Quantic Dream founder spills beans on QTEs, Project Natal versus PS3 motion control, "primitive" emotions in gaming and a private tête-a-tête with Hideo Kojima.
Despite three years of steady press coverage, we know surprisingly little about Quantic Dream's PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain. We know that the game's multi-threaded plot purports to offer terrifying levels of player choice and consequence, even making space for the demise of central characters. We know that its gaunt, harrowed cast of serial killers, strippers and drug-addled detectives own penthouse apartments in the Uncanny Valley, thanks to some stunning proprietary tech.
But as to how the thing will play, moment to moment, we're still largely at sea. Aspects of Heavy Rain incline towards the classic point and click adventures of LucasArts, while other elements owe something to Sega's sadly defunct Shenmue series, and still others recall games as thematically disparate as God of War, Resident Evil 4 and Mass Effect.
This elusiveness has to do less with fickle publicity than Quantic Dream's desire to transcend calcified forms of play, founder David Cage told Kikizo when we stopped by for an interview. In a very tightly crammed nutshell, Cage wishes to make interaction much more relevant to its dramatic context, tailor-making gameplay concepts to each part of a game's story rather than relying, as most developers do, on certain default mechanics and an associated control scheme.
It's a bold aim, and one that will probably play merry hell with Kikizo's category system when Heavy Rain hits PS3s next year. Elsewhere in our chat, Cage discussed QTEs, his scepticism for Project Natal, Quantic Dream's in-house tech-wizardry and "primitive" emotions in gaming. Tantalisingly enough, he also touched on a private tête-a-tête with Hideo Kojima.
Kikizo: How would you sell your "branching storyline" approach to people brought up on more traditional game plotting?
Cage: I don't think I want people to understand how it works, I just want them to play and enjoy it! That would be the best proof that it works, actually. You know about interactive storytelling, many people said that this is not possible, because narrative is linear, in essence, where interactivity is non-linear. Many people think it's not possible to combine both. Also there are some technical issues in the writing of interactive storytelling, because when you think up tree branches, you start to add branches to your tree, and branches lead to more branches that give you more branches, and you end up with a huge tree and no control over it.
So I developed this technique I call "banding stories", that is about considering my story like a rubber band that the player can stretch and deform based on his actions. So the story's always there, the rubber band is still the same, but you can change its shape and length based on what you do. So this is my solution. I tried to experiment on Fahrenheit, and it worked in many aspects, and I think Heavy Rain will go much further in the same direction.
Kikizo: What's changed between last year's E3/Leipzig presentation and what you showed at this year's E3?
Cage: The difficulty with Heavy Rain is that everything is contextual and everything is different. So it's not like in a shooter game where you show one level and then you pretty much understand everything about the game. In Heavy Rain every scene is unique - there are many different characters, many different challenges, many different things to play. So we decided with Sony to start to unveil each character at each significant trade show through the year, and each time demonstrate a different aspect of the game. So the first scene we revealed was Norman Jayden, this guy from an FBI investigation, and we wanted to show how we could have in a scene dialogue, exploration and an action sequence.
We revealed the second scene at E3, and this is Madison Paige the second character, a female character, she's a photographer and she suffers from insomnia. And she gets in a way involved with an investigation about the Origami killer, and she wants to help another character, and she goes to this night club run by a guy called Paco, and she comes here to investigate because she knows the killer. So we showed this scene which is in a night club with, I don't know how many people dancing, but it's really crowded, and the character avoiding other characters dancing. And she will end up being forced to do a striptease for the guy depending on how you play, and there are many different endings.
Kikizo: The first demo you showcased felt quite solitary, but the new Madison Paige episode is obviously much more public. How are you managing the balance between private and public situations in the story?
Cage: There are many scenes that are quite crowded. We go from one scene to another, each scene is different. Some people like Jayden are involved with the police, he works with the police. Other characters aren't.
Kikizo: How many people will we encounter in these crowd scenes, max?
Cage: The scene in the night club is really crowded, maybe 200 people on screen dancing.
Kikizo: Could you go into more detail about the technology powering Heavy Rain? I thought it was one of the best-looking games of last year...
Cage: Thank you.
Kikizo: It's always interesting to hear how these things are accomplished.
Cage: Well all the technology is proprietary, developed by Quantic Dream. We've worked for quite a while on PlayStation 3 - we got some alpha kits, dev kits for PS3 a long time ago, maybe before other developers. And also we worked with the full cooperation of Sony, they gave us fantastic support. And we really wanted to develop specific technologies because we were interested in more specific topics, like how the skin reacts to light, how to animate eyes, how light reflects in eyes, how to integrate body motion capture and facial motion capture, how to have a crowd - many, many topics which are not necessarily useful for other types of games, but we have some very specific needs in this one, especially with directing - the way we play with the camera, the way the camera slightly shakes all the time, etc, etc.
Kikizo: One of the big questions in this industry, of course, is how to create emotional experiences. You've played a headline role in that particular debate.
Cage: I've always thought the only real next gen feature would be emotion. I didn't believe that physics, AI, or polygons, or texture maps would be a real next gen feature, OK - it's just about technology. But technology is just a tool, it's not the content. It's the tool to create the content. You know when we talk about emotion in this industry, I don't think we're always talking about the same thing. Because the some people believe that when you get a golfer smiling because he succeeded, this is emotion. Well I believe this is a very primitive emotion.
We've got a lot of emotions in our industry - we've got frustration, competition, anger, adrenaline. But I'm much more interested in more sophisticated emotions like empathy, sadness, happiness, and the ways to trigger them. And this is really difficult to be honest with you, it's a real challenge. There are many ways to achieve this goal. The one we chose is to use narrative and actors.
Kikizo: So the quality of the acting...
Cage: It's first of all the script, the story, the characters. It's the quality of the acting, the quality of the direction. Emotion is not one thing, it's not one button that you press and say OK, this is emotional now. It's the combination of all these things, including interactivity and interface - interface should be a part of the emotion.
Kikizo: Certainly for story, I couldn't agree more. I cried my eyes out recently over a film called Seven Pounds. Will Smith's in it. True fact.
Cage: The first playable scene we showed is not the most emotional one. We wanted to introduce the game with a very classic action sequence of a dark thriller, you know. That was very much the idea. But the night club scene is different and we'll reveal a new scene and a new character in Cologne this year, and another one at the Tokyo Game Show, and the closer we get to release the more emotional and original we'll be about what we show.
Kikizo: Could you give me a fuller idea of the gameplay package in Heavy Rain? So far we've seen exploring the environment, the QTE-action sequence - I don't know if you're calling them QTEs or not...
Cage: No, we call them "PARs" - "physical action reactions". It's difficult to describe the package, as you called it, of the gameplay - I guess we can say that there's some action, exploration, interaction with the environment, interaction with other characters, and on a purely technical point of view yes there are some action sequences. It's the idea of the QTE developed in Shenmue, except we wanted to take them to the next stage, and make them next gen. So we tried to figure out what we could improve.
What we liked about them was that they were contextual, so instead of having a punch and a kick you could really have very choreographed scenes with a real sense of directing, and each movement being entirely unique. So we really enjoyed that and this was really something we wanted to keep. So we put the symbols in 3D in the environment, instead of having them in 2D on top of the screen they are in 3D, they animate with what you want to interact with. So if you want to interact with someone the symbol would move with them. And we tried to play with everything on the controller. We played with the sticks, we played with the buttons, we played with the triggers, and the Sixaxis motion-sensing.
Kikizo: I spoke to Hideo Kojima at last year's Leipzig show, and the final topic of discussion was the cut scene. As I'm sure you know, there are a lot of cut scenes in the Metal Gear Solid series. So my question to him was: could you think of a more interactive, less passive way of telling your story? And his answer in a nutshell was "I don't know, I'll have to think about this more. I'm not sure the technology exists for it." Right after that interview, I saw Heavy Rain.
Cage: Kojima heard about Heavy Rain last year and we met, because everyone told him about Heavy Rain and he wanted to talk, discuss this topic. It was a very interesting discussion. But yeah I believe that the only real challenge is to treat the storytelling differently, not through cut scenes but directly through gameplay. As you play you tell the story. And that's the most difficult thing to do, but also the most interesting thing.
Kikizo: Can you tell me anything more about that particular meeting of minds?
Cage: That was a private discussion and I can't really discuss it [laughs], but it was very interesting and I was really pleased that he heard about us and wanted to hear more.
Kikizo: Had you met him before?
Cage: No, it was the first time.
Kikizo: And are you a fan of his games?
Cage: I certainly respect his work, definitely, although it's not the type of game I want to make myself. But yeah he's a huge star, I guess.
Kikizo: Can you tell me a bit about Quantic Dream as a company - where it came from, where it is right now, where it's going? How has it grown to facilitate this project?
Cage: So Quantic Dream is a really old company - we're 12 years old now - and we are about 100 people internally. For Heavy Rain there are about 100 people outside the company. And we have our own sound studio in-house, we have our own 3D scanner, we have our own motion capture set - that was an investment we made about 10 years ago, because we wanted to master this technology. And that's pretty much it. We believe in emotion above all, this is really what we believe in. We believe games can become - should become - a creative medium, and not just stories for kids. So we try to create more sophisticated experiences for an older audience.
Kikizo: Have you had a chance to look at Project Natal and Sony's new motion-sensing wand? I was quite convinced by Natal.
Cage: You know, it's one idea among others. I'm not sure all people want to play jumping and running in front of the television, because I think some people just want to relax and just play, enjoy and experience. It shows Microsoft wants to go the Nintendo way, probably, go casual, compete with Wii Fit, and there's nothing wrong about it - there is a market for casual gamers. But this is definitely not the direction I would like this industry to go, because I think it should go in the direction of movies - more creativity, more new ideas, more authors - rather than going in the direction of toys. And from a technical point of view I must admit I'm still slightly sceptical about what they've shown.
Kikizo: So what are you thoughts on the new PS3 controller, then?
Cage: I think it's an interesting time for PlayStation and Sony, I think they revealed some very interesting new titles that start really to show what next-gen means. And when you look at titles like Uncharted 2 or God of War III, Heavy Rain and others, you start to see that we're really moving to the next stage. There are some very interesting new games coming along.
Kikizo: OK. And Heavy Rain is coming out next year?
Cage: Early next year.
Kikizo: What are your remaining priorities as you finish the game?
Cage: Well we're just past the alpha stage, and basically our priority right now until the game is released is just to polish everything. And it's a game requiring a lot of details to be checked, and everything should be in place otherwise it's going to distract the player from the experience itself. So we work very hard tuning the gameplay, improving the directing, improving the visuals, making it just look and play the best we can.
Kikizo: We're looking forward to seeing more. Thanks for your time, David.
Autor: Kikizo Staff
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