Last weekend, David Cage debuted 35 minutes of Beyond: Two Souls gameplay at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was the second time a game had been shown at De Niro’s big ooh-la-la event after L.A. Noire was shown in 2011. Both games have been roundly criticized for being little more than interactive movies (and Beyond isn’t even out yet), which I’m assuming is why Tribeca thought it would be appropriate to “screen” video games at an event dedicated to passive media.
Cage has been in the media spotlight an awful lot this year for his outspoken thoughts on what video game designers can do to elevate their medium. His interviews make it clear what his stance is: truly artful games should be able to induce some kind of strong emotion in the player. Okay, you think, that makes sense. Quantic Dream’s portfolio, however, shows that Cage thinks he can only get this kind of reaction by shocking the player until they feel something, anything (usually horror or revulsion). Cage’s latest talks seem to reinforce this misguided sense of emotional engagement, as he has criticized the industry for shying away from the supposedly “mature” content that he loves to sprinkle around his own games.
To Cage, games can’t be emotionally engaging pieces of art unless they’re willing to explore “mature themes.” He has repeatedly challenged the game industry to move beyond the barriers of what’s politically correct and start representing stuff that has, for whatever reason, traditionally been considered too “taboo” for a mainstream audience. This means stuff that would earn a film a solid “R” rating, and stuff that admittedly very few video games have even bothered to look at in an artistic capacity because the medium is still perceived by the mainstream media to be some kind of Satanic murder-addiction simulator. So there’s one hurdle right there, but even if that was no longer an issue, I still don’t find the material in Quantic Dream’s games to be overly representative of this much-vaunted “mature content” that is supposedly going to fuel the emotional drive of games.
I look at Beyond and I don’t see a “mature” game. I see a developer ticking off every gritty, edgy shock factor on his checklist: homelessness, suicide, sexual harassment, prostitution, random acts of violence, domestic abuse, and, er, the graphic chaos of childbirth. Look at Heavy Rain‘s rap sheet: drug addiction, sexual assault, violent serial homicides, nudity, plain ol’ sex, being forced to cut off your own finger, frequent profanity. It’s the same style of design that made me roll my eyes when Hideo Kojima wondered aloud to a reporter whether Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes would be too “taboo” to release. There is nothing inherently wrong with depicting this sort of content in a video game or any other piece of creative media; there is certainly a place in the world for gritty realism and the uncensored ugliness of humanity. But Cage is using it as a shortcut to emotion because he knows it’s provocative and he knows that the player can’t help but feel a surge of something when he or she plays through these scenes. Whatever it is, it’s not the rich flavour of emotion that’s going to supposedly elevate our medium to Ebert’s notice, God rest his soul; no, it’s the cheap stuff, the drama equivalent of a Michael Bay movie.
We all know that Cage wishes he was making movies. Beyond is a game that plays like an interactive movie, uses cinematography common in today’s blockbusters, uses famous actors and actresses for voiceovers, and gives said actors top billing on the game’s cover art, just like a movie poster. He’s now attempting to play catch-up with the film industry, but rather than emulating the best, most meaningful material, he’s sticking with the stuff that’s firmly B-grade. I suspect that’s more a limitation caused by the quality of his writing than anything, but with Beyond, it feels like he’s aiming for something highbrow and thought-provoking and merely ending up with a collection of tropes centred around sex, violence, and poverty.
I’m not sure that true maturity is so easily achieved by slapping a pile of send-the-kids-to-bed content on your game. The concept is as hard to define in games as it is in real life (How can you tell when someone is a mature adult? At what age do they become mature, or, if it’s not a question of age, then what changes in their personality/behaviour/lifestyle identify them as “mature?”) For me, I think the best kind of maturity just kind of comes naturally to some games, as if they’re not even concerned with being taken seriously by that horribly self-conscious 18-25 year-old demographic. I’m in my twenties, and I just finished Super Mario 64 for the first time; to me, it’s an incredibly mature game. It’s unconcerned with pandering to an adult audience, yet it’s not entirely designed with children in mind (googly-eyed enemy designs aside). Several Power Stars are deviously hidden, with little to no clues as to where they might be sealed away; I’m not sure my six-year-old self could’ve found some of these Stars without outside help. Then there’s the controls and the camera, which provide a mechanical entry barrier as well. Mario 64 also exploited physics in ways that few games before it did; I wonder how many younger brothers and sisters were first introduced to ballistic trajectories via suicide-by-Bob-Omb-Cannon? The fact that many adult reviewers still consider Mario 64 to be one of the best games of all time is telling; it’s truly a game that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of demographic. That, to me, is the true “mature game”: no pretensions, no cheap shots, just great gameplay that pretty much anyone can enjoy. If anything, I think a game that outrageously fetishizes sex and violence is just as juvenile as a cutesy, simplistic platformer designed only for five-year-olds; neither aspires to the naturally-acquired maturity of Super Mario 64.
If you want something a little more adult-oriented, something with a little more substance, then take a look at Half-Life 2. Yes, there’s a bit of horror arguably thrown in there for shock value, but I feel Ravenholm was intended to change up the gameplay style more than anything else (ie. a tense, survival-horror zombie level before zombie levels were cool). Other than that, we get a pretty good sci-fi story that deals with Cage’s “mature” tropes in far less heavy-handed ways. I would say Portal‘s probably an even better example, but that game is more of a living subversion of standard game tropes than anything else, whereas Half-Life 2 is the traditional, unironic, straightforward video game. Portal‘s slightly-edgy-but-never-truly-offensive humour combined with its self-awareness make it a game whose narrative could probably only be truly appreciated by adults. That being said, a pubescent could probably still complete all the puzzles in a few hours and, despite not fully absorbing the dialogue and its underlying implications, still feel like they accomplished a feat. These games, too, have a sort of all-ages appeal to them (albeit Portal moreso than Half-Life).
Perhaps I’m just sick of people like Cage assuming that gritty, hard-hitting tropes are cruise control for art. It’s not that easy, and even those Cage thinks he’s the only one doing it, other types of media are flooded with this sort of material. Every once in a while I do find it makes for a compelling narrative or provides a relevant backdrop, but more often than not, I just feel like I’m adrift in a sea of edgy content designed to make me uncomfortable on some level. It gets tiresome after a while, and in the worst cases, I actually resent the fact that these films/music/games/books think they can get a cheap rise out of me so easily.
Honestly, if we accept that David Cage’s writing and storytelling (which is really all we can judge his games on, since they contain little actual gameplay of note) are going to suddenly catapult games into the realm of serious business, then we’re giving him way too much credit. He named his homeless main character Jodie Holmes. Aiden is the mysterious entity who’s aidin’ her. Yes, Cage is a master of depth and subtlety. Seriously though, watch the Tribeca gameplay. Have you ever seen a more on-the-nose collection of homeless people?