A Plea For Games To Grow Up

After David Cage's speech at the Game Developers Conference yesterday, I heard the chatter of people whose minds have been opened, lives possibly changed.

There was a room full of video game creators and press, buzzing about Cage's big ideas. One woman said her hand had cramped, she'd never written notes so furiously. Admirers swarmed Cage.

I'd caught the final bit of the man's hour-plus speech, the capper of a lengthy urging by example for game developers to change the kinds of games we get to play.

"Make games for adults," he was saying when I finally got into the room to hear him close. "Seriously. It's going to change your life."

David Cage is the lead creator of Heavy Rain, the bleak story-driven adventure about a father pushed into despearate action by the abduction of his son. It was a hit on the PlayStation 3 last year, selling about two million copies.

His game has a lower bodycount than most PlayStation 3 blockbusters . You kill people in the game only slightly more often than you control the brushing of the hero's teeth or the helping of the hero's son to do his homework. It was made by Cage and his team at French development studio Quantic Dream with the intent to let player feel subtler emotions than standard action-game rage: anxiety and worry, concern, and the erosion of moral certitude.

When I walked into Cage's speech, which was delivered in a full room that could seat several hundred, he had reached rhetorical crescendo. "We should be, in our industry, on par not with b-[movies], not with popcorn movies. We should be on par with the best movies out there, in matter of storytelling and characterization and emotion, etc., etc. plus we will add the interactive dimension to the experience."

He was flipping this into a money question, remarking that his 10-year old son had given up playing expensive games on the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS for one-dollar and free games on the iPad. "How are we going to justify in the future that people play $69 to play our games?" he asked, translating his artistic plea into one some game-greenlighting suit could understand. "We need to create more meaningful content."

Cage knows that we live in a world that isn't just full of people who like video games and people who are horrified by them. We live in a world that also includes people who are bored by them, people who dismiss games the way some might those movies that have a few dozen too many explosions.

I confess that, as impressive as Cage's presentation must have been, I was a poor judge of its opening. I was there for its first minutes, incorrectly assuming he was covering material familiar enough for me to skip. Across the hall from his speech I went, to one made by a designer at LucasArts named Kent Hudson. The Game Developers Conference is an embarassment of braininess, and I believed I'd made the right call as Hudson tried to explain the better way to tell game stories. Hudson noticed that many game designers create some exceptionally visually impressive areas of their games, areas so attractive that they signal that they are the locations that matter, the places where important things happen in the game. They are, he said, "a subtle dis to the player," a reminder that what the gamer does in the game isn't as crucial as the narative the game creator made. It's a problem, Hudson was saying. It tells the player: "the story is important; you're not." That was good stuff, but the Twitter buzz from Cage's room across the hall was strong.

David Cage on Heavy Rain: "I don't know how to tell a good story when your hero can only shoot and run."

David Cage on Heavy Rain: "Feeling subtle and complex emotions was the most important thing."

David Cage: Game designers think that players can project themselves onto empty shell characters. "I think this is a huge mistake."

David Cage: "The journey is what matters, not the challenge. Challenge works well with teenagers...but it doesn't work with adults."

David Cage: "We need to forget about video game rules — bosses, missions, game over, etc...are very old words of a very old language."

(All those tweets via 343 Industries' Ryan Payton, by the way.)

The wise supermarket shopper doesn't line hop. The wiser one doesn't line-hop twice. I was worried that I'd compound my error to retrun to Cage's talk, but as soon as Hudson wrapped, I did. When I got there he was working to his bravura conclusion. He'd been pointing out that most of today's supposedly great games use the same themes games from two or three decades ago.

Time to make games about something else he was saying. Time to make games for adults.

When he finished, the audience clapped loudly. These people heard his message. Let's see what they do with it.