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Big Ideas: Video Games According to David Cage

The outspoken director of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls talks to Gamasutra about his start in the industry, what he's learned as he worked and spoken to fellow creators, and why the industry needs to -- but has not -- grown up.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

August 27, 2012

28 Min Read

David Cage has reached a creative juncture, he says, which allows him to do exactly what he wants -- and what he wants to do is expand the palette of the game industry, bringing in more emotion, and luring in the gamers who weren't hooked by Heavy Rain with his latest project, Beyond: Two Souls.

Starring actress Ellen Page (Juno, Inception), the game follows lead character Jodie Holmes from ages eight to 23. Not much has been revealed of the plot, but Cage's comments below suggest that its themes and action sequences may be something of a Trojan Horse.

In this extensive interview, Cage also talks about how he got his start in the game industry, how he's completely changed his writing style since he began working on games, and how he views other creators -- and they view him.

He also calls for the game industry to grow up, saying, "I often think that the industry suffers of the Peter Pan syndrome. It's the fact that we don't want to grow up, so we stay kids. But there is a moment where you need to grow up as an industry."

Why Ellen Page -- both as an individual, and why work with an established Hollywood actress?

DC: Well, I was not looking for a name to put on back. I was looking for a talent, someone who would fill the role perfectly. Actually when I started writing the script, what I used to do as a writer is grab pictures of actors on the internet, and have them in front of me, so I can look at them as I'm writing -- and look at them in the eyes and think, "What would they say in this situation?"

cage_david.jpgThe first image I found was Ellen in an independent movie she made called Mouth to Mouth, where she had a shaved head and a very strange look. What really interested me in her features was she looked very strong and angry and upset, and at the same time she looked very vulnerable, and I thought that was an interesting starting point for my character.

So I started writing this thing, and each time I needed a picture, I was looking on the internet about Ellen, and I was finding an image that was working perfectly for me in the scene I wanted to write, because she shot movies between the ages of 10 and 23 -- I think she's 25 today -- and my game is taking place between the ages of eight and 23, for [Beyond character] Jodie Holmes. So, I could find images of Ellen she was 15, 16, when she was 18, and that was very interesting.

I realized that I wrote for Ellen Page, with really her in mind all the time, and I thought the character -- she would be fantastic in this thing. So we sent her the script, and a package with a copy of Heavy Rain, and a couple of reviews, and a nice letter saying, "Please, would you consider being a part of this?"

And she answered very kindly. Her agent came back to us and said, "Yeah, Ellen loved the script. She would like to be a part of it." So we met in LA, discussed the project, and that's how everything started. So, I was really not looking for the fame of Ellen, that was really not a marketing thing, it was not about selling more copies because I have Ellen Page on board. It was really because she was the right fit for the role.

I wanted to talk to you about when you're creating a virtual character that resembles Ellen Page inside the game -- how close should her appearance be to real-life? Is there any balance of realism that they wanted from [Page's] side?

DC: Well, it's more than a balance; we copy her one-to-one. It's a scan. It's a 3D scan of a face -- a 3D scan of the body. And it's a perfect clone, and it's precise to the millimeter. So, it's her. It's exactly her. So, what we do is, we play with her haircut and we change the clothes and that's it. But the body, it's exactly Ellen. So, yeah, the likeness is pretty precise.

You didn't use performance capture for Heavy Rain in the same way.

DC: No. On Heavy Rain [laughs] it was a very different technical solution. Because of the technical constraints -- and this is still the way most games are done today -- you shoot face and voice on one side, and then you have sometimes even another actor coming and doing the gestures in sync with the audio that was recorded.

So it was very comfortable on a technical point of view; it makes your life as a developer. And also there were so many constraints about performance capture at the time that it was difficult to do everything. But the issue with that is you split the performance in two. You got face and audio on one side and body on the other, which means you lose the body, and most of the body language. So, you split the performance, you lose quality, and this is how Heavy Rain was made.

It was good enough, and we were reasonably happy with what we got, but then we saw James Cameron shooting Avatar and working in performance capture, and we thought, "Wow, this is a huge step forward, because suddenly you can have the full performance as one thing."

So we worked on this technical prototype called Kara, which was the very first thing we shot in performance capture. And when we saw it, we realized how much we lost in the past not shooting like this, and so we got organized around this new idea, and all Beyond is now shot in performance capture.

All the roles?

DC: Yep.

So everyone we're seeing in this game is a real actor.

DC: Yes.

And you think it's essential for everything, from the smallest to the biggest roles?

DC: Well, it's a matter of consistency. You don't want to have Ellen Page looking absolutely fantastic and having all the other actors around looking like video game characters, so yeah, you want consistency, you want the same quality.

Visual quality, but also quality of acting. Because Ellen is not just on her own, which is also a big difference with Heavy Rain, because on Heavy Rain, when you record voice in a sound booth, you can only do one actor at a time, so not only you lose all the body language, but you also lose the interaction between the actors, having the right looks -- and having the right interactions with the environment and moving around, because you don't move the same way if there's someone in the room in front of you or if you're alone.

So, with performance capture on Beyond we can shoot up six characters -- face, body, voice -- at the same time. So we have very complex scenes where they're all together and they can really touch each other, and interact, and just act pretty much without any constraints.

They have even less constraints than in a film, because in a film you have the point of view, you have the camera. "Oh, you should look here, and you should do that, and don't move too much, because you're not in that light anymore." Where, what we do, there's no lights, there's no camera. You're onstage. It's like having a play, being in a play. It's pretty much the same thing. No point of view, just deliver a performance, and be in the scene.

I remember you said with Fahrenheit you had put in supernatural elements because you felt there was a need to appeal to the game audience, who expects that kind of stuff. You moved away from that for Heavy Rain. I understand that obviously there are some supernatural elements in this, but I doubt they were put there for the same purpose. I was wondering why you moved back towards that.

DC: You know, as a writer I think I really changed in many ways. In the past, I thought -- when I was working on Omikron, I thought I was writing about sci-fi. That was my subject. When I was writing Fahrenheit, I thought it was about supernatural things. And then on Heavy Rain, there was a big change in my approach, which was, "Wait a minute. These things are backgrounds, but they cannot be the theme. They are just the background. What do I really want to talk about?"

Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy

And this is something that all writers go through, one day or another. Writing about things they don't know, until they hear their own voice, and finally write about something they understand, something that they experience themselves. It's the only way you can be really true when you write. Heavy Rain is really about me and my experiences as a father, having a son, and this strange relationship you have with your kid.

But with Beyond, yes, there are still supernatural elements as there were with Fahrenheit, but at the same time it's really an element of background. It's not about supernatural events. It's about growing, it's about learning, it's about accepting who you are. It's about death. It's about what's on the other side. So it's a totally different thing. Yes, there is a supernatural element, but it's just an element of background, it's not the subject matter.

How much freedom has Sony given you to pursue your vision?

DC: Total freedom. Total freedom. No constraint in anything. Many publishers, after the success of Heavy Rain, would have said, "Well, you need to do Heavy Rain 2. And do what you want, but it's going to be called Heavy Rain 2." And we never had this conversation with Sony. They just asked me, "What's next? What do you want to do?" "Well, I have this idea, what do you think?" "Yeah. It looks great!"

We talked about it, explained the concept. They never asked for me to change anything in my script. And, no, total freedom. I think this kind of project can only be made in complete freedom, because otherwise it's not the same experience at all. I'm not the kind of guy who works on command and someone tells you, "You should write something about sci-fi, or about this, or about that."

I think the real value of this type of experience is that they are true and they are sincere. It's really a story that I needed to tell, and Sony gave me the opportunity to do it. Which is quite unique. It's really incredible in this industry to have the possibility to work like that.

Very few developers are in my position, so I feel incredibly fortunate to be here, having this level of creative freedom, and at the same time having the financial means of a triple-A title. Usually, you make indie development, and you have limited resources, but you have freedom, or you work on a triple-A and you have the resources, but limited or no creative freedom. And I'm in the strange position where I have both.

Do you pay attention to things that are being done with story in indie games, or indie games in general?

DC: Oh yeah. Yeah, of course. There are some interesting things going on. I'm a big fan of Thatgamecompany, Jenova Chen's work. I'm a big fan of Fumito Ueda, and his very specific approach. I really like Japanese designers in general. I think they're really crazy in a good way. They really try different things.

I was talking with a friend yesterday about a game called D on PlayStation 1, which was something totally different, out there. It was a Japanese title. They have really crazy ideas.


And more recently, I mean, there was this thing about The Walking Dead, which is also a different approach to storytelling that I find interesting in many ways. So there are different people trying different things, and that's what makes this medium so interesting.

It's funny that you mention D, because in a way I think it was a predecessor to some of the stuff you're trying to do. It's very different, and also very technically constrained -- it was pre-rendered video made on an Amiga, so it's not exactly anything like what you do. But that idea of having this sense of a real central female character, experiencing this kind of story...

DC: I don't pretend that what we do was created from scratch. There were predecessors and inspirations, including in the game space. French developers played a very important role in the beginning of the video game era, 20 years ago. They developed many interesting adventure games.

I don't know if you're old enough to remember this, but Delphine Software, they did some very interesting games. One of them was Maupiti Island, and there were many different types of adventure games. It's part of a French tradition.

And, yeah, I was a big fan of all the Cinemaware titles on Amiga where you had, like 20 floppy disks that you needed to swap all the time. I'm just mentioning this because I read somewhere that Cinemaware is coming back, so, hey, welcome back guys!

I am old enough to remember, but I don't think a lot of the French games were available in the U.S. just because the market was so fragmented.

DC: Definitely. But they were very interesting games. Very interesting. And very story-driven.

I read about French adventure games and the stuff that was being done in the '80s, and it sounds really fascinating, but it's nothing that I ever access to at the time in the U.S. [Ed. note: the book referenced here is Replay.]

DC: Well, one of them, the one that I mentioned, was called Maupiti Island, and it was done, I think, by Delphine Software [Ed. note: actually a developer called Lankhor]. And you were on an island, and it was this kind of Agatha Christie type of stuff. So there were people living on this island, and there was a murder, and you had to investigate and ask the right questions, and try understand what happened.

And it's still a very appealing idea. You would probably do it very differently today, but still it's a valid idea, of being this investigator in a closed environment, and you need to understand who did it.


What did you do prior to Omikron? That was the beginning of Quantic Dream. What did you do prior to that?

DC: I was a composer. So, I worked in music for 10 years, and I was a composer working for TV series, movies, commercials, and games. This is how I got into the game space, actually. I was one of the first musicians in France to start working on interactive music. That was really in the early days of CD-ROM, the first time when you could start to consider having real music with real instruments.

How did you decide to move into this kind of direction, away from music and into being more of a director?

DC: Well, I started working on music for games, so understanding how games were made, and I started talking to programmers, and having friends in the teams. And in parallel, I always loved writing, so I was writing at night and weekends -- novels, books, stuff, whatever. And being also an avid gamer, I thought, "Hey, why not try to write the game I'm dreaming of playing?"

So I started working at night, having no clue of technical constraints, or what development exactly looked like. So I just wrote this game, and it would be sci-fi, take place in a city, and there would be a dictator, and whatever, and you would be free to go wherever you want, and that became Omikron.

When I was done, it was a huge thing with 200, 300 pages, and I showed it to a bunch of friends working in the industry, and my friends told me, "Well, you're dreaming. There's no way we can do a full city with a crowd, and complete freedom with vehicles in the street, the possibility to enter any building at any time, and having a story on top of that. That's just a dream."

I thought, "If that's impossible, then this is what I want to do, because I strongly believe in this thing." I felt like games were, at the time -- it was 15 years ago, and I thought that games were really focused... Tomb Raider was a big hit. They were really focused on shooting and jumping on platforms and I thought, "No, I think this medium can become much more than that. It can actually become a way to tell a story and to trigger emotions." So I wanted to do Omikron.

I hired these friends. I wanted to pay them, so it was not a bunch of friends in a garage. It was actually a bunch of people I hired for six months, because that was all the money I had, and we worked in a sound booth that was no bigger than this room. Six, seven people, for six months in a soundproof room. We made a demo, and we showed it to different publishers, and we ended up signing with Eidos. This is how everything started.

Omikron: The Nomad Soul

To change tacks just a little bit, how do you feel about writing for female characters, writing for women? Is it a challenge, and is it an interesting challenge?

DC: Strangely enough, it's easier for me. I really realized that. I feel really close to these characters. And working for male characters, I often end up with, I think, less interesting things. More standard things, ones you would expect from a male hero. What I love with females is that they can fight, they can be very angry, they can be upset, they can cry. They have a palette. They have a range of emotions that is actually larger than male characters.

I really enjoy writing for women. Writing Kara, for example, was a really big pleasure for me, because you could really go from being naïve, to being really funny, and come to tears. And fear. And they can really express all this, whereas males, we don't express our emotions publicly so much. And same thing with that in Beyond. It was a real pleasure to have access to all this palette of emotions that you can show and display without feeling ridiculous, or whatever. You can be who you are.

Heavy Rain is a kind of game that had a really broad audience. How did women react to the game?

DC: Well, they reacted in a very surprising way: Each time I meet someone who played Heavy Rain, my next question, "Oh you played Heavy Rain. You played it with your wife." And the guy said, "How did you know?" "Just because 95 percent of the guys who played the game played it with their wives or their girlfriends."

And it was already the case on Fahrenheit, but even more on Heavy Rain, and it's very interesting, because the story gamers tell us is always the same. "Oh, my girlfriend is always upset because I'm playing these games, shooting at things all day. But when they saw me play Heavy Rain they said, 'Hey, wait a minute. There's a story, there are characters, and there's a female character, and wait a minute...'"

So they sat on the couch and they played together until the end, and fighting about what you should do or not do, and say this, say that, and do this... And so it became a collaborative experience with the husband, who's the gamer, and the wife, who never plays games, and has no interest whatsoever in games.

And that's something very interesting to me, because I think it shows something. It shows that it's possible to get women interested in games, and I'm not talking about with casual games or whatever. But in this type of experience, they can have interest, because they feel interest in the characters, and they feel an interest in the story, and they want to know what's going to happen next. So that's very interesting to me.

Have you spoken to any women who weren't in that situation, who weren't the girlfriend or the wife, who actually picked the game up themselves?

DC: Yeah, of course. And, yeah, this is really the story they told me. It's really like, "My husband is always playing games where they're shooting things all day and it really makes me mad, but this is the first time I was interested in the story, and we discussed." Many people argued, actually. Especially the scene where you need to take care of your son, in the beginning of the game.

Guys tend to give just pizza to the kid, if they give him something to eat, where the women say, "Wait a minute! What are you doing? Did he do his homework? Did you put him to bed? You can't leave him on the couch watching television like that!" It was almost an argument, which was really funny.

It was also funny to see -- I met some couples where the husband was not prepared to cut his finger for his son, and the woman on the couch was saying, "Hey, what are you doing? You can't leave like this!" The male is saying, "Well, wait a minute. There's probably another way." And the woman was really like, "No, you need to do it. If that's the only way to save your son, you need to do it." All sorts of discussions like this were very, very interesting. It was really fun to hear.

Heavy Rain

When you hear stuff like this, does it feed back into the way you want to design in the future? Creating more tension, creating more situations that different people would approach different ways?

DC: Yeah, definitely. The best part of the development of Heavy Rain was listening to people talking about just how they -- first of all, how they were passionate about their experience. How they thought it was their story that was different from their friend's story, and how emotional they could be about it, and how they remembered some specific scenes in a very strong and vivid way. That was something very intriguing and very interesting to me.

That was really my biggest expectation with Heavy Rain. Can I create an experience that will leave an imprint in people's minds? Or is it just something like you turn off your console and then you forget about it? And, no, Heavy Rain left an imprint in some people's minds, and that's really what I was looking for.

And is that something you do through choice, or something you do through theme, or what happens in the narrative?

DC: I think it's a mix of different things. First thing is to create identification. It's to create characters that you feel you want to understand, and you feel you can resonate with. So you feel empathy for them. So then you're on board. And once you're on board, and you have this empathy relationship, then you share what they feel. So when they laugh, you can laugh with them. When they're sad, you're sad with them. When they feel nervous, you're nervous with them. So it's a very interesting and a very important relationship that you establish, and that's how it works.

Do you want to build on the gameplay basis that you made with Heavy Rain, or do you feel that there's a need to do something different to shake up audience expectations?

DC: My biggest concern about Heavy Rain was not so much what people who played it thought, because the feedback has been consistently very positive about the game. It was much more about the people who didn't play Heavy Rain, what they thought of the game. Just the image they had of it.

And I'm always shocked to hear people say, "Oh, Heavy Rain, it's like Dragon's Lair, with prompts sometimes, and that's not really a game." Wait a minute. There are less cutscenes in Heavy Rain than in many first person shooters that I can see these days.

So the game was really not about cutscenes. It was not about watching. You were in the shoes of the character. You were making the choices, and you were telling the story through your actions, and not through prompts, or whatever. So some people just stay stuck outside the game, having an image, an idea of what it is that in my mind was wrong.

So this is definitely something as a game creator you want to address, because you want as many people to try your game and give it a chance. It's not a matter of money; it's not a matter of sales. It's a matter of, "Hey, we worked really hard to create something we believe in. Please try it, give it a chance!"

So we really worked on how we can find a way of making the entry barrier as low as possible. "Please come in." Open doors. "Come on and, see, look. It looks like something familiar. But once you're in, I can take your hand and show you stuff that will really surprise you." That's my challenge as a game designer: to deal with all those things, and stay true to the experience we want to make, of course.

There's been a lot of discussion -- and we've had this discussion -- about people who wouldn't be attracted to games finding Heavy Rain appealing. But have you ever thought about changing the opinion of people who already play games to have a broader palette of the things they'll find interesting?

DC: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. That's very important to me, because I think that many more people could have enjoyed Heavy Rain, but just didn't give it a chance because they thought it was not a game for them, which really was not the case. I think that Heavy Rain was a game for pretty much anyone, if your expectation from a game is not just to get adrenaline.

If all you're interested in when you play a game is just shooting and destroying things, and feeling this tension and this frustration, then, yeah, Heavy Rain is not the game for you. But if you have an open mind, and you want to give it a chance and try something different, then Heavy Rain could really surprise you. And it's even more the case with Beyond, I think.

Do you think that there is an unmet demand for different types of games right now on the market, and do you see that through the success of Heavy Rain?

DC: Oh, yeah. I'm convinced of that. You're can have different approaches to the market. You can already give people a better version of the game that worked last year. That's one way of doing this. Or you can try to give people something they don't expect.

The thing is that, if you just give people what they expect, I think you're not doing your job as a creative person. You're just a marketing guy. Your job as a creative person is to give people what they don't expect -- or what they expect, without knowing that this is what they want. But your goal as a creative person is to surprise people all the time, and give them something different.

So, when you look at the market at the moment, you can see more of the same, fair enough, and a few people trying different things. I mean, recently, there's been Journey, for example, which was a very huge surprise. It was a very unexpected game in many ways, not entering into any genre, really, but it was very new, very creative, very original, and very successful. There are the guys working on The Walking Dead, right now, which is a different approach to narrative storytelling, and is also interesting in a way.

So, yeah, I think we should have more courage in our industry, and take more risks, because I think this is what the industry needs now. I mean, how many first person shooters can you make? How many monsters slash aliens slash zombies can you kill in games? There's a moment where we need to grow up. We need to grow up.

I often think that the industry suffers of the Peter Pan syndrome. It's the fact that we don't want to grow up, so we stay kids. But there is a moment where you need to grow up as an industry. And you cannot keep up with the Peter Pan syndrome. At some point you need to grow. I think this is the right time.

Have you spoken to other developers about your opinion, or had any exchange of ideas?

DC: Sure! All the time! What's been fantastic with Heavy Rain is the reaction of the industry. I was just amazed and incredibly pleased to hear people like Peter Molyneux, or Warren Spector, or Fumito Ueda, or Jenova Chen talking about Heavy Rain, and their experience, and how they enjoyed it. It's an honor, because these guys are incredibly talented and clever. So, yeah, we would talk all the time. All the time. I have talked a lot with Stig [Asmussen], also, who was working on God of War, and it's a very interesting discussion all the time. Very interesting.

What kind of discussions do you have with Stig?

DC: Oh, these are private discussions.

Sure. I understand that. I meant in the sense that you can't so easily see the connection between God of War and Heavy Rain. But Alex Evans from Media Molecule, said that, surprisingly, he's learned a lot by talking to Naughty Dog, and you wouldn't see a lot of overlap there. So I was just wondering if you have learned things that we wouldn't expect from your colleagues.

DC: Well, what I learned was that they had interest in what we were doing, which was a big surprise, because we always felt like we were a little bit outside the industry in many ways. And actually, the warm feedback we received said, "No, you're part of the family. We are interested in what you do." Yeah.

I felt many times people saying, "I wish we could do what you do," which was really a surprise, because I thought that what game creators were actually doing [was what they wanted]. Actually, no, they felt they had to do certain things, because they thought that's what the market was expecting.

Do you think the Peter Pan syndrome you described, then, is not just an internal thing within developers, but it's external pressure on them, more or less?

DC: Of course it's external pressure. If you asked developers, they all have incredible ideas. There are tons of very talented people in this industry, but what you see these days is that when people cannot express them in the game space, sometimes they just leave the game space and go into films, or into movies, or do whatever.

So I think it's our responsibility in the games industry to make sure that creative people have a space where they can have these ideas. It's interesting to see indie developers these days, because I think there's a lot of creativity with indie developers because they have this space of freedom where they can try new ideas, and I think they are the future of the industry.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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