"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.