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EDGE: A Journey into Heavy Rain + EDGE october cover

EDGE: October 2008 paper magazine cover

As you know, eyes are incredibly hard to do: the minute movements they constantly make mean you can tell whether something is human or not. We created a technology to motion-capture that from actors.


There is a school of thought which suggests that, if they are to move forward and become taken more seriously as an entertainment medium, videogames need to have more recognisable creatives, that the people responsible for making them need to raise their profiles.

We need more Miyamotos and Molyneuxs and Bleszinskis, goes the theory, to provide better parity with the Spielbergs and Lucases and Camerons of Hollywood, and then the wider world will begin to gain a finer appreciation of what the medium represents. As a man who has gone so far as to put his own likeness into one of his own games, David Cage, the writer and director of Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer, would probably appreciate the sentiment. The head of French studio Quantic Dream took it a step further than most by putting himself right at the front and centre of the stage for just over a minute at the beginning of the demo version of his company’s last production, Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy).

It was, in some respects, Cage’s own Hitchcock moment, giving him the opportunity to talk to camera and directly address the audience, temporarily breaking the game’s spell and reminding you that there is a human being behind it all, pulling the strings. During this sequence, Cage imparts nothing to the player that could not be communicated via other, more traditional videogame means, but it is partly for this reason that it makes such a curious impact. Some called Cage an egotist for doing such a thing. Others celebrated this bold attempt at playing around with the fourth wall.

Cage’s fascination with narrative forms, it turns out, is more like an obsession, and with PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain he and his Paris-based team are attempting to rewrite some of the rules of the graphic adventure game in bid to bring it back to life for a modern audience.

Listening to Cage present Heavy Rain while one of his colleagues demos it via a PS3 Sixaxis, it quickly becomes clear that this is intended to be an experience for grown-ups, rendered in tones that range all the way across the spectrum from dark to sinister. “I would define Heavy Rain as an adult emotional thriller,” he explains. “It’s a story-driven experience. It’s told not through cutscenes but directly through the character’s actions: you don’t watch the story, you actually play it.”

As an adventure game, Heavy Rain offers more physical involvement than any example that has gone before, and, more obviously, a level of graphical realism that hasn’t previously been seen in a realtime console game environment. Crucially, Quantic Dream’s refinements aren’t focused on making a rock face appear more believably craggy or a car bonnet’s sheen seem more convincingly polished, they are centred on bringing to life Heavy Rain’s human protagonists. The tallest order, in other words, among the challenges faced by computer graphics specialists.

“We worked very hard on motion capture, especially facial motion capture,” explains Cage. “As you know, eyes are incredibly hard to do: the minute movements they constantly make mean you can tell whether something is human or not. We created a technology to motion-capture that from actors.”

The shaders applied to the lead character’s eyes and the skin that surrounds them also conspire to nudge Heavy Rain’s characters closer to believability. The ‘deadness’ that so often afflicts such digital mannequins has been significantly chipped away, and we are presented with Madison, a character whose facial features, though attractive in an expectedly unnatural sort of way, also carry blemishes that succeed in breaking down her artificiality.

Ultimately it feels like a significant step forward for game character realisation, and it’s fascinating to finally see in a game context the sort of work Quantic Dream previously explored in its 2006 PS3 demo entitled ‘The Casting’. It’s unlikely that Cage will make a cameo appearance in Heavy Rain, but, thanks to the technology on display here, if he did so it would be in a manner that might give members of his family the shivers.

Today’s demo is something that has been created specifically for the purpose of showing off the game’s visual style and mechanics, and Cage tells us that its storyline has nothing to do with what will appear in the finished game, but it is an elaborate production nevertheless. The lead character, Madison, a journalist, visits the house of a man suspected of killing several women. Her intention is to have a snoop around, take some photos, and then write up the scoop.

As she arrives, Cage explains the game’s unique control scheme: “We want the game to be accessible, so we changed many conventions. The way to move forward is not done using a stick, it’s done using a trigger. Why? When the camera cuts [in other games], it changes your reference and you can become lost. Here, like in a racing game, the trigger is always moving forward – and it’s analogue so you can decide if you want to move fast or not. The second innovation is on the left analogue stick, which is used to control the head of the character. So, when you want to turn, you don’t make the legs turn, you make the head turn first.”

The way in which Madison moves around the environment immediately looks unusual, even despite Cage having explained how it works. We are accustomed to controlling thirdperson-viewed characters with heads that remain fixed forward and in line with the direction of their torsos, their precise positioning changing only in relation to body movements.

Heavy Rain’s system is like taking a thirdperson view into the world of a character that is being controlled with mouselook. “We didn’t want the camera system to be stuck on the back of the character – we wanted a real sense of direction,” says Cage.

The team’s innovative control system is illustrated further when Madison approaches a dustbin, at which point the game’s MPAR (Motion Physical Action Reaction) system comes into play, bringing up information in the lower-right section of the screen that tells you how to interact with the object you have encountered. In this instance the illustration shows how you must move the Sixaxis’s right analogue stick in order to raise the dustbin lid and look inside. This is not merely a case of stabbing a button and seeing the appropriate action played out: the analogue nature of the interface means that you can wind the animation out, as quickly or as slowly as you wish, and indeed wind it back in again – raising the lid, then lowering it.

The interaction with the game environment feels much more organic than anything we’ve seen since EA’s bold but ultimately unsatisfactory Trespasser, but in this specific context it doesn’t add up to anything very exciting. No doubt such subtlety of control will be explored in the game proper.

Subtlety is absent from what happens next. Looking into the trash, you see a woman’s shoe. A woman’s shoe casually tossed into the dustbin outside of the house of a single man suspected of murdering women. If only real-life investigations were this easy.

Suitably braced, Madison approaches the front door of the house, at which point the MPAR begins to reveal more of the game’s depth, throwing up two possible options: do you want to press the doorbell or knock? Then the dialogue system comes into play, allowing you to choose what to say by tipping the Sixaxis towards the desired option.

“Hello?” says Madison. No response. The MPAR offers up the opportunity to look through the keyhole or take a peek through the grubby windows. Madison does both, glimpsing a dark living room full of clutter. No one appears to be home, so she tries the garage door. Locked. She walks around to the side of the house.

The kitchen window looks inviting, but it’s out of Madison’s reach. In this instance, Sixaxis input is used more crudely, a quick forward motion with the controller used to kick a barrel into a position where it can be used as a stepping stone. “Here’s another feature,” says Cage. “If we pull one specific trigger it shows you what your character is thinking – the thought system.” Madison is thinking that breaking into a suspected murderer’s house may be a bad idea, but she proceeds anyway.

More Sixaxis motion is used to raise the window in order to clamber inside. A trigger press and more thoughts from the heroine: ‘Oh, what’s that smell? Must be coming from the stuffed animals’. The suspect, it turns out, is a taxidermist: stuffed animals sit around the grimy living room. But what is this in the fireplace? A scrap of woman’s clothing, perhaps the remains of something that was hastily burned? Could it be, possibly, maybe, another clue?

Upstairs, we find what anyone who’s ever watched CSI or similar should be expecting but which Cage seems convinced will shake us to our very core: a dead woman lying in the bath, the victim’s blood spattered all around. The next room delivers something more chilling, but not without the distinct air of Channel 5 about it: turns out this taxidermist fellow likes to stuff women as well as animals. He has quite the collection here, posed around the room, sitting and standing, each one positioned to serve a part in some kind of demented roleplay.

“He’s stuffed them. Looks like I finally got my story,” says Madison. “Let’s take a picture and get out of here quickly,” urges Cage theatrically, “because at any time the guy may come back, and we’ll be in a difficult situation. Uh-oh…”

We can hear the sound of a car engine pulling up outside. Then Heavy Rain begins to shake off some of its predictability and becomes more interesting again. The screen splits into two and in one section we are given a view of Madison while in the other we see the taxidermist arriving home.

“We’d better move slowly because we don’t want to make any noise or he might hear her, and we’re in trouble,” says Cage. A gentle press of the Sixaxis trigger moves Madison slowly. We hear her thoughts again: ‘Gotta survive. I’m not gonna die. I’ll find a solution. I always find solutions’.

We see the murderer more clearly now, the camera switching to a view of him sitting in an armchair, turning on the television. At the same time, Madison’s careful progress downstairs is also visible. Out of the murderer’s sight she goes, into the garage and out through its door. There is no direct engagement between the two characters onscreen throughout the entire sequence, but the framing of the action succeeds in building a triumphant level of intensity – even when Madison reaches her motorcycle and, desperate to get as far away from this place as possible, finds that its engine will not start.

We somehow resist the urge to groan as Cage attempts to heighten the tension: “Hurry, Madison, you need to leave! Of course, the damn engine never starts…”

“OK, that was one possible story,” concludes Cage. “The guy came back, we managed to leave the house quickly – we’ll go to the police and tell them what we know. The scenario will take the information and continue to tell the story based on what we’ve done. If Heavy Rain was just that, it would already be fantastic, but it is much more… Now we’ll show you another option, a variation.”

The sequence is replayed, but this time Madison steps on a squeaky floorboard as she attempts to escape. “Come on, visitor, show your face,” says the taxidermist, having been alerted to your presence. “I’m not going to eat you. Ha ha!” Again, the splitscreen motif comes into play, but this time Madison must find somewhere to hide as she watches the murderer approach her position. “There are different hideouts in the house – 20 or 30 different places,” explains Cage. To further build the tension, the MPAR dictates that hiding is accomplished by pressing a diverse selection of the Sixaxis’s buttons and triggers simultaneously, which clearly puts a strain on the player’s hands. But the manoeuvre is pulled off here, and Madison eludes her pursuer, only to mess up and end up facing him regardless, at which point further MPAR actions define a scuffle and then a scrambled escape from the house.

Cage outlines other ways in which the scenario could have played out. “You could kill him. You could hide and call the police – they’ll arrive and save you, if you survive. Or Madison could get killed. And this is an interesting because if she dies one of the controllable characters has died.”

Cage isn’t saying how many playable characters are involved in the game, or indeed how it might segue from one character’s death to another one picking up the story, but he assures us that his team has it all worked out. “Maybe losing her will offer you more possibilities which you would have otherwise missed,” he smiles.

But to reiterate: the particular scenario we’ve seen today has no bearing on Heavy Rain’s actual story content, which Cage describes as being like a ‘rubber band’. “The players, through their actions, can stretch it or contract it,” he says. “What is interesting is that you can’t change the backbone of the story, but the way it’s told is entirely up to the player. So they define their story through invisible boundaries we set, and they see it evolve accordingly and see consequences of their actions.”

We leave the demo pondering one of the most unusual, and unusually beautiful, games we’ve seen for a long while. It is heartening, certainly, to see a big-budget production that is so willfully operating outside of the FPS/driving game comfort zone. If the entire production ends up being as polished as its graphics, David Cage’s name may yet play a part in gaming’s push for broader recognition.


Autor: Article: Edge Staff =). Photo: MadmanUK
Source: Article: Edge Online; Photo: NeoGaf forum
Language: English

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EDGE: A Journey into Heavy Rain + EDGE october cover Wednesday, September 03, 2008
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