One of the greatest moments of Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls occurs in a flashback, as you control protagonist Jodie Holmes during her early childhood. Save for the gentle hum of an empty house and the warm crackle of a fireplace, Jodie and her mother are the only people present, and the domestic scene takes on a sense of cozy stillness.
Smaller pleasures in the game come into sharper focus, particularly in Jodie's lethargic, lopsided walk where her head droops slightly and her feet drag because she's feeling restless. She wanders to the backyard, so you, as her spirit companion Aiden, give her a push on the frozen swing and aimlessly trudge through the snow. Sounds of carefree excitement from other frolicking children drift in from beyond the yard's fence, and Jodie sneaks out to join their snowball fight. Kids scatter in all directions, lobbing their shots and bursting with laughter. It's a mundane but meaningful moment, evoking homespun warmth and childhood familiarity in service of player/character bonding.
It's refreshing to experience an understated moment of innocent childhood play. The scene has the feel of a shooter game where you take cover behind vehicles and fire off headshots, but such gameplay services a rather sweeter, certainly more relatable context. The vignette is not loaded with a crucial narrative decision that will trigger complex branching storylines, nor does it overwhelm the player with bombastic, fervent action. It simply exists as a slice of everyday life, offering subdued pleasures in the ordinary and the recognizable.
This interest in depicting the allure of the mundane in games lies at the heart of writer/director David Cage's career. His games, developed at Quantic Dream, frequently evoke the influence of cinema, employing techniques such as split-screen, reminiscent of Brian De Palma, and plotlines lifted from David Fincher movies. Maybe it's his French background, but I've heard comparisons to French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard too, a lofty claim, but worth examination.
While games like Heavy Rain borrow more from pulpy noir stories like Fincher's Se7en than Godard's Alphaville, and Beyond: Two Souls favors teen superhero melodrama over the kind of political commentary in works like Weekend, Cage invokes the innovative form of Godard's works.
In a French interview that brings up Godard, Cage asserts his interest in highlighting the real, mundane problems of everyday people and how video games allow players to build their own experiences from the narrative contexts provided by the developer. In bridging the very different works of Godard and Cage, this short passage from the filmmaker's marginal notes compiled in Tom Milne's excellent book Godard on Godard can illuminate a comparison in style: "I want to include everything, sport, politics, even groceries… Everything can be put into a film. Everything should be put into a film."
By giving prominence to ordinary human characters identifiable as relatives, family friends, and neighbors, Cage's games are intimately personal and empathetic.
Both the films of Godard and the games of Cage strive to capture all of life unfiltered, depicting normal people in everyday, recognizable situations. Cage anchors his games with micro-narratives of a father playing with his children, a teenage daughter attending a birthday party, and a husband helping his wife around the house. These quotidian moments are placed into a cohesive whole, giving players access to the inner lives of the games' protagonists.
While Cage may lack the philosophical and political rigor of Godard, the latter's assertion that anything can and should be put into film reemerges in the context of his video games. Small interactions glibly dismissed as inconsequential factor into the mundane naturalism in the gameplay experience.
In Heavy Rain, this sense of naturalism emerges in the sequence following the opening credits, where recently divorced father Ethan Mars (pictured above) tends to his son, Shaun. After a day of school, Ethan must handle a variety of domestic chores such as cooking dinner, overseeing Shaun's homework, and retrieving medicine for his son's cold. Players step into the everyday role of a parent, where small sacrifices that seem initially mundane can resonate with emotional richness. The quick passing of the hours requires the player to make snap decisions, such as spending father-son time with Shaun by watching television at the expense of finishing more productive chores elsewhere around the home.
Nothing much is really going on in these moments, to affect the larger narrative, but the camera lingers and the music slowly swells to lend a sense of hushed importance. Sitting down and simply watching Shaun eat his food and do his homework carries a casual, naturalistic beauty.
By giving prominence to ordinary human characters identifiable as relatives, family friends, and neighbors, Cage's games are intimately personal and empathetic. Even more fantastical characters in Heavy Rain, like the neo-noir detective Jayden and his futuristic technology seemingly out of Minority Report, still have their moments of humdrum, candid normalcy.
One understated scene has Jayden simply sitting outside his superior's office, waiting to speak with him, and the sole form of gameplay consists of stretching legs, shifting seating position, and idly tossing a ball around. The moment asks players to empathize with Jayden, encouraging recognition of their own boredom in similar situations outside the game. These smaller moments of the everyday seeping into video games lends an observational artistry to Cage's work.
The problem with Cage's games, however, is that you get to do everything: destabilize the power structure of a foreign warlord; raid a Chinese submarine base; barrel down the opposite direction on the highway because a GPS voice commands it; execute an aerial kung fu showdown; and leap over a flying helicopter. Cage clearly has a vision for his universes, but his storylines frequently overlook the quieter, everyday strengths of smaller human moments and overshadow them with dramatically inert and breathtakingly inexplicable narrative turns.
That everything should be put into a video game simply suggests that the typically excluded banality of everyday life should not be underestimated as a source of meaning. Instead of a focus on action-heavy shooter gameplay or sci-fi indulgence, the turn towards candid gestures like looking out through a window at nothing in particular can speak volumes. These subtle domestic pleasures— Heavy Rain's Scott Shelby preparing eggs, or Jodie tidying up her apartment—have an expressive capacity beyond fighting enemy henchmen.
The choice to grant agency to mundane moments suggests the micro-narratives that are always present in life, branching out of the main story like tributaries from a larger river. By opening up the quotidian to video games, David Cage creates a space where everything is a source of play.