After replaying Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, David Cage’s second most well-received game to date, a singular question materialised. The question is as follows: why did they, and why do they still receive high praise? Now, this is by no means an original question. David Cage’s works have always been divisive. However, I replayed these games despite my overall distaste for Cage’s idea of worthwhile experiences. Thus I feel it necessary to pen my observations, if only to gain some clarity as to my confused state of mind (which is currently comparable to any of his plotlines). So, without further ado, let’s decipher what makes the David Cage experience.
Welcome To A New Form Of Video Game
Before we delve into this examination of media and psyche, I’ll begin by providing some historical context. Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy was released in 2005 and was hailed as an extreme evolution of the game concept. According to David Cage, it had departed from this categorisation. It was, in fact, the very first interactive film.
As an impressionable teenager at the time of Fahrenheit’s release, I was insatiably curious about the world’s first interactive film. This curiosity was further exacerbated by its promised dark and mysterious overtones, its adult themes, its branching narrative, and its hyper-realistic graphics. Within a week of its release, my curiosity was rewarded with the first scene, which left me instantly mesmerised.
The cinematic presentation was articulated superbly, with sweeping camera shots that captured the melancholic beauty of the New York skyline. The visuals were accompanied by an equally melancholic soundtrack, which descends into a harrowing crescendo of murder and utter desperation for the main protagonist, Lucas Kane.
An Incredible Beginning
The desperation that Lucas feels translates into the subsequent gameplay. Unlike adventure games before it, the player is confronted with a number of actions that can be performed, but without any guidance as to what results in successful progression. Or in this case, what results in the best method of escape. Should Lucas attempt to clean the murder scene and sit back down to his meal under the pretense of normality? Or, should he dash out covered in blood, making a quick escape to avoid being physically identifiable? Nothing is clear.
Every action has the potential to incriminate. And every action has the potential to bring the unwitting murderer Lucas one step closer to complete mental breakdown. With such high stakes from the outset, coupled with its inspired presentation, Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy had, and has to this day, one of the most compelling opening scenes I have ever experienced.
I Better Take a Shower and Get Dressed Before I Go Downstairs
With this amount of praise, it will come as no surprise that Fahrenheit‘s opening scene is its most compelling aspect. The descent into the overall distasteful David Cage experience previously mentioned doesn’t take long to transpire. But we will not traverse this slippery slope just yet. Instead, we will fast forward five years to the release of Heavy Rain and its surprisingly lackluster beginning.
Unlike Fahrenheit, with its impenetrably dark and enigmatic opening themes, Heavy Rain gets going with a simulation of upper-middle-class mediocrity. Every decision made is either meaningless or meaningless and enforced. My favourite meaningless and enforced action is taking a shower. Not only is it unthinkable to go downstairs without having one, but it’s also unthinkable to wear clean pants afterward.
But in all seriousness, whether you’re showering or sketching according to your heavily guided volition, everything feels completely pointless. In a game predominantly focussed on providing the player with meaningful narrative-based decisions, this is nothing less than dreadful.
Daddy, Can You Cut Your Head off Whilst Shaving?
When I played this opening scene for the first time, I couldn’t stop comparing it to Fahrenheit’s. I couldn’t stop thinking about how every action taken in that grubby diner carried so much weight. Nothing was off-limits. Consequently, my instinct was to rebel in any way possible against the oppressive hand of mediocrity I had been dealt.
Whilst shaving, I unfolded the action far too quickly every time for some sneaky self-harm exploitation. When asked to put out the plates carefully by my wife, I threw them into place with reckless abandon (much to her inconsequential annoyance). During play-time with my children, I lifted them for all of one second to their unwarranted delight and rapturous applause.
On consideration, I acknowledge that some might find my criticism and not entirely mature reaction to this David Cage experience unjust. After all, this scene is classified as the prologue/tutorial. However, this fact alone does not make it exempt from criticism. Fahrenheit had a tutorial, but it was optional and separate from the main game, with no connection to the story. And the great thing about this was that I didn’t need to play through it. This is because the game provided enough information through occasional textual explanations and on-screen prompts.
Heavy Rain should have featured and presented its tutorial in the same way. Alas, by opting to make the tutorial an unavoidable part of the game and narrative experience, the game succeeded in implanting a cynical attitude which I struggled to shake off throughout the rest of its playtime.
If I Have To Repeat Myself One More Time…
A similar cynicism accompanied me throughout the length of Fahrenheit. Shortly after its insurmountable peak of an opening scene, it became all too apparent that Cage’s overall idea of giving the player agency was to have them fumble through relentlessly repetitive dialogue trees.
Dialogue is rehashed from one character to another in a vain attempt to make the real-life drama/sci-fi/fantasy make sense. Sadly for this David Cage experience, no amount of repetition would be enough to achieve such a feat. Instead, the dialogue strips individuality from the characters and leaves the player exasperated, desperately swiping right to stop the drivel.
In contrast, trivial and repetitive dialogue isn’t a problem for Heavy Rain. This is because the story mainly stays within the realm of realism (if not believability). Additionally, the characters’ paths intertwine much later, meaning that there’s minimal opportunity for drawn-out, repeated explanations of events. These creative decisions enable Cage’s writing to retain player investment, as each chance to influence dialogue is fresh and drives the narrative forward.
How Far Would You Go To Stop a Killer?
Heavy Rain also contains a number of fantastic dramatic sequences, which Fahrenheit is devoid of after its opening. Arguably Heavy Rain‘s most gripping scene is when Ethan (loving, covertly filthy father from the introduction) must decide whether to cut off a finger in hope of saving his kidnapped son, Shaun.
The desperation I felt when playing through this trial was incredible. It was the only time where I couldn’t help but unconsciously make the decision as if I was the character. I had to make the sacrifice. But making the decision and carrying out the action are two very different things.
With only five minutes at your disposal, you stumble around the bleak apartment in search of a suitable implement whilst internally wrestling the swarm of agonising thoughts that persistently circle you on screen. If you make it back with an implement, things don’t get any easier. Heavy Rain uses on-screen QTEs for its actions.
In this scene, you must physically fight your instincts to flinch away from pain by making you hold your hand out flat by holding the corresponding buttons, bringing your weapon up by repeatedly hitting square and then smashing down with the joystick to sever flesh, bone, and sinew. It’s a brilliantly distressing scene from start to finish. The presentation, gameplay, acting, and music come together to create an unforgettable David Cage experience.
Simulation…Not at Its Finest
Now that we’ve detailed two moments of brilliance in these games, it’s time to return to the flaw strewn path. We shall alight upon what I am going to call mundane life choices. For unfathomable reasons, David Cage believes that immersion is achieved by allowing the player to engage with the mundane. Examples are drinking orange juice, eating a slice of pizza, or bouncing a ball.
In a simulation game, this belief would be fully justified. The premise of a life simulation is to direct every action a character makes, down to using the toilet or wetting oneself. However, Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain are ‘psychological thriller[s] where every action you take has consequences’. Chucking in the option to open the fridge thus unfairly tricks the player into assuming that whatever is inside will affect their experience. Maybe there’ll be a clue left by the Origami Killer, perhaps a severed head. But alas, the David Cage experience results in nothing but disappointment. When you get over the fact that there’s only orange juice inside, after finishing it, you just can’t piss yourself.
Although performing these banal actions does little to achieve player immersion in Cage’s fictional worlds, they do serve different functions of varying quality. In Heavy Rain, turning on the radio has no direct impact on the game or its characters. With no omnipresent judgment, the player is free to engage with the mundane of their free will. Ultimately, any interaction with the mundane enables the player to unwittingly practice control inputs that are vital in keeping characters alive in the games’ most challenging scenes. However, the same cannot be said for Fahrenheit. Not only does its environmental interaction differ widely from the input required in its action scenes, but every action performed carries the weight of a character’s sanity.
Rhythm Is a Dancer
We’ll start with the less foreboding examination of the juxtaposition of environmental interaction and action in Fahrenheit. To interact with environmental objects, the player must flick the joystick in the appropriate direction to the desired outcome. When I had gotten used to the established mechanics, the game laughed in my face. Ridiculously dramatic music kicks in, you’re shouted at to ‘Get ready!’ whilst two Simon Says circles are vomited atop the hysterically thrashing Lucas, who’s covered in hallucinatory bugs.
There’s no time to adjust, you instantaneously have to point the joysticks in time to the flashing colours. But the flashing colours don’t correspond to anything happening below, so it’s impossible to acquire a sense of rhythm. If you don’t adapt to the game’s inadequacy though, you will die. And you will die, many, many times. Sadly, there are a lot of these action scenes to plow through, including a laughable Matrix-esque fight scene and a close encounter with every item in Lucas’ possession before reality collapses in on itself.
Drink My Milk if You Want To Live
Having penned a few of Fahrenheit‘s fantastical action sequences, environmental interaction resulting in insanity seems fitting for this fictional space. Losing a game of basketball or neglecting to stay caffeinated are examples of actions that can lead to overwrought insanity (perhaps this is a typical David Cage experience).
Unlike in Heavy Rain, where environmental interaction is optional, in Fahrenheit, the player is effectively obliged to interact with everything. If losing a game of basketball is hellishly traumatic, maybe a cold glug of milk is a conversely euphoric experience. Maybe the positivity it instills will create a solid buffer to overwrought insanity, which results in game over.
Fortunately, game over does not mean you have to restart the entire game, just the chapter you’re playing. However, just a few unfortunate decisions compounded with events outside of player control can create a completely irredeemable situation. When I first played Fahrenheit, there were at least two occasions where I had to restart the game from the beginning. It’s unfair and needlessly cruel (like the previously imagined David Cage experience).
How Far Would You Go With a Corpse?
Let’s move away from the inexhaustible topic of decision-making to an appraisal of the game’s stories. We’ll begin where we left off with Fahrenheit. This was at the top of a metaphorical slope for our everyday man Lucas Kane. It’s also atop a very real slope for the player and the narrative as a whole. After the brilliantly conceived murder scene, the gameplay rapidly becomes constrained. The story propels itself from the semblance of normality to everything collapsing in on itself. One minute you’re keeping up appearances whilst under investigation, the next you’re battling the occult with superhuman powers.
The only explanation I can think of for this departure from reality is that Cage wrote himself into a hole. In his story, Lucas has to be found out. But, if Lucas is found out, he would be imprisoned. Game officially over. So, it was with a trembling hand that Cage had Lucas surrounded by police officers, with no hope of escape.
Confronted with the actuality of the game’s dead-end, Cage’s only option was to rely on incoherent magic. Thus, Lucas escapes imprisonment by channeling his latent superpowers from being exposed to a life-force as a fetus. Lucas kills a man because he’s randomly controlled by other-worldly beings searching for the meaning of life. And, of course, Lucas dies a hero’s death. But, his story doesn’t end there. Lucas the corpse becomes the ultimate hero. It saves the world, gets the girl and -somehow- has a baby.
A Flawed Yet Worthwhile Mystery
There are no words to adequately describe the chaotic mess of Fahrenheit‘s out of this world plot. Thankfully, by contrast, Heavy Rain mostly grounds itself in reality. The main focus, similar to Fahrenheit, is on an everyday man who becomes so much more. This time around though, the ‘becoming more’ is purely metaphorical.
Ethan Mars fights to become the only father that would do anything to save his son from the Origami Killer. Heavy Rain has plot-holes aplenty and its twist is contrived, however, I respect the concept enough to keep this paragraph spoiler-free. It’s also worth mentioning that the game does a brilliant job of instilling jeopardy. In Heavy Rain, death doesn’t result in a retry, it results in the actual death of the character. If you haven’t played Heavy Rain and are unfamiliar with the story, I would definitely recommend it despite its misgivings.
Allow Me To Introduce the Female Body…
You might be surprised by my recommendation in light of the following misgivings, which sink to much lower depths. Now it’s time to shine a light on Cage’s base mode of characterisation. Characterisation begins and ends with explicitly offensive stereotyping or degrading hyper-sexualisation, unless the character in question is a white male. Let me formally introduce Heavy Rain‘s female protagonist, Madison Paige. She’s a caring and intelligent journalist who utilises her skills and altruism to help Ethan in his time of need. Only, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, this isn’t how the character is written at all.
Madison is introduced through one of her nightmares at an arbitrary point in the game. We don’t even learn her name. Instead, we get fully acquainted with what Cage believes to be of utmost importance, the woman’s physique. For almost eight minutes, the guise of object interaction and exploration falls flat as the nameless woman struts about in her underwear and lays it all bare in the shower. It’s a voyeur’s playground that devolves into Cage’s ultimate sexual horror fantasy. Break-in ninjas grapple with the object of desire in an interactive battle that climaxes with her throat being torn open.
It Only Gets Worse
This has to be the worst character introduction I have ever encountered. Yet bizarrely, this isn’t the worst of Cage’s depiction of the female protagonist. Madison is repeatedly presented as nothing more than sexual prey to the male populace. When booking a motel room, the owner openly leers at her. If for some unbeknown reason you don’t realise his statements and behaviour are lecherous, the camera hovering over her posterior will hammer that point home.
Then there’s that pivotal scene where Madison exploits her sexuality for information. This activity results in her stripping at gunpoint, where her only defence is – you guessed it – her sexuality. I abhor this façade of a character, so much so I came very close to putting the game to rest. But, the fact that I carried on is a testament to the curiosity of its story.
Before wrapping up, it would only be fair to review Fahrenheit’s tasteless caricatures. We have another sexualised female protagonist, this time the ‘smouldering detective Carla Valenti’. Thankfully, the sexualisation of this particular character doesn’t reach the absurd heights described above. However, the fact she’s sexualised at all is frustrating, as Carla is written fairly well by Cage standards. She’s independent, intelligent and has a strong work ethic. But, Cage can’t let us forget that above all else, she’s a woman. This explains her sudden shift from independent intelligence to sharing bodily fluids on a train with a corpse.
I would also like to give a big shout out to the other women that grace us with their presence. There’s Lucas’ ex Tiffany who’s wooed into interactive love taking by Lucas’ average musical performance. There’s also Sam, who celebrates the anniversary of meeting her Motown loving partner by dancing butt naked on their table.
…And a Racial Stereotype
Funnily enough, this neatly brings me on to Cage’s offensive racial stereotyping. Sam’s partner not only loves Motown, he also adores basketball and makes love in a circular bed. Sam’s partner is Tyler Miles, a black detective. He thinks nothing of taking a piss at a crime scene or alleviating tension by cranking on the jukebox. A funky soundtrack that perfectly complements his absurd swagger follows him wherever he goes.
And, the less that’s said about the Japanese man at the bookstore the better, though the racist stereotype Tyler can’t help but make the observation that he looks just like the ‘Chinese dude from the Gremlins’. With all this said, let’s be clear on one final thing. Cage is certain that he has never made a racist or misogynistic game, and that he never will.
Emotions That You Haven’t Felt in Real Life
Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain: part one or two stellar moments, the rest part boiled piss. I guess this is the definition of the David Cage experience. Yet, despite this fact, most of the enjoyment stems from all its flaws of varying degrees. Playing a Cage game is like watching The Room. It’s so bad that it’s funny, and it’s so funny because the creator believes that they created a masterpiece. Ultimately, the David Cage experience leaves you:
- Appalled by its lack of coherence.
- Horrified by its treatment/characterisation of anyone differing from Cage’s mold.
- Making a mockery of its most important decision: whether to have a drink or take a piss.
There is room for David Cage experiences in the games industry, and it’s because everyone’s in on the joke bar the man himself. Let’s keep it that way. Long live Quantic Dream, David Cage, and all of his glorious emotions.