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A Look Back At David Cage Part 1

David Cage

David Cage is a reputable auteur of the game industry. For better or for worse, he and his studio, Quantic Dream, have developed a reputation of making games that, more-or-less, are interactive movies. Casting well known actors in prominent roles, focusing on realistic visuals and motion capture performances, and attempting to depict subject matter and scenarios that video game narratives traditionally avoid.

With the upcoming release of their latest title, Detroit: Become Human, we here at The Game Fanatics thought it would be important to see how far this director and his studio has come. From humble beginnings to the present day. The good, the bad, and the controversial.

David Cage retrospective

Turn and Face The Strange

David Cage began his journey in the game industry in musical composition. His first company in 1993, Totem Interactive, focused on making musical productions, and during the mid-90s, he freelanced musical scores for multiple games including Super Dany and Cheese Cat-astrophe Starring Speedy Gonzales. He also gained official credit under his birth name, David De Gruttola for composing the score for the SNES game adaptation of Timecop. However, it was through these jobs, that he decided to co-found his own development studio in 1997 with Guillaume de Fondaumiere and move into game development.

It’s an intriguing background for an veteran in an industry that usually favors programmers or writers like Tim Schafer and John Carmack. It also adds a personal wrinkle to the studio’s very first project: Omikron The Nomad Soul.

Released in 1999 for the PC and the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, the game was notable for not strictly adhering to traditional classification. It was the first concerted effort to make an open-world environment, predating the innovative Grand Theft Auto III by three years, and boasted motion capture performances by impressive (at the time) 3D character models. As for the gameplay, it was a casserole of different genres. A mix of traditional point-and-click adventure gaming full of puzzles, key hunting, a dialogue system, 2D one-on-one brawler, and even a few first-person shooter gun battles. There was an unconventional “lives” system where you were able to take control of other characters around the overworld. The game practically screams at the top of its lungs not to be easily classified with how many balls it attempts to juggle.

But the biggest selling point, and central marketing gimmick, was the involvement of musical legend David Bowie. Not only was his music licensed to be used in the game, taken straight from his “hours” album, he also composed some original songs. He also appears in the game as a major supporting character named Boz, a sort of freedom fighter whose spirit is trapped in a computer.

David Cage retrospective

Omikron’s plot is fourth wall aware, major characters recognize that you are someone playing a video game and your nomad soul has been trapped in the game’s world. Your uncanny power to do video game stuff is the key to saving the city of Omikron from some ancient evil. The whole experience just throws together sci-fi and urban fantasy elements with reckless abandon. When looked at from a distance, it comes off as a disjointed grouping of genre tropes in search of a higher meaning.

However, closer examination shows that the ambition was not enough to sway the overall reception. Reviews of the game weren’t exactly kind, giving it middling to mediocre scores. The open-world lacked memorable locations or engaging characters. The actual visual design of the city of Omikron was generic postindustrial landscapes with no real distinct sense of identity. The writing was subpar despite solid voice-acting from the entire cast. But most damning of all was the lack of polish across the board, both on a technical level and on a gameplay level.

To quote Greg Kasavin’s review from GameSpot:

“Whether or not it’s admirable for a game to combine several genres is beside the point; Omikron’s implementation of three totally unrelated types of gameplay is ineffective and completely arbitrary. It’s as if the designers combined these genres for no other reason than that someone up top happened to like all three. Consequently, Omikron is like three mediocre games rolled into one: The fighting and shooting sequences drew the designers’ attention from the rest of the game, and as a result, even the primary adventure elements are lacking.”

Curiously enough, despite the game’s general lack of polish, the influence of David Bowie along with the unpolished gonzo game design has given Omikron: The Nomad Soul the status of a gaming cult classic. Garnering its own respectable community thanks to its easy access on digital distribution sites like Steam and GOG.

The lessons learned from the game were not lost on David Cage who took a crucial lesson from the reception of this first outing. If the various dissonant forms of gameplay was getting in the way of the story he and his team wanted to tell, perhaps the solution was a more reductionist approach.

David Cage retrospective

A Cold Day in New York

For many mainstream players, Indigo Prophecy was their introduction to David Cage’s design ethos. During a point in gaming history still leaning into absurdist camp with protagonists shooting, stabbing, and screaming their way to the credits, Indigo Prophecy was billed as being something more high brow. Pioneering the modern gaming subgenre now known as the Interactive Drama. A game where the normal trappings of play like platforming, combat, or personal freedom is heavily scaled back for a more linear, scripted experience. The gameplay focus lying primarily on dialogue choices with multiple characters, crucial decisions that can change the story in small or large ways, and action or puzzle sequences that mostly boil down to contextual button presses and quick-time events. Effectively turning the entire experience into a long interactive movie similar to the arcade classics Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace.

The logic behind this drastic change was that with gameplay scaled back and control kept simple, the narrative and characters could take center stage. That without the multiple layers of abstraction and detachment that game design can be inextricably tied to, such crucial character and story moments will be made more resonant and memorable. A game that wasn’t about shooting or punching, but about human nature. It was also the beginning of many of the quirks that players would forever associate with David Cage: a certain level of Hollywood envy and the belief that his games are emotional.

At the time, Indigo Prophecy was seen as something revolutionary. It was critically well received and received several awards. Many major outlets, including IGN, declared it a bold step in a new direction for gaming as a serious form of storytelling. In fact, the game’s popularity was so pronounced it got an HD remaster in 2016 for PC, iOS, Android and the PlayStation 4.

David Cage retrospective

So what exactly was the premise for this radical new emotional experience? It starts off as an oddly engrossing murder-mystery narrative. It starts with main protagonist Lucas Kane as he snaps out of some sort of trance in a men’s bathroom holding a bloody knife over a dead body. From there, you jump back and forth between Lucas looking for answers as well as figure out if he’s losing his sanity, and controlling the police detective investigating the bodies piling up. In essence, you are playing out a murder investigation from perspectives of both the detective and the primary suspect.

It’s a set-up that almost works. Visually speaking, Indigo Prophecy had some impressive character models for the mid-2000s. But impressive during that period still did not get it out of the dreaded Uncanny Valley. The entire conflict had a grounding in reality, taking place in New York with regular people going through their regular lives. When the game goes back and forth between Lucas covering his tracks to Detective Carla Valenti finding new leads, the game comes alive.

The game also introduced new mechanics that other developers would eventually adopt. Things like being given a time limit to choosing a dialogue option, various decisions affecting the mental state of certain characters, leading to long-term consequences. It even normalized action sequences done via quick-time events.

But, there is a danger inherent to the interactive drama. When the narrative and characters are put on a pedestal, it makes the imperfections all the more glaring. When gameplay is reduced to the barest minimum, greater scrutiny is placed on the validity of the limited options given to the player. In short, in order to make something like this fully work, the writing has to be clear, concise, and have a clear response to any question or approach presented to the player. The writing and pacing need to be at their sharpest.

David Cage retrospective

Even at a time where gaming narratives were mostly perfunctory, Indigo Prophecy plays out like some desperate trend-chaser on the Syfy Channel. Halfway through the plot, everything becomes increasingly deranged with unethical science experiments done to Lucas in his childhood, a crazy brainwashing doomsday cult that’s trying to look for a child destined to either save or end the world, and the introduction of alien beings that are direct manifestations of the Internet. It’s as if a switch was flipped. Like the lead writer didn’t know how to resolve the murder mystery, got bored, then decided to just throw random ideas at the wall to see what sticks. The effect on gamers was a perception that it was handled with the grace and gentleness of having your face beaten with a brick.

To quote IGN’s Dave Rudden’s review of the game’s remastered port:

“It’s only when the story moves beyond the slightly offbeat occult mystery into an overwritten reality-questioning mess that Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Remastered stops being a gripping mystery adventure. Fortunately, by that point the end is so close you’ll probably just want to see where the madness leads.”

Finally, despite putting on airs of adulthood and responsibility, there are elements that read as juvenile at best. The game’s soundtrack is mostly nu-metal from the 2000s, including tracks from Theory of a Deadman. The music severely dates the game which makes it feel less like the real world and more like a short story by a teenager. There’s a sex scene that happens between two characters basically out of nowhere. The sex scene would be bad enough, but it doubles-down on the it, including a mini-game associated with it, giving the whole thing a puerile, voyeuristic feeling. And then there’s the character of Tyler Miles, a pretty retrograde depiction of a black guy that borders on racist caricature.

Looking back, Indigo Prophecy is messy, chaotic, tonally uneven, hodgepodge of different movie and TV shows strung together. It’s almost audacious enough to be a gaming guilty pleasure. However David Cage and his studio took the response from the game and looked to refine and refocus their approach to gaming design.

The story continues in Part 2 coming later this month in preparation for the release of Detroit: Become Human!