When religion fails, create a game: how David Cage wrote Beyond to help deal with loss
“I have my next three games in mind,” David Cage told me. We were sitting in the small press room of the D.I.C.E. Summit, and I wanted to ask about his process. He’s not a big fan of sequels, and he claimed that at no point did Sony pressure him into a Heavy Rain 2, despite the game’s success.
David Cage and his team are currently hard at work on Beyond: Two Souls, a game starring Ellen Page that deals with what happens after we die.
“Right now I know what I’m going to do after Beyond, and after that game and after that game,” he continued. “Maybe it’s just an idea of a world, or a story, or something that may be very small, but it’s there. When the time comes I just start writing it and see where it goes. What’s surprising is that I don’t really start with a very clear idea of what I want to do or know how to achieve it. I usually start with a feeling.”
Leaving superheroes and embracing the personal
So what is it like to write a David Cage game? Does the script come first?
“Usually I work at home for about a year. It takes me about twelve months. And it’s very intense, working 15 hours a day. It’s usually quite painful actually, because you’re sitting in front of a blank page. It’s a very personal experience,” he said.
“What fascinates me the most about this thing is that even when you start feeling that you know where to go with this project, after 12 months of working on it you realize that you’ve changed. You thought you wanted to talk about this, when actually the real topic of what you wrote is totally different. This is quite fascinating, because where does it truly come from, and why can’t you control what you write?”
Cage began writing about his relationship with his son after Indigo Prophecy was completed and, while his first games were about the films he enjoyed and the art that inspired him, Heavy Rain was different. The story became personal. “Suddenly I was talking about things that were very close to me. I felt emotionally involved,” he explained.
When you talk to gamers of a certain age, especially those with kids, you being to see a pattern in what they remember from their playtime with Heavy Rain. The scenes that are striking don’t contain guns, although there is action in the game. Having to play a sequence where you lose your son is unnerving.
Taking care of your child after your divorce falls apart is another striking moment in a game. It may be the first game that made a microwaved piece of pizza heart-breaking, especially after the moments of domestic bliss that opened the game’s story. Cage said that the process of writing Heavy Rain changed the way he creates games.
“Once you’ve gone through this process you never want to go back, he said. “You never again want to write about superheroes, because I don’t have a clue about what being a superhero actually means. I’ve never been one. I can only guess. I’m more interested in talking about things that are more personal and sincere. Maybe because I’m getting older.”
Dealing with loss by writing
If Heavy Rain was about working through being a father, what fueled Beyond’s writing? “Beyond is about growing. It’s about accepting who you are. Even when you’re different. Accepting your good sides and bad sides,” Cage told the Report.
“It’s also about death, and this was triggered when I lost someone I felt very close to in my life. I was confronted with death in a very brutal way. That was very shocking. So I was not very happy with what religion had to say about death. I thought I would find an explanation, something that would make sense in a way.”
David Cage isn’t the only autobiographical writer in gaming, although others may not make it such a public part of their games. “I wonder how much of the first Gears, the violence and weight, came out of the angst from the failure of my first marriage,” Cliff Bleszinski said in a previous interview. “I’m sometimes at my best when I’m challenged by someone or angry at someone in my life.”
Gears of War 3 also featured a bit of wish fulfillment when Marcus Fenix meets his father, a man who was supposed to be dead. “Lee Perry [Senior Gameplay Designer on Gears of War 2], Rod Ferguson [Director of Production at Epic Games] and myself all lost our dads at a very young age,” Bleszinski continued. “When I was 15 and dealing with grief I had these dreams that my father hadn’t actually passed, that he was, for tax reasons or something, he was secretly living in an apartment a few towns away. These are the ways you cope.”
So, like Bleszinski, did Cage find writing Beyond helped him deal with his feelings? “I think that any sincere writing is some kind of therapy,” he said. “It helps you accept things, or to have a different take on them. Anything meaningful you can write is something to do with therapy, and it probably comes from something painful.”
I had to ask who he had lost in the past few years. He declined to answer. “No, I don’t want to use that to promote…” he said, moving his arms to indicate the fact that we were at an industry event talking about an upcoming game. I told him I understood.