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Kara-Kara-Kara-Kara-Kara Chameleon! March 12, 2012

Posted by jaykayell in Videogames.
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SO! David Cage is at it again. Blurring the lines between film and games with a tech-demo cum short movie that provides another take on the ol’ “what is it to be alive?” question.

All very impressive visually and not just on a technical level. There’s some good, and more importantly coherent, design work on display here. The cold sterile manufacturing plant contrasting nicely with the warm flesh tones of Kara’s eerie disembodied face. It’s a world apart from the new Unreal engine demo shown last year, which was pretty much the culmination of every game that’s ever used the Unreal engine. But like that Unreal demo, we’ve seen Kara before haven’t we. As you can see, there’s some noticeable similarities in subject and tone with Chris Cunningham’s amazingly effective video for ‘All is Full of Love’.

Now, it’s not like videogames aren’t already littered with “tributes” to certain movies. Indeed, my all time favourite game series, Silent Hill, is itself full of references to various other forms of media. And there’s no crime in taking influences, as Oscar Wilde famously said “talent borrows, genius steals”. Popular culture is built on taking influences and rearranging them into something new, the excellent video series Everything is a Remix expands on this far better than I ever could so do be sure to watch that.

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An emotional scene featuring a robot, yesterday.

So not being terribly original isn’t Kara’s sin here. I’d much rather videogames took influence from Chris Cunningham’s work than… well, whatever that Unreal demo was based on. David Cage can’t be criticised for lack of ambition when it comes to experimenting with narrative in games. It’s just… he’s horrible, HORRIBLE, at it.

Take Fahrenheit, his first stab at bringing film and gameplay closer together. No really please, take it away. (Oh I’m hilarious me!) I’ve seen a fair few shit films in my time, you know the type. They have exposition heavy dialogue because the screenwriter has no faith in their own writing ability. The kind that would have a detective say “hmmmm looks like a homicide to me!” while they’re stood over a body that’s got a big knife sticking out of it, in case we the audience are too slow to pick up on it. Fahrenheit had the subtlety of a boot to the head, gaming’s equivalent to a straight to video film. Except this time it’s the directors cut, so the player was treated to long sequences of getting ready for bed! Whole events which had nothing to do with moving the narrative forward or even providing a decent gameplay experience. What you ended up with was a whole load of padding around a thin plot that would have had trouble stretching out 90 minutes, let alone several hours. It was hailed as being mature for daring to have a sex scene, one deemed so important that you could control the protagonist Lucas’s erm… ‘movements’ while Nickleback-alikes play in the background. Quite why Cage felt this was so important to do, I don’t know. But I will admit that I like the idea of Lucas committing suicide if he fails to bring Carla to orgasm. The plot of Fahrenheit was a horrible mishmash of conspiracies, voodoo and fuck knows what else. A bunch of disparate elements all brought together with no logical explanation.

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“Look Olivia! I can get this woman off with just my fingers!”

Cage’s next production, Heavy Rain, followed the template laid out by Fahrenheit but with a tighter plot. In that it had a plot that made some sense. Again, it further blurred the line between gaming and films but like Fahrenheit, playing it felt like you were reading over someone else’s shoulder. Not being able to take in the story at your own pace but forced to jump through hoops in order to move things on. Literally if you were playing the ‘Move enhanced’ version. It’s clear that Cage sees himself as an auteur of videogames. There’s a training section in Fahrenheit where he pontificates on how different an experience you’re having in comparison to those other, booooooring, games. Those other games where you run around of your own free will and work out solutions by yourself without the game holding your hand and offering you ‘hints’. Generally treating you like a fucking adult who’s capable of reading the manual.

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A woman in Heavy Rain IN heavy rain yesterday.

BACK TO KARA, here is where we see Cage’s failings as a writer come to the fore. In the first few moments, the camera pulls back from Kara’s face to show that “she’s” mechanical. An unseen tester commands Kara to tell the audience what she is and she handily lists out a few of her functions such as looking after the house, cooking, helping out with the kids, and being always up for a quickie. (Again, why Cage deems this important to state I don’t know) As the film goes on, Kara suddenly goes all Johnny-5 on us and declares that she’s alive. So instead of being amazed that he’s stumbled over potentially the greatest AI ever, the unseen tester orders Kara to be disassembled until… she says she’s fwightened then has a change of heart. Awwwwwwwwwwwww!

As per usual with Cage’s work, the writing is offensively unsubtle (©Voidburger), hammering the point home just so you could have your emotions manipulated by a rank amateur. What’s worse is it seems to have worked too with journos and commenters alike singing its praises. In a better world, David Cage wouldn’t even be trusted to write a manual. But in this one, his messy unfocused approach is constantly referred to as a benchmark. Both Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain were praised as important steps forward in game storytelling despite having nothing new to say.

One particularly problematic aspect of Cage’s work evident in Kara is how he makes sure to tell us, the audience, that she’s barely more than a cooking, cleaning and shagging machine. There’s an argument to be made here how Kara is meant to be a dehumanised object. But this doesn’t hold much water when you realise the unseen tester talks to her as if she was a person, creepily calling her baby and honey. Add to that the totally necessary and important sex scene in Fahrenheit where Carla magically falls in love with Lucas so Cage can show some polygonal nookie and call it ART! Or what about the scene in Heavy Rain when Madison does a striptease in order to lull a gangland boss into a false sense of security even though her gun is unguarded no more than a few steps away? Far be it from me to draw any conclusions about David Cage but when he’s having to defend the scenes he claims are so important then maybe he should start to rethink his priorities.

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TOTES MATURE!

Going back to both the Kara and Unreal2011 tech demos, they both stand as two very different but prime examples of all that’s wrong in modern gaming narratives. Cartoon stereotypes in place of full characters. Writing that’s pitched at an audience who’ve never read a book that isn’t full of spaceships or barbarians. Big, messy unfocused plots that demand a steady stream of explosive setpieces but neglect the spaces in between. Even the once glorious Silent Hill series is now in the hands of someone who uses the magical negro trope in 2012! Gamers are being continually fed a diet of shit-sandwiches and enjoying it because they don’t know better.

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