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Concerning KARA

It’s been a while since I have actually made a blog post, but in all honesty, I have decided not to blog for blogging’s sake, but to do so whenever something comes up that I truly feel I need to say something. I know this goes completely against the proven formula of what makes a successful blog, successful (three regularly scheduled, new posts a week; creating a poll with every post, like you really give a shit about what the reader thinks, et al.), but I feel in the long term, honesty in my blog is going to be my differentiating factor. And honestly, there is no point in blogging unless I have something I really want to say . . . which brings me to the following post.

No doubt by now, everyone in the gaming world has seen KARA, Quantic Dream’s new tech demo. Not sure if KARA is simply the name of the tech demo itself, or the name of the tech behind the demo; or both. But whatever. I’ve seen the demo (embedded below), and it’s great, especially considering that it is on current-gen hardware. At the same time, I’m not really impressed with the demo – at least not with the tech. Whether it is facial animation and capture tech, or graphical tech, I’ve seen much better already (see above links). And even though that ‘much better’ is geared towards PC, cloud, and next-gen, better is still better. And once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s pretty hard to look back.

Now what I was really impressed by was the writing/acting. Truly good stuff, the like you simply do not find in games that often. To me the take away from this, as has it has been for some years now, is the best way to make games better, is for developers to start making dramatic strides to improve every other aspect to the game besides graphics.

It would be so nice if next-gen, pushing the graphic envelope could take a backseat for an entire generation, as pushing everything else that elicits realism, were pushed instead. That includes every game fully animated (not just rendered) at 60fps to 75fps, truly connected writing and plotting, challenging gameplay not reduced to the least common denominator, better ways to tell the story in the game and not just with contrived cut-scenes, physics that constantly push and exceed the envelop of expectations, cloud-based learning AIs that are not only deceptively real to begin with, but actually get better the more people play them . . . and the list goes on.

There are probably hundreds of problems developers could and should work on to make games more realistic than pouring all their time, money and resources into better graphics and more cinematic, Hollywood-esque cut-scenes. Especially late in a gaming generation, when it is becoming painfully obvious that the current stock of hardware has either reached, or is getting close to reaching it’s ‘sell by’ date.

KARA is nice, but I would be so much more impressed for a developer to figure out how to get this level of emotion and storytelling featured throughout the entire game, and not just bottlenecked into over-produced cut-scenes. As it stands, the industry as a whole does not even try any more. You got Half-Life 2 a way back in 2004 (almost a decade ago), that was the last major step forward in interactive storytelling, and very few have managed to even equal it over the years. much less push beyond what Valve accomplished in interactive storytelling with the game. Last year, we got Portal 2, another Valve game, and it was able to get more emotion out of a potato, and a ‘defective’ turret named Caroline, than 99% of every game released in the last decade combined has been able to muster, without resorting to a single cut-scene to do so. Now THAT is realism. If the takeaway from the KARA demo was that David Cage had finally found a way to get this level of emotive realism and storytelling into a game, without doing a single cut-scene, I’d personally kiss the guy full on the lips . . . if he succeeded at all that without sacrificing good gameplay to do it, I’d do it with tongue.

And despite the fact that I respect him, his team, and his abilities as a game developer, and despite the fact that I played every game he has produced since Omikron, and actually like his work, I have always felt that David Cage’s ideas of where the future of gaming should be headed, was more sucking from Hollywood’s teat, than actually trying to push the interactive arts into a direction that would allow it to fully achieve it’s own potential as a medium. And as can be witnessed in KARA, it is far too easy to simply just emulate Hollywood, than to create a medium that can tell stories, and illustrate the human condition that Hollywood cannot; or at the very least, in a way that Hollywood could never follow. Ultimately that is the true potential for gaming, and interactive arts – storytelling, and engaging the audience in ways that until now, have been impossible to achieve in human history.

True, that is a tall order to fill – one that the vast majority of the commercialized gaming industry pretty much gave up on the day game development crossed the $10 million barrier. So why put that burden on David Cage’s shoulders when so many others don’t even try? Simple. Cage, unlike so many of his contemporaries, is one of the extreme few in the business actually trying to push the medium in any new direction at all. There are a lot of indie devs who are working on the problem as well. But among the commercially successful developers, you can probably count on a single hand how many of them are actively engaged in pushing the boundaries of the medium. Like him or not, Gage is on that short list. And as one of the few remaining developers willing to put their necks/careers on the line pushing the boundaries at all, then perhaps if he is given a better target to shoot for than just merely mimicking Hollywood, something truly revolutionary will come of his efforts.


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