Heavy Rain, the upcoming PS3-exclusive... we'll call it an 'interactive thriller', has a lot of people scratching their heads. On the one hand, footage makes it look moody, starkly beautiful and very intense.
On the other hand, a lot of people are looking at it and asking, 'How much control will I actually have? Will it just be a series of quick time events?'
I sat down with Guillaume de Fondaumière, co-CEO of the game's developer, Quantic Dream, to discuss how deep the player's control of the game really goes, what his team has done to make sure you're not just passively watching a story unfold in front of you and why it made no sense for him to slap me.
SPOnG: David Cage has talked about not giving Heavy Rain an open world because he said it would limit Quantic Dream’s ability to control the flow of the story. To what extent is a player able to create their own narrative and to what extent are you as developer controlling their progression through the game?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: As I’ve said, Heavy Rain is a game in which story is core to the experience and we really want to give players the possibility to see the consequences of their actions and how it impacts the story. So, a number of actions will have consequences on a particular scene, some will have consequences in a few scenes ahead and some will have dramatic consequences on the story.
I guess, from what we’ve shown so far, the most dramatic aspect being for instance losing one of the characters. So, it’s really a game about choices and consequences. There’s nothing right or wrong that you can do in the game, but there are choices – sometimes moral choices – that you will have to make, always contextual. You’ll always understand what the motivations of your character are, and by triggering certain actions or deciding to go into a direction or another, deciding to engage in a relationship or not, to say certain things at certain moments and not others, you’ll be able to shape your own story.
But, of course, we are always in control of the story. As David said, it’s not an open world game, it’s story-driven and what’s very important for us is that the story is consistent and meaningful from the beginning to the end. This is something you (simply) can’t achieve today with an open world and a sandbox game.
SPOnG: You mentioned moral choices – a phrase that makes a lot of people groan because it’s used so often. A lot of the time, however, the choices are fairly meaningless. Do you think anyone has successfully worked moral choices into a game so far?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: Not really. I think Peter Molyneux’s attempts in Fable 2 are interesting, but we’re trying to do something rather different with Heavy Rain. We’re not interested in clearly presenting to the player ‘do you want to be a good guy or a bad guy and see how the story unfolds from beginning to end if you’re a good guy or a bad guy?’ What interests us is how players react to certain circumstances and how – it’s a bit like in real life – we’re faced with certain choices in our lives and we’re not necessarily all good or all bad. I think we’re all in shades of grey, to a certain degree, and this is far more interesting to us.
I think to a certain degree this is far more interesting, because again, it’s far more realistic.
SPOnG: We’ve all been playing infamous in the office and everyone has opted to play through on good in their first attempt, which is interesting. It’s pretty meaningless knocking down a virtual pedestrian in a game but still people will swing away from it. You’ve said that the decisions aren’t as straight forward as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Heavy Rain, but presumably there are choices where you can be more or less selfish. Has anything from your testing so far surprised you in that respect?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: Not really. First of all because we didn’t really enter into user tests on the whole game.
The second thing is, we’re not in this route and I think everything is contextual and it’s really a sum of choices and sum of actions that lead you to a different story. We have a number of different endings – I don’t believe we counted them, but there are a great many. I think that the most important thing to us is that people bear the consequences of their actions and the fact that whatever they do, whatever they choose to do, they have a meaningful story that unfolds. I think the stakes are going to be very clear for the player.
The player will know what his ultimate goal is throughout the game, but there are many ways of how to get to a… I wouldn’t even say a successful ending. David (Cage) was asked a question at E3 by one of the journalists, asking ‘what if you lose all four characters?’ Well, this is possible. There is no game-over in the game. So you can actually lose all four characters. What happens then is, you still have an ending to the story. It’s a very sad ending but, as David says, it’s his favourite ending.
I guess that that was the philosophy behind it, really. It’s to make sure that whatever the choices, the story unfolds in a meaningful way and in a way that is satisfying to the audience.
Maybe some will want to play it again and see how the story ends if they choose differently.
SPOnG: So you think people will want to play through again, having seen the story before? Is there enough difference in the different paths you take that people will be compelled to come back?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: For us the most important element in the game is to give players the possibility to live and choose their own story. Whether players will either come back each time and try the different possibilities, it really depends on the gamer.
We give these possibilities, the game is saving all the time, so you always have the possibility to go back and choose a different path or do something different, or talk differently to a person, or engage or not into a relationship.
So, there is this possibility, but we’d like very much for
players to bear the responsibility for their actions, play the game through. And if at one point they believe that it will be worth exploring other possibilities, maybe play through to the end and come back to that particular point and play differently, I think this would be more interesting.
We give the possibility to players to really choose how they want to play.
SPOnG: Will there be a trophy, then, for playing through without going back to any of your saves?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: We haven’t figured out, as of yet, how the trophy system is going to work. It’s not necessarily a game that is conceptually in line with what trophies should do. Again, it’s not about succeeding or failing. It’s not about doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing. It’s about the journey. The journey is the most important thing.
So, to a certain degree, I would say we’re not rewarding the players in a conventional way. The reward is the emotional experience, is how good the story is from the player’s perspective. I guess it should be the other way around. It should be gamers giving us trophies (grins) rather than us giving players trophies!
But we’ll of course support trophies and we’re trying to find the right way to integrate trophies into the game.
SPOnG: OK. So, you’ve got four main characters, all of which are playable and, if you die, you move onto another character. Is there a risk that, with players switching characters, they’ll become ‘de-immersed’ from the game?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: I don’t think so. I think it’s not an experiment, we see it in a lot of movies. They follow different characters, and the fact that you’re following these different characters is only a way to give you different perspectives on the story. I think it only adds to the experience, and I don’t think that you’re going to lose the immersion because of that.
I think what is very important in the story and in the characterisation is to present the characters in such a way that you get acquainted (with) them, that you understand their motivations, and if we’re successful in that, I think that players will find it interesting to be able to play the story from different angles, and to see it from different perspectives.
SPOnG: The difference between a film and a game, of course, is that in a movie you’re sat passively watching, while in a game you’re in control. When I sit down to play Heavy Rain, will I need to turn off the part of my brain that tells me I’m about to play a game? Will I have to shift my expectations about what’s about to happen, compared to another game?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: I don’t think so, I think that our objective was clearly to make a videogame, an interactive experience that is… Heavy Rain is certainly a new form of game, and we’ve created new gameplay mechanics to make sure that the player is always in control. You’re in real time 3D all the time, you’re all the time in control of your character’s actions.
I think people are going to be quite surprised by the diversity of characters, by the diversity of the sets, and by the diversity of the interaction. By how interactive this game actually is.
So, I don’t think you should set your expectations differently than other games in that respect. I guess you’d probably expect a little bit more from an emotional perspective and from a narrative perspective.
SPOnG: Harold Ramis, the writer of the Ghostbusters films and game, has recently spoken about the difficulty of writing games compared to film, because in a film you’ve got one narrative line with maybe two hours of content, where in a game you have to write for multiple paths sometimes. In Heavy Rain you’re obviously looking at multiple routes that are very heavy on narrative. How easy or difficult was it to develop or write for?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: It is very difficult, because as you said, you need to write all the different threads, and you need to make sure each thread is of equal quality, so it demands a certain ability to make sure, first of all, there are strong contexts within the story. To give players real choices, and to define what possibilities there are within this context of developing other story branches that are meaningful, always, to the story. You don’t want to lead players into either dead ends, or into narrative paths that are not of the same quality in terms of story.
You also have to be careful, because it is an interactive experience, so you have to make sure that whatever the player does, he’s always in control. He shouldn’t feel that the game is just a linear sequence of non-interactive cinematics, for instance. This is really not what we’re trying to do.
Taking the example here of the QTEs (Quick Time Events). A lot of people – and this is one of the difficulties we have in presenting the game, when you watch it, or you watch a video of a play through, people don’t understand how interactive it actually is. When we give the controller to either journalists or users for user tests, the first feedback (is) ‘whoa, I didn’t realise how interactive it is, and I didn’t realise that I was really in control’. Now, of course, each interaction is contextual. You can’t do anything (you want). But it’s a bit like in real life, you know? It would be senseless for me now, for example, to stand up and slap you. It simply has no sense! However, there are a number of things that I can say, that I can do, decisions that I can make that have impact on the story.
So, our job as developers is to make sure that we give enough choices and to make sure that, whatever the choice, the story is meaningful.
SPOnG: Do you have a rough number on how many endings there are?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: 20 plus. But, I guess, what’s more important for us are the different journeys and I really don’t have a clue how many journeys there are to come to those endings. But it’s also in a particular scene. A particular scene may end the same way, however, the information – the experience – can be very different, depending on your choices.
SPOnG: Thanks for your time!
Autor: Mark Johnson
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