EDGE Online: An Audience With: David Cage

David Cage has a sombrely held desire to push the industry to new artistic heights – but are his methods those of a videogame visionary or a more Quixotic figure? Here, the windmills in question could be labelled ‘narrative’ and ‘maturity’, goals that some might argue are often overvalued by our nascent medium, imported from older art forms simply out of a sense of insecurity. With Heavy Rain, Cage hopes to prove detractors wrong, offering a rich, story-driven experience that sets the player in pursuit of a serial killer through control of multiple characters, any of whom may die and be written out of the ongoing tale.

Like its predecessor, Fahrenheit, it describes the player’s interactions partly through QTEs – success or failure potentially leading the story in a dizzying number of directions, all of them significant. We spoke to Cage to discover how an adult, murky thriller will hook our emotions and haul us towards gaming’s future.

What would be your response to the reaction to the game so far? Do you think everyone completely understands what you’re making?

Describing the experience we’re creating with Heavy Rain is something challenging. It’s probably easier to talk about a firstperson shooter or a fighting game because we’ve all played one at least once. When talking about narrative and emotional involvement, there are less obvious common references, and it even seems that these words mean very different things depending on who you talk to.

I remember having pitched Fahrenheit about a year before the game was released and I got a clear sense that no one had a clue of what I was talking about until the game could be played.

The approach taken by Heavy Rain is quite unique: it is a narrative-driven and fully interactive experience, it features four playable characters, the interface is entirely contextual, the story itself is unusual for a game – and we don’t want to reveal too much about it.

If you add the fact that the game has a very unusual approach to interactivity, not based on challenges but on the journey, not relying on traditional mechanics but on contextual actions, with no Game Over but a continuity in the story when characters die, you can understand the challenge of explaining this game before anyone can actually play it.

Showing only select scenes is another difficulty: in Heavy Rain, each scene is different and unique, and features bespoke and contextual gameplay triggering different emotions. Also, like in a movie, emotional involvement emerges when you play the game in its entirety, something that is difficult to communicate just by showing pieces of the game in isolation.

In spite of all this, I’m really happy with the feedback so far. It seems there is a high level of expectation. The game was heavily applauded during Sony’s E3 conference, which is always a good sign. I don’t think it is yet possible to understand the scope of what we work on and how different it is going to be, but I think there is a growing awareness that Heavy Rain is a truly ambitious and unique experience. The game received many awards at E3 and is now regularly listed amongst the five most anticipated upcoming titles. When I was working on Fahrenheit, no one paid attention to us until the game was released, so I think we are making some progress here.

Do you think it’ll be difficult to sell Heavy Rain, because it’s so unlike other games being produced today?

Being different has pros and cons. You obviously need to spend more time explaining what your game is and why gamers are going to like it. If you work on a shooter, you just need to show a screenshot and announce the number of levels, weapons, enemies, and everybody knows more or less what you are talking about. But at the same time, there are many shooters made every year by very talented teams, and there are only a limited amount of them that will be commercially successful. When your product is unique it is easier to stand out from the competition and explain that you are the only one to offer this type of experience. If the promise sounds exciting and the game holds it, you have a chance to be successful.

I never asked myself what was easier to make or sell, I just work on ideas that I strongly believe in. This is what has driven my work so far. It is also why I go to the studio every morning with the same excitement and enthusiasm as on the first day. Having said that, I must confess that I am always very surprised to see how conservative our industry can be regarding new ideas. CPU power doubles every 18 months according to Moore’s law, but new ideas seem to follow a much slower curve. It seems computers evolve faster than minds. Suggesting that certain rules established 20 years ago in a certain context may not be fully relevant today is still a considerable challenge.

I can give you a concrete example. The first videogames were coin-ops. The objective of the coin-op manufacturers was to make a game that would be more and more difficult level after level so that players would have no other choice but to insert more coins to complete the game. It was also based on the idea that people would want to reach the next level to see a new set, which would be their reward. Today, games are available at home and you don’t need to put in a coin to play, but the logic driving the design of many games remains identical: the difficulty ramps up continuously until the end, reaching the next stage is the objective, losing means dying, dying means starting again. There is no longer a reason for all of this, but ramping still remains for many a golden rule of game design.

There is no necessity for a game to become more and more difficult to the point sometimes of discouraging gamers. Maybe the time has indeed come for us to explore new ways of making games, and it’s our responsibility as designers to imagine new answers and to dare taking risks. Heavy Rain is an attempt at changing some of these old rules and to see if it is possible to interact differently based on new paradigms.

Gaming as a medium has its own unique qualities, and it’s often said that it shouldn’t be relying on film or television for its inspiration – what’s your take on this particular view?

There is no example in the history of mankind of a new medium created from scratch and not getting inspiration from anything else. The first photographers were inspired by painting, the first movie makers by photography and theatre, the first TV series by movies, and you can take every single creative art and find its roots in other arts. There is nothing wrong about that, just a simple and logical rule: nothing is created from nothing.

This idea about games existing by themselves and not getting inspiration from anywhere else is a little bit naïve. Interactivity, like literature or cinema, is a platform to trigger human emotions. Human emotions don’t belong to any medium, and if there are effective ways discovered by a medium to trigger specific emotions, I cannot see why I should not use them. The visual language developed by movies is very effective and complex. The narrative structures they have developed – inspired by storytelling rules established from the Antiquity, as demonstrated by Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces – contain some valid answers beyond movies.

When I work on a game like Heavy Rain, I don’t try to copy movies, I try to create something original and unique for our medium. I feel free to borrow codes from movies, comics or TV series, but most importantly, I try to invent a language allowing us to tell stories and to trigger complex emotions through interactivity.

So what sort of sources have you used for inspiration while making Heavy Rain?

Inspiration comes from everywhere – comics, painting, theatre, novels, movies, TV series, music, poetry. Most of all, it comes from my everyday life: what I think, what I feel, inner fears I have – in short, who I am. Like for any art form, inspiration comes from life.

The game contains mature content, including sexual scenes: do you expect players to be aroused by these sections, or do you think their reaction will be more like an appreciation that you’re handling subject matter more commonly associated with movies and books?

Heavy Rain is a dark story about real people in the real world. Sex, violence, empathy, love, hate, sadness are parts of our lives. I can’t see why as a writer I should not use any of these if they tell something about my characters, their feelings and who they are. Why should I refrain myself from talking about a specific aspect of human nature? Are there things that you are allowed to do or not to do when you are a game designer? Why should there be subject matters that are improper for videogames? Why are such questions asked only to game designers and never to novelists or directors? What’s wrong with games?

The answers are simple: through their history, videogames were attached to childhood and some people still think that only ten-year-old kids play games, although all surveys show that the average age of gamers is between 30 and 35 years old. There is also this idea that because games are interactive, they could have a greater impact on the audience. As far as I know, there exists absolutely no study demonstrating this fact. To be honest, I must say that some videogames have gone very far in a quite stupid way, and they gave good reasons to politicians to believe we are a bunch of immature teenagers who must be kept under control. That being said, the rule I give to myself in the matter is very simple: whatever serves the story and triggers complex emotions can be used; whatever can be done in a movie should be allowed in a game, with the appropriate rating.

I am prepared to face issues with Heavy Rain because the game tells a very strong and controversial story, but I hope people will understand that everything in the game serves the purpose of telling the narrative. Nothing in Heavy Rain is gratuitous – everything is done to tell a strong story that I hope will leave a long- lasting imprint in players’ minds.

Game creators should be treated the same way as movie creators or book writers, with the same level of creative freedom, because interactivity is now a creative medium and should be treated as such.

When we played the game at E3, there didn’t appear to be many ways for the scrapyard scene to play out differently. We now understand that there were three or four different points at which the player character, Norman, could die, so is this the sort of narrative branching involved in the game? Will it be mostly a selection of different ways to die?

This is a good example of how difficult it is to explain this game. There are two types of consequences to your actions: some are local to the current scene and won’t have any other consequence beyond that point, others have long-term consequences. Short-term consequences will alter the way you play one specific scene, will allow you to see or miss specific actions or sequences, or do things your way. Long-term consequences will be decisions that will greatly impact the story itself. One of the events having long-term consequences will be that your character can die, which will of course greatly impact the rest of the story. It is the most spectacular long-term consequence, but there are many others in the game I can’t really talk about now. It will be impossible for people playing one scene to draw conclusions about Heavy Rain because the game is not based on mechanics. Each scene works differently and holds a surprise for the player.

What happens if you let all four of the playable characters die? Does this finally represent Game Over? How quickly could a game finish in this way? And are all of the possible endings satisfactory in terms of narrative?

When all of the characters die, the story ends – that’s quite a sad ending. There are movies with happy endings and sad endings. In Heavy Rain, it is up to the player to tell his own story and decide what story he wants to tell. This kind of ending cannot happen before the last third of the game, so the experience won’t be too significantly shortened.

We have been particularly careful about the fact that every single route and ending offers a satisfactory story. That was in fact one of the challenges – not only to tell one good story, but many different ones, all being consistent and interesting.

What do you think of the criticisms that are often aimed at QTEs? And what about the danger, in a narratively driven game like this, that taking direct control from the player with QTEs is going to have a detrimental effect on that narrative?

Traditional game mechanics are based on repetitive patterns, and stories hate patterns. Our action sequences are fully contextual. I am not limited to ten different moves in shooting sequences that I will have to fit in my story – even if it becomes absurd at some point that my character finds people to shoot at on his way every three minutes – I can create any type of action sequence I can think of, knowing I have a unique interface allowing me to do whatever I can imagine.

What I like about it is the fact that it is entirely contextual, spectacular, with a sense of cinematography. It is not like in many videogames where you always do the same thing the same way with the same animations. In Heavy Rain, each action is unique, each action sequence is different, and you allow the player to focus on what is important in the scene. This is the dream of any interactive storyteller – not to have to force unnatural action sequences. Many games have killed their stories precisely because of that.

As with any interface, everything is about implementation. We don’t use QTEs as they were implemented in old games; we tried to rethink the system, keep the good parts and improve them to make the player really feel in control. The first thing we changed is the pacing: instead of having one symbol appearing in the middle of the screen every five minutes between two cutscenes, we propose a control for every single action. Each time your character does something onscreen, you triggered it. We gave an immediate consequence to every single move: if you succeed or fail, you see the result immediately onscreen, and each consequence uses a unique animation. Of course, missing a move won’t make you fail the entire sequence – it is just an event in the course of action letting you create an action sequence that is unique to you.

We integrated symbols in 3D and animated them with what they relate to, which adds to the immersion by merging the interface with the action. We also got a real feeling that they were strongly supporting the narrative because of their contextual nature. We got rid of the repetitive action sequences and offer sequences that perfectly fit the narrative needs. These sequences are really varied, spectacular, fast paced and surprising, and I think that players will really enjoy them.

Will there be difficulty levels so that absolutely anyone can play the game, or do you think it won’t be suitable for very casual players?

We have implemented difficulty levels to adapt the game to different profiles of gamers: some gamers are more interested in the challenge, and others more in the journey. I don’t make games for a specific type of players, I want anyone who owns a PS3 and is interested in thrillers to be able to enjoy the game and find a challenge corresponding to their aspirations. Making the game accessible to a wider audience is something important to me. I believe anyone can enjoy the story we tell in Heavy Rain, and I don’t want anyone to be pushed back by the inappropriate difficulty of the game.

With Fahrenheit, we discovered that buyers were mainly males but that almost all of them played the game with their wife or girlfriend. It’s even become a joke now: whenever someone tells me he played Fahrenheit, I say he played it with his wife before he tells how he played the game, and I’m rarely wrong. Women enjoyed the game because there was a story, because it was based on characters and not on shooting. They watched their husband play but most of the time did not play themselves. With Heavy Rain, I hope we will see more women take the controller and play. That’s a difficult challenge but I think it is an interesting one.

Your partner at Quantic Dream, Guillaume de Fondaumière, has said that this is the biggest motion-capture project attempted in a game to date – what are the implications of this from a development perspective?

We bought our in-house mo-cap system in 2000 and we’ve had a full-time team working with it since then. We developed proprietary technologies, tools and pipelines to produce high-quality data in a very limited time frame. Heavy Rain was more than 170 days of shooting with more than 70 actors and stuntmen, plus 60 days and 50 actors for facial animations. We recreated most props on the set to allow actors to know what’s around them and to have the right contacts with their environments.

Given the amount of animations to shoot, we had a very strict production pipeline and a very effective team on the set knowing exactly what they had to do. It has been a long, exhausting and fascinating process. Without an in-house mo-cap set and a very experienced and effective team, Heavy Rain would have been impossible to make. Investing in mo-cap was a major strategic decision for the company ten years ago. I’m glad it now participates to make Quantic Dream’s products unique.

What about other challenges you’ve faced while making the game?

It seems to me that I had one impossible challenge at each stage of the development. The first one was to write the game, finding a way to tell this complex story in a fully interactive way, trying to get a good idea for every single scene both in matters of narrative and interactivity. Then came the burden of producing the massive volume of assets in all departments that was required while keeping the consistency of the overall vision in a team of 200-plus people.

Now that I reach the last stages, my two last challenges are the importance of details and the difficulty of having contextual scenes. Every single scene is unique in the game, which means that there are almost no recurrent mechanics. In short, it means that each new scene offers a new and different challenge that requires specific answers. The level of details we need in this game is another challenge – nothing should distract the player from the emotional experience. And it is true that the more details you add, the more details you need to add.

Art direction becomes key in every single department because every aspect of the game contributes to trigger emotion. It means everything needs to be consistent and to pull in the same direction in order to create emotional involvement. This is definitely the most challenging aspect of the game, but also the most exciting and interesting.

Does Heavy Rain have anything in common with your first game, Omikron: The Nomad Soul? What were the things you were looking to achieve back then that you’re finally able to realise nowadays?

I was always interested in emotions. In Omikron, if you’re old enough or geeky enough to remember it, in the first scene, you were in the body of someone else, and the wife of this character wanted to make love to you, thinking you were her husband. You could be reincarnated in the body of someone else, you could have access to many different actions such as exploring, talking, using weapons. Most of these themes are still present in Heavy Rain: I’m still obsessed with schizophrenia and multiple personalities, I don’t want to be limited to repetitive patterns in what I can do, I love to create situations involving the player on an emotional level and questioning him as an individual. The difference is that I am now 15 years older than when I designed Omikron and my approach to these topics is different. I understood that I did not want to make toys but journeys with games, that I was not interested in creating games for kids but for adults, and that I wanted to explore new areas that most people consider impossible. Of course, there is better technology today at all levels, but technology is just the pen to write the book. No one cares about pens – all they judge is the quality of the book.

I may come back to some ideas of Omikron in the near future, revisiting them with what I learned and who I am today. But that’s a different story.

This article originally appeared in E205.

Autor: Edge Stuff
Source: EDGE

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EDGE Online: An Audience With: David Cage Sunday, August 30, 2009

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