Dreaming of a New Day: Heavy Rain's David Cage

Quantic Dream founder David Cage created the emotional storytelling in the acclaimed Indigo Prophecy, and, with Heavy Rain intending to take things further, Gamasutra talks to him about maturity and censorship in gaming.

David Cage, founder of French studio Quantic Dream, feels strongly about the evolution of games as a medium. Starting out in 1997, the company debuted the David Bowie co-starring Omikron: The Nomad Soul for PC and Dreamcast in 1999.

But Cage is probably best known for his company's 2005 game Xbox, PS2 and PC title Indigo Prophecy, known as Fahrenheit in Europe, which was critically acclaimed for its inventive storytelling and immersive techniques - and is now available on the 'Xbox Originals' program for the Xbox 360 for those wanting to investigate it in more detail.

Going even further is the company's PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain, described at one point by Cage as "a very dark film noir thriller with mature themes", and which was shown behind closed doors to select members of the press last week at E3. It intends to take the narrative and emotion-oriented elements of Cage's previous title much further.

In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, Cage discusses here issues as diverse as capturing true emotion in games, what it really means to make a "mature" game, the true diversification of the gaming audience, and the controversy that surrounds games in the mass media.

The first and most obvious thing that I want to talk about is emotion in games. One thing that comes to mind for me is that you're going very far into realism, and quite often, the more realistic you get, the more difficult it can be for players to identify with the characters, given the Uncanny Valley situation. So why do you want to push toward realism?

DC: I agree and disagree with your statement. You don't have to be realistic to create emotion. Of course it's not required. There are many, many examples of that in the game industry. What I'm interested in with realism is that I want to learn, basically, what it means to perform for an actor, and what it requires to translate this performance from a technical and creative point of view. Basically, I want to learn, and we really learned a lot working on the casting demo, for example, not only from what worked but also from what didn't work.

I think the uncanny valley is something that people talk a lot about, but I think we'll start to see the end of it. We're not out of the Uncanny Valley yet, but we can start to see how to limit it. Once we have learned how to create really realistic characters, then they will be contrasted to nonrealistic characters, and we will apply what we've discovered to different types of rendering and characters.

So you don't feel that realism limits your audience?

DC: No, I'm the opposite. To tell you the truth, I think it's easier for a major part of users to relate to something that looks real, as opposed to something that's totally out there. I wouldn't say this is my personal opinion, because as an educated gamer, I can relate to basically anything based in talent. But I think a lot of games explore realism, and I think it's easier for players to relate to something that's close to what they know, rather than something totally strange.

Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain

In my opinion, multiple decades of cartoons and animation and advertisements that are recognizable but not realistic, now seem quite mass-market. The Incredibles, for example, is a great example. That sort of technique gives you the ability to exaggerate, and reality can constrain you.

DC: That's absolutely true. That's one way of doing it. I think cinema would be limited if it were only The Incredibles or Beowulf... you see what I mean. I think exactly the same of games. There's room for different styles and different stories to be told. I think rendering is not an end in itself. When you're a developer or creator, you don't wake up in the morning and say, "I'm a creator for non-realistic roles!" or for realistic roles.

A trait relies on the story, most of the time. What is my vision? What do I have to tell to the world? Then you think, "What is the best way of telling the story? Is it realistic? Is it non-realistic?" I'm quite agnostic about that. I'm not saying everything should be realistic or non-realistic. It really depends on what you want to say.

With graphics that are realistic, do you find that it's more difficult to take those characters outside of reality or the game universe? Like with Indigo Prophecy, when the story begins to go sci-fi.

DC: It doesn't matter, honestly. In cinema, as demonstrated, you can tell any story, even the most absurd or non-realistic ones, with realistic rendering. Think about David Lynch movies. Think about Brazil. It's an insane story, but it's realistic. It's live action. So no, I don't think there are stories that can't be told with cinema rendering. You can do whatever you want.

But it's really interesting to work with real actors. When you think about Pixar and The Incredibles, for example, how do they work? They film real actors to see how they move, and then they have animators trying to recreate and exaggerate and add, et cetera. But basically, it's based on real actors. We are not at this stage yet. I still want to discover what it takes to create an actor and where emotion comes from.

For example, we discovered the importance of the work we're doing with facial animation, after [developing] the casting. We discovered how to capture that. I think we gained a lot by capturing the eyes of the actors, because suddenly, it was not keyframed. However good you are, it's always keyframed. You can see it's keyframed.

But here, it's captured, so you have all the micro movements, and it's incredible. We knew that from the start, but it was even more than we thought, how much goes through the eyes. It's really insane. The micro movements... the things you do when you talk, just moving your head a little bit... a lot goes through that. So we learned.

Have you seen what Naughty Dog did with Uncharted? They tried to use that kind of tactic, using real actors and having them deliver their lines. Is that sort of a similar direction to where you're going?

DC: There's a big difference. Honestly, I loved the game. I thought Uncharted was very interesting. There was some very, very interesting aspects to it. The big difference between Uncharted and what we're doing here is that Uncharted was still structured like a video game. It gives you a bit of story, then action, then a bit of story, then action - like porn movies, when you think about it.

Porn movies are structured in exactly the same way, except that the action is not the same (laughter), but it's the same structure. Most video games are done like that. It's one thing to do a great cutscene, even if it's real time. It's another thing to try to tell the story as you play, so the story's not told through cutscenes -- it's told through gameplay. So you don't need acting performance in cutscenes. You need interactive performance.

With a universe that has a turn toward realism, how can you keep a player involved in that, when they have all of the tools available to them to completely undermine the narrative by running around in circles in the bathroom or something?

DC: That's a good question. I think it's the main challenge. We don't want the player to destroy the experience, so there are two things. First, you need to trust the player, because maybe he will turn around in circles once and then realize, "Okay, how does it support the experience? It doesn't. I've done it. Okay, fine," and then maybe play by the rules. Not by forcing them but by encouraging them to play according to what is the best way to enjoy the experience, simply.

That's one way, and I think there are things you can do in how you structure the game and how you deal with the interface. There are different things you can do to do it without limiting players' freedom. The goal is not to give you a cutscene and say, "Look, you've done exactly what I wanted." It's really to give freedom, but make the player understand it's in his interest to play by the rules.

Do you feel that sandbox-style gameplay supports that or undermines it?

DC: Sandbox gameplay... yeah, it's true that in this industry, we have a real position between people talking about sandbox, and people doing rollercoasters. A rollercoaster is an experience that is entirely defined by some to be optimal. From the time you're in the line, you go in the back of the rollercoaster and through the tunnel and everything is defined. We knew while you were waiting how to make the stress grow, how to make you feel something, get you scared, make you feel better, et cetera. This rollercoaster is being conceived by someone to optimize the experience.

Sandbox is not that. It's saying, "Look, there are tools. There are things. Maybe there will be friends. Maybe not. Do what you want." There's one possibility that these sandbox experiences are so fantastic because you've been extremely lucky. You know how to use the tool. You met people that were truly great, and you had something incredible to do. But you know what? It's also possible that it happens that you get bored and don't cope with the people in the sandbox. You don't like the tools, or you don't know what to do with them, and you end up with a very poor experience.

So in my mind, some of the very few kind of real sandboxes I know are with massively multiplayer games. When I say "kind of," I don't believe there are absolutely real sandboxes out there. It's only a list of scripted things, but there are so many of them and you can play them in any order, you get the feeling that you're in a sandbox. In fact, it's really rare that you're really in a sandbox. Most of the time, you're in a scripted experience but it's really heated.

I've played many MMOs these days, and most of the time, the experience is really poor, because you end up doing not very exciting things. I think the value of the experience is not on that. It's really about building yourself - the vision of yourself, like, "Oh, I want to be a hero, because I've spent so much time at level 16. I'm so strong. Look at my weapons and my helmet." These are the core mechanics these games are based on.

I think that's fine for people when they need to build self esteem, and it's a very important core complementing experience, but if you're not into that, what's the real narrative or emotional value? Sometimes it's really interesting when you're in the guild in a massively multiplayer game and you attack the fortress or whatever. Some great things can be told, but it's not guaranteed. The value is not always there.

Personally, I enjoy single-player experiences because they have thoughtful narrative qualities, or at least the potential for it. But it's obviously personal, because for some people, interaction is quite important. To me, obviously, interaction is important, but it's not important for making a great game.

DC: What is weird is that you can tell people, "Tell your own story," and most people would tell you, "Come on, I'm not a storyteller. Telling a good story is really a job that requires talent and vision. I just want to enjoy a story. I don't want to tell my own story out of the blue." It's part of the pleasure, too, when you go to the cinema, to discover the vision of someone else, and to have a story to be told.

I think what games can really bring to the table is the fact that there is a vision, there's someone to tell it, but you can participate in the story. You can change it, and you can make it yours, but at the same time, it remains a good story with a good story arc and a real journey. Someone plotted the journey for you, so you're guaranteed to live something unique.

In terms of the sandbox situation, if you give the player the ability to pick up a cup and put it down anywhere, if they can stack up a pyramid of cups or something like that, is that emergent, immersive gameplay, because they can do that in the real world, or is that a game-breaking thing? Where is the line?

DC: Working on Fahrenheit, my guideline was that I allowed the player to do anything that made sense in the context. Some people came to me and said, "I'm in the diner in the opening scene. I would like to kill the cop at the bar, and I can't." Well, you know, Lucas Kane is not a killer. He's not someone who's vicious. He's just a normal guy. So why would a normal guy kill a cop? It doesn't make sense. Some people say, "I want to jump on the tables in the diner. I can't." Why would Lucas Kane do that? It doesn't make sense.

Atari/Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy

I think that's basically true. As long as you're consistent with this rule, and as long as it's established early on in the experience and that you always maintain it all the way through, people are fine with that. Once they understand that they can't buy one hundred cups of coffee and make a pyramid with them, it's established at the beginning, "You know what? You can't do that, because it wouldn't make sense." If it was a movie, the character would never do that in the context, so you can't.

Maybe it's a frustration the first time, and then you forget about it, because you're carried by the journey. The journey takes you somewhere else. This is not the purpose of this thing. No, there's not a great physics engine in Fahrenheit. You can't take a chair and throw it away. Why would you? It doesn't make sense.

So how much do you have to determine your characters before the game is made and build the game around those characters? And how much are they created through what you are actually accomplishing with the development process? How much is the character established in the beginning, or does it evolve?

DC: I establish pretty much everything before I start, so I know who the characters are. I try to have a real understanding of where they're coming from and what their narrative arc would be. There are many theories about narrative, but one of them is to say, "Story is what is going to change a character." So he'll be in a certain state starting before the story, and he should have changed or evolved or something through the story. He's different.

I try to establish my characters as much as possible before I start, and make sure I know who they are before I write the story, because it would help me to know how they would react to different situations. If you know who they are, you see that if that happens, they would do this. It helps.

But it's not that separated. You have to build the characters, but at the same time, you think about the story, even if you don't have a clear idea of what you want to tell and what the themes you want to talk about are. It's good to work on both together.

You have a strong link, it seems, with the idea of games as a cinematic experience. You reference movies a lot in explaining your ideas.

DC: Yeah, I think this part is generally misunderstood, because some people maybe didn't really read my interviews and think that I'm promoting cutscenes and that cinema is the absolute model. I'm not someone who's frustrated at not being a director and ended up doing video games. I'm here because I decided to be here and because I'm excited about interactivity in video games. I'm not a frustrated movie director.

What I want to say is that no creative media has been created from scratch. When photography started, they didn't invent everything. They started copying painting. When cinema started, they started to copy from photography and theater. When television started, they started to copy cinema. But in this industry, I don't know why people seem to think that we are pure geniuses and we are going to invent something entirely new that no one has ever seen.

But that's not true. Every single game being made is inspired by something else. That's normal. That's fair. So what I'm saying is that one of the closest media to games is cinema. We shouldn't copy it. We shouldn't imitate it. We should get inspired. We should take what is good there, because it's going to save us time, and if something is effective and works in cinema, why wouldn't you copy it?

As long as we take what is good and add something new that is absolutely unique to our media... we don't want to make cinema, we want to make interactivity. Let's borrow some code from cinema, but let's not copy it. It's challenging, too. I don't want to make cinema, and I don't promote a vision of video games being only narrative-driven or whatever. I'm just saying, "Let's learn."

I remember that's not actually your aim, but there's a lot of that, and I believe it is because some of the most accomplished mass-market characters, experiences, and stories that can be told have been done through cinema. And indeed, it is much more similar than novels or stuff like that.

DC: It is.

So what then inspires you the most in what you're currently doing?

DC: I write something very dark with things, that as far as I know, are serious and have never been used in games. That's what made this project interesting and exciting. It's not a story about a king and a princess and a dragon. It's not something about the second World War. It's not, "You're a rookie and you need to go on this mission." It's a real story with some very personal things in it, and I hope all this will come through and people will feel that the story is pretty good.

What, for you, creates a compelling character? Quite often in games, there is the ability to create a character that is supposed to represent you, and I assume here you'll have a real established character type. So what, to you, makes a compelling character?

DC: I discovered something very interesting that people probably knew before me, but I personally discovered it. It doesn't matter if you control different characters. In Fahrenheit, you could control Lucas Kane, who is this handsome, typical hero. You're controlling Carla Valenti. She's a female cop - a different character - and Tyler Miles, this black cop, and a couple of others.

When I wrote that, people were telling me, "Players won't enjoy playing with these characters, because they will feel empathy with Lucas Kane, and they will only want to play with him, because he's the hero. He's cute, he's really at the core of the story, and we want to be him." And in fact, when the game was released, you know what? You can very easily come from one to another character without any problem.

And it made me realize that identification and how you project yourself into a character and how you feel empathy with the character is something very easy. It's a feeling that's very easy to create, and you can project yourself into pretty much anything. I read some very interesting stuff with someone who was talking about the first shooters that happened in the video game industry - with the spaceships that you need to shoot. People tended to say, "I died," when they lost. "I died?" It's not me! I mean, come on, it's four white pixels on screen being hurt by something.

In fact, the thing was, people can project themselves into pretty much anything. It doesn't have to be realistic. It can be just four pixels, as long as they decided it's them. So the same thing happens. You can see the same thing in cinema. In cinema, you don't always feel empathy only for the main character. There are many movies that have been made where there are different stories that are being told, and you realize that the audience can feel empathy for all the characters that are on-screen, and that works very well.

So back to your question (laughter), when I create characters, I try to start with an archetype. When I say "archetype," I don't mean "caricature". I mean archetype. An archetype is someone who very quickly you seem to know and you think you know him or her by the way he looks, talks, behaves, moves, and by his voice and whatever. What is interesting is to start with an archetype, because you create immediate empathy. And then you can add an extra layer of complexity to your character. So you seem to know him, but you discover there's extra depth. I think that's really interesting.

But what I don't do... I don't like caricatures in games, like the player always wants the hero to have big muscles, and to be a big guy voiced like that, or if I'm a woman, I want to be a female with big boobs. Games have done that again and again and continue to do that, and now they seem to say, "You're the rookie. The young guy who just arrives in the Army." You discover controls at the same time as your character, and it's been done. There are different stories and characters to create than hunky rookies or girls with big boobs.

I personally am extremely tired of that, and this is me and not everyone, obviously, because those games still sell. But for me, I'll turn on a game like that, and unless there's something really interesting to do or some interesting promise for the future in the game, I'll turn it off in five minutes, or not even turn it on in the first place. I look at everything like, "Oh, yep. There's that big guy with the gun."

DC: That's one problem with this industry, is that we continue to do games only for teenagers, or what we believe teenagers want. We believe that teenagers want to have big muscles and be very assertive and have pecs and blah blah blah. And if you're a girl, you want a very nice, sexy girl, because this is what teenagers want.

I don't know if it's true. I don't know if teenagers really want that, or if they're starting to be tired with that. Hopefully they are. But this is ridiculous. This medium is trying to be mature, and we need to have content for teenagers and kids, but it would be great to start to have some content for others. It still needs to be seen. This industry still seems to focus on teenagers. I don't know why, when there's a huge market out there's that female, older people, and adults.

I think a lot of it has to do with types of media or stories that inspire the developers of games, which quite often is simply other games. I do get the feeling sometimes that some people are making games without reading books or going outside and interacting with the world.

DC: My theory is that video games initially were made by teenagers, for teenagers.

BS: Emotional teenagers, sometimes.

DC: Yeah, but also what is interesting with teenagers is that it's really the age where we try to test the limits. For these games, this is what they're doing. Look at GTA. It's really breaking the rules and doing everything that is forbidden. This is what you do when you're a teenager. You want to test the limits. You want to know what is allowed and what is forbidden, and that's fine.

I would be really happy with that if there were also content for adults, because when you get older, you ask for more experience. You want some depth, meaning, and not to be taken like an idiot. You want to be talked to like you would talk to an adult. So that's a big problem in this industry, I think.

In terms of reaching more people, you're releasing this game only on the PS3, and the audience for that is necessarily limited, because only a certain number of people have it. Do you feel that consoles are a limitation for you? I don't know how many adults who want this kind of experience have a PS3.

DC: Honestly, working on one platform is the best thing we could dream of, and it's a choice. When we signed this game, we had a choice between different publishers, some of them being only one platform and other being all. After the experience we had with Fahrenheit, where the multiplatform was kind of painful on all levels, it makes the development more complex, but you also end up with the feeling that you've taken the best of none. You had to do something on three platforms, and you couldn't really effect the time and efforts to one platform to make it the best game on this platform, because you've got three platforms to pick.

I think regarding especially the PC, the PC is generally a frustration for me, both as a developer and as a player. As a player, when I buy a game, it's quite expensive. I come back home, put the CD in, and you've got to install it. Fine - it starts to be the same with consoles these days. And then you realize that you're missing a driver. It doesn't work. It doesn't play the video, or it crashes, or it doesn't have the right version of DirectX, or it's not compatible with your video card or whatever. Whew! Well, I bought this thing, and it's supposed to work.

I don't want to fight with my computer just to make this bloody thing work. And then you need to go on the Internet, download the drivers, and you know what? The framerate is not what it's supposed to be, or you don't have the level of detail in the graphics because you don't have the right video card or you don't have the right controller because the developer wanted you to play this game with a certain controller, and you only have a keyboard and a mouse, or whatever. And in the end, the experience is not what the developer wanted, and it's not satisfying for you as a user.

And as a developer, I'm frustrated, because when I design an experience, I have framerates in mind, certain graphic rendering in mind, a certain controller in mind, and I'm frustrated if people can't play it. On Fahrenheit, the game was designed for the PlayStation 2 controller. It works okay on Xbox, but honestly, I don't think it works with a keyboard and a mouse on PC. It's really difficult and challenging to find a game that can work with any device.

On PlayStation 3 now, there's no problem. It's pretty clear. You know what the control is, you know the rendering, you know what framerates you get, and you know everything, because this is exactly what you designed. You say it's a limited audience - yeah, it's true at the moment, but by the end of the PlayStation 2, I think there are 120 million units in the world, so I don't call that a limited market. There's no reason why the PlayStation 3 can't reach these numbers.

But it's limited to the hardcore game player, really, because for any console except for maybe the Wii, it's a big, intimidating controller for people who haven't played video games before, and there is the expense, as well, for any platform.

DC: That was true, but it was true for any console. In the beginning with the PlayStation 2, it was only hardcore gamers, and now the PlayStation 2 is for kids. So you always see this illusion through the lifetime of consoles some are worried about now. And the good news now is that the PlayStation 3 is a Blu-ray player, and is probably the cheapest on the market. So yes, for hardcore gamers, it's a very expensive console, but when you think of it as a Blu-ray player, it's very cheap.

I was just thinking in terms of making a meaningful experience for adults, and any adult who has not bought video games for a long time would probably not be able to pick it up.

DC: They may buy a PlayStation 3. I think that's one of the reasons why we produce this game, is to encourage people... to show them, "Look what this console can do. If you want to enjoy it, just buy a console."

And people do have to be taught sometimes that games are something that they can enjoy, because some people think, "Games aren't for me."

DC: That's true.

It's a tough sell.

DC: It's a challenging sell, of course, to convince people who have not played, to buy a console to play this game. Maybe it's arrogant to say, but we hope to convince people that games change, and that yes, there are games where you shoot and drive and kill, but slowly, we see appearing a new generation of games where you do different things.

It seems to me the most compelling argument for that has been downloadable titles. Again, these games are interesting to me, personally, but the most accessible things that have taught people, "Yes, you can play games that aren't just shooting", are downloadable games on the PC or browser-type things. Those are getting hold of the large, older female market and the people who used to play games but think they've gotten too complicated.

DC: I agree and disagree, because these games are usually casual games. And that's fine, but these are games that are toys. It's just for when you've got that moment to kill and, "Okay, I can play this little thing on my computer. It's an easy no-brainer and doesn't require me to invest time or to think about it." That's fine.

But at the same time, I promote games that require attention and involvement that also have higher ambitions in creativity and experience, in general. And I don't think that they're exactly the same stuff, because you can choose to download games in your Internet browser, or you're going to invest time in a real interactive experience in a triple-A next-gen title. But I think we'll see more and more separation between games that are toys, and video games that have a higher view or ambition. Maybe "video game" is not the right word anymore for titles that have more ambition. There's no right word. Many people are trying to find another word.

"Video game," when you think about it, doesn't mean anything anymore. That was fine for arcade games in the old days, because they were games on video, but now what does it mean? It doesn't mean anything. And you've got in the same box all games and all their diversity. But there are so many different games and different ways.

That's also true of the words "cinema" and "film", because you don't necessarily watch it at a cinema shot on film. But that's still accepted as a wide breadth of meaning, s

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