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Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain an emotional breakthrough

If you thought Keanu Reeves was wooden in Point Break, you should see the Nameless Marine. He doesn't say much, but he moves jaggedly, makes exactly the same sound each time he gets hurt, and always sports the same tense grimace. He is the worst actor you will ever see. Where can you catch him? Well, he's so bad he's only secured a role in a couple of titles, namely in id Software's DOOM series.

Chances are you haven't been too impressed by many other videogaming denizens. You'd think a character with whom you could interact freely would be more compelling than one in a world-class film, but this isn't the case. David Cage, lead designer of the upcoming Heavy Rain at Quantic Dream, attributes this to limited content.

"Most video games only use very basic emotions, like fear, anger, power, and frustration," he notes, "but not the social emotions that appeared later during evolution like empathy, sadness, joy, pity, love, et cetera. These emotions are more complex to generate, but all other art forms managed to do it. I can see no reason why games should limit themselves to the same old basic ones."

All art forms are, he believes, "emotional roller-coasters". "The pleasure we feel watching a movie or reading a book comes from the different emotions we go through," he elaborates. "There is no doubt in my mind that games will follow the same direction and offer more interesting, emotionally involving experiences, with more meaning and depth. Fahrenheit, our last game, was our first try at exploring new solutions. We will go much further with Heavy Rain."

Heavy Rain emotinal realisation

The first step was to secure adequate technology for the challenge, and they found it in PlayStation 3's resources. The result? A short trailer of sorts, shown at E3 2006. Unlike your typical gameplay walkthrough, Heavy Rain's trailer was simply in-game footage of an actress (voiced by Aurelie Bancilhon (Aurélie Brancilhon - correct.: UL), who also provided her likeness) auditioning for the role of a betrayed wife. Compared to the frantic gun battles and ninja duels shown near and around Heavy Rain, the trailer was uniquely affecting. And what's more, it expertly showcased the tech at Quantic Dream's disposal — the actress visibly went from being embarrassed, to nostalgic, bitter, suicidal, and, finally, enraged, with the kind of subtlety and depth usually only seen in, well, real people.

Cage explains why such an unusual trailer was used to promote his game: "'The Audition' was initially an internal prototype in real-time 3D on PS3 to help us understand the technical difficulties of creating an emotion actor. This demo was just our raw first try, without any R&D, and it was not supposed to be shown outside. When Sony saw it, they asked us if they could show it on their booth at E3, and this is how it all started. The demo has been downloaded 800,000 times on the internet, and Heavy Rain was, after E3, the most anticipated game on PS3 at GameSpot.

"Although we didn't plan for it to be shown, this trailer is indicative of the direction we will take regarding acting quality. The final quality of the game will be significantly higher, though. Also, this trailer is just a real-time non-interactive movie, where the game will be fully interactive, without cut scenes."

As well-received the Heavy Rain trailer was, there were complaints about its unprecedented realism. Some writers commented that because Quantic Dream has so closely approached photorealism, slight imperfections in the virtual actor — such as when the virtual Ms. Bancilhon's eyes seem glassy or when her lips are slightly out-of-sync — make the whole thing disturbing, rather than compelling. In other words, they argue that Heavy Rain suffers from the Uncanny Valley effect, where virtual humans almost perfectly mimic humanity but aren't quite perfect, and such imperfections are jarring. Players don't react this way to less sophisticated "fake" humans, as their humanity is abstracted and all "holes" are filled by our imagination.

Cage is disappointed that some chose to focus on what wasn't achieved in the trailer, rather than what was. "A lot of writers also wrote that this trailer was one of the first to put a step out of the Uncanny Valley," he remarks. "I think this is really an outdated discussion. There is absolutely no doubt that we will very soon have highly emotional and believable synthetic human beings. The technology and expertise are now in reach, and we could touch it in this prototype. The exact problem is that the closer you get to realism, the more it has to be perfect because the least imperfection becomes shocking. If you raise the quality bar, you need to do it in a consistent way on all aspects, which is the current technical difficulty. There are still issues, but again, we feel we are not that far anymore."

As long as Quantic Dream is consistent with its emotional sophistication — i.e., its game design and character development are just as advanced as its technology — Cage doesn't think such complaints will arise again. "They'll have no difficulty accepting virtual actors, as long as we remain consistent. We still need to work on some aspects, because very few people found solutions to reach this level of detail in an acting performance. For some major publishers, emotion in games is limited to a smile on the face of a golfer when he did a nice drive. With our trailer, we had a girl talking for four minutes, looking straight into the camera, in a kitchen and going from a naïve attitude to smiles, tears, and anger. This is a different type of challenge."

In his opinion, though, it's one that's fully achievable. Which begs the question: why hasn't a Heavy Rain been attempted before? "Most decision makers in this industry only consider concepts that have already been developed before," Cage shrugs. "When you try to come up with something really different, they look at you like you are (a) totally nuts, (b) an alien, or, (c) perfectly stupid. You know, 'Why try something different when we could sell so many GTA clones to these stupid teenagers out there?'

"At Quantic Dream, we try to have more ambition for our media. We were lucky enough to find publishers trusting our vision and giving us the means to accomplish it. After Fahrenheit, a project very few people believed in, a lot of publishers realised that it was possible to make games based on interactive storytelling and emotions. Some important ones think today that emotion and stories may be an interesting direction to explore and that the market starts to be ready for it."

It's fair to say that if you've seen Heavy Rain's trailer, you're probably more than ready for whatever Cage is creating .We may not know much about the actual gameplay — save that it furthers Cage's "Bending Stories" technique, a way of creating non-linear storylines, first used in Fahrenheit — but from what Cage has been suggesting, it doesn't look like it will play like anything we've ever seen before. And hopefully, the game will be successful enough to make emotion in games more than an afterthough. What's more, we'll be able to give the DOOM Marine the boot, once and for all.

(This is just a resume of facts we knew before, but Alexander research in short a complex of the future title. - UL)

Autor: Alexander Gambotto-Burke
Source: @Play

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Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain an emotional breakthrough Thursday, January 18, 2007
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