Four years after The Nomad Soul, David Cage is back with an even more ambitious action adventure game.
Interactive narrative could just have found a new master
Format: PS2, Xbox, PC
Publisher: Vivendi Universal Games
Developer: Quantic Dream
David Cage was taking a calculated risk when he created his studio back in 1997 (see p60). But now that adventure is back in fashion – not so much as a genre in itself but as an indispensable element in every other genre – his dream is coming true:
“I have always seen videogames as the intersection between programming, graphics, writing, scenario and music… "multimedia" is the place where all the other media come together and create something new.”
In spite of the fact that 2002 was a particularly difficult year for many independent studios, Cage stuck to his guns and refused to compromise himself by producing more "reasonable" projects for visibly apprehensive publishers. And his stubbornness paid off. In late 2002 he signed with Vivendi, and 2004 will see us plunged into a brand new kind of adventure, one that stands every chance of being a landmark in the istory of games.
Fahrenheit is a psycho thriller set in present-day New York. The city is stunned by a series of mysterious murders, all following the same pattern: a seemingly normal person suddenly goes berserk and attacks an apparently complete stranger. Three stab wounds cut the blood routes to the heart, and the murderer uses their knife to carve cabbalistic signs on his own forearm before killing himself or going totally, irredeemably, mad.
When the story begins, the police haven"t been able to establish any relation between the victims and their murderers. Against a backdrop of falling temperatures (hence the title), you will have to solve this mystery through two heroes and a set of some ten other characters. But unlike The Nomad Soul, in which we took on a series of different characters in turn, the characters in Fahrenheit live their own lives, sometimes acting together and sometimes separately, but never excluding each other. Its a bit like a TV series, where each character enables us to uncover a different aspect of the story, except here all of them are under the players control.
As Cage explains,
“We can"t totally reinvent the technique of storytelling.
We have to borrow whatever we need from books, films and music and find a way to make the result interactive. In Hitchcocks movies, everything is based on the fact that we know certain things the hero doesn"t because we have seen things that he hasnot. We use the same principle to give Fahrenheit a stronger narrative.”
The two heroes in Fahrenheit are Lucas Kane and Carla Valenti. Lucas is a 30-year-old bank employee. His life was uneventful up until the day he became one of the mysterious murderers. The introductory sequence of the game shows Lucas sitting in a diner. Suddenly, as if in a trance, he picks up his knife and walks to the bathroom. Once inside the bathroom he begins to hallucinate: a little girl is calling for help, a man is swinging a knife… Lucas executes the same movements, and when he comes to his senses hes covered with blood and theres a dead body at his feet.
The player takes control: what happened? Why? What should we do now? The eeriness of the situation is further compounded by an added complexity: the interface is blank. No life gauge, no cursor, no inventory. The problem, however, is short-lived – no effort has been spared to make Lucas respond intuitively to requests, you simply use the left stick to move him about and the right stick to control his actions – all his actions. Whenever the player is faced with a particular situation or object, the game offers a precise movement that is often more logical than any other, and which can be accomplished with perfect precision through the right stick.
Depending on the circumstances, the game enables you to reach out an arm, stretch a leg or move the whole body, giving the impression of really moving. The effect is startlingly realistic. Its a bit like in Thief 3, where both sticks are used to pick locks.
“No effort has been spared to make Lucas respond intuitively to requests, you simply use the left stick to move him about and the right stick to control all his actions”
Lucas can do a number of things while in the bathroom: he can hide the murder weapon, wash off the bloodstains, drag the body into a corner… or he can just take to his heels and get the hell out of there.
As a result, whatever traces he leaves behind him turn into evidence for the second hero of the game: the very charming police inspector Carla Valenti, who arrives on the scene not long after Lucas disappears. The player uses Carla to check out the scene of the crime and to question any witnesses. Here again, you are free to decide on how to set about the investigation. But whichever cast member is used, whether its Carla, Lucas or one of the secondary characters, the goal is always the same: to solve the mystery both of the murders and the cooling of the planet.
The means, and the characters, used to carry out the investigation, are entirely up to you. This is where Fahrenheit really comes into its own: in spite of an extremely close-knit narrative, the game allows the adventure to be explored as deeply – or as superficially – as you like. Quantic Dream has been working on a revolutionary idea, "Bending Stories", for almost three years, and the result gives the player a sensation of real freedom that should enable Cage to reconcile interactivity with emergent narrative.
Instead of choosing the means of doing something, as in other games, Fahrenheit enables players to choose the characters they want to use to conduct their investigation, bearing in mind that each character, like in a TV series, has his or her own distinct personality that will not only define the actions they can conduct but also their ability to get results. Its not like playing an FPS, particularly since players don"t do any killing in Fahrenheit (or, at least, very little). This loss of capacity in terms of brute force should be balanced by the intensity of the plot and the ability to discover the complex personalities of the characters, as well as the ways they interact with each other.
“Fahrenheit enables players to choose the characters they want to use to conduct their investigation, bearing in mind that each character has his or her own distinct personality”
Fahrenheit sets out to create a relationship between the player and the game characters.
“I wanted to prove that a game can be just as engrossing as a movie”, says Cage.
“Games can communicate ideas and feelings but with the added bonus of interactivity, the knowledge that " Im part of the story". I wanted to use Fahrenheit to tell a story that involves the player as a sort of co-director, a co-writer, while springing surprises all the way through.”
A cinema production
Fahrenheits production phase was very similar to that of a film. All the games animations were filmed in motion capture. Quantic Dream has its own in-house studio (with 24 Vicon M-Cam cameras), one of Europes finest motion capture sets that has already been used to shoot special effects for several films. Fahrenheits highly cinematic aspect and the correspondingly large quantity of animation required meant the mocap set was put to extensive use: three and a half months of shooting, with more than 30 actors (for 140 game characters) and action and combat sequences using professional stuntmen. In all, more than 6,000 animations were created, corresponding to 12 hours of animation after processing – something which is absolutely enormous for a videogame.
Another interesting feature is the way Quantic is creating virtual actors with an innovative technique for facial animation based on modelling, for each character, of a series of faces displaying extreme expressions. By interpolation with a neutral expression, Quantic Dreams technology can animate lip movement, facial expressions and eye blinks for a devastatingly realistic effect. Moreover, characters" faces are animated throughout all the game sequences with an amazing "puppet" system. Each finger of the puppeteers gloves is connected to a specific movement of the 3D face. The puppeteer thus gives life to the characters face just by moving his fingers in a strange and hypnotic dance. One dance for the lipsync, one dance for the moods… the result is subtle and very powerful.
A TV experience
Cage believes the power of a game is derived from the emotions it arouses, and the key is to be found in the way the player relates to his or her character. To him,
“the camera is a very powerful tool for telling a story, firing the emotions, staging scenes and creating things.”So before making Fahrenheit, Quantic Dream started by equipping itself with the means to stage film-like scenes rapidly and easily. The result, called Movie Maker, is an incredible tool: a sort of Adobe Premiere dedicated for realtime that is currently the only tool of its kind on the market. Quantic Dreams level designers are using this tool to position and synchronise their characters" animations, to move their cameras, to place their sounds and their scripted events. It is both incredibly flexible and powerful.
The designers create four different cameras oriented in complementary directions. Each of these cameras tracks the character whatever he or she does, according to the designers preference. At any time, they can open windows to look at the scene from different angles, and choose what camera best fits the players needs. This system also enables the designers to add cinematic sequences that are embedded in the game window. Its a bit like the splitscreen techniques used to great effect in the TV series "24".
Saturday, April 12, 2003