According to David Cage, his latest game, Heavy Rain, is so non-typical of the medium, that it’s no longer even a game in his mind and has become something wholly unique. While the strike against standard gaming nomenclature is a bold one, and something that needs to happen eventually, trying to re-invent the videogame within the boundaries of a single release is risky at best.
What Cage fails to realise is that videogame will not be reinvented all at once; instead it will evolve as new titles refine genre elements and introduce new ideas. Gamers have shown time and time again that they don’t want reinventions or revolutions; instead what they want is refinements and they cling to the familiar.
If you look back over gaming history, with the exception of games that spawned genres, the games that we hold in high regard are very rarely truly revolutionary. For example, Half-Life isn’t all that different from Quake, the game it shares most of an engine with, at least at the nuts and bolts gameplay level, but by doing something different with the storytelling, and more importantly, doing it well, Valve made a game that is still referenced today as a seminal work. Similarly, Silent Hill built on the foundations of Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil just as World of Warcraft built on the whole host of MMORPGs that came before it.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the gaming industry doesn’t quite know what to do with revolutionary games. Games that are radically different are difficult to sell to a mainstream audience and instead become cult hits, which is wonderful for a game’s street cred, but not so good for a publisher worried about its investment. There’s no Sundance festival for gaming, no Hugo or Nebula awards for games to win, no New York Times bestseller list, the only mark of excellence a game has is its review scores, and more importantly, unit sales.
It’s a little surprising that Cage doesn’t already know this, as Heavy Rain is his second effort at taking videogames to new places. His first attempt, Fahrenheit, shared a great number of similarities with Heavy Rain, being more of an interactive thriller than a game proper, and it failed to really set the gaming world alight, save for garnering significant press for its frankly bizarre storyline. It got decent reviews, and sales of Fahrenheit weren’t awful – 800,000 copies sold to date – but not what you would describe as spectacular either.
Cage’s efforts are noble, and the industry will need people like him eventually, but it’s important to be realistic about the speed at which gaming is going to mature. Cage clearly has a story he wants to tell, or a certain type of story he wants to tell, but whether or not the audience for such a tale exists amongst gamers can only be assessed by how many copies of Heavy Rain Cage manages to move. Ultimately, the best videogame artist, or at least the most successful, is going to be the one with a dash of pragmatism thrown in.
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