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NowGamer Interview: David Cage

We speak to the video game industry's pioneering storyteller, David Cage, about his upcoming PS3-exclusive Heavy Rain. Read on for the definitive interview...

It’s been over a decade since you founded Quantic Dream, how happy are you with the studio’s direction so far and is there anything you would have liked to have done differently over those 10 years?


Quantic Dream is today in a good position: we always worked on original IPs we created and on very ambitious projects. We had a lot of creative freedom and the budget and time to make the games we wanted. We had this rare luxury to explore new areas instead of making me-too products.

In ten years, we also developed unique proprietary technologies, integrated Motion Capture with our internal studio and developed a very effective truly next gen pipeline. Most of all, we built a very strong team of about 100 people. Most of our core team members joined us as juniors and are today very experienced seniors.

Before Fahrenheit, the company was “under the radar”, as a publisher kindly told me at the time. Today, I think we gained visibility thanks to Fahrenheit, The Casting and now Heavy Rain, and our vision about emotion and narrative gets more and more interest. Most of all, I think we made the right decision by deciding to take all risks in exploring a new direction that we would own instead of copying established genres.

On the negative side, I would say this result required a very long time to bear fruits and a totally unreasonable amount of efforts and sacrifices. I took all risks when I started the company, slept under my desk for years and made serious sacrifices about my private life. Sometimes, people think that it is a great job, just to wake up in the morning with a new idea, someone comes to give you money to produce it and there you go. The truth is unfortunately more complicated.

But all in all, I am very proud of this company, especially because we always worked on very interesting and ambitious projects we chose, and also because through time, we managed to gather (and to keep) a fantastic pool of talented people patient enough to deal with my crazy ideas.

I created Quantic Dream to explore the possibility of using interactivity to create experiences with more substance for a more adult audience. Each game we made was a milestone on this path.

I still have a lot to achieve before being happy, but I can see that our trajectory is consistent with where we want to go…

Quantic Dream’s games have all been very narrative based, why is this? What draws you to using video games to tell stories?

Mankind used all media it invented to tell stories: drawings, books, theatre. Cinema and now television follow the same path. People love to hear stories. I never understood why video games should be limited to shooting or jumping. There is much more to do with interactivity, and we are just at the beginning.

Everything we do now will be seen in the future like very naïve tries, a little bit like the first movie ever made about a train in a station: it is still a fantastic piece of history, but we know now that cinema was much more than that.

Interactive storytelling has still to be invented, and working to discover this new area is something definitely exciting for me. I never thought in matter of business or what is the best genre to make money. I just worked on the things that seemed to be interesting. Being a pioneer in that genre while being able to discover new ways of telling my stories is a very exciting adventure. I am exactly where I wanted to be and I’m very lucky in that aspect.

Do you ever think video games will be respected as a story-telling medium in the same way as cinema and literature?

I have absolutely no doubt about it. If you lived in the 18th century, you probably wanted to be a composer, in the 19th century a writer, in the 20th century a movie maker. But if you live in the 21st century, there is no more exciting space to be than interactivity.

We invent a new art form with a new language. We have this fantastic challenge of taking it from infancy to maturity, to tell new things in a new way and to make it unique enough to draw a wider audience. Some absolute master pieces will come from our media in the coming decades, maybe things that will resist time and be seen in the future as art.

Is Heavy Rain a spiritual successor to Fahrenheit? Will emotions affect the gameplay in the same way?

Fahrenheit was our first try in discovering new ways of triggering more complex emotions. I think the game had some very interesting moments that proved that it could work.

It showed me that it was not only possible, but also that it would be a very different kind of experience based on different paradigms.

For Heavy Rain, we tried to analyze what worked and what didn’t in Fahrenheit, and to go much further. The technology is probably the most visible aspect at this stage of the things we improved: we worked hard on graphics and animations to have believable virtual actors able to convey the kind of subtle emotions we were looking for. But our main efforts went on the core of the experience we wanted to create: the story. I was looking for a different type of story, more grounded, based on real people in real life. I felt strong enough to get rid of all fantasy elements games usually use, and to tell a story based on characters and emotions. I think the scenario is quite unusual for a game, and I hope it will significantly contribute to make HR truly unique.

Game play was also of course at the heart of my design work. Creating immersion even in the simplest interactions, using game play to create emotion while offering an interface that would be simple and accessible without being simplistic, these were some of my goals. Most of all, I aim to put players in the characters’ shoes, make them feel what characters feel. I hope that HR will be strong enough to leave a long lasting imprint in players’ minds, the same way good movies or books do.

In Heavy Rain, the character animation is unprecedented; how much further do you believe the technology your using can go? Or have you pushed it to its limits?

Certainly not. We can go much further. The quality of the MoCap can of course still be improved, but also how we use it to create believable attitudes and postures, how we mix it with procedural animations or physics. Although we worked a lot on these aspects in HR, there is still a lot to do in order to make the player believe he controls a real human being.

Do you think the technology you bought from Vicon has paid off? Is it delivering to your expectation?

Having an in-house full MoCap system is a rare luxury for a developer. We made this choice seven years ago and we never regretted it. We developed unique techniques, we learnt how to shoot, how to direct actors, we experimented everything we could (from ice skating to walking in a crowd), we learnt how to produce insane amount of high quality animations in an acceptable time frame (and an affordable cost…), which I believe will be one of the strong points of HR. We also invested in our proprietary facial animation technology which will give unprecedented results in a game.

Most of all, we understood that MoCap was the easiest part of the process. The real challenges are about organization and pipelines, directing actors, and how you make your animations and characters fit.

MoCap becomes more and more a strategic technology for developers and for the type of games we create in particular. Depending on someone else for such an important part was just not possible. Also, I guess the cost of the 12 hours of MoCap we had in Fahrenheit would have paid the system, so it was definitely the right choice to buy it instead ;-)

HR will put the bar high regarding animation. It is probably the game using the most animations ever made: we shot for seven months every day, with a total of 50 actors and stuntmen. The final game will feature more than 15 000 unique animations. In the game, almost every single action is unique as everything is contextual.

Can you describe the scripting process behind Heavy Rain? How many pages of script are generated for a multi-stranded story like this?

Through the overall writing process, I wrote about 5000 pages of script (you probably double this figure if you include all my notes). The final script used in production is about 2000 pages. It represents a lot of work, with the major difficulty of maintaining consistency and quality through so many pages and all narrative possibilities. A movie script is usually no more than 120 pages. Writing HR was thus like writing 15 movies, which represents quite a large amount of work…

Interactive narrative as we see it is difficult to write, because for each scene, you need to have a strong element of narrative and a strong element of game play. I tried to make everything interactive and only use cut scenes when there was no other option to tell the story. I also use very little recurrent game play mechanics, which means that each scene has something new to offer.

So you end up needing a left brain and a right brain: you need to be creative to tell a good story but you also need to be extremely structured and organized to deal with game play, consequences, consistency.

Most other genres are also very well established, with writing techniques, known structures, all the material you need as references. But with interactive narrative, nothing exists, and when you write, you are quite alone on your island, trying to figure out what will work and what won’t without anyone or anything to refer to and give you tips. You don’t only write a story, you also invent the language, the grammar and all the words to tell it…

I worked on novels and movie scripts before, but interactive narrative is definitely the most difficult, technical and generally challenging exercise.

Of everything you showed at Leipzig, how much is likely to make it into the final product?

As I explained during the presentations, the scene we showed called “The Taxidermist” is not a part of the main narrative of Heavy Rain. It is just a short story we created to illustrate some key concepts of the game, especially the interface and the player’s actions can impact the story.

We agreed early on with Sony that we didn’t want to announce the game with another nice looking cut scene or an impressive technical prototype. We know that when explaining Heavy Rain, many people would be dubious that interactive storytelling or emotions could be anything else than another adventure game or an interactive movie from the old days… We chose to introduce Heavy Rain for the first time to the public with this scene because it was fully playable and demonstrated that it was possible to create an experience where the player would tell the story through his actions.

We will probably make this scene available to players as a bonus scene to unlock or maybe as extra downloadable content.

For a cinematic game like Heavy Rain, did you ever think that using Hollywood actors would help sell the title? Is it your ambition to use recognisable thespians, or do you prefer to use lesser-known performers?

We gave very serious considerations to both options. Initially, we really wanted to go for famous actors because we thought they would bring their talent (marketing as such was not a sufficient reason for us).

In fact, we realized that it was a two-edge sword: on one hand, you get a unique talent, a face and voice that people immediately recognize, on the other hand, they can easily appear like a marketing asset for a weak game, or they can easily jeopardize the game where gamers would just see the actor and not the character.

The main reason that made our decision was availability: if you can get a world class actor for a week, that’s already a big challenge, but that was unfortunately far from what I needed. My collaboration with the main actors of Heavy Rain went through several months.

We took time to cast them, we rehearsed a lot together, they had to learn their parts by heart for the dialogues, and when it was possible, we asked them to do the stunts. All this significant amount of work required time and availability, exactly like a real movie.

Few talented actors would consider going on a set without having met the director, knowing their script and being excited about the movie to be made. With video games, all this can seem superfluous. Actors (and their agents) often have so little consideration for games that the only discussion you can have is how much money for how much time. No one cares about what you try to achieve, they very rarely agree to invest time and energy in their part, all they want is a maximum amount of money for a minimum amount of time, and ideally, on a game that won’t hurt their image too much…

I can understand how we reached this situation, but this is why I did not want to invest time and energy trying to convince people that what we were doing was different, because in the best case scenario, I could never get what I wanted. So I spent a year casting “not-famous actors”, people having talent but not being known from main stream. I found truly fantastic people who are really talented, who fit perfectly my parts, who were prepared to invest time and energy through months to get the right result.

What I learnt from this is that time change. The old days where we desperately needed Hollywood is gone. In the coming years, talents including writers, directors and actors will come from the game industry, and Hollywood will want them in their movies.

I really believe that the actors of Heavy Rain have a real talent and I hope this experience will bring them the notoriety they deserve.

Can you reveal anything about Heavy Rain’s story?

No.

Okay… Well, we don’t want to talk about the story at this stage, because it will be a key component of the game and we don’t want to spoil it for players. All I can say is that Heavy Rain is a mature story evoking themes and using a tone rarely seen in a game. It is also probably the most personal thing I wrote for this media.

I don’t know if people will like it or not, but I am sure that it is going to be something unique and different.

Fahrenheit delved into some quite fantastical territory– will Heavy Rain do the same, or is the story more grounded?

Heavy Rain is about real people in a real world confronted to real problems. No sci-fi, no magic, no supernatural powers. I think our media is now ready for more subtle stories. We don’t need to save the world or destroy the evil monster to tell something exciting anymore. I thought I had to in Fahrenheit to make the game spectacular, but I realized that the best part of the game was when it was grounded. It made me realize that reality could be just as exciting as fantasy, and that most people would probably relate more easily to characters and situations that are closer to what they know and who they are.

What are the inspirations behind Heavy Rain? What sources influenced the style of storytelling?

You can never really tell where your inspiration comes from. I guess it is a mixture of all your personal culture, whether it’s books, movies, tv series, comics, lyrics, games, but also paintings, sculptures, whatever modeled who you are.

Many games are conceived and sometimes written by a team, or sometimes by a free lance writer outside the project.

I wrote Heavy Rain alone. I try to put more of myself, some of the things I felt or thought, something definitely more personal. It is not a script of compromises or common denominators, it is really a story that relates to me and that I wanted to tell, whatever that means…

You’re using Sixaxis control in Heavy Rain– was that mandated by Sony, or does Quantic Dream have an interest in the function?

The only thing Sony asked us to do was to make the best game we could. Absolutely nothing was mandated. Sony is not this type of publisher telling you what you should do. They had a real interest in what we wanted to achieve so they supported our creative vision. All they wanted us was to create something unique for the Playstation 3.

Sixaxis is an interesting device for certain types of actions, and it totally fitted our desire to create physical identification between what the player does with his controller and what his character does in the game.

Would you describe your games as an extension of the ‘point and click’ graphic adventure?

Certainly not. It does not rely on the same mechanics. Point and click games are usually based on the same patterns: puzzle solving or object management to unlock the next set with more puzzles and objects. There is a story but it is certainly not the real backbone of the game. It is just a nice layer putting all these scenes together. I am quite tough with this genre because it is one I loved and played a lot. But I must admit that it has absolutely not evolved for a decade.

Heavy Rain is based on very different paradigms: storytelling is the essence of the experience, not a nice layer. Game play and storytelling are totally interlaced. The game is not based on puzzles or inventories, but on contextual actions, decision making, moral choices. It is not an experience where you can get stuck by tortured puzzles you can only solve in a FAQ on the Internet, it is a journey that you affect by your decisions. Most of all, it aims to create emotional involvement to immerse the player and make him care for the story and the characters. This is not just a nice thing to say, it is really at the heart of all the design decisions we make.

So no, Heavy Rain is not an extension of adventure games. It is a new type of experience based on different paradigms. It aims to prove that it is possible to tell a story in a game through game play and not cut scenes, to create an exciting experience defined as an emotional journey, not targeting kids but an adult audience, with mature material dealing with real people and not superheroes. I know that’s a lot. But this is what I like about my job ;-)

Autor: Christopher Reynolds
Source: NOWGamer
Language: English

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NowGamer Interview: David Cage Monday, February 02, 2009
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