"But I'm sure you want to know about the games." So said David Reeves, about half an hour into Sony's Games Convention press conference. He was right, having spent the last 30 minutes showing off portables and bundles and peripherals and services. And quoting Bob Dylan, perhaps ill-advisedly: for all the talk of selling out, it's unlikely that The Times They Are A' Changin' was about the seventh generation of the console war.
With apologies to SingStar Queen and EyePet, though, what we really wanted to see was a specific game: Quantic Dream's long-awaited follow-up to Fahrenheit, called Heavy Rain. And we did. But for all the impressive visuals and talk about emotional experiences during the conference trailer, Heavy Rain still came off looking like a string of pretty Quick Time Events. It wasn't until afterwards, during the 45-minute demo held behind closed doors, that Quantic Dream boss David Cage got to explain why Heavy Rain is so much more than that.
He begins by telling the familiar tale of how the game didn't start out as a game at all. In 2006, having enjoyed success with Omikron: The Nomad Soul and Fahrenheit, Quantic set about creating a tech demo for Sony to show at E3. The crowd went wild, and so did the internet. According to Cage, the original Heavy Rain demo has since been downloaded more than a million times.
Now there's just over a year to wait until the full game is released. So what exactly is it all about? "Heavy Rain is an adult thriller based on five simple ideas," says Cage. The first of these is the "story-driven experience"; the plot that unfolds not via cut-scenes but directly through the players' actions. "You don't watch the story, you play it, and even generate it. You are not only the actor, but the writer and the director of the experience." Cage says he wanted to create an emotionally-involving narrative that would make the player care. "The characters on-screen are not just a bunch of pixels," he says. "They are real, living and breathing characters, and we do whatever it takes to create a feeling of empathy with them."
In addition, there is determination to create a game with an adult theme and subject matter. "We believe that videogames are mature enough to tell more complex stories carrying depth and meaning," explains Cage, "You've seen so many games telling you about rookies going off to the second world war, heroes trying to save the world... We try to tell a real story that's happening in a real world. No supernatural powers, no monster to kill, just real life." He reckons this can be just as exciting. "If not more."
Quantic wants Heavy Rain to be "accessible to a broad audience", which is always odd to hear from a company famed for cult PC games, but, says Cage, "We believe the challenge should be transferred from the controller to the player's mind, because this is where the difficulty should be." This game isn't about solving puzzles or working out what you're supposed to do next; "We see Heavy Rain more like an unfolding journey, rather than a series of obstacles which have to be set up just to stop the player."
While Cage is explaining all this the Heavy Rain menu screen is being displayed on a big screen behind him. It's a close-up of a woman's eyes, which appear to be scanning the room from within the TV. We may still be in the uncanny valley but the level of realism is high, and the effect is unnerving. The menu, says Cage, is running in real-time 3D. The eyes have not been hand-animated but motion-captured, using a technology specially developed by Quantic. "We don't know about the game, but we believe we have the most beautiful menu of the show," he says with a smile.
And we're off, with a cut-scene that begins just as the trailer shown at the conference did. A woman on a motorbike pulls up outside a suburban house as rain pours from steely skies. Her name is Madison, says Cage, and she's investigating a series of disappearances. But before going any further he's careful to emphasise what we're seeing won't tell us anything about the finished game's characters or plot; this is just a "bonus scene", which will be on the disc but only as a sideshow.
As Madison begins exploring the exterior of the house, which a sign reveals to be the home of the local taxidermist, Cage explains how she's being controlled. The left analogue stick does the movement of her head, rather than her whole body. To make characters move you press and hold the right trigger; they will travel in the direction they're facing. It's "very simple and very intuitive", he reckons.
Madison walks up to the front door. Cage shows how you can choose whether to ring or knock, or what to shout through the letterbox. The options appear on the screen as text, as we've seen in previous games, but to select one you tilt the Sixaxis. The idea is you can move, interact with the environment and talk at the same time - you don't have to wait while your character carries out instructions.
Having established the house is empty and the front door is locked, Madison looks for an alternative point of entry. She comes across a barrel lying near a window that's been left ajar. The chap holding the Sixaxis demonstrates how you can push the barrel by pushing the controller forwards, and force the window up by shaking the Sixaxis up and down.
Inside, the house looks just like it did in the trailer; dingy and dirty, all shabby furniture and yellowing wallpaper. It's full of stuff and it looks lived in. "Sometimes in games you see living rooms that look more like football stadiums than real living rooms, and we didn't want that," says Cage. He confirms you can interact with everything you see - sit on the rocking chair, open the cupboards, turn on the television. It's all context-sensitive; when you're next to items icons appear on screen to show you what button to press to perform the relevant action.
Madison takes a brief tour of the garage, where a chainsaw lies on the floor. She tries the switch-operated door to the exterior and discovers it won't open fully. After returning to the main house, she proceeds up the stairs. "We're just having a look around, it's just exploration. Everything's fine," says Cage, but the soundtrack suggests he's lying, having shifted from heavy piano to ominous strings.
He's lying. Madison swings open the bathroom door to reveal there's a dead woman in the bathtub, her head and torso submerged in a pool of blood. Our heroine gasps, stumbles out of the room and opens another door. Just like in the trailer, we see oddly posed and dressed mannequins; except now we see they aren't mannequins at all, but real women who have been gutted and stuffed by the taxidermist.
"Oh sh**," says Cage. The strings reach a peak. The screen splits into two panes, and in the one that takes up the left-hand third of the screen we see a man pulling up outside the house and getting out of his car. In the right hand pane, Madison hears the car and starts looking frantically for an escape route. She heads for the stairs as he enters the house and heads for the kitchen. This isn't a cut-scene, confirms Cage; she's being controlled all the while, and the guy doing the demo is being sure to creep rather than run so the taxidermist doesn't hear anything.
As he settles down in an armchair and turns the TV on, Madison carefully and quietly opens the door to the garage. She presses the switch, rolls under the gap, races to her motorbike and rides away to safety. The strings ebb away and the ponderous piano music returns. Cage and his audience breathe a sigh of relief.
"That was cool, that was okay," he says. "But that was one story. We made it out of the house, we didn't get caught. We will call the police and the guy will be arrested. But what if, when we were exploring the house, we had changed something - left a cupboard door open, maybe - and the guy had noticed? What if, when we were escaping, we didn't catch that bottle we knocked over, and it smashed and made a noise?" Any number of actions, explains Cage, could have changed the outcome. So, "Let's play differently and see what happens."
Once again, we watch the man leave his car and enter the house. But this time, instead of heading for the kitchen, he starts walking up the stairs to the bathroom. "He's managed by AI, so I can't predict what he's going to do," says Cage.
Madison starts searching for somewhere to hide, and once again the options are context-sensitive - except now more than one button icon appears. This demonstrates something called the "impress system", according to Cage. You may have to hold down several buttons at once to maintain a position, and you may find that as a result your fingers are uncomfortable just like your character. In this instance, the man controlling Madison must hold down triangle, circle, R2 and L1 to keep her hidden in a wardrobe.
The taxidermist, having heard Madison moving around, enters the room. He looks under the bed. "It's a good job we didn't hide under there," says Cage. But now he's approaching the wardrobe. "Sh**." He pulls open the doors, Madison screams and the split-screen disappears as a fully fledged fight gets underway.
It's just like in the trailer; the two characters face off across the bed, and after an X icon appears on-screen Madison picks up a lamp and smashes her enemy over the head. He chases her into the toilet, she kicks him out of the way and races down the stairs. She stumbles and a triangle icon pops up; when the demo man fails to press it in time, she falls and stands up with a bruise on her cheek. Eventually, she makes it to the garage, rolls under the door and runs out to the motorbike. This time it won't start, and another series of button presses is required before Madison is able to drive away. The taxidermist watches her go, then turns and heads slowly back into the house. The screen fades to black and a single shot is heard. It's over. Again.
"That was another way of playing the same scene. We could play it five, ten or 20 times and show you different versions," says Cage. "We could have stayed hidden in the house, found a phone and called the police, who would have turned up and arrested the man. We could have killed him, perhaps using the screwdriver or the chainsaw. Or we could have been killed by him, which would be taken onboard by the script, and the story would continue with this information... There are many different options."
Cage reiterates that what we've just seen won't be in the finished main game, but adds, "There will be around 60 scenes like this, each one unique and contextual. Each fight is unique. Each situation is unique. You will never see the same animation twice. Each scene has its own story arc, its own interactivity.
"And all this in a very dark and mature thriller full of twists and turns," says Cage. "If you can imagine that, you will start to see what this project is about."
True, we know more about Heavy Rain now than when there was nothing but a tech demo and a conference trailer to go on. But this more extensive demo asks more questions than it answers. How will it feel to move characters around by controlling where they look? Just how interactive will the environments be? How can game storylines progress once the main character has been killed?
More broadly, what is Heavy Rain? Is it an interactive movie? Is it an action game? Is it next-gen point-and-click? Is it Choose Your Own Adventure for the 21st century?
The answers, as David Reeves might say, are blowing in the wind.