A Look At David Cage Part 2

David Cage

Our deep dive into French gaming director, David Cage, and his beginnings as well as the first  steps of his studio, Quantic Dream was detailed in Part 1. The following will focus on his most well known games leading up to his new release Detroit: Become Human.

When it Rains, It Pours

We now jump to 2010 and into the middle of the HD generation of consoles. The Xbox 360 is riding high while the hardware powerhouse of the PlayStation 3 is trying to reverse a tepid reception. Graphical fidelity had hit a new standard of photorealism, and the industry started leaning hard into creating interactive experiences similar to popcorn action movies. The second installment in Bioware’s space opera RPG, Mass Effect, had dropped. Becoming a critical darling not just for its tight gameplay and solid writing, but how it handled its large cast of characters, any one of which could have died in the finale if you weren’t careful. Remedy Studios released Alan Wake on the Xbox 360, a third-person action thriller pastiche of Steven King stories as well as a meta-commentary on interactive fiction, creativity, and the illusion of choice. Even Rockstar Games expressed their strengths as storytellers with the bittersweet Western that was Red Dead Redemption.

It was also the year where we got a lurid, bloody, radically violent reinterpretation of Dante’s Inferno by the (now dismantled) Visceral Games, and the conclusion of a Greek mythology-flavored action game where an Angry Little Boy kills the entire ancient world. In many ways, gaming had become more sophisticated in this era, but it was still going through awkward adolescence.

Enter Cage and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain.

In many ways, the game was a more extreme version of the studio’s last project, for better and for worse. Development began in 2006 and was planned as a PlayStation 3 console exclusive. As such, a lot of the game’s appeal was in how it would utilize the console’s unconventional hardware architecture to push visual fidelity to new heights. Previews of the game focused entirely on photorealistic motion capture performances. Highly detailed character models of mostly unknown European actors, all capable of tapping into untold subtle emotions and moods. The marketing even tried to distance Heavy Rain from any association with video games. In several interviews, Cage continuously said it wasn’t a game but an interactive movie.

The actual narrative itself appeared conventional, but had some crucial twists. A murder/abduction mystery story with four playable leads. You would control these different protagonists as they uncover clues leading to the discovery of a serial child murderer known as The Origami Killer. There’s also a ticking clock to the whole thing since the killer’s next victim is the son of one of the heroes. All of this presented in a gloomy subdued, grounded, film-noir style.

But where the film comparisons started cropping up is the fact that the game had no real failure state. If you missed a certain clue or fail a certain action sequence, main characters will die. But rather than getting a Game Over, the game would simply continue. Aside from crucial dialogue options and time-sensitive puzzle sequences, the whole experience effectively plays itself.

In many ways, Heavy Rain paid off handsomely for everyone at Quantic Dream. Commercially it did respectable numbers and critics were quite kind to the entire project. Praising the impressive visuals, its translation of a psychological thriller (a genre underutilized in gaming) and how it juggled a mystery narrative with four different distinct protagonists. In fact, one of the most nail-biting sequences in the whole game is still talked about today.

More harsh criticism did eventually surface, and a lot of it was aimed at David Cage’s writing. While the unique selling point of having any of the main heroes be killed sounds interesting, a lot of it boils down to the illusion of choice. Entire high-octane action sequences can end with you not pushing a single button and have the hero make it out alive. Various conflicts are wrapped up with some lazy deus ex machina, and there is a twist in the third act that basically drowns replay value.

Also, for all of the talk of photorealistic visual presentation, the voice-acting and capture performances are all awkward and weird. Unnatural movement, uncanny expressions, and embarrassing broken English all actively plague the game’s atmosphere.

Finally, there is just plain sloppy storytelling on display. With four different perspectives on a single story, Heavy Rain greatly suffers from a lack of coherent narrative structure. Aside from a very simple goal of catching a serial killer and saving a child, the trials and challenges the heroes face are mostly unconnected; little more than small interactive vignettes.

Sequences that, while exciting in the moment, raise more questions while leaving things unanswered. A cavalcade of red herrings and dropped plot details that only seem to be around for cheap pops and swerves. To quote Jim Sterling in his Destructoid review:

“In a rather desperate attempt to come up with as many Origami Killer suspects as possible, Heavy Rain also introduces us to about five different psychopaths in the space of a few hours. From doctors that want to perform surgery on people while they’re still awake, to club owners who get off on forcing women to strip at gunpoint, the game is full of so many ludicrously over-the-top characters that it becomes simply laughable. It’s the sheer volume of ridiculous situations and unbelievable characters that make the game so hard to get behind. If it could have limited itself to just one or two overtly maladjusted comic-book villains, it might not have been so bad, but it seems that ever other chapter has yet another crazed sociopath ready to hold up a sign that says “I MIGHT BE THE KILLER OMG.””

Also, yet again, the game is accused of misogyny and racist stereotypes. The latter mostly coming down on a sequence where you play as FBI Agent Norman Jayden as he looks for information at a construction site. Ending with him getting into a drawn-out fistfight with a hardened criminal who is Black. And the only notable Black character in the whole story. Yikes.

The former is a lot more pervasive since it involves one of the four playable heroes: Madison Page. An investigative journalist who somehow manages to get attacked in her home by assailants, forced to strip down at gunpoint by a seedy night club owner, captured and tortured by a horrendous surgeon, and be the “prize” in an out-of-left field sex scene with primary hero Ethan Mars. Double yikes.

Never the less, Heavy Rain was ultimately held in high regard more for what it got right, making Quantic Dream genuinely respected for its high production ambitions. No other studio would dare to try to challenge their success, and it looked like they were the definitive creative voice for the interactive drama subgenre.

Then things got complicated fast.

Ellen Page’s Ghost Friend

The gaming industry in 2013 was in a fascinating position. A brand new console generation was right around the corner, and developers were utterly rabid to see how they could push the envelope with new hardware.

It was also a year punctuated by games with something on their mind. Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite was an outlandish pulpy action story exploring themes of racism and faith. The indie darling, Papers, Please put you in the shoes of a border patrol officer in a Communist dystopia, forcing you to make crucial decisions on whether or not to enforce the oppressive system or subvert it at your own personal expense. It was also the year in the aftermath of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. A five-part episodic adventure that utilized a lot of the tricks and ideas Quantic Dream pioneered and iterated upon them. Eschewing realistic visuals in favor of a stylistic comic book-like art style and focusing on a small personal survival-horror experience with long-reaching meaningful consequences.

As for director David Cage, he became one of the largest supporters for the new console generation as well as a recognized industry pundit. Championing the merits of his studio and infamously advocated for the PlayStation 4’s graphical power, comparing it to rise of color and sound in film.

It also showcased just how prevalent the specter of Hollywood envy had overtaken his creative decisions. Throughout Quantic Dream’s existence as a game development studio, Cage had slowly created this mentality of trying to imprint the mainstream clout and recognition of movies into gaming. Not through narrative or writing quality, but the superficial trappings. In the tutorial for Indigo Prophecy, David Cage himself was put into the game with a Director’s chair, the whole thing framed as a dress rehearsal. Heavy Rain was marketed as an interactive movie because it had realistic looking people with fully motion-captured actors like a high-budget movie. The PlayStation 3 tech demo made by the studio in 2012, Kara, was little more than a short film about an android.

Then there is the studio’s big release of that year: Beyond: Two Souls. It has recognizable mainstream actors in major roles. Ellen Page plays the lead character, and Willem Dafoe is a recurring support character. The entire story is a paranormal sci-fi experience about a little girl with unexplained psychic powers awkwardly going through her adolescence and adulthood, getting involved in shady experiments and military operations and dealing with forces beyond her comprehension. It didn’t have a traditional trailer thrown up online, but a fancy one shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.

And it’s a game that utterly feels ashamed to be a game from start to finish.

There is no start menu. The game just opens and begins. The whole plot is told in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth between the protagonist’s various stages of life with little to no consideration for character development. Scenes feel cluttered and incoherent, mere vehicles for cramming half a dozen different ideas together. All of David Cage’s worst writing habits are on display throughout this narrative. No matter how much star power you have, raw charisma and screen presence can only cover up so much.

But the most telling thing of all is the fact that the player feels utterly shackled to the whole experience. It is entirely possible to just sit the controller down and fail every single quick-time event action sequence or not choose a single piece of dialogue, and the game will simply continue as if you had played along. Even the sections ripe for gameplay variety, moments where you control the psychic entity bound to the hero, are heavily signposted. Possess this person, choke this person with your mind, activate this overpowered shield of telekinetic energy. All fantastic abilities that could have been the basis for interesting engaging gameplay, all reduced to simple busywork.

Beyond: Two Souls was the worst critically received of Quantic Dream’s work. Despite solid performances by both Page and Dafoe, the actual game itself launched to critical indifference, sitting at a middling 70 percent on Metacritic. The gameplay had finally been cut down to the bone. Players didn’t have enough reason to feel involved, so what should have been the game’s strength worked against it. What little moments of brilliance the experience had was buried under inept storytelling, unoriginal script (effectively a second-rate Carrie) and bland, interchangeable characters.

David Cage would later go on the record to say that the reason Beyond was so divisive was that it was a different experience. Explaining that, to him, games should be about what a player feels, not what they do.

Unfortunately, that sentiment didn’t exactly protect him and Quantic Dream from what happened next. In addition to lukewarm critical reception, actress Ellen Page had sought legal action against Cage’s studio. It was discovered that a fully nude character model of the actress had been put into the game, used for the in-engine shower sequences, and that players using a debugged PS3 could see the model in its entirety. Nothing covered up or hidden by the camera. A technical decision that breached a No Nudity clause in her acting contract.

A New Generation of Problems

In more recent years, Quantic Dream and David Cage have mostly remained silent,  quietly working on their next project: Detroit: Become Human. Both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls were re-released on PlayStation 4, the latter now available for free if you act fast.

But a lot changes over the years, and the standards of the gaming industry and the expectations of players around the world have rapidly outpaced Cage’s ability. The PS4 version of Beyond: Two Souls received heavy criticism for whitewashing several Middle-Eastern characters. During several interviews discussing the subject matter of Detroit, Cage constantly claimed he didn’t want his game to be about anything other than androids. A statement that fails to gloss over some very blatant racial minority subtext. A subject Terrence Wiggins spells out in a brutal and honest piece in Paste Magazine. Even the latest trailer for the game, which Cage as director signed off on, was heavily criticized for its retrograde and dangerous portrayal of domestic abuse.

Where once the studio was praised for its novelty and ambition, it now had to stand against greater scrutiny for how it presented complex and difficult real world issues. Something that David Cage isn’t exactly handling well considering his handling allegations of Quantic Dream’s socially toxic working conditions involves suing the media companies reporting on it for libel.

As for the future of Detroit: Become Human, it is difficult to tell how it will be received. A demo for the game dropped recently on PlayStation Network, something that our own Johnnie gave his thoughts on. Not much else is known about the game only that it’s sci-fi, involves robots, and seems to be returning to the style of storytelling shown in Heavy Rain with branching narrative paths and multiple playable protagonists.

The fact remains that for all of the highs and lows throughout the studio’s history, David Cage is an utterly unique talent, bridled with interesting ideas but never fully sticking the landing; no matter how hard he tries to reset the finish line. An artist that started making music for games, went into making games, and is now having difficulty adjusting to the newfound responsibilities and expectations that comes with gaming’s rise to the mainstream.

Detroit: Become Human releases on May 25 exclusively on PlayStation 4.