Wave Foam – “Breaking out of the Cage”
Not everyone recognizes that there is a problem with the current state of videogames. Most are content with the mindless “fun” they afford players, and those that aren’t content, tend to cower beneath the towering weight of money-grubbing companies that just want to maximize their profit. But there are those rare few who have their eyes out on more ambitious goals for videogames and who aren’t afraid to stand up and be pretentious. David Cage is such a man, as this recent presentation shows; as always, it makes for an interesting read coming from someone who actually has something which is worth reading about. Ever since I remember reading about him and his games, he’s always been yapping about games’ legitimacy as art-form, and how he is trying to tell stories through games. He’s perceptive and culturally knowledgeable; like all those who watch a movie or read a book every now and them, he can tell that videogames lack the maturity and emotional depth that other artistic mediums live by, and so he struggles to bring videogames one step closer to those other means. Sadly, his ambition never panned out as much as one would hope, as his games always ended up being shallow replicas of the future for videogames that he so heartily stands by.
“Omikron” (a.k.a. “Nomad Soul”), was a visionary attempt at capturing the sense of a living breathing world, completely rendered in 3D. Two years before the open-world breakthrough of “Grand Theft Auto III”, Cage was already fiddling with notions of scale in space, gameplay and narrative, which most designers would’ve run from like a devil from a cross, so ambitious they were for that time. It was a game only rivaled (and let’s be honest, in many ways, surpassed) by the contemporary work of Yu Sukuzi, “Shenmue”. Cage’s work was not without merit though, he managed to devise an entire fictitious world, a provocative, gaudy blend of science fiction aesthetics, deeply rooted in cyberpunk culture, Philip K. Dick-ean themes of personality and identity, and some post modern elements. He was avant-garde in every sense of the world, and even managed to bring David Bowie in to collaborate as actor and singer/composer of the game’s original score, further establishing “Omikron” as an artistically legitimate venture. The game was far from perfect, as the cacophonous mix of gameplay styles (adventure, beat’em up and first person shooter) was convoluted and ill-balanced, and the game suffered from a myriad of bugs and technical issues, all of which reviewers of the time took at heart.
His next game would suffer a better fate in eyes of both public and critics, though in the humble opinion of this writer, was far less progressive and experimental than its spiritual predecessor… and equally unbalanced. Cage’s self presented challenge in “Fahrenheit” (a.k.a. “Indigo Prophecy”) was to create an interactive narrative system that would permeate seamlessly through game-play. The game eventually became known both by its modern adventure game trappings – which gave players the sort of choices which the old-school linear adventure games had seldom afforded -, and by it consistent use of quick time events, which curiously enough became known as such precisely due to Suzuki’s “Shenmue”, even tough the mechanic itself dated back to “Dragon’s Lair”. Once again, ambitions proved superior to Cage’s capacity to fulfill them: the use of QTE’s was excessive and repetitive, with endlessly drawn out actions sequences (in a sort of daft copy of “Matrix’s”) forcing players to mindlessly mash buttons in Simon Says fashion, and the narrative system, though certainly interactive, yielded some of the most ridiculous and over-the-top story-lines ever to grace a modern videogame.
Both his games failed, yes, but criticize as much as we can, we cannot help but admire his achievements and his courage for taking risks. “Omikron” and “Fahrenheit” were attempts at adult forms of storytelling that were genuinely serious and mature: “Omikron” had a virtual space that was palpable and brimmed with character, and “Fahrenheit” (before blowing up with its outrageous plot twists) had realistic characters and an ingenuous sense of suspense and mystery. Even today, the vast majority of games cannot accomplish what David Cage did in his only two games. He may very well be a thinking man’s Molyneux – a sort of pretentious wanna-be that aspires to the moon, but ends up with his knees deep in the Earth’s mud – but he will always have great aspirations and capacity of self-criticism (as his constant recognition of his past failures clearly shows), something which is sadly lacking in most designers. Hopefully (let us pray in tandem), he will soon realize the potential of his ideas in “Heavy Rain” and finally flesh out the sort of mature interactive narratives his games always hinted at, but failed in achieving.