously, fingers in ears, as a child might do on the playground.
David Cage is not a bad writer. David Cage is not a good writer. If you take anything away from this piece today, it’s this: despite the flaws of Cage and Quantic Dream, he is absolutely worth learning from, better or worse. I have enjoyed the work of Cage, probably more than most, but there is a fat, towering stack of evidence that suggests he doesn’t truly have a notion about writing, which I’d like to list in brief detail here. Not that I’m glossing over this, but “David Cage is terrible” has been done to death already, so in no order: he is ridiculously heavy handed, such as equating the ownership of androids to racial segregation, he gets bored with projects and seemingly leaves them hanging or lazily ties everything together to form an “ending” (see Fahrenheit), he has absolutely zero clue how to write children — Jason (of JASON fame, Heavy Rain) demands a balloon and wanders off at a shopping centre despite the fact he’s 10! 10 years old! Not 3! But, yes, the short story is, he doesn’t understand children, nor does he understand mental illness, which Fahrenheit demonstrated to a disturbing degree, and, finally, he makes too many airs and graces about his games being emotional as if Final Fantasy, Ico, Silent Hill, and Metal Gear Solid among many, many others didn’t happen. But that’s all the by-product of delusion, surely? More to the point, if Cage was all flaw, all show, he wouldn’t keep coming back, right?
Initially, one might think that Cage is a creator of games that holds nothing but contempt for video games. Apart from Omikron, one might think that he’d rather be directing movies instead, or that he simply wasn’t good enough for the silver screen and tried to jump into video games, which he mistakenly thought was “easier”. This is a glib interpretation. Cage doesn’t hate games; he just sees them differently. One of the initial positives about David Cage’s work is that he successfully escapes the prevailing headspace that games must be gamey in order to count as a game. He has experimented with different processes in which one can construct a game, and this isn’t just playing Kerplunk with the dynamics to leave the video game with just enough essential parts. I like thinking about the work of David Cage (and other directors for context) through the lens of poetry. I believe that people are largely stuck on the idea that games MUST be an amalgam of certain things, such as missions, health, levels, experience points, upgrades, achievements, and 100% completion, otherwise it isn’t a game; just as a poem apparently must rhyme, be written in iambic pentameter, be divided into neat quatrains, and talk about the beauty of nature (or whatever Victorian shite people imagine) otherwise it can’t be considered as such. We’re looking at it all wrong. I enjoy Cage’s work because he isn’t always a steadfast structuralist; in the tradition of Ezra Pound, he has always tried to “make it new”.
Fahrenheit emphasised TV-style production and camera cuts that were popularised by the Kiefer Sutherland series 24, a technical feat as games didn’t really consider camera work important, and because the actual fulfillment of this pushed contemporary consoles to their limit. Heavy Rain might use tropes that are familiar to the modern gamer, such as exciting action sequences and a branching story, but it also embraces quotidian life in a very grim, trudging way – gone is the wide-eyed Sims optimism of buying all the things to make your characters happy, it’s just you in your shit house eating your shit dinner failing miserably to revive your shit relationship with your son while the weather is oppressively shit. That’s life, real and miserable as it gets, and it’s brown and depressing in a way that so-called “edgy, grimdark” titles will never understand in that it’s hurtfully human and existentialist, which you don’t really see in games – fear over nuclear war and the individual’s meaninglessness in the grand scheme of things, but the next step of Camus-esque thinking that life is absurd while it never stops raining, and you have to cut off your own finger just to feel again, to make things right again – that means something.
While Cage has always taken care with his games in strides to realism, there has always been an unfortunate uncanniness to his characters in that their gazes will linger for a little too long, and the immersion breaks that you’re not actually looking at real people. It’s an unfortunate disconnect between Cage’s pains for hyperrealism and a technology that isn’t truly there yet. Yet with Detroit: Become Human, he leans into this very aspect – the android characters hang on, stare, move jerkily because they really do lack human fluidity. Cage makes this conscious creative decision, and by doing so he enhances the game at large, while disguising the shortcomings of the engine. This will sound like a backhanded compliment, and it’s only partially so, but Cage serves as a reminder that you’re able to work within your means and still create art that supersedes those means, and that – calling it what it is – technically unpolished or incomplete aspects of your game can sometimes work, much less be desirable for the narrative you’re constructing. In the simplest sense, Cage, in his latest work, turned a negative into a positive.
It’s undeniable that video games are getting bigger and bigger, but I liken the industry’s expansion to that of a bubble. Technical growth in things such as 3D graphics, the open world, autosaving, online play, the battle royale are all symptoms of gaming’s unending reach, but the inside is largely quite vapid and empty. I’m sick of seeing bigger and bigger numbers shoved in my face by gaming’s PR arms and being expected to get excited about it. 8,000 square miles of terrain to explore. 128 players in the same online game. 10,000 missions to complete. Who gives a fuck? I don’t want games to get bigger or prettier. We’re fine where we are. I want substance inside that bubble. I want actual weight. Far be it to claim that David Cage is the only AAA creator to care about an artistic experience – but that’s not really the issue here. Kojima creates art but does so within blockbuster conventions that are still by-and-large accessible to the mainstream; the only time he tried to truly bust outside of conventions was with Metal Gear Solid 2, and he got the arse chewed clean off him at the time for trying to do that. David Cage plays with what gameplay should mean, how we reconcile the relationship between text and audience, and the conventions of what a game really can be. He doesn’t help himself with his pretentious manner, his wrong-headed presentation (saying “I want games to be emotional” instead of saying “I want to change how we think about games”) and the fact that his writing ability doesn’t match up with his broad vision, but still. Thought that counts, eh?
Just like free verse, confessionalism, or even prose poetry are still poems, the work of David Cage still counts as video games, and his streamlined storytelling style is the next logical progression of things like the visual novel and adventure titles. Heavy Rain, for instance, has multiple characters, branching storylines, and specific storyline situations that can be made more or less favourable in the heat of the moment through quick thinking and sound logic. Not dissimilar to Ace Attorney. The difference is that Cage’s works have no stakes. Not really; if you perform at a sub-optimal level, the characters which you have emotionally invested in will fail and this will result in either the death of them, or the people around them. Ace Attorney puts a lot of emotional weight behind an outcome like that by leaning on the fourth wall, with Maya Fey or Ema Skye looking towards the player and commenting wryly, “Gee, Nick, don’t do that!” as failure in real terms means game over and having to start again. Death in the post-Omikron Cage universe isn’t a slap on the wrist, but it treats mortality without the expected existential gravity we have come to consider as normal. Instead, it plays it more as a The Price is Right-style “here’s what you could have won” tangent, and because of that, a disappointing amount of players have written off Cage’s material as “not worthwhile”, likely because there is no personal struggle. The survival of Cage’s characters isn’t a reward for optimal gameplay, for being the best at the game, which some feel makes it barren of inherent worth, which is dumb and short-sighted. The reward is not being the best at the game, it’s to understand the struggle of the characters that Cage puts forward. The real satisfaction begins with immersing yourself in the story, not dissimilar to a good book, which, just as Dara O’Briain said, never judged you for being bad at reading the book.
As much as the point is derided and mocked, gameplay really is holding games back, just not in the way that’s easiest to make a strawman argument out of. What this really should mean is that, often, story and gameplay are never on the same page, and this is one of the key ideas holding the medium back, and one that, for all his faults, Cage is sharply in tune with. Narrative and gameplay should work in harmony with one another, feeding back and forward with neither having a strong majority in proceedings unless this is specifically by the design of the director. Cage knows that a video game ends where your skill begins, and locking a heavy story behind dexterity is counter-intuitive for everyone involved.
The tragedy of all this is that while Cage is a top-notch ideas man, his writing ability has never matched it, and this can be seen with the sharp contrast between dialogue and scenes at large in Heavy Rain. The five trials that Ethan Mars must endure were some of the most excellent, exciting, and visceral gaming moments of the seventh-generation, and they really made the game worth playing. Cage is a master at big ideas but a layman at fine details, and annoyingly, it’s fine details which turn texts into art. He had one of his characters say “It’s a painkiller. It’ll help ease the pain.”, come on. He’s also surrounded himself with people vastly more talented, such as David Bowie, Angelo Badalamenti, and Normand Corbeil, allowing him to fill in the gap between his talent and his ambition. That’s not to say Cage is bad, because, again, it’s that gross oversimplification that negates the idea his work can be good, but his scope and willingness to not stay constrained, to be a Renton in a sea of “choose life” game-makers. Who needs reasons when you’ve got emotions? But I digress. David Cage isn’t perfect, but ultimately, the landscape of video games would be a lot less interesting without him.
I feel like the basis of much of Cage’s fandom is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome; the craven and desperate belief that next time, that’ll be the one, that’ll be the game that wins everyone back and shows, once and for all, he CAN do it. I’ve resigned myself at this stage. Sure, I will continue to buy and even enjoy his games going forward. But whenever I feel an affinity for art, that deep appreciation and love, the only thing I ever want is to dive deeply and let every word, every shot, every stanza consume me, like the fast-track version of falling in love. I can never do that with Cage, which is his tragedy as a director. His work, while brimming with positives, will always have too many problems for me and others. The want to love David Cage is always there, but never the emotion itself, which is fairly ironic, all things considered. Ultimately, he is — and forgive the crudeness of this metaphor as I violently oppose it — an animal meant for the purposes of research but not one for domestication. Fine to learn from but never to truly be loved. But he has a value, and that’s the entire point; he deserves a critical eye rather than outright adoration or disgust.