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David Cage and the future of cinematic games
David Cage and the future of cinematic games
August 20, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls developer David Cage is often asked why he doesn't just make movies instead of games. "This is the wrong question in many ways," he says.

"No new medium has been created from scratch, never in the history of mankind. No art form has ever been created with no reference to what's happened before," according to Cage. Photography was at first influenced by painting; film by theater. It took time for these media to evolve their own identities.

"I'm saying it loud and clear: We should learn from films. We have many differences, and gameplay and interactivity is the different thing, and it's very crucial, but at the same time we have a lot of things we can learn," Cage says.

Innovating Cinematography for Emotional Impact

He hopes to innovate in cinematography -- and in his talk at GDC Europe, he demonstrated Quantic Dream's engine, which was used for Beyond: Two Souls and the Dark Sorcerer demo from E3:

Cinematography will help "get the player emotionally involved," says Cage. "If you have no emotional involvement you're just watching the pixels on screen."

While some argue against storytelling in games, he sees it as essential: "We want to keep the player's interest from the first minute to the last and storytelling is an amazing tool... and a way to tell a story is to work with virtual actors and emotions."

The Future of Games Will Be Meaning

"I believe that the future of games will be meaning. You will hear a lot of people telling you it's technology, it's more polygons... I have been claiming for years that the future of games is emotion."

Cage hopes that by imbuing games with meaning, developers can start to tackle more serious questions: "Can we create games that have something to say? Can we make games that will change you, even a tiny bit? Or at least make you think?"

He thinks gamers are already on board. It's developers and publishers that need convincing. "We need to decide that this is important -- this is the biggest challenge out there. Convincing people, not so much gamers, they have interest -- but convincing teams themselves, publishers, and press that this is something important."

And while he advocates borrowing cinematic techniques, he wants to see them evolve into something totally new in the context of games. "The other major challenge is to merge cinematography and interactivity," says Cage. "You have cutscenes... and gameplay loops based on violent actions you repeat. You can achieve cinematography without cutscenes."

Interactivity is not just about actions like combat -- traditional gameplay mechanics, Cage argues. "I think that's a misconception of what interacting means -- it just means changing something in your environment. It can be anything that has meaning and makes sense in context."

"We need to find a way not to have cutscene/action/cutscene/action. We need to blend these and have an experience where cinematography and interactivity are totally interlaced and you don't tell the difference."

The Future of Cinematic Games

Cage sees a future where games are almost indistinguishable from films -- very soon, perhaps in the coming generation. "I don't know if we'll get to the point during this cycle where you can't tell the difference between a film and a game but we will get very close," he says.

Already, it has used its performance capture technology to detach the recording of the performance from actual camera angles, allowing its developers to change the look and feel of a scene on the fly. But software could take that further, he argues.

His studio has begun experimenting with technology to exceed the capabilities of Quantic Dream's current cinematic tools. "We've been thinking seriously at Quantic Dream [about a system] where we could have a program where we could film some parameters into the program and have it adapt, and we may at some point have an algorithm that will have a first pass on the directing... even an algorithm that will film based on [the styles of] Stanley Kubrick, or Orson Welles, or Coppola."

And the human equation will change as games merge with cinema, too, he thinks: "We are going to see new types of jobs appearing in games. I'm thinking of a director of photography, for example... we are going to need DOPs. We've started working with them to learn how we can improve what we do."

"Directors are also something that's going to be pretty important in the coming years," says Cage. "In film, it's one person who deals with everything and holds the creative vision. In the coming years we will need directors who hold the vision."

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Vinicius Couto
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You know... I used to agree with him.
But then came Journey, Unfinished Swan, Bastion, Limbo, Thomas Was Alone and, more recently (and, maybe, more important) Gone Home.

--"It took time for these media to evolve their own identities.".

Games are doing that, no thanks to cinematography.

--"Cinematography will help "get the player emotionally involved""

Okay, it may help. But we sure as hell don't need it.

--"And while he advocates borrowing cinematic techniques, he wants to see them evolve into something totally new in the context of games. "[...] "Interactivity is not just about actions like combat -- traditional gameplay mechanics, Cage argues. "I think that's a misconception of what interacting means -- it just means changing something in your environment. It can be anything that has meaning and makes sense in context."

Have I metioned Gone Home, Thomas Was Alone and Journey?

He wants meaningful, emotional games. I totally agree with him on that. I just don't think cinematography is the only or best way to do that.

There is one quote that got me confused, however, and depending on what he means by it, it may by that I completely misunderstood him.

--"You have cutscenes... and gameplay loops based on violent actions you repeat. You can achieve cinematography without cutscenes."

Now now... what exactly does he mean by cinematography, then? Narrative? Graphics? Is he encompassing every term like "meaningful, emotional, important, serious, etc" under "cinematography"?
If that's the case, then I simply disagree with him on what he means by "cinematography".

Rob Bridgett
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I agree.
All of those games you mentioned have done exactly what Cage talks about for the 'future', and way more. Some have done away with conventional narratives entirely, they haven't only revolutionized the look of the medium, but the business and production models, the way they sound and above all, the way they are experienced. Both Journey and Limbo were profoundly emotional experiences for me, each in very different and unique ways. As I understand it, Cage's primary drive is into a sub genre of 'Cinematic Games', this is only one of many many possibilities for the medium.

"Photography was at first influenced by painting; film by theater. It took time for these media to evolve their own identities."

What is more interesting to me about that quote is what happened to painting *after* photography was invented (cubism), and what happened in theatre after film (psychological realism). I think the really interesting changes could be about to happen in film because of the arrival of video games into popular culture and I suspect this is ultimately where Cage will end up, not in games at all, but in some form of interactive cinema.

Christian Nutt
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What he means by cinematography is cinematography.

Vinicius Couto
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Oh, thanks. I should've looked better before posting. I was being rather close-minded about it.

Christian Nutt
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Well, people treat what David Cage says as a manifesto. And he's made that bed so he has to lie in it. At the same time, I think this was a talk focused more on what he sees as the craft of cinematic games, rather than "this is how things are and must be for everyone."

Kheper Crow
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While I think the future is definitely in interactive emotional type experiences, I don't think Quantic Dreams approach is really the best solution to that future. It's like a niche of a niche. There will be a huge future in interactive movies at some point, but not so much with cinematic games, in my opinion. I enjoyed The Walking Dead but found the action "gamey" type sequences were more annoying and destructive to the overall narrative flow. I'm going to assume many non-gamer sort of people feel the same way. Plus, without real-world actors, not 3d models, I can't see a mainstream audience (at least in USA) getting too excited.

I agree with Vinicius that games can easily find emotional context within their own structures without having to rely on techniques from other mediums. Although, I do look forward to the MUCH larger audience that interactive experiences that drop the whole "game" thing will bring in. One day...

David Serrano
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"Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls developer David Cage is often asked why he doesn't just make movies instead of games."

I'm sure a very similar question was asked of the photographers who were early adopters of motion picture cameras.

Dylan Cobelli
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I respect his goals but I really don't think David Cage gets videogames at all. He seems to confuse storytelling with cutscenes and while I actually enjoyed Heavy Rain in spite of its writing, heavily scripted moments just don't have the punch they would when you have control over of the protagonist. While interactivity might be games most important aspect, controlling characters is what really sets it apart from other mediums in terms of storytelling. There's an ongoing debate in the gaming community whether or not protagonists should be dolls our fully fleshed out characters, my opinion being somewhere in the middle. Not only that but movies aren't played to win. So while movies and games may share superficial qualities they are very different mediums. Also, emotions are not tangible objects.

Brian Bartram
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I felt more connection to the characters in Thomas Was Alone that those in Heavy Rain.

Michael Pianta
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I don't know. I can't comment too much on the specifics of David Cage's games since I've never played one, but nothing that he says sounds right to me. The truth is, I don't see the point of an interactive story. With a good story there is a sense of fate - purpose. It can't be changed. Things happen as they must because of what happened before. All the major decisions and the questions of what might have happened had a different choice been made are crucial to the meaning of the story. Those moments are perhaps the worst places to introduce interactivity. Think about, say, Crime and Punishment. What if he hadn't done it? What if he'd made a critically different decision? On the surface that might seem like a good thing to explore in an interactive setting, but I'm convinced it would actually be a disaster, robbing either path of the story of meaning or purpose.

Among other things, the introduction of interactivity implies the existence of an optimal path - a series of best choices with the best outcome. I consider that a flatly dishonest way of looking at life. Smart writing can alleviate this problem somewhat, giving every choice it's ups and downs, but the problem is still there. I always notice when a game presents me with these contrived situations, with this really heavy give and take. It happens in Mass Effect all the time - they're trying to give you difficult, meaningful choices, which is admirable, but it sometimes comes across as forced. Or sometimes it seems like there's an obvious third way that isn't presented for whatever reason.

Which is of course another big problem - the knowability of everything. A finite number of choices with a finite number of outcomes. Even if none of the choices are good - you can still know them, and pick the one you prefer. You know, in a traditional story a character might make a bad decision, and they might realize they made a bad decision and feel bad about it. How could this be possible in an interactive story? If you were unsatisfied you could just reload and choose something else. If you found out that all the available options resulted in bad outcomes then the curtain is drawn back and the hand of the story teller is revealed in an undesirable way.

I do think that all the interactive choices in games helps cement the player's attachment to their character. Like, again, Mass Effect. I played the whole series and imported my Shepard all the way from the very first game. By the end of it all I was very attached to her (because basically I had crafted my personal, perfect protagonist. She was everything I could want in a lead character). I would say on that level the game was a resounding success. But the actual story - the plot line of the Reapers and all that, is basically meaningless. The way it ended - what does it mean? Nothing. There were three choices, they were explained to me, I picked the one I liked. Nothing to think about, nothing to discuss, nothing to debate, nothing to learn.

So, in conclusion, I continue to think that storytelling just doesn't work very well in this interactive context. Whether you want to call it a game or interactive cinema or whatever is beside the point. The best games continue to be the ones that present a player with a set of abilities, introduce an environment in which to use them, make good use of non-verbal communication, present the player with a relatively simple goal, and contain only as much "story" as is necessary to contextualize the gamepaly. Mario, Zelda (the old ones), Super Metroid, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, Limbo, Braid, FTL, Minecraft - those are some good examples.

Joseph Garvin
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While Skyrim failed in the story side in various ways, I think it avoided that full preknowledge problem - in Markarth and the Companions questline, it is easy to end up in a horrible position because you don't know what choice you're making, and what the consequences will be. Certainly, many games seem to treat the law of unintended consequences in storytelling as "cheating" the player. You have to see where you are going, and then go there by the path you saw. Of course, this isn't universally true.

Sergio Rosa
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My only problem with David Cage is that somehow he's too into the idea that the only way to make "emotional connections" is by using technology and photorealism. Most of the times I see QD techdemos (or any in-game photorealistic characters) I am reminded of The Polar Express.
All the performance capture in the world and realtime rendering power won't help if the characters still feel dead. There's a reason why performance capture in Avatar did only 30-50% of the work needed to bring those blue aliens to life (just like there's a reason why, even with performance capture) we still need animators.

Dane MacMahon
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My favorite game stories have always been ones you discover through actual gameplay. Looking at a bulletin board in Half Life 2 with news clippings of the invasion, or a satirical ad in Grand Theft Auto.

Jed Hubic
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I really hope he and his body of work doesn't become the voice for games as art. Good to see a big budget equates to emotional games.

Andreas Ahlborn
profile image love for David Cage on Gamasutra (at least when I look at the comments to this article).

I myself must admit I am also rather torn on the subject, since I think the future of "cinematic" ganes is only a very tiny piece of the video games future at all, but on the other hand I can totally buy into the vision Cage/Quantic Dream has for their own games.

I played Heavy Rain after my Son convinced me to try it out and must say the experience is certainly differnt from any other game experience I had, I would not say I fell in Love with it or that it made my personal Top10 Games of all Time. Cage certainly managed to create his own subgenre, but I doubt that it will spawn too much of a following. It was certainly fresh enough that "Beyond" will be a Day-One buy for me.

At this years gamescom I watched a panel with him attending and heard first of him working on this "algorithm" to imitate the style of famous directors and found this thought rather intriguing.

What I find interesting is the fact that you have a game like "The Last of Us" (to a lesser degree the Uncharted trilogy) that almost got universally praise from fans, critics and on this site that is probably the most "cinematic" game (besides Heavy Rain and probably Beyond) of this generation and meanwhile staying true to most of the things (looting, crafting, combat, stealth, traditional gamemechanics) we gamers so desperately need to bond with our game characters.

Maybe its the old dilemma between mainstream/arthouse and Cages way to treat games is more like a Michael Hanekes/Lars von Triers method to break the conventions of their medium and that makes a lot of gamers/developers uncomfortable?

Jed Hubic
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Andres, I think for me and many others when David Cage talks about "emotional games" he talks about his games specifically it seems, and his games require a big studio and a big budget, sort of like the only action movies worth talking about are Transformers (if this makes any sense? probably not).

Alex Boccia
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I don't think David Cage really gets videogames.

Bart Stewart
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I don't object to sensibly using some cinematic techniques in computer games. And I agree that meaning is something games can do better; it's a fertile field for some future games.

But I don't think becoming more film-like is the real answer, because what makes games distinct from movies is what movies don't do: interactivity. Story may be important, but games need to enable storytelling through player interaction -- sticking to cinematography tools won't take games as far as they can go in their own direction.

Which is why describing interactivity as "changing something in your environment" is troublesome. Interactivity is partly that, but more than that -- real interactivity is *feedback*. It's player-directed changes to an environment (encompassing terrain and NPCs and other players) that produce consequences that affect the player's next actions in the game.

Some film techniques might help present that feedback cycle to the player. But those aren't the only -- or possibly even the best -- representational tools a particular game might use, because they were never invented to support real interactivity. For that, game developers need their own idioms.

Seeing the invention of those computer game-specific tools for enabling and communicating real interactivity is one of the most enjoyable -- and occasionally frustrating -- parts of watching the young game development industry mature.