My name is Matt McNeely and I operate the Bowser Press blog. My aim is to create a voice for and give a voice to the out-of-the-way, weird, obscure, and otherwise marginal fringes of the video game community. My blog specializes in interviews with homebrew and indie game developers as well as niche game fans and articles on specific and interesting topics within games.
Jim Sterling's recent review of Beyond: Two Souls notices that "...the story is presented awfully, in a nonlinear fashion contrived to evoke the movies of Godard, Altman, or Tarantino." While I have no doubt that David Cage would love to be compared to these film making legends, he really has no right to. I know Sterling understands that Cage is simply trying to evoke these greats and that he could never live up to them. Plenty of awful film makers evoke the greats and it feels just as insulting as it does with Cage. A film such as Urban Legends: Final Cut, a pot-boiler whodunnit that takes place at a film school, allows the creators free reign to name drop Jean-Luc Godard and Alfred Hitchcock and it even goes so far as to use the Alfred Hitchcock Presents music in its final sequence despite the fact it works within a genre that Hitch spoke poorly of. Pretty oblivious stuff. What sets David Cage apart from the typical gun-for-hire or would be auteur movie making hacks is his insistence on undermining the medium he works within. Though the director of Urban Legends: Final Cut may lack talent, he at least recognizes and seems to appreciate the film as an artistic medium.
Sterling's comparison of Cage to Tarantino feels ironic given Tarantino's obvious love of film and Cage's ambivalence toward video-games. Cage has gone so far as to call his games "films" in the past, a semantic distinction that would feel brazen if employed by say, the Uncharted creators, but comes off as quixotic and laughable from him. If one good thing can be said of Heavy Rain, it's that its level of freedom to determine the outcome of the narrative at so many different junctures gives the filmic game a raison d'etre. Not so with Beyond, which eschews player choice in deference to Cage's precious plot. It's understandable why Cage works within the video game space despite so clearly wishing to make a movie instead; if he were to leave interactive fiction for the cinematic arena he would make films of no distinction. As long as he is given a platform for his ideas within the AAA video game development sphere, he has a hook.
Divorced of their need for player input, however tenuous that need may be, Cages games employ none of the formal cinematic elements, biting satire, and assured themes of Godard. It would be unthinkable for Cage to end Beyond: Two Souls with a title card that reads something to the effect of "The End of Video Games", but that is, essentially, what Godard did with his masterpiece, Weekend. His film as manifesto is delivered with such style and strident conviction that when Godard ends it with a translated title reading "The End of Cinema", the viewer is inclined to simultaneously take him seriously and laugh with him. If Cage was to do the same, the player's inclination would be to laugh at him. After all, what ultimate statement about interactive fiction could he possibly be trying to convey within a game that gives the player little more agency than that of Dragon's Lair and offers as much insight into the human condition as ICP's "Miracles" video?
Comparing Cage to Robert Altman is no more apt than it is with Godard and Tarantino. Altman's Nashville is considered one of the all-time great works of American cinema. It's ending masterfully coalesces the dual themes of the corrupting influence of ego and the American youth's disenfranchisement. As suddenly and violently as the gunman shoots Barbara Jean at the political rally in an act of anarchic and symbolic protest, she is replaced by a sycophant in the right place at the right time who picks up the musical act without a skipped beat. As all this is happening, the mysterious front man of the Replacement Party never emerges. Though it is a little on the nose to see a banner for the Replacement Party hanging above the stage as one (previously beloved but recently done in by a nervous breakdown brought on by the demands of stardom) singer is literally replaced by another (no doubt on her way to being bought and sold by The Music Industry), Altman is unmistakably making a cutting observation about the public's ease in being placated by distractions such as country music stars as well as its lack of direction in a time when the counterculture desperately feels a need for change but probably doesn't know exactly what that change should be. All of these ideas come through with great nuance and confidence, and his speaking to and about the subcultures he focuses his lens on never feels condescending or disingenuous. There's good reason the film is so well respected.
There's also a good reason Cage is so polarizing. He occasionally puts forth interesting ideas such as the narrative freedom of Heavy Rain, but mostly misses the mark with his overwrought and pretentious games. Though great film makers such as Godard and Tarantino might have the pretentious label thrown at them, their work does stand on its own. Cage's over-reliance on incredibly tired cliches, superficial themes, and formulaic plots put him in league with the movie makers of the Millennium Entertainment oeuvre - except he isn't a film maker. So I guess Cage will just have to be considered in a league of his own. There is crying in Beyond: Two Souls.