TBT – Ranking the Games of Quantic Dream
Allow me to be frank: Quantic Dream has yet to develop a “good” game. Mired by misogyny, racism, a lack of narrative focus, actual player choice (as advertised), all thanks largely to the overzealous mind of founder and lead writer, David Cage; the company’s chronology is essentially defined by immaturity, or perhaps an ignorant lack of social acknowledgement.
Their games involve (far too many) strained relationships between characters; female protagonists forced into sexual situations for the sake of ill-imposed empowerment; racist undertones, the audacity of which is often laughably unbelievable; complicated plotlines, which weave into a confounding tapestry of disfigured arcs leading nowhere; but perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.
With the upcoming release of Detroit: Become Human — likely to be their latest masterpiece of regressive sentimentality — it’s high time to rank the games of Quantic Dream, perhaps as a means of gauging just how disappointing a track record this company has. David Cage’s signature tropes and style are infused within each of these titles, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other contextually.
In diagnosing these games, however, it is important to note the distinctions between each which allow some to propel above others, at the very most thanks to heightened ambition, which no one can really fault Cage for. But ambition is often diminished in merit by execution, and Cage sure knows how to fuck up a great idea (particularly in regards to my Number 1 pick).
4. Omikron: The Nomad Soul
It’s comical to think how just how little has changed since Quantic Dream’s debut. An amalgam of adventure game-style writing, RPG-like management, a dash of FPS influence, and an uninspired sci-fi universe, Omikron is the premiere example of how Cage’s ambition overlooks any sort of cohesive focus. One could argue that most of Omikron’s failings are a result of age, with its unsettling character animations, timely gimmicks (the final level is set in a DOOM-like hellscape, entirely viewed through a first-person run-and-gun sort of sequence), obtuse inventory management, and an impressive world design marred by graphical limitations.
But to consider Omikron as terrible a title as it very much is, based on age alone, would be to forgive its incoherent, rambling narrative. The game’s promise to allow resurrection as any world character upon death provides the most contextually interesting idea of the entire game, though fails to ever capitalize on its humanistic repercussions. Which could be seen as quite a testament to Cage’s lack of acknowledgement regarding human definition, as he eagerly fills in narrative gaps with as many archetypal placeholders as possible (often resulting in quite the culturally-insensitive subjects). Ultimately, the game ends up being just as contradictorily messy, bland, and forgettable as its titular setting.
3. Beyond: Two Souls
Has there ever been a more fitting contender for “best worst game?” People fawn over beloved guilty pleasure films like The Room and Birdemic, but never before has a game been so optimized for kitsch worthy of Mystery Science Theater commentary. Functional and pretty to look at, the game succeeds in little but aesthetic value. Which makes it all the more engaging a title to bring friends together and scrutinize; not necessarily out of hatred, but often bewildered love.
Once again, the concept behind this Quantic Dream title is greater in theory than execution. Mirroring a young girl’s development into a mature adult with a ghostly apocalyptic scenario could have raised many issues involving society’s historic subordination of women, and there are many instances where it seems intent on doing just that. Instead, Cage’s script throws the protagonist, Jodie into as many dire situations as possible, be it cases of bullying, attempted rape, or uncharacteristic murder — the culprits of which are decorated as senseless, inhuman archetypes, designed to be despised.
At the heart of Beyond’s greatest flaws lie Cage’s inability to accurately portray a strong female protagonist, without laughably contradicting her independence at nearly every incomprehensible turn. For a game that promises player choice, romantic options are strictly limited to which male character Cage believes to be deserving of winning over Jodie, even when the player directly negates their advances (how ironic in a game where two instances of sexual assault are alluded to).
But the more enjoyable aspects of Beyond stretch into the the various gimmicks QD provide in efforts to keep players’ attentions. Rifling between the asynchronous events, the player goes from partying with teens, to fighting demons with a Native American love interest, to sneaking around terrorists in the Middle East, to nursing a pregnant homeless woman during childbirth. It’s all rather hysterical, with the added benefits of operating a paranormal, telekinetic presence — who ultimately serves as yet another male figure who seizes control over Jodie, and whom she must eventually learn to accept as her necessary protector.
2. Indigo Prophecy / Fahrenheit
Even for as bonkers as the plotline eventually becomes, Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy in the US) remains likely the safest title in Quantic Dream’s oeuvre. Ultimately a murder mystery, where the player must oscillate between the manipulated culprit and the detectives after him, the game begins with what is arguably the most effective scene Cage has ever written. What initially promises an engaging take on a crime story, in which player interaction results in a struggle with themselves, inevitably loses focus, and Cage falls back on sci-fi drivel to propel the events forward.
Thanks to its adventure game mechanics, this is the developer’s most classifiable title, which is a large part of what allows it to succeed in many areas. Collecting clues and working around damning dialogue scenarios can occasionally prove compelling, especially when the game asks the player to essentially work against themselves. But Cage’s distinct plotline never truly allows diverging from its intended path, culminating in an early example of a falsely-advertised “player choice” narrative, the likes of which have grown quite present in today’s industry.
If Cage (for once) could have allowed himself to consistently ground the situations he presents in some sort of reality (something he largely achieves for much of the first act), without delving into the science fiction nonsense which defines the latter half of the game; Fahrenheit may have been forgiven for its trivial “Simon Says” quicktime events, deceptive branching narrative options, and blatant racism (okay maybe not that).
Instead, QD’s second outing stands as a testament to Cage’s out-of-control pacing; a sort of stream-of-consciousness method of storytelling without the psychological nuance necessary for admiration. A fine game flattened by the developers’ longstanding dedication to lunacy.
1. Heavy Rain
Naming Heavy Rain as Quantic Dream’s finest game comes with a lot of baggage. Any of their titles besides Omikron could be argued to be their most effective — or rather, their least unsuccessful — but Cage’s character-driven mystery comes closest to greatness for its attention to pacing. The wonderful and often misunderstood introduction introduces the player to a family man, whose eventual tragedy leads to a somewhat powerful statement on the impact of grief.
Cage has not yet learned how to effectively write characters, as his follow-up Beyond: Two Souls clearly indicates; but for once, here it seems the game developers are in charge of dictating the player’s emotional responses, explaining character depth through association with their environments. Exploring the grey, lower-class home Ethan shares with his surviving son vividly contrasts with putting away groceries in the upper-scale abode with his wife during the prologue, effectively describing this anguished father’s mental downfall through symbolic parallelism.
Despite quite often delving into overdramatic mania, courtesy of QD’s lead writer, as well as uncharacteristic motivations involving the main protagonists (including one of the most forced and offensive sex scenes in the history of any medium), Heavy Rain consistently entices with its seemingly-unsolvable mystery. The plot concludes with one of the most contrived, needlessly-deceptive plot twists ever written for a game; but the journey towards it is impressively disorienting.
Yes, Cage fails to offer consistent character motivations, or sometimes any at all. Yes, the typical misogyny shines through within the female protagonist’s situations, in efforts to empower her through assault, or contradictorily forces her into an unnecessary relationship. Yes, “player choice” usually opens up little more than a slightly different path towards the conclusion. Yes, the gameplay is spoiled by overly-complicated controls, unbelievable sequences reminiscent of those of the Saw franchise, and often inconsequential quicktime scenarios.
However, there may actually be more good to Heavy Rain than bad, something that simply cannot be argued for any of QD’s other releases. The game’s ambitious framework works in its favor, juggling a bevy of characters in a struggle to prove the worth of any single Life. The lack of pragmatic behaviors in its protagonists and supporting characters often undermines this attempt, but Cage’s overambitious storytelling has never felt more emotionally grounded. And frankly, it’s probably the best we’re going to get.