Disclaimer: I wrote this a while ago and didn’t post it, then I saw Beyond: Two Souls and felt my usual mix of feelings on seeing a Quantic Dream Game – curiosity and intense irritation. So I stuck a paragraph on the end of it that makes reference to it. The timing felt right.
“Thank You for Supporting Interactive Drama” said Heavy Rain, smugly, after I fumbled through its intentionally dull opening, getting wedged between bookshelves, failing to drink from cartons and raising serious questions as to whether Ethan Mars shouldn’t be living in some sort of sheltered accommodation. I’m not supporting Interactive Drama you fucks, I’m openly laughing at it. That is, when I’m not grinding my teeth at the navigational controls, scratching my head at the conclusion of scenes and occasionally, very occasionally being caught off guard by a moment that couldn’t have come in any other game.
I know it’s been said before, but as a species, didn’t we figure out the whole moving a character through a 3D space thing in the mid 90s? I’m pretty sure the solution didn’t involve ‘driving’ Mario with R2 and using the left stick to turn his head where you want him to go but don’t hold it too long or he keeps turning sometimes but only sometimes unless you’re at a point in the room where he can’t turn or the camera switches mid movement because that either cancels what you did last or carries on doing whatever it was you were doing and USE THE STICKS! USE THE FUCKING STICKS! THE STICKS! THE STICKS!
This is coming from a guy who didn’t just put up with, but stood up for the top down MGS camera. A guy who would argue that the tank controls in Resident Evil are integral to the feel of the game. But here’s the thing with the old RE’s and MGS’s; THEY USED THE STICKS! THEY USED THE FUCKING STICKS!
I’ve been doing this dance with David Cage since before the game came out; he did the rounds before the release of Heavy Rain, talking to the British broadsheets and telling them exactly what they wanted to hear about games. In his Guardian interview, he came off as the one (smug) despairing intellectual in an industry of meat headed gun crazy knuckle-draggers who’d be able to make a new art form if they only grew up a bit – Hey Guys! he said I’m like you, I’m on your side! If only the rest of these idiots liked movies like Seven and Saw as much as I do, then we’d have a medium we could discuss on Newsnight. I don’t even think this is a game, games are for kids yeah? I’m more interested in adult things like when a woman comes out of a shower in her underwear and is attacked by fucking mercenaries but it’s all a dream. Or when a guy has to crawl through broken glass for some reason. You know, real things.
But in just the same way that I’m occasionally flawed by Heavy Rain‘s moments of undoubted genius (the infamous ‘finger scene‘, for one), Cage himself will say something that makes a lot of sense – in one particular interview (now hidden behind the odious Times paywall) Cage said something to the effect of If you design a control scheme for a fighting game all you’ll be able to do in it is fight. Which makes a lot of sense. When you put it like that, Dave (Can I call you that? Dave?) the quicktime-event-heavy, gesture-based control scheme almost makes sense. A game that lets me do everything from investigating a crime scene to changing a baby sounds pretty amazing.
Sadly, in practice, it’s not. No one put it better than Michael Abbott when he says “Heavy Rain mistakes button prompts for player agency” in his spot on criticism of the game. Rather than creating a fighting system that only lets me fight, Quantic Dream have created a ‘fiddling system’ that only lets me fiddle. I can walk around a room and pick things up and fiddle with certain things in the room (depending on which order I fiddle with them in, sometimes I can’t fiddle with one thing till I’ve fiddled with something else, other times fiddling with one object precludes further fiddling with another.) I can stand up, sit down, sloooooooowly, or as fast as I want (but not too fast or I fail at sitting down.) Now sometimes, I can do fighting. And awesome car chases. Wicked! Rad! But my interaction in these scenes is mechanically the same as opening a fridge and consequently it feels like I’m still just fiddling.
And aren’t fighting and awesome car chases something we’ve been doing since the dawn of button presses? What’s different about these car chases? Are they more emotional because two hours ago I was brushing this guy’s teeth? There’s certainly less of them than in GTAIV and I appreciate the fact that by the end of he game I haven’t racked up a genocidal kill count. But for someone who strives to get away from what games traditionally do – Cage and his team spend an awful lot of time doing exactly those things only without anywhere near the level of player expression offered by the very games he sneers at.
I’d love to play something without gunfights, car chases, punch ups and endless killing. But from the looks of Quantic Dream’s upcoming ‘Beyond: Two Souls‘, David Cage and his gang aren’t going to be the guys to provide that (we’re also apparently still ‘driving’ with R2 but now steering with the SIXAXIS… great). Cage and Quantic Dream are still as susceptible to sci-fi, horror and pulp storytelling as the rest of the industry, only Cage seeks to remove to player one step away from the immediacy offered by analogue stick shooter controls with a series of inscrutable button presses and stick wiggles. It’s as if, to Cage, the controls are the problem rather than the content – which is an interesting thought. Are we desensitised to violence because shooting is nothing more than a system? Perhaps, but if we are to abandon the Halo/COD model of 3D console controls can we at least USE THE FUCKING STICKS TO WALK?