On David Cage and page counts

There are a few varieties of the screenplay format, but a screenplay generally looks something like this:

FADE IN:

1. INTERIOR – OFFICE – AFTERNOON

The sun beams off the clean, white walls and a white bookshelf broken up five-by-five into cubes. The back of every cube is stuffed with books, and toys and Legos cover the remaining surface of each cube.

Dennis sits at his desk, typing, and pauses to look at the bookshelves to his left.

DENNIS
I really need to put some of those toys away.

FADE OUT

The screenplay format is set up in such a way as to make each page equivalent to a minute of footage. A tight screenplay ought to translate into a structurally tight film. In film school we learned to set a 90-page target, and not to exceed 120 pages, to match up with the average run time for a Hollywood feature.

What got me thinking about all this was reviews of Beyond: Two Souls that were critical of the story, and the storytelling. Considering that David Cage is a filmmaker who is using video games to make his movies instead of actually, you know, making movies (if you have any doubt that Cage is a filmmaker in a game developer’s clothing, this GDC 2011 talk from Cage was basically a screenwriting course during which he flat-out told the students in the audience to forget video game rules), I wonder if we ought to just start reviewing his games the way we’d review movies?

This, then, got me thinking about movie length. If a studio is going to release a 2 1/2 hour movie, it had better be damned good or the audience is going to get bored. And if a 2 1/2 hour movie is a challenging feat to pull off, how about an 8 hour movie? That’s one way to look at a game like Heavy Rain, which might take at least 8 hours to finish.

That would be 480 pages of script, excluding the page count for different scenes the player would have seen had they made different choices. If I’d handed in a 480 page screenplay in film school I have no doubt it would have been thrown back at me by the head of the screenwriting program because no one has the time to read a bloated screenplay like that.

What kills me about David Cage is that I think he’s capable of telling a story cinematically, but he’d have to stick to the rules of film, which doesn’t seem like it’s asking for much considering Cage takes issue generally with the way video games are designed. In 2012 Quantic Dream produced a PlayStation 3 tech demo named Kara. Call it a seven minute short film. I think it’s brilliant, and shows the potential for film making using game tech better than any other project. If you’ve never seen Kara, please watch it now? It tells a wonderfully-structured, complete story in less than 8 minutes.

Heavy Rain, on the other hand, had a ton of dead space, and I think that dead space comes from Cage’s insistence on making video games. He tries to give the player choices to make and things to do, but the game could have functioned without a lot of that content. Cage tried to walk a tightrope instead of fully committing to what he really wants to do.

I bought my PlayStation 3 specifically to play Heavy Rain, because it sounded like an important game. Beyond: Two Souls, on the other hand, sounds like a game I can afford to skip, which makes me a little sad. I was late to the David Cage party. I’d never heard of Indigo Prophecy until a few years ago. But I suspect that Cage is a one trick pony who keeps recycling the same design over and over again, and I’m not willing to pay $60 to confirm that, especially when I hear that Beyond is even longer than Heavy Rain, like possibly 10 hours long for a playthrough. That would be a 600-page screenplay.

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