There's no rain during our trip to Paris to see Heavy Rain, which is bad news for the photographer travelling in our group, who might have done well out of that. Then again, there's no Heavy Rain on our trip to Paris to see Heavy Rain either. Nor, it turns out, was there any sign of it at Leipzig's Games Convention in August, despite its top billing at Sony's conference and director David Cage's press briefings. When we sit down with Cage three months later to ask whether anything we've seen so far - characters, locations, scenarios - is actually in the game you'll be invited to buy in the second half of 2009, he pauses for a second. "No."
Instead we've been invited under the Channel and through the terrifying Parisian traffic to witness a speech and a slideshow. Cage - the diminutive, loquacious and occasionally poetic head of development studio Quantic Dream - wants to tell us about his ambition, his methods, and his philosophy. And it's important to emphasise his role. He wrote the 2,000-page, non-linear script that prescribes not only the game's characters, locations and scenarios, but also its gameplay mechanics, over a period of 15 months, preferring the help of Hollywood script-doctors to established game developers. He directed every one of the 60 scenes that make up the game, casting and commanding more than 70 actors and stuntmen to perfect the look. His co-CEO - the charming Guillaume de Fondaumière - treats him reverentially, greeting the press and helping us to pass the time between interview slots, but only Cage speaks about the game.
We're up against pure ego, then, in a building where everything is open plan except for a single private office (guess who), and yet we're spellbound. We can't tell you how Heavy Rain looks, sounds or plays in any great depth, but we can tell you it's interesting. As with Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the US), Cage respectfully declines the "pattern-based" rhythm of modern action-adventures, preferring "a complex story told through contextual actions and realistic visuals", which reaches beyond the emotional palette - as he perceives it - of frustration, anger and anxiety that underscores the majority of contemporary videogames. It's easy to trigger fear and frustration, he argues, "but to make you feel social emotions like empathy is more difficult".
Ironically, contextualising these goals within the framework of what will go on sale next year is almost impossible. Leipzig's taxidermist scenario - where a woman enters a house, discovers stuffed dead people, is surprised by the return of the house owner, and has to escape - gave us an understanding of one or two core concepts, like the 'impress' system, where a character hiding quickly in a cupboard is held in place by an awkward combination of buttons designed to bridge the emotional divide between sofa and peril. We also discovered that the Sixaxis motion sensor would be used to throw, kick and generally "give an impulsion", as Cage puts it, and that your character would move when you held a trigger and follow head movements directed by the player. But Cage refuses to elaborate during our visit, except to say that "there is some kind of language regarding the interface and how we deal with things".
We ask about the way in which Cage goes about weaving story and gameplay together, speculating that just as developers who allow gameplay to dictate the scenario are often forced to concede to cut-scenes - something Cage promises only to do as a last resort - he may be forced to concede to repetition if he's to map his game to the story he wants to tell. "I'm not starting with the story and trying to fit gameplay in," he insists, becoming animated, "because that would fail the same way. What I try to do is to think about the story and the gameplay together. At the moment that I have an idea for a scene, I try to think about the potential for gameplay in this scene. Or when I think I think about a nice gameplay mechanic, what's the potential for the story? I wrote many scenes that were deleted because they had a good idea for gameplay but not for story, or a good idea for story but not for gameplay. I need to have good ideas for both in every single scene."
The consequences of these gameplay mechanics - whatever they turn out to be - will bend rubberband arcs within each scene in a manner that amplifies Fahrenheit's most noteworthy achievement. "There are scenes that you will get or you will miss based on what you've done," Cage tells us after his presentation. "There will be part of the scenes that you will see or not see, and there will be specific actions in the scenes, so it's really an open end. There is no way you can see everything in one play-through, because there are many scenes you can only see if you play a certain way."
Famously, Cage has even conquered death in Heavy Rain, having revealed earlier in development that the termination of a central character will not end the game. It's a problem he confesses that he couldn't solve in Fahrenheit, in which one character was essential to the unfolding story and others - though playable - were ultimately periphery. "What do I do?" he says, almost forlornly. "The game stops, what happens? I had to give you a game-over... With Heavy Rain, we took a big risk, and said, okay, this is a huge challenge but let's try to ensure that whatever happens we don't need game-over. There will be different ways of dealing with that."
Given the author, we suspect this means the death of playable characters will be essential to progress. Having elected to make another game of "choice and consequences", Cage is eager to assert that we will have to make difficult, contextual decisions more poignant and complex than the binary moralism of most adventures. Even so, a visual timeline of the game's story, which lurks uninspected by most of assembled press along the back wall of the production floor, is a straight line from left to right, and Cage confirms that while your path through the game will probably deviate from the guy standing behind you at the checkout, there's a coherent "linear backbone to the story".
Beyond the broad strokes, our visit also contemplates the finest details - the emotional firmament of each scene, dictated not only by characters and your actions toward them, but also their surroundings. Incidentals like a mother kicking a door closed with her heel as she struggles with groceries have been motion-captured, while a prostitute's apartment reveals photographs pinned to the side of the bathroom mirror and a stereo positioned within earshot of the shower because that, we're told, is where its owner prefers to listen to it. Despite the Havok sticker on the posters, it's no surprise to learn that Cage also guides the physics within each location, insisting that your material impact on any given scene must make sense within context. "You cannot when you visit the prostitute, for example, just take a pillow and throw it on her and make a mess," he explains.
At the end of his initial presentation, Cage guides us through a number of the game's locations - its "sets" - taking in the prostitute's home, an antique shop full of dusty typewriters (each of which has individually modelled keys), a train station showered through giant windows by the light of dusk, and a grim crime scene in the night, at which a detective - potentially one of the core cast - stands at the police line, while cops in overcoats pick through the scraps of grass around a tarpaulin-suited body, under the sweeping lights of the traffic crossing a bridge overhead. Heavy rain falls. We ask Cage about his decision to set both his recent games on the US East Coast. "With these two games I tried to create dark thrillers," he says. "You don't choose the place where the story takes place just because it's cool; it has to support your story, and I think that's the case."
It's another response that he delivers without much contemplation. That, evidently, came long ago, as did the decision to jettison anything approaching the outlandish conclusion to Fahrenheit. "When the game was released, you guys wrote that the most interesting part was probably the first two-thirds where we were just following normal people in normal life, and we were just with them. Working on Heavy Rain, we just decided [the ending] is not a mistake we should do again. We can tell a real story about real people in real life, and we can make it as interesting as anything else." Cage may be polarisingly self-assured, but it's the first time since we arrived in France that we've decided he's wrong. This is more interesting than anything else.
Heavy Rain is due out exclusively for PlayStation 3 in the second half of 2009.