Normally, when presenting their games to the press, game developers try to explain them as fully and as best they can. They choose representative sections to demo and strive to get their vision for the whole project across in interviews. David Cage likes to do things differently.
The first time he showed Heavy Rain - the "Taxidermist" demo at last year's Leipzig Games Convention - he explained that what we were seeing wouldn't appear in the game itself. The second time journalists were summoned before the French writer-director and head of the Quantic Dream studio, he went one further: he didn't actually show anything at all.
This third time, he's got nowhere to hide, or so you'd think. Quantic has brought alpha code of a scene that will appear in the PS3 interactive drama, and we're even being allowed to play it ourselves - but Cage isn't done playing cat-and-mouse. It's the first of four scenes he's going to show over the next few months, he says, each one so different that it's going to make you doubt what Heavy Rain actually is. Beware of jumping to conclusions, he warns, because they'll be false. We're beginning to think that he's enjoying this.
"It's difficult to understand, don't worry, that's normal, but the more scenes we show, probably the more lost you'll be," Cage says in his light, unassuming tone. "We'll show you things that are really, really different from what you've just seen. And that's going to be a pleasure."
On that we have to agree. What we learn and experience of Heavy Rain at this preview - quite a lot, in fact, despite Cage's coyness - doesn't do anything to change the impression that it's the most interesting game of this year. We await a chance to see the next scene at E3 with as much excitement as anything else at the show.
The first thing we learn is that Heavy Rain will have four lead characters, and you'll play through their scenes in turn as you move chronologically through the events of four days. Each will have a different angle on the story, and we'll be introduced to them all in the coming previews. This time, we get to meet FBI profiler Norman Jayden.
Jayden is a young forensics and profiling expert working on the case of the Origami Killer, a serial killer responsible for a series of murders on the east coast of the US. The police have been working the case for months, but have no suspects. Jayden is professional, methodical, clever, obsessive... and a drug addict, slave to a pharmaceutical called Triptocaine. Players will need to manage his addiction, taking the drug to retain Jayden's self-control at key moments, but risking deeper addiction as they do so.
In the only hint of science-fiction we've seen in the game, Jayden uses a high-tech glove-and-glasses device called ARI - "Added Reality Interface", a Pentagon prototype - as an investigative tool to look for clues in his surroundings. It turns him into a one-man mobile CSI lab, detecting fingerprints, DNA and blood traces, and highlighting them in the environment, unlocking clues. It can also be used as a virtual reality interface, re-skinning his surroundings and providing Quantic with a visual tool for out-of-scene investigation and storytelling.
ARI is graphically exciting; hitting a button triggers a radar-like neon splash around Jayden that traces clouds of orchid pheromones in the air, blood trails and tyre-tracks on the floor, and collects luminescent fingerprints for later cross-referencing. However, it's a fairly self-conscious device for a game that roots itself so squarely in the real world. We ask Cage if we can expect Heavy Rain's other characters to have similar, or equivalent systems.
"No, not systems, but they have different personalities, different backgrounds, and they can do different things. They have access to different parts of the story also, and they can deal in different ways with different situations. Jayden is not a template. Each one is unique." Of these others, we only know their names: Ethan Mars, Scott Shelby, and Madison Paige, the young lady from the Taxidermist demo.
Jayden's scene, from somewhere in the middle of the game, sees him visiting the junkyard of a burly, threatening car scrap dealer called Mad Jack. A car used by the killer has been tracked here. It's a gloomy location under an atmospheric, glowering sky; it looks as if it's been shot in shallow focus through an ochre lens filter, very moody, very David Fincher. Although you can move Jayden's head around with the left stick - dictating where he looks and walks - and switch between tight and long tracking camera angles at will with L1, Heavy Rain still has a studied, cinematic look, carefully composed at all times.
There's been a major change to the interface for contextual actions since Leipzig. Clear white cues for stick movements and button presses are embedded in the scene in 3D; if the game wants you to open Jayden's car door with a flick of the stick to the right, the symbol will appear next to the door on the screen, no matter what the angle. In fights, the cue for dodging a punch will appear next to the aggressor's fist as it moves - for picking up and swinging a piece of piping, by the pipe on the floor. Sixaxis shake is used in appropriately desperate moments, but otherwise motion control seems to have been stripped back from the Taxidermist demo.
It's incredibly effective. Yes, Heavy Rain still offers entirely scripted, choreographed, simon-says action, but the presentation - from the in-scene cues to the fluid, fast and natural camera cuts - is in a new league, and the pacing is excellent. Quantic has coaxed quite a dramatic range from the pad, too, using shake, button hammering, and lots of flicks and quarter-circles on the stick to find an appropriate input for each action. There will be three difficulty levels, which will determine how precise your timing needs to be, and the variety of moves you'll need to pull off.
There are some more neat integrations of interface and display. Pressing L2 brings up Jayden's thoughts as words revolving around him - "cold", "withdrawal", "Shaun". Each is matched with a button that will trigger a voiceover, mixing emotional colour with plot hints. If the character is calm, they revolve slowly and are legible, but in stressful situations the words will move fast and letters will blur to emulate confusion and make it harder to "think".
The same system is used for conversational options. "If you are really calm, you'll be fully in control of what you want to say, whereas if you're really stressed and nervous, you will have less control over what you say," says Cage.
All of this, including ARI, features in the junkyard scene. After exchanging a few words with Jack, Jayden uses ARI to examine the workshop, where blood trails lead to a skull in an acid bath. Jack responds with a gun to the back of Jayden's head - if you don't find the body within a certain time period, the game will force this event. A scuffle ensues, and then a conversation where Jayden must threaten and cajole information out of Jack. He suffers drug withdrawal - you'll have to use the "impress" system here, holding down an awkward layout of buttons to emulate discomfort as Jayden rummages desperately through his pockets for the Triptocaine - and Jack regains the upper hand.
Jayden wakes up in a car headed for a grisly end in the compactor, where tense split-screen action ensues as you shake and jolt yourself free to the strangely sinister jangling of bluegrass on the radio. Finally, a climactic scrap with the huge Jack - Jayden always and convincingly at a physical disadvantage, which is rare in any kind of videogame combat - ends with the scrap dealer dying under the tracks of his own JCB. Or does it?
This is one way the scene could play out. At several points - here, in the car, during the fight in the workshop - it would be entirely possible for Jayden to die. If he does, that's it, his story ends and you won't go back and restart (well, you might get a couple more tries first). You'll miss his perspective on the story, you'll miss trails and leads, and the other threads will be affected.
This is a very brave decision by Quantic. At a stroke it eliminates the repetitive nature of cinematic "quick time event" games that breaks their narrative flow; normally you're left stuck in a loop until you've met the (often frustrating) conditions for success, but Heavy Rain just accepts that's what's happened, and moves on. But, we wonder, will gamers be able to overcome their endlessly conditioned instinct to try and try again, save every character and see it all? Won't that necessarily be the "best" story? Cage suggests not.
"We don't want to stop it, the goal is not to frustrate [the player]," he says. "But we want to convince him that it's in his benefit and his interest not to play the game that way. Maybe we'll fail, I don't know... But I think the best story is maybe not with all four characters alive."
At any rate, keeping them alive might not be a constantly pressing concern. Quantic has opened the bidding with a particularly action-packed scene, but points out that much of the game's eight to ten hours will consist of less dangerous exploration. And it's not necessarily a murder mystery.
"Yeah, there's references to American dark thrillers, Seven is one of them, Silence of the Lambs is another... But honestly, it's really not a game about a profiler from the FBI investigating a serial killer - that's a part of the story, but it's not the story," Cage says. "I think everything is in the tagline, 'How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?' This is really what the game is about... The game is an emotional simulator. If it was happening to you, what answer would you give to this question?"
It clearly matters to Cage. "I think it's probably the first thing I write for a game that relates to my personal life, and I hope that people feel that. That there's someone trying to tell a real story that relates to him."
There's a focus on emotional, instinctive choice - rather than the didactic obsession of so many games with "moral" choice - in Heavy Rain that sets it apart. The unique narrative set-up, with four distinct and terrifyingly mortal lead characters, is also an exciting departure. In everything else, Quantic's conviction is as impressive as its skill (more so, in some areas), but it's hard to tell just how far Heavy Rain will go in breaking down those gaming paradigms Cage is so keen to leave behind.
Playing through the scene a couple of times, it was easy to deviate in small details (discovering fingerprints, the flow of a conversation) or very major ones (dying, or not) - but the course of events still felt fairly locked-in, the player's power to truly shape the narrative quite limited. The digital actors looked astonishing and behaved convincingly, if a little stagily - but despite the attentions of Hollywood script doctors, there were still some clunky lines.
It could be that Heavy Rain isn't much more than a remarkably beautiful and slick narrative adventure game for the next generation. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if that's what it did turn out to be - but we'd still bet against it. Because David Cage is making it, and he likes to do things differently.