Quantic Dream's eagerly awaited interactive drama Heavy Rain finally launches next week. We've written quite a few words about the PS3 exclusive already, including Tom's glowing 9/10 review, so we'll assume it needs no introduction other than to say that it's one of the most important, interesting and talked-about releases of 2010.
The imminent launch brought about one last opportunity to talk to the game's writer and director David Cage earlier this week. We sat down with the passionate French auteur for an actual fireside chat - in a cosy room lined with leather-bound books in a discreetly upmarket central London hotel - and talked about the reaction to the game so far, his own feelings about it now that it's finished, and what his next challenge will be.
Eurogamer: The first reviews of Heavy Rain have appeared now. How do you feel about the critical reaction to the game so far?
David Cage: I think they're very positive, I'm really pleased with most of the things I've read. I was expecting more polarised reactions and probably with a different ratio, I was expecting some kind of 50/50 between the people believing this is great, and the people saying "why doesn't the hero have a gun". And in fact this is absolutely not what I got, I got 90/10 if I had to estimate, with an average score of 9 out of 10, which I'm really pleased with... I believe that it's a game that allows journalists to be very good, also, in how they write...
Eurogamer: Well, it is nice for us to have something different to write about.
David Cage: Exactly. Because when you write about another first-person shooter all you can say is how great it looks, how many enemies, how many levels, etcetera. But here with Heavy Rain all journalists had to analyse the medium and take a position. And I think that was something really interesting to see and to hear.
Eurogamer: What's been your favourite response to the game so far?
David Cage: Honestly, there are many. I loved the Eurogamer preview, from Tom Bramwell. It was something that really surprised me, because the game led him to tell something about his own life. I thought that was so unique, so different, I mean how many games can lead you to talk about something you've lived in your personal life? Very few. I thought it shows that the game can resonate with people.
But I also loved another review from the Official PlayStation Magazine in the US, they wrote a fantastic review giving five out of five to the game, and during the whole review they didn't talk about the technology, about the graphics, about the animation or anything, they just talked about what they felt when they played. This is exactly what I wanted to read, forget about the technology, these are just tools. No-one cares. What is important is what the game achieves emotionally or not.
Eurogamer: Is there a particular scene in the game that you're most proud of?
David Cage: There's a scene that I really like, it's the one called Father and Son. It's the one that Tom mentioned in his preview. Because I think that this is really an anti-videogame scene. There is nothing spectacular happening, you don't kill anybody, you almost don't do anything, and it's about a very depressing situation.
And I think that you really feel how depressing it is, and you feel the barrier between the father and his son who can't really communicate - and I think that you don't play as if you want to be "good" or "bad", you just play as if you want to be this father trying to be friends again with his son and to do something with him, or as if you want to be this father who just, you know, carries the weight of the guilt and cannot communicate any more.
Eurogamer: I was surprised by a few things about that scene. One was how depressing it was, which is not something I'm used to from a game. The other was that it came quite early on - and that the game starts slowly with a few mundane, domestic scenes like that. Was that a deliberate choice?
David Cage: It was. I know it was a very surprising choice and the very few bad reviews we've got remain stuck on these scenes, saying "oh, I don't want to drink orange juice in a game". I don't think that Heavy Rain is exactly about drinking orange juice, but it was very interesting to see that this is what these people remembered from their experience.
That was a bet. It would have been easier to start with a spectacular scene with explosions and stuff...
Eurogamer: Don't you think it might have won over sceptics a little more easily if you'd done that?
David Cage: It's true, it's true, it was not an easy choice, and honestly we discussed this internally at Quantic Dream and also with Sony, because we thought that some people might say, "I'm not interested in this game, it's way too slow." But it was also a message to say, look you're used to these games where you need to press buttons like this, like a madman, and just making things as quickly as possible - this game takes its time. But invest the time and you will be rewarded, because you will be emotionally involved in this experience.
Eurogamer: I went straight from playing Heavy Rain to watching a film and I was struck that the pace of the storytelling is quite different. Obviously, Heavy Rain is a much longer experience, and it's paced more like a TV mini-series. But do you think there's a place for using the style and technology you've come up with for Heavy Rain for telling shorter, more contained narratives?
David Cage: Of course, of course! I mean, more than just developing another game with Heavy Rain we tried to develop a format. We tried to create a language that would allow us to tell any type of story of any length. But tomorrow, using exactly the same interface and the same writing technique, we could have a comedy. We could create a tragedy.
Maybe my fantasy is one day to create a story from Shakespeare using this format, which I think would be a huge challenge but would be very interesting. How could we play with an existing tragedy from Shakespeare, how could we add variations and give controls to the player? It would be a very interesting exercise.
But at the same time we could do a short movie that would be maybe 30 minutes long... or you could do a TV series, you could have an hour delivered weekly. There is no limit to what you can do because we invented a language to tell stories in general.
Eurogamer: What do you personally want to do next? Do you want to continue developing this format that you've created for Heavy Rain, or do you want to do something completely different?
David Cage: Both. I'm interested in triggering emotions in this interactive medium, this is exactly what I believe is my mission. But maybe in different forms: I know one thing for sure, it's that Heavy Rain is the end of my personal trilogy trying to tell the same type of stories with serial killers and stuff, in the thriller genre.
I'm really happy I've done so because I wanted to have a very codified genre that I can really play with, I know where the boundaries are, it's really well defined for me and for everybody and at the same time I can try to play and learn within this space. Now I think I'm grown up enough to say, OK, let's expand the space and try to see what else I can do with what I've learned.
Eurogamer: Do you think there's a scope for making interactive drama for more than one player?
David Cage: Oh! Yes. Yes, I think it's possible and I think this is the next challenge. And that would be fascinating. It's incredibly challenging. When I saw the efforts that were needed just to make a single-player experience work on Heavy Rain, I have an idea of what it's going to take to make a multiplayer one, but that would be very exciting.
Eurogamer: Will your next project be a PS3 exclusive, and if so would you use 3D or motion control?
David Cage: [long pause] We are interested in both. In 3D and motion control. The very first game design of Heavy Rain was based on a motion controller, actually, that we designed ourselves. We wanted to use the Dual Shock and clip a plastic part on it with three little lights that would be detected by the EyeToy. That was four years back, so we suggested the design to Sony but it was not feasible at the time, so we agreed to go back to Dual Shock.
But we've had an interest in motion control for a very long time, and all of Heavy Rain's interface is really designed around motion. So we have a lot of interest in this motion controller, we start to play with it, and yeah, we definitely want to do something with it.
Now, is it going to be a PlayStation 3 exclusive? Well, that really depends on the publisher of Quantic Dream's next game. If it's Sony again, yeah no doubt it's going to be exclusive.
Eurogamer: How many copies do you think you need to sell for this to be a success? Or is that not how you measure success?
David Cage: I keep my benchmarks for myself until they are reached. So I can tell you that my benchmark for critics was 90 per cent. I thought that that was the limit where you can say, OK, I'm understood and I achieved what I promised. And, yeah, we're around there.
Eurogamer: That seems quite high.
David Cage: Well, you know, the bad thing is that Fahrenheit got 85, which was high, and I consider that Heavy Rain is much better than Fahrenheit was at the time. And I think that with this kind of experience, it's difficult to say it's kind of average... if Heavy Rain received 85 per cent you wouldn't have the impact [snaps fingers] that you need to convince people to try. This is a new genre. They need to be convinced by very high reviews.
And again, I think this game is very important for the industry. It's not just about Quantic Dream and Sony and David Cage, it's about asking the market, are you interested in experiences that are for a mature audience based on storytelling and triggering more complex emotions? Yes or no? If the answer from the market is yes, it's going to open doors to others and there will be many very creative people who will maybe come up with better ideas, but at least publishers will open the door to them.
But if the game doesn't sell, it's going to close doors to everybody and for a long time. It's going to take years before someone tries something creative again. So I think it's an important game. I often say that buying Heavy Rain is a political act. It's a way of voting. Vote for what you want this industry to be in the coming years. Do you want it to be just trolls and goblins and zombies? Then don't buy it.
Eurogamer: I guess you must have done quite a lot of focus-testing of the game... Did you find that people worked out who the killer was before the end?
David Cage: No-one. 70 people did the user test, none of them found the killer before the game reveals it.
Eurogamer: I've got a note from Tom here where he says that he guessed correctly during the club sequence...
David Cage: Ah! No!
Eurogamer: ...but he wasn't 100 per cent sure until the very end. Are you pleased that people aren't guessing? I suppose you have to assess the value of what you've done as a storyteller, and if you're creating a mystery you presumably don't want people to be able to guess it...
David Cage: I'm OK for them to guess if they feel like they've been very clever. I didn't want to hide and make it come from nowhere so people would say, "Oh really? Why?" But I don't think that's the case, I think it's quite consistent and it makes sense. And when you replay the game knowing who the killer is, I think it makes perfect sense.
Eurogamer: If you were put in the same situations as Ethan Mars, how far would you have gone to save your son?
David Cage: Oh my God. I hope to never be in this position. But, you know, it's always very easy to say, when you sit near a fireplace you're comfortably seated, "Sure, I would do anything." I think no-one knows exactly how they would react confronted with this type of thing.
I don't know. Talking now, I would say I would do anything for my sons. Anything. Including taking a life.
Eurogamer: Although Heavy Rain is quite unique, there are other studios doing story-driven gaming and working with flexible narratives as well... I'm thinking of BioWare as an example. Do you study other story-driven games? Have you played them, do you compare them to what you're doing?
David Cage: I play many games but I don't really study how they do things, maybe I should. But I sometimes get the feeling that they don't dare to break the rules enough. They are still making videogames, and they try to twist it to tell a story, where I think that some rules are fundamentally wrong. You should just get rid of them.
Why do you still bother giving a gun to your characters? Can't you imagine a way to tell a story without a gun? I mean they are still using mechanics most of the time were you press here to jump, here to run, here to shoot... Yes, you can tell stories with this, but I'm interested in people trying to invent new ways of interacting.
There are people doing this. Sometimes in very different ways from what I am doing, for example the guys doing Flower. It's a very different experience that has nothing to do with Heavy Rain, but it's still an emotional journey... I'm very interested in people trying to do different things, break the rules, invent new ones. The time has come now for new rules.
Eurogamer: How did you come up with the Origami Killer's back-story and motivation? Did you do a lot of research into serial killers?
David Cage: Oh yeah, I really worked on serial killers, I read a lot of books about them. I'm fascinated by what they write. Because when you read what these people write, they are nuts of course, but sometimes there is a kind of logic, a kind of poetry... a strange poetry in what they say. It's really intriguing and frightening at the same time.
I did some research, I was looking for something that would be very intriguing as a modus operandi, and I came up with the fact that the killer may give a gift to his victims, like, "I'm sorry for what I've done, it was not you that I intended to kill." Everything started from there: why? Why an orchid on the chest? And mud on the face was something that has been done by some real serial killers just to make the victim anonymous, so they replace the person that is the victim by a symbol.
Eurogamer: I noticed there was a trophy for seeing all the possible endings... Can you say how many distinct endings there are?
David Cage: There are many different endings, I think there are 23 epilogues actually in the game. But it doesn't mean that there are 23 endings, because there are many different paths leading to different endings, and there are combinations of paths and consequences offering more choices leading to more consequences... so the way it's written, it's not like there's one branch here, one branch here and you end up with two endings.
What was really surprising to us was that when people played the first time, they got the feeling that they were making no choices. They were just doing what seemed logical to them, and the story just unfolded whether they succeeded or not, so they didn't feel they did something wrong or right. Because the story always continues.
Eurogamer: Were you surprised that Sony put the resources behind Heavy Rain that it did?
David Cage: [pause] I'm extremely pleased that they signed the title initially. I think that when they did so it was a huge risk. Because look, if they failed, if the game didn't receive 90 per cent average but 60 per cent, they would be in a strange position here.
But no, they trusted us from day one. They were very patient - it's a strange kind of game, because it looks like shit until the very last months, or even the very last weeks. Because until you've got the music, all the dialogue in it, all the cameras, all the sound effects, it looks like crap. It must be very scary for a publisher to see all the scenes, emotion nowhere, everything looking ugly... and in fact they were not nervous. I'm not surprised because I think that Sony wants to expand its market, which makes a lot of sense.
Eurogamer: You say you're much happier with this than you were with Fahrenheit, but are there still things that you want to improve?
David Cage: Oh yeah, there are always things that you want to and that you can improve. And I will, trust me, I will. You can tell better stories, you can trigger more intense emotions, you can have a more fluid narrative, you can have even more impact to players' actions. But my feeling, thinking of Heavy Rain, I see it as something solid, something really major, and I'm really happy with the consistency of the piece. I'm not saying this is perfect and I'll never do anything better, I'm just saying I think there's a big gap between Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain and Heavy Rain really looks like a major experience.
Heavy Rain is released for PS3 on 26th February.