We’ve seen this new phenomenon lately: the insanely pretentious, arty game designer preaching to us plebes about how much better their work will make games. In particular, I’m thinking of Jonathan Blow, developer of Braid and apparently career trash-talker, and David Cage, currently working on Beyond: Two Souls.
Blow thinks most video games are intellectually lazy and stupid, which is ironic for reasons we’ll get into, and David Cage is the guy behind Quantic Dream (Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain are their key titles), who spends a lot of his time crying about how everyone thinks he’s a frustrated film director.
Well, that’s because you act like one, Dave. Both of these men, and a lot of other attempts to make games art, choke. But I want to focus on these two because they’re very loud about how artistic they are, and that deserves a little calling out.
It Has To Work As a Game
Braid passes this test handily; it’s an excellent game. Quantic Dream’s output is better described as a series of experiments in control schemes that don’t work to a miserable degree. Fahrenheit essentially tried to recreate keyboard and mouse with analog sticks; it didn’t work. Heavy Rain is essentially a very long series of quick-time events. It didn’t work either. At least these games aren’t buggy, but Quantic Dream seems to hate traditional control schemes… an unknowingly telling detail we’ll get into.
It Has To Work As a Story
Here’s where all three fail. Braid‘s punchline is miserably cheap and sophomoric, even before we get into the larger message that the game is trying to pretend it’s all about. But Cage’s output really tanks in this respect.
Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain are, as us overeducated people put it, incredibly f***ing stupid stories. Heavy Rain is esentially yet another Saw ripoff with some asinine psychology tossed in to justify the killer’s behavior. Fahrenheit has one of the stupidest, most overcomplicated plots I’ve ever seen in a video game.
Now, here comes the tricky part:
You Can’t Demand The Player Follow Your Story In One Specific Way
Blow again gets a pass (don’t worry, he’ll get his). He had a small budget and it’s unreasonable to demand he have a rich, complicated plot. Braid would have collapsed and, in fact, if you unlock the full plot, it does.
Quantic Dream, though, was a studio with a huge budget, the backing of a console maker, and a free pass. Heavy Rain in particular is painful about this: it’s essentially just an adventure game with a lives system. You have to finish each scene in a certain way in order to get the best possible scenario; the only real difference is that you can keep playing the game if you lose. The presence or non-presence of other characters will effect precise events in the story, but it’s always driving towards a specific set of endings.
The problem with building your game around story events is that it binds the player. Video games, as an art form, are trending towards freedom. The key aspect of open world games, which is beginning to filter down to even linear action games, is choice. The player is not a passive observer of the story: The player’s choices define the story or at least how the events unfold.
As flawed as a game like Skyrim may be, they’re a lot closer to art than Cage or Blow can imagine simply because the world is defined by the player. You make choices and those choices are reflected in the larger world. This is why the control scheme in every Quantic Dream game stinks: because they don’t want you to control the world or the story. David Cage wants to yell at you for about ten hours.
The problem is this: break any game down, and it’s a set of rules. You can do this, you can’t do this. That’s actually a very effective way to send a subtle message; The Sims, for example, is on one level Will Wright making gags about materialism. Or it can be a very blunt way of sending a stupid one.
I want more like this!
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