It is a common assumption among a certain kind of gamer that the medium is entitled to artistic seriousness. Games are a representational medium, the logic goes, and like films and novels, they should engage with the entire spectrum of human experience, not just the narrow concerns of teenage males. This claim raises a question, one that rarely gets asked: do the people who make games have the cultural literacy to make serious art?
David Cage bangs the make-games-for-adults drum louder than anyone. He's the head of the French game studio Quantic Dream, best known for 2010's Heavy Rain, probably the single most concerted effort to make a big-budget video game that resembles a film. His name is synonymous in the industry with a kind of ambition—both helpful and overweening—to get games to be taken as seriously as films and novels.
Cage gave a keynote speech on Wednesday at the DICE summit, an annual conference held in Las Vegas for industry executives. He made his feelings about the state of gaming quite clear. In a presentation titled "The Peter Pan Syndrome: The Industry that Refused to Grow Up," Cage noted that in the 40 years of the medium, the themes of gaming have hardly changed, and that those themes, usually intended for children or young adults, alienate an enormous swath of the population.
Implicit in his critique, of course, is the idea that Quantic Dream is among the only studios dealing with adult themes.
Cage criticized the gaming press, in particular games reviewers who rate games by number on a series of mechanical elements. In a characteristic flourish, he compared games critics unfavorably to the writers of the legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, many of whom went on to become some of the most famous auteurs of the French new wave.
"Anyone [in this industry] can give his opinion and be respected as a critic," Cage said. "You don't become a critic because you like or play video games. It requires skill and talent and not everyone has it."
Today on Twitter, Jim Sterling, the reviews editor of the games site Destructoid, shot back.
Sterling is right to criticize Cage's idea of making games more sophisticated by making them more like film. Hollywood does movies better than games ever can; I'm not the first person to say this, but the best a game cutscene can do is remind you of a better movie. Games are an interactive medium and that's just their strength: interactivity.
That's not to say games can't feature wonderful writing and direction; last year's The Walking Dead had both, but they were only a part of the game's success. The reason the game was as good as, if not better than, the show is that it offered the player devastating choices that reinforced the work done by the outstanding voice actors and animators. (The first episode of the five-part game is currently free for iOS.)
Also, as Tom Bissell wrote last year in Grantland, the bright young things in gaming are moving away from making narrative games that resemble movies. The best and most daring independent games of the past few years—Braid, Limbo, Minecraft, Journey—tell a story either through suggestion or through the emergent actions of the player. There is no future for making games that merely ape films.
But here's the thing: Cage is right, in his way. No, Heavy Rain didn't work as a grownup piece of narrative art, because of clunky dialog and plotting. It seems obvious to me, though, that the first step towards making art that succeeds is making art that fails. It also seems clear that the way for narrative gaming to stay relevant in an environment of media distraction is to appeal to a wider audience. So even if gaming hasn't yet produced a voice with the cultural literacy to make the Citizen Kane of the medium, it's important that we give people like Cage the space and the respect to try.