The Price of Making Mature Games

The Price of Making Mature Games

David Cage, the creator of the PlayStation 3 drama hit Heavy Rain, rocked the industry recently when he dished out a simple plea to developers in a speech:

“Make games for adults. Seriously. It’s going to change your life.”

He elaborated: “We should be, in our industry, on par not with b-[movies], not with popcorn movies. We should be on par with the best movies out there, in matter of storytelling and characterization and emotion, etc., etc. plus we will add the interactive dimension to the experience.”

Kotaku blogger Stephen Totilo concurred, knowing that the non-gaming world isn’t horrified by video games so much as they’re simply dismissive of them. “We live in a world that also includes people who are bored by , people who dismiss games the way some might those movies that have a few dozen too many explosions,” he said.

Could the industry benefit from games that are written with adults in mind and don’t measure “maturity” in increments of flapping boobs and busted heads? Yes. Is Cage correct in assuming that deep, engaging storylines and compelling characters are necessary artillery for developers who need to give gamers a reason to spend $70 on a game versus a 99-cent App? Yes and no. Cage said, for instance, that he’s worried about his son playing cheap iPhone games in lieu of Nintendo DS and PSP games. Definitely a valid concern, but it doesn’t make for a solid argument: A deep story on par with Heavy Rain isn’t going to woo kids away from a one-screen distraction that a mom handed over to pacify her kid while standing in line for the bank.

But the most disappointing line from Cage’s otherwise compelling speech had to do with abolishing the “old ways:”

“We need to forget about video game rules,” he said. “Bosses, missions, game over, etc…are very old words of a very old language.”

Oh definitely, the Mario games would benefit tremendously from a dollop of drama. Let’s go Nintendo, time to explain where Bowser’s eight bastard children came from.

Cage’s mission is admirable, but there’s something to be said for old languages. Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek are all pretty long-lived, and they still have a considerable fanbase. Bosses, missions, and game overs also work, if they’re applied creatively in-game.

Maybe Cage didn’t mean to imply that established gameplay formulas need to be abolished entirely, but it’s a sad message to take away in any context. Toy Story 3 is an animated movie for children that is built on premise Pixar established years ago. That doesn’t mean it’s not a brilliant piece of work. It’ll make you think about your own childhood, moreso than any “grown-up” movie (it’ll also make you bawl, but we won’t tell anyone).

In the same vein, building a game for a mature audience doesn’t necessarily mean tearing down everything that works. Heavy Rain is a wonderful game, but put it in room full of 20-somethings alongside Mario Kart Wii and see which title garners more attention.

Video games need to deliver more adult moments to its grown-up audience, but sometimes we also just want to cut loose and play. When we talk about making “mature” games, we should first focus on matters like putting female characters in more lead roles, and creating male characters who are flawed (gasp!) and not especially good-looking (*faint*). If pains are taken to write a human cast, the mature voice Cage is calling for will follow naturally. Neutering old, beloved gameplay formulas won’t be necessary.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

4 Comments

  1. May I add Heavy Rain is majorly based on linear gameplay, wich is the opposite of what makes digital storytelling unique. There is no ammout of great graphics and pre-recorded professional actor narration that could make up for it.

    Super Mario, on the other hand, is almost totally based on gameplay (except for some text, etc). I prefer that than a very complex/emotional “movie-game hybrid”.

    I do want complexity and Emotion in digital media, but not as an emulation of other media.

  2. TheQuickBrownFox

    From his comments, it sounds like Cage does not understand the appeal of video games on the level that I and many others engage with them.

    There is nothing inherently “childish” about this level of engagement. But there is something inherently “playful”. Play and playfulness are important aspects of adult life, which are incompatible with somber works of interactive drama. This is the reason they are a niche in video games and will remain so. David Cage should consider himself lucky to make a living filling this niche, but he is mistaken in thinking it profoundly affects the medium as a whole, for reasons he apparently does not grasp.

  3. I might be an odd one out here, and I haven’t played Heavy Rain (can’t afford the console it’s on). While I certainly hope Cage isn’t calling for us to completely abandon playful games (the movie industry certainly haven’t abandoned playful films), I do think he has a good point about how the old structures for games have gotten way too entrenched.

    Video games have an infinite wealth of possibilities, and if you want to truly embrace the potential for the medium, you have to be willing to let go of a sacred cow or two. If stages and bosses are essential to the kind of experience you want, then you should use them, but they should never be treated as essential to the entire concept of gaming. For narrative games, narrative consequences for your decisions are far more meaningful than losing 2 hit points.

    Even playful games can benefit from questioning assumptions. Last I checked, Tetris still doesn’t have any boss battles.

  4. Addressing the need for divergent gameplay is the only way the industry can hope to continue growing when it comes to AAA titles, especially in the current era of Facebook gaming. Part of why the entire social / casual trend has gained so much ground so quickly is due to the fact that most of those titles are boiling down “old language” gameplay types into their most basic essence. While this obviously appeals to the masses who might not otherwise consider themselves “gamers”, it also rips the soul out of the industry, not to mention leads us further down the path where the budgets needed to build and sustain large enough teams to create AAA titles are quickly vanishing.

    With that said, how many titles that rely wholly on “old language” gameplay types or mechanics have been truly memorable, or made a lasting impact on the industry over the past few years? Wandering into a circular space and knowing even before the giant red health bar appears that you’re going to have to suffer through an annoying boss fight that forces you to play the game differently than you did for the past 3 hours is a largely forgettable experience. Don’t even get me started on “sewer levels”…

    We remember titles like Portal, Half Life 2, BioShock, Mass Effect, and even Heavy Rain as much for their writing as the specific gameplay mechanics they rely on to help guide you through the story. Sure, Mario may have plenty of brand awareness, but so does Paris Hilton. It doesn’t mean either has any depth or truly remarkable qualities that contribute to the growth of their respective cultures.

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