Why David Cage's visually-amazing Kara demo sadly also sums up the worst of video game story-telling

So Quantic Dream’s David Cage has done it again. Two years after Heavy Rain, he’s sent the gaming world into a tizzy with another visually stunning demo of another beautifully rendered female character being all dramatic and sad. He’s espousing more leaps forward for mature video game narrative. He’s talking about setting new standards for dramatic story-telling. But once again, while the new tech being used is undeniably impressive, personally I also see a very prominent naked emperor putting nice graphics before much more important things.

First things first though. I’m not writing off the Kara demo. In a lot of ways it was bloody brilliant. To get that kind of crisp visual fidelity, such sexy lighting, and such a remarkably vivid sense of time and place out of a PS3 (and a year ago at that, apparently) is a damnably striking achievement, and certainly a silencing shot for all of those claiming that the current generation of consoles has already been squeezed of every last drop of juice. I’ve always been an advocate of long console life-spans, having seen hardware generation after hardware generation prematurely pole-axed just as they were starting to take off. So yes, thanks for making my point so powerfully, Quantic Dream. And thanks for doing it with a year old version of an engine you’ve apparently improved exponentially since then. Exciting times indeed.

Above: The Kara demo. Technically and visually, really bloody impressive

Moreover, although the intro text to the demo maintains that it is a standalone piece, not part of a game nor intended to be one, the world it creates is one that I really want to explore. Although we essentially see only one room in the Kara demo, that room is so brilliantly realised and utterly cohesive that although stylised, it feels utterly like a part of a real place. So yeah, brilliantly convincing visuals and a tantalisingly convincing game world. All the things Quantic Dream do well, summed up on one demo.  But herein lies the problem.

You see in terms of everything beyond the technical and aesthetic, to me the Kara demo is a dead duck. All the things Cage so frequently claims to champion, all the really important, creative, mature, drama-and-gravitas-sodden things he rightly proclaims the importance of, are things I find Kara to utterly fail at. And if we praise it for these things, we do nothing but arrest the real development of video game storytelling by vastly lowering our standards. Allow me to explain.

That production design, eh? Pretty striking, right? Definitely shows Quantic Dream have some seriously visionary folk running their artistic and conceptual direction, yeah? Well no. It’s actually way too similar to Chris Cunningham’s 1997 video for Bjork’s All is Full of Love for me to possibly take seriously. From the first second of the demo, Cunningham’s work is all I could see. Of course I'd never go as far as to claim plagiarism, but I’ll embed the video for you to watch so you can see what I’m talking about.

Far from extolling the bold, affecting creativity at one of the self-proclaimed front-runners in terms of mature, artistic game design, the Kara demo's unfortunate extreme similarities to Cunningham's work scream to me of gaming's continued piggy-backing on the previous, in this case 15-year-old, successes of film. Ditto the vast swathes of the demo which struck me as disturbingly reminiscent of a 1995 episode of the rebooted Outer Limits TV series, entitled Valerie 23. An obscure reference, granted, but not one obscure enough for me to miss some highly disheartening similarities.

The episode, in a nutshell, deals with the titular female android, built as a home helper/companion to the story’s human male protagonist. She serves the same roles as the Kara, even at one point explicitly stating that “I’m fully functional” in regards to sex, a concept conspicuously emphasised throughout QD’s piece (though I'll come onto that more a little later on). Of course, the episode eventually descends into the inevitable archetypal discussions of whether or not an android can truly be alive.  The episode decides to define something as living when it is scared of death. And would you believe it, at the end of a long string of mishaps resulting from the robot’s “simulated” emotions, it is eventually killed, whereupon we are treated to the weighty crux of the episode, via the twist that Valerie expresses fear.

Yeah. “I’m afraid”. Almost he exact same key-phrase on which Cage hinges his whole dramatic crescendo and the narratively crucial shift of perception of Kara as an entity. Again, I’m not going to go as far as to accuse a deliberate rip-off, but at best we’re looking at a supposedly progressive example of video game drama which possesses worrying similarities to an older medium, in this case hanging its dramatic weight on the exact same lumpen central narrative mechanic as a hokey example of a generally hokey TV show.

In reality, it doesn’t matter whether anyone at Quantic Dream has even seen that particular episode of that particular attempt to ride the ‘90s X-Files bandwagon. The important point is that the Kara demo’s successes exist purely within the visual, and occur in no way as a result of good writing, powerful human drama, a clever, meaningful harnessing of interactivity, or any of the other things that video game story-telling desperately needs. Instead it delivers only the hoariest of old sci-fi tropes, a bog-basic idea that has been around since Pinnochio (much earlier in fact), and which was hammered into outdated cliché by the end of the ‘50s.

Next: And it gets much worse than that...


  • legokangpalla - January 14, 2013 10:31 p.m.

    I agree. The most important technical aspect of video games is the "interactivity". Starting with the program that we call "games" it creates frame by frame on the spot based on our inputs or "decisions". Whilst I do not know the specifics of the demo itself-maybe the demo was intended to show off the graphics engine, and if this was the case my point is some-what dulled- it draws the drama and storytelling purely from the narration and non-interactive visuals, like a movie lacking as a game.
  • ObliqueZombie - March 23, 2012 12:25 p.m.

    You're so effing right, Mr. Houghton, it almost hurts. Yet another fantastic piece of writing from one of my personal favorites, and you nailed the idea on the head. I... can't say much more than that, since my sentiments were already reflected through your piece, let alone a number of fellow GR-goers comments.
  • popezaphod - March 13, 2012 11:27 a.m.

    Wow, show me on the doll where David Cage touched you. I've never seen so much energy put into tearing apart a technical demo with a heart of gold before.
  • TartanSpartan01 - March 12, 2012 8:14 a.m.

    Mr houghton, youre absolutely spot on with your criticisms i watched it and while i enjoyed it i felt the exact same way but i could not have worded as constructively as you have,well done and great article. The people who disagree with you say things like 'you missed the point', they obviously are far more experienced in this industry and in games in general than the gamesradar team and myself (or are biased PS3 fans desperate for something good to hold onto). All I saw was a short film, simple as that. I am a gamer, short films may be entertaining but they are not games, nor is their narrative content any indication of what games have/can/ or will become. The engine does not impress me,as a game engine it wont hold that level of detail and allow much more: NPC's, large environments, etc etc this is always the catch with tech demos do your own research if you dont believe,but if u r a hardcore/experienced gamer you know this already. All i saw was a game developer playing movie director,if you read any more into it, your a fool im sorry to say. It seems to me the guy has an ego problem,sort of like hideo kojima although i dont know whos worse now.
  • super0sonic - March 12, 2012 7:02 a.m.

    Kara is just a mediocre Short film that will be forgotten. It`s on this website because it was created by a video game company and is rendered on a PS3. It`s also not a tech demo because all this animation has been done before in other games already. Plus its not that visually impressive.
  • bilstar - March 12, 2012 6:44 a.m.

    It was a bit naff wasn't it? I just put it down to being French!
  • Beartoe - March 12, 2012 1:08 a.m.

    i think you've missed the point of this "TECH demo".
  • samsneeze - March 12, 2012 1:14 a.m.

    Actually, most of the people who viewed the tech demo missed the point by talking about how the story presented in it was a new standard for video games. All David did was point out how people shouldn't really be impressed by it in that respect. I mean, it looks nice yeah, but that's it. I need a lot more than a nice looking tech demo for me to get interested in something that is supposed to be presented as a game. I know, it's a year old and isn't even a developing title, but that only adds to the fact that this shouldn't be anything to be overly wowed by.
  • DrFred79 - March 11, 2012 9:56 a.m.

    Cage is such a fraud. He's understood nothing about video games, and is just trying to make movies on a different media, cause the cinema industry didn't want him... I much prefer works like Ken Levine's or That Game Copany's as you said in the article where the story and emotions come from the gameplay and not through some storytelling you're supposed to interact in some way.
  • Asmodean - March 11, 2012 2:58 p.m.

    First, you do realize that you're always interacting with the story regardless of the game (unless there is no story). Second, game play is interaction in the story... so what's the problem again? Ohh I see, you don't like David Cage so that why this 'demo' sucks... great reason.
  • samsneeze - March 11, 2012 10:31 p.m.

    To be honest, the guy isn't a good story teller and the "game" segments in Heavy Rain were too constant, tedious and even felt out of place and inconsistent during some parts. Heavy Rain felt like a cheap excuse to release a sixty dollar four hour movie. And really, what's the point of even trying to make "games" that focus on story when you can't write a compelling story? Want to see a good example of good story telling with game play that functions sort of like a movie? Shenmue I and II are the perfect examples along with Metal Gear Solid three and four. You want to know what the real kicker is though? NieR, you know that one game everyone bashed, has one of the best stories this gen.
  • DrFred79 - March 14, 2012 9:08 a.m.

    First I absolutely not said that the demo sucked. I'm kind of tired of those guys reading stuff that is not there... Then gameplay is far from being an interaction with the story, gameplay is the inner mechanics of the game. Sometimes gameplay and story can evolve at the same time and interact with each other, and in Heavy Rain for instance it was like reading a book where you are the hero. And it didn't got me involved one time. And then i don't like Cage because he's so full of himself, thinking he's so much better than the whole industry...
  • farsided - March 11, 2012 12:18 a.m.

    I'm starting to think this whole article was just an excuse to show us a video of robot lesbian sex.
  • Larry Legdrop - March 10, 2012 10:47 p.m.

    Hey,man,if you sit back and think about it,everything is all relative.Nothing is really original just because it has brand new up to date bells and whistles.Everything comes from the earth to create materials to build all types of materialistic objects we spend our hard earned money on from phones,clothes,and vehicles.So everyone just chill out about something being unoriginal,cause,just face it,nothing really is.Please Recycle.
  • DrNeroCF - March 10, 2012 8:24 p.m.

    This is just getting to be pathetic. There's nothing in the video that's even slightly impressive. The Bjork video just highlights how terrible the lip sync and facial animation is. Body animation is still stiff, which I guess makes sense since it's an android, but that doesn't make for an impressive tech demo. Terrible facial animation, unimpressive mo-cap, generic lighting engine, forced, tear jerking story, bad voice acting. What is this supposed to actually showcase??
  • KRONEN - March 10, 2012 4:40 p.m.

    I just think everybody needs to take a nap. p.s. Asmodean, the third paragraph in your post is so full of win.
  • Asmodean - March 10, 2012 7:54 p.m.

    Thank you, If only I bother to spell check the rest of my post :S
  • BALLSTOTHEWALLET - March 10, 2012 10:38 a.m.

    Brilliant article, writing like this is why I come to GR.
  • Asmodean - March 10, 2012 9:17 a.m.

    First let me say that this was a great article, regardless about how much I disagree with your conclusions, it was well written and insightful. Personally there is a part of your thesis I agree with, using old tropes and idea to sway our emotions and feeling is spot on, the fact the we see Kara from what amount to conception to almost death is old hat for a writer. However just because it has been done over and over doesn't make it less powerful or valid, I'm as cynical as the next jaded f***, but if we, as Mr. Houghton has, only look at KARA through the eyes of other media and past story we miss the larger intent of this 'demo'. Now I'm not saying that David Cage is the best writer, playing through Heavy Rain will quickly cure you of that idea; But KARA, weather or not he really intended to be as powerful or meaningful as I felt it to be, does not discount that it was and is. However if you only look at it through the lens of pass works, you become detached from the event of the story, you stop being a participant in the event unfolding (which to me is the real evolution of games). As a critic I can understand how this article comes into being, but when you are sitting for the first time watching KARA (or any story), you should have the forethought to come at it without preconceptions of judgment, allowing the story to stand on its own. Yes there can be and should be critical analysis after the initial viewing, but when we distance ourselves from the outset we stop looking at it as its own story and start to punish it as nothing more then derivative rehash of what we have seen before. To me this is wrong and unfair, by the logic presented by Mr. Houghton, everything is shit, every game, movie, novel, story, all of it is a waste of time. Everything, in it own way, is just a retelling of another story or idea and it has been like this for over 4000 years, stories and idea are continually recycled by each generation. I hate to burst his bubble but Journey is no more original then Kara and I can list off many movies that without voice do the same thing that Mr. Houghton claim Journey is 'pioneering'. On the larger question on weather KARA is the future if games or if photo realism and visual fidelity will handicap the future of games as art, I'll say yes and no. Yes, KARA as an amazing synthesis of acting, story telling and visuals presentation and it is A future of games (even art) but by far it is not the only future that game will take, is is only of them. The great thing about games is that there need not be a single structure or format of they are presented or made (and the some is true for most media). Fearing that KARA will set the standard for future story telling in games is ridicules, some creators might well use the same style to convey emotion and story but it is the viewer who reacts to it. At the same time many other creators will not use KARA's approach, either because of monetary constraints or style preference, and the view will react to these other form as well. There is no advantage to KARA's form or Journey's form of story telling, it is only about style and preference, both will advance and evolve the art of games and both in their own way. Will big publisher favor KARA's style? I think yes, but not because their writers are lazy but because they see it as an simply way to show quality and standards to the audience. It does not invalidate the more art house style which might favor stylized graphics over realism or interaction over voice acting. However regardless of what style might be the front runner, it will be the choice of the audience not the creators (paradoxically) who will make that determination. Remember in a way the audience is the content because they take on the a role in the story and which every form immerses them better and conveys the intent more clearly will always be more successful.
  • ObliqueZombie - March 23, 2012 12:24 p.m.

    I don't think Mr. Houghton was commenting solely on the lackluster idea, but the shameless ripping from other, nearly identical stories told through something as simple as a music video. If this is the "evolution of games" simply through a visual standpoint, I can't bear to see where games truly go. The idea is an interactive story, a story that changes with the decisions you do or do not make (such as Mass Effect) or a story told directly through gameplay, nary or never taking the player out of the character's shoes. That is what makes games a different medium. If video games devolve into interaction, quick-time event movies, then I might as well forget about the 13 years of gaming under my belt and find a new hobby.

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