More people play video games today than at any other point of the medium's short history. Women play as much as men, statistics for 2014 indicating a near-50/50 split between genders in the US as well as the UK. By 2017 the global games market could be worth over $100 billion. And yet, one divisive developer feels that we're all doing it wrong.
David Cage, founder of Paris studio Quantic Dream, has long been an outspoken figure in games development, attracting derision and devotion in measures that, quite probably, favor the former perspective. Quantic Dream's output, which amounts to just four shipped titles to date, is predominantly big on narrative and short on archetypal action. Fans of frenetic first-person shooters, step away now.
Some have cried foul, complaining that these are not games at all, and Cage himself has sought to categorize his creations as "interactive drama." He's told anyone who'll listen that "nobody should be allowed to define what a video game is," and how games "have a chance to become mass market." Somebody should probably show him the financial projections, as they're kind of a big deal already.
He's been like this since day one: a visionary, sure, but one who can easily rub people the wrong way with egotistical rhetoric—especially as his "interactive dramas" haven't been entirely successful. The studio's first game of 1999, the future-set Omikron: The Nomad Soul, featured a complicated, body jumping plot and in-game appearances from David Bowie, who also contributed to its soundtrack. But despite the high-profile pop star's presence, the game bombed commercially. It was "too weird" for America, apparently, where publisher Eidos "didn't support the game at all."
The studio's most recent release, the 2013 PlayStation 3 exclusive Beyond: Two Souls, arrived headlined by motion-captured Hollywood actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Star power has never been a problem for Cage and company, then, but a consistent critical reception has. GameSpot awarded the game 9/10, with reviewer Tom McShea concluding: "Beyond: Two Souls so easily melds story and mechanics that you become enamored with this young woman and her extraordinary life." VideoGamer was less kind, critic Steve Burns writing that it's "flawed in almost every possible way."
I didn't mind Beyond: Two Souls. I finished it in two sittings, seeing the conclusion to Ellen-Page-as-Jodie-Holmes's story inside 12 hours—which is more than I can say of many, allegedly better games that I've not completed. When the game told me to press a button, I did—but it's entirely right to criticize its dearth of player agency, its strictly limited interactivity. I felt some empathy for Jodie's situations, experienced across several years of her life; but the supernatural side to the tale, her connection with the (also player-controlled) spirit Aiden, didn't really resonate with me. So it was a halfway success, personally.
Quantic Dream's PS3 debut was 2010's Heavy Rain, a quadruple-perspective serial killer case bearing streaked, noir-ish shades. Turns out the private investigator did it—whoops, sorry, spoilers. (Come on, if you were going to play Heavy Rain, you would have by now—it'd sold an Omikron-shading two million copies by 2011, so there's been no shortage of cheap, second-hand copies trading these past few years.) But it's the studio's second game that I got into the most—and it's a title that's just received a high-definition remaster for Windows, Mac, and iOS devices.
Fahrenheit came out in 2005, looking and feeling entirely unlike any other game on the platform I first played it on, the PlayStation 2. Quantic Dream's USP was that this represented the first genuine "interactive film," which has painted Cage as something of a right player, wrong industry sort ever since. "I'm not a frustrated movie director," he told Gamescom in 2012, when hyping Beyond; "I love this medium, and I'm genuinely passionate about [it]... growing every day, and I just want to be a part of it."
And it did feel that Fahrenheit was pushing the gaming medium—unlike what came after, it wasn't all simplistic quick-time events and context-sensitive stick movements. There was real tension, which carried over to how you manipulated the controller: balancing lead playable character (of three) Lucas Kane across precarious crossings meant precise depression of the pad's shoulder buttons, and Simon Says-style analogue twitching could become seriously stressful.
It wasn't easy, basically—neither Heavy Rain nor Beyond really featured fail states, and while Cage attributes the 75 percent completion rate of the former to its "emotional engagement," the fact that it never showed the player a game over screen certainly helped. Fahrenheit was different: Lucas can be killed (or otherwise prevented from continuing) in a variety of ways, and can become so depressed with his testing circumstances that he commits suicide.
The game's story, set against a harsh New York winter, begins grounded enough—Lucas comes to in a diner bathroom to discover that he has apparently murdered a fellow patron. Is this a case of amnesia, or something much darker, and considerably more convoluted? Obviously, it's the latter: The plot takes some suspect turns into occult themes and sci-fi weirdness, culminating with the rescue of the "Indigo Child," who is ultimately the key to humanity's survival against an artificial intelligence invasion and something, something, something else. Put it this way, when Eurogamer's John Walker wrote that Fahrenheit is broken in "about 657 ways," about 640 of those faults can be found in the game's narrative. Thinking about it now gives me a headache.
Cage himself feels that he put a foot or two wrong with the plot of the "first-ever interactive film." (Forgetting Under a Killing Moon and Burn Cycle, obviously, and even before that we had Dragon's Lair and... oh, you get it.) In a lengthy post-mortem of the game (called Indigo Prophecy in the US) for Gamasutra, he pinpoints "glitches in the writing" which compromised the story, and that the A.I. bad guys added "confusion to the plot." You're telling me, Dave. Not a clue what was going on with those digital bug things.
There are further failures with Fahrenheit that Cage can identify today. "I made the mistake of not devoting enough time to the last hour of the game," he writes in that same dissection of the game's pluses and minuses, and outlines the difficulties faced with selling a concept like this to publishers and players alike: "Explaining the concept of an original game with no real prior references is a major difficulty that must not be underestimated."
Yet ten years on, Fahrenheit remains a game that rewards investigation today. Toucharcade's coverage of its new iOS port is positive, calling the experience "one to remember," and its verdict echoes reviews of 2005: Edge wrote that it's "almost shocking how seamless, engrossing and accessible" the game was, and PC Gamer called it a "classic adventure pumped up with massive doses of adrenaline." It's no lost masterpiece, but while it's understandable to dismiss Fahrenheit if you've been put off by the bunkum of Beyond: Two Souls, this really is a curio worth taking a chance on.
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