During the PS4 Press Conference, David Cage of Quantic Dream stepped on stage to show off his company’s new tech demo for the PS4. In the moments leading up to the infamous head of an Old Man popping up on screen, he referred back to previous games his company worked on, like Omikron and Indigo Prophecy, showing off how many polygons made up each character. He relates the mode of storytelling in videogames to how exaggerated storytelling in movies were back during the silent era. And it’s true, some things had to be exaggerated in movies since cameras back then had no sound capabilities. When sound was introduced, things only got better for the movie industry, bringing out classics like Frankenstein, Trouble in Paradise, and Citizen Kane.
But I can’t really say the same for videogames, at least not to the extent that Cage suggests.
While yes story wasn’t much of selling point in many games during the Atari-NES era, things finally picked up steam during the 16-bit era. Think of it as the videogame version of film finally having sound coming from the actors. True, technology helped, but only because it became an essential — a must if you will. All the gears are finally in place. All we gotta do now is make them turn. What Cage suggests is that with more pixels, we can finally experience things that we probably were unable to before. We can feel emotions that were not possible back then.
But what Cage is suggesting, I’ve already experienced in many games already. It’s when I saw that red balloon, it finally hit me.
I would like to warn readers out there of potential early-game spoilers. So if you have interest in playing Wild ARMs, don’t read until you get there. Otherwise, read on.
The red balloon in question comes from Wild ARMs, a PS1 era RPG that used 2D graphics for its field view and 3D for its battles. So in essence, developer Media.Vision depended on the tools of the trade of the 16-bit era. The beginning of the game has you play as multiple characters separately, eventually coming together at the kingdom of Adlehyde. One of the characters, Cecilia, is a princess who is concerned that the people only care about her title and what it symbolizes instead of her as a human being. Already we have some character development. What makes this great is the fact that it actually expands on the tired “Random Girl Is Actually A Princess” cliche by explaining why she acts this way.
Anyway, we soon meet the king of Adlehyde and Cecilia’s father, Justin Adlehyde. He cared deeply about his daughter and knew about her concerns as a princess. He was an all around cool guy. About an hour or so later, an event called the Ruin Festival is underway, celebrating the rich history Adlehyde has with archaeology and the fact that you found a dormant golem. It’s here that the event in question happens. You’re told by a mother that she can’t find her son in the festival. She tells you that he has a red balloon and by another that he’s back in the town.
Once you meet him and get ready to take his ass back to his mom, he accidentally lets go of his balloon. The scene then follows the balloon as floats higher and higher into the sky, revealing an otherworldly disturbance amongst the clouds. The lighting pops the balloon, the sky “cracks” open, revealing a portal and raining down death onto the town.
When the scene reverts back to the town, it’s in shambles. And sadly, the boy you tried to bring back to his mother is now dead. Many townsfolk — men, women, and even children — die in this scene. The knights from the castle, including the king himself, try to fight off the invasion of demons currently wrecking havoc in the town. Unfortunately for him, he’s mortally wounded, so he only has a little bit of time left. He worries about his men, but most of all worries about his daughter.
In the midst of all this, the demons demand that Cecilia give up the Tear Drop heirloom to them, otherwise they’ll storm the castle can kill everyone in it (including the town refugees). The king refuses, but Cecilia concedes, turning over the Tear Drop to keep her people safe. After giving it up, she vows to reclaim it. She understand much of the responsibility that’s about to befall her. She even cuts her hair using Jack’s sword to show that she’s serious.
As if passing on the title of royalty, King Adlehyde delivers his final message to his daughter. “Be Strong Cecilia. Protect what is yours.” What was once The king’s is now Cecelia’s. And with that message, he dies in his bed.
What follows afterwards is probably one of the saddest opening credits to ever grace a videogame. Here we have a funeral for the king, a casket draped in royal cloth being held by 2D figures of knights as the townsfolk look on in mourning. Cecilia is among them, mourning the death of her last remaining parent. So not only is the death of her father weighing heavily on her heart, she now has to run her kingdom as a Queen and take on the responsibility of such a ranking. It’s a lot to handle in a single day.
Regular townsfolk carry the casket of their neighbors along with their fallen leader. The king and his people will be buried together. The king loved his people when he lived. While we never saw this, we can assume that he probably walked around town and regularly interacted with his people. In his final act as king, he’ll be buring alongside the people he not only ruled over, but whom saw as his friends. This is what he wanted to pass on to his daughter, that it’s not the royal title that holds one back, but the person. And it is that person that changes the fate of those around them.
Probably the saddest image is the children still at play, having little to no understanding about what exactly is happening. Sure they know what happened the night before, but they most likely have no idea that someone important to the kingdom has just passed away. They outright run right next to the precession. The little girl in the group drops the ball she had in front of Rudy, who had his attention affixed to the funeral. Rudy gives back the ball as Jack watches on. These two are probably aware of the fact that these children are oblivious to the moment and that it’s not their fault for not knowing. They still have their innocence in such a dark time for the kingdom.
So now you see why I think David Cage is, for the most part, wrong. I didn’t play this game in my youth. I didn’t play this for nostalgia. I played this just last month on PSN. There was nothing to reminisce over as I never played it before. At best, I played this out of curiosity since I only played Wild ARMs 3 and 4. And yet, I played through this intro, choking up at the intro credits, and thinking back to David Cage’s idea that more polygons mean more emotion — or ease to show emotion. And yet here I am, practically sobbing at a funeral scene in an oldschool RPG with shades of the SNES era of RPGs.
While yes you can have all the polygons you want and make things look believable, the other element to all of this is the delivery of emotion. When looking into the eyes of that old man at the PS4 conference, I didn’t see emotion. I didn’t see what this man was thinking, how he was feeling, what his past was. All I was a pair of eyes looking at me. Graphics are only one half of the emotional experience. Delivery is the other half, the one that drives the point home, that makes the player react.