In the pantheon of auteur game designers, off to the side of the great hall with the golden 50 foot statues of Shigeru Miyamoto and Shigesato Itoi, and past the quirky hipster exhibit with beautiful abstract paintings of Tim Schafer and Hideo Kojima, you’ll find a small and grubby bathroom with a granite bust of Peter Molyneux over the urinals.
Pull the right lever (there are two, with handy button prompts to guide you) and you’ll open a tunnel. Walk for about half a mile down that slope – remember to occasionally press X to dodge falling rocks – and you’ll reach the cavern containing a crudely-rendered Mega Bloks version of David Cage.
Cage is, to put it mildly, an oddity in the games industry. He’s been around for over a decade and a half, despite having in that time produced only four games. More remarkably, not a single one of them has ever been particularly good.
It started off with Omikron: The Nomad Soul, a weird alternate universe thing memorable only for being released on the Dreamcast (a guide to its eventual success summed up in one word) and for featuring David Bowie in a move that demeaned both game and rockstar.
Then came Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy for Celsius-hating Americans), which rather set the tone for Quantic Dream’s games by starting off brilliantly with a brutal murder in a diner bathroom, then descending into a basketful of supernatural lunacy shot through with plot holes. It was a plot that resembled a beautiful varnished banister that had been run halfway through a wood chipper.
But hey, it was groundbreaking in terms of genre and had some pretty good bits which did go some way towards excusing it. So come the turn of the decade and we were willing to give David Cage another chance. Heavy Rain promised to bring us an engaging murder mystery with branching storylines, a cast of realistic characters and tons of replayability.
Did it hell. Instead of an engaging murder mystery, we got a heavily signposted run through every thriller and noir cliché of the last seven decades, with a plot that branched largely in insignificant places and gave little variation in the ending – and none in the identity of the murderer.
The plot fell into the same trap twice, falling apart towards the end as budget, time or motivation limitations meant the game’s final act was stapled together and largely nonsensical. One of the final puzzles – I kid you not – had one protagonist call in help from another major character she’s had absolutely no reason to meet, interact with or even know about up until that point. It’s so lazy and badly done that they surely couldn’t warrant another game. Oh.
Beyond: Two Souls, to its credit – and its credit is thin on the ground – did start with some clever ideas. Well, one clever idea – a supernatural ally for the player who can interact with the world around her, causing her to effectively have psychic powers. The relationship between said girl and her partner was potentially intriguing, particularly how difficult she finds to control him.
But it ends there, buried between a mountain of missteps and idiocy. There are so many problems with the game it’s difficult to know where to begin.
The plot gave up quite early on trying to have any coherence or flow. It uses an irritating non-linear structure for pretty much no adequately explained reason, which coupled with cardboard cut-out characters means no action ever has meaningful weight or consequence, because you’ll immediately be sent back in time 20 years to chuck snowballs about.
It’s the element that means one minute you’ll be playing a supremely dumbed-down Guitar Hero clone to busk while homeless on the streets of Genericville, USA, and the next you’ll be pissing about with horses owned by a vaguely racist ‘mystical Indian’ family somewhere in the South West. That sequence ends with you fighting a tornado demon (yep) and other than that very little stands out.
The game also takes you through a fairly long and drawn out combat training sequence, learning to evade guards, use the psychic powers to distract or attack enemies, as well as cover and gunplay. These techniques are then used precisely once, right at the end of the game, and even then effectively consist of strings of quick time events which are hard to fail.
That segment of the game also plays host to one of its most stupid moments. Having been dispatched to a foreign country tasked with helping fight an insurgency, our heroine carries out her task before realising after the fact that the man she killed was actually the president and a good guy. How on earth she would have had no idea about who the president was or how nobody would have mentioned it is beyond me.
I tell the story of Quantic Dream in such a long-winded fashion because it serves as a reminder. It tells us that for all their talk of emotion, Quantic Dream games have been without fail a big pile of broken jigsaw pieces which seem to have come from different puzzles. Emotion devoid of proper context or engaging story is exploitative and rubbish.
So when David Cage takes the stage, as he did this week, at Paris Games Week and unveils Detroit, a new game about “what if humans met robots?” this article can be produced in response, a testament to why it will never again be a smart idea to look forward to a Quantic Dream game, and why people who let themselves get sucked in are gearing themselves up for major disappointment.
Peter Molyneux eventually got hold of his reputation for promising the earth and never being able to deliver. It took a while, but we got there. If David Cage continues to be the Frenchman who cried ‘Emotions!’ he’s in for the same fate.