The folly of David Cage: it’s not technology that keeps games from becoming emotional experiences

The folly of David Cage: it’s not technology that keeps games from becoming emotional experiences

Crysis 3 is a great example of a game that exists across two generations. I first played the game on my Xbox 360, and wrote my review. I enjoyed it, although I was disappointed in many aspects of the game’s design. I then played the same game on my PC, and it looked like a new experience. The graphics weren’t just slightly better; the PC version of Crysis 3 offers a nearly generational visual leap from the console version of the game.

After about 20 minutes the enhanced graphics faded away, and I was still playing the same competent shooter I had finished on the console. This is why David Cage’s speech promoting the PlayStation 4 was so problematic. Graphics aren’t the limiting factor for games, and they haven’t been for some time.

The hardware is not the limiting factor

“Cinema really became what it is today when technology evolved enough to let directors and actors create the subtle emotions they wanted on screen,” Cage stated. He brought up the move to movies with sound, and color, and finally high definition images. Actors could convey complex emotions with subtlety; there was no need for pantomime.

Cage went on to show the growth of characters in Quantic Dream’s games in terms of polygons. The more polygons, of course, the better, more detailed character you could get on the screen. “We start to reach a point where you can see very subtle emotions on the face of the character,” Cage said while presenting the eerie, floating head of an old man on the screen.

It was telling that the old man didn’t talk. There was no story here. I didn’t feel anything looking into his eyes. It was merely a tech demo, what amounts to a magic trick. If you’re going to convince me that a new technology will make me feel something, you better damn well make me feel something. The best-looking faces in the world don’t matter if we’re still telling the same damn story about the same damn space marines, or the same damn hero with a shaved head and stubble on his face.

An image on Reddit shows what most of us already knew: There just aren’t that many gains to be had by adding more polygons, or by increasing the graphics of modern games. The Killzone demo shown during the PlayStation 4 event certainly looked great, and it was filled with impressive draw distances and a steady frame rate, but it was a shooter. We’ve played those.

The brief demo for DriveClub was based around racing in social groups, which is now commonplace, as well as providing details such as the leather interior of the super cars on the screen. I’ve played that game as well.

Games like Super Mario 64 were made possible by strong 3D performance, but it’s hard to find a recent game that was made better, or even possible, by a leap in graphical technology. More power will mean larger worlds, frame rates will improve, and loading times will be lessened, but these things don’t change or improve the actual quality of the games we play, they simply improve certain aspects of the experience. Graphics, for all intents and purposes, are a solved problem.

Updates will likely be incremental in the console space moving forward, and much of what the next generation of consoles can deliver can be seen on today’s modern gaming PCs.

More power in the hands of developers is never a bad thing, but how many games have you played lately where you felt the hardware was holding the design back in a fundamental way? Tomb Raider would be improved with a slightly better frame rate here and there, and more detail in the character models is always nice, but these things can contribute to higher production budgets with very little return in the way of more excitement from gamers.

When I think of games that grabbed my imagination I think of Minecraft, Spaceteam, Artemis, Johann Sebastian Joust, Bastion, or even Year Walk. Ni No Kuni is the rare modern game where graphics added a great deal to the experience, but that’s a matter of animation and design, not processing power.

I hope I’m wrong

I would love to be sitting at my desk in two years, complete with my Xbox Whatever and my PS4, and think of how silly and naive I was to think that designers wouldn’t find novel and fresh uses for the power at their disposal. It would be great to write about an industry flush with great ideas that were only made possible with my polygons, better engines, and more particles. It would be amazing if all this power was put to use to create games with emotional power, great stories, and human characters.

That’s the problem with David Cage’s argument about film, however. We’ve been out of the silent film era for a very long time. We have high definition graphics. I’m not going to feel 30% more fear if a monster is created with 30% more effects. The Witness was one of the few games at Sony’s event that seemed to grab everyone’s attention, and that game is going to use a small portion of the power of the PS4. We’ve had the tools, hardware, power, and vision to create emotion in players for years. 

The problem with content hasn’t been technology in quite some time, and the reason we don’t see more “mature” games isn’t the speed of the CPU. David Cage is a producer watching The Beatles use primitive loops, multi-track recording, and clever editing to make tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and imagining how much better music will become once more technology is available. It’s not the amount of guitar strings or loops available to musicians that determine the power of their music, a lesson that David Cage still hasn’t learned.