A Pivotal Moment: Quantic Dream's de Fondaumière

By Christian Nutt

At GDC Europe, Quantic Dream co-CEO Guillaume de Fondaumière delivered an impassioned and well-researched presentation on the contrast in rating systems between games and film -- which you can watch on GDC Vault for free.

More than merely informative, the talk (written up on Gamasutra) was a call to arms. De Fondaumière wants game creators to step up and demand major changes in these systems, to become involved in a process from which they have been excluded in all countries except for Germany, he says.

In this interview, he explains precisely what happened with the global content ratings for Heavy Rain, what changes had to be made to the game to get it a 16 age rating in PEGI (Pan European Game Information) territories, and why he thinks the system absolutely must change. He also addresses criticisms of the portrayal of one of the game's four leads, Madison Paige.

Heavy Rain was re-released in France in an edited version to get a new rating. Can you talk about about that?

GDF: First of all, I would like to maybe come back a little bit to the rating of the game in general. During the whole production of Heavy Rain, we've had, of course, many discussions with Sony, our publisher, about content -- what can be in it, what can't be in it.

Most developers, at least that I talk to, have similar discussions throughout the development of their games. Because although we were creating a game that was mature in themes, we, of course, never intended to show violent sequences to be provocative or shocking.

However, when you look at how different the rating systems are in the world, it's sometimes difficult to clearly understand where to draw the line. Clearly, we didn't want to be AO, for instance, in the United States. We didn't want to be a Z if possible in Japan, etcetera, etcetera.

But on the other hand, we didn't want to dilute the content, and not to be able to express ourselves the way we wanted to. So there's always this active balance that you need to during the development.

And usually you get to present your game to the content boards very late in [development], because you're between the beta and the master, and you most of the time hope that it's going to be okay. And so when the game was at that stage, and we started to send it to the ESRB, to CERO, to PEGI, USK, etcetera, etcetera, the first ratings that came back were not surprising -- but we were quite kind of relieved to see that we were within the boundaries.

We were expecting an M in the U.S. and it was quite a straight M. We were a little bit surprised in Japan. Because there are certain cultural differences, we were expecting a Z. Surprisingly, we got a D. We got a 15 in Australia, we got a 15 in the UK, and we got a 16 in Germany -- which was also kind of a surprise, because in the industry, there's this feeling that Australia and Germany are the toughest countries, and so usually you get there the toughest ratings.

The big surprise was to get an 18 in Europe by PEGI. We didn't feel that this game that we're making was deserving an 18. And also what we learned because our previous game, Fahrenheit, had received a 16. And we thought we were approximately the same level, if I may say so.

And so at that point, we started to dig a little bit into the system, and try to understand how it works. Because, in fact, most developers don't know how it really works -- because we're totally cut from the process. And then I understood that actually to do your rating on the PEGI is basically a relatively stupid questionnaire, where you have to tick boxes and say, "Okay, yeah -- there is mutilation."

Alright, yeah -- but what's the context behind this mutilation? Is it explained in the story? Do you have to do it? Don't you have to do it? We thought that we had treated all these elements of violence and sex, if any, in the game, in a relatively tasteful manner, and always brought it to the players in a very contextual way. So we were very surprised with this 18 rating. And so we always had in mind to go back to the rating body, and try to understand what was going on.

Is there a process that they have?

GDF: There is a process where you can go back and ask for a reclassification of your game. But that poses a number of problems. We got this rating, and we were really in the process of launching the title. You know, when you're launching internationally a triple-A product, you don't want to lose a month in discussing ratings with anyone.

So a decision had been made to release the title like this. But one day, we thought, we want to go back, and we want to understand why we got this rating, and what was this about. And we couldn't really see any reason why this had happened. And so we went back. And also, one the French distributors was quite keen on having a 16.

What's the problem with having an 18 PEGI?

GDF: There are numerous problems. The first problem is you can't advertise your game primetime on TV, for instance, in certain countries -- which is the case in France or in the UK. So there's the first limitation: you can't market it the way you should.

When you look at the bigger picture, I also think that it's not good for our industry to have so many games rated 18, because in the minds of the people you always see "this is a game for adults, this is a game for adults, this is a game for adults," and I really don't believe that in most cases the content deserves these kinds of ratings.

And then when I compare it to what I see in movies, or on a TV series today, I don't think that certain games are showing more violent scenes than certain movies, and certain films, and I see a big difference in ratings.

How many NC17 films have you seen in your life?

Very few. It's not typically used.

GDF: Very few, unless you go and see a porn movie.


The idea of the NC17 rating was to create a rating for more adult content that wasn't pornography. But ultimately, in America, any big movies these days are PG-13. R is a smaller proportion of films than it used to be, because they want to hit a broad audience.

GDF: Of course, of course, of course. But nevertheless, there are quite a lot of movies that are rated R, which, to me, is 16 at best. It's an M. I can understand that; it's a little difference. But, for me, it makes a big difference. And if R-rated movies would be NC17s, then it would hinder the distribution of these movies, and studios would probably tend to tone it down.

We don't tone it down in our industry, and a lot of people feel comfortable with the current rating systems. But in my mind, this is a mistake. We've been defensive on this issue for the past 15 years. We've backed down. We tried to save the most important thing, which was avoid banning at all costs.

But I think we've come to ratings that are far stricter than other mediums, and I think we ought to change this. We need to up our game. We need to stand up and start discussions about that.

Something people don't tend to think about is that you don't know what you're not seeing. In other words, if a film gets an R, you'll never know what they might have cut to reach the R -- what part of the director's intent might have been lost. Do you feel there is a similar effect in games?

GDF: Of course. I know that a lot of developers are cutting content. [They] are asked, or there are very long discussions about, what should be in it, what shouldn't be. Throughout the development of a relatively mature game, there are these discussions between the developer [and the publisher].

And most of the time the developer doesn't want to cut, because there is an intention behind what he's trying to do, and why. It's the publisher's role to make sure the game releases, and is not hindered in its distribution. So yeah, we have these discussions on a continuous basis.

The film industry -- the MPAA -- does take context into account.

GDF: Yes.

Whereas the ratings boards for games, your view is that they don't?

GDF: It's arguably easier to watch a 90 minute movie in full, and give it a rating than a 10, 15, 20, 30 hour game and give it a rating. However, we should not [fail to] take context into account for games, simply because this is difficult to achieve. We should find a way. And there should be discussions all along, to be able to give the right rating to our games.

So the way it's processed today at the ESRB level, for instance, is that there is this questionnaire. And then you're asked to provide footage of the most violent scenes most of the time. And so, basically, the rating is given based on this questionnaire, plus the most violent scenes. Which doesn't necessarily mean you get the context each time, of these scenes, and you only see the most violent parts, so the assessment is only done on a partial element.

Again, it's probably impossible to watch all the games, and thoroughly see everything, but I think we should have criteria. I really don't see the difference between a movie and a game, and I really don't understand why we should be rated differently. So we have to change the criteria and we have to make sure that context is better taken into account.

As you said, it always comes up -- people say, "But it's interactive!" You said you've reviewed a lot of the serious literature on the subject, and not really seen any correlation.

GDF: There is nothing in serious medical literature that points to the fact that because it's interactive, it's different than linear media. It's not because it's interactive that it's more immersive, and that therefore any kind of violence exercised has a stronger impact on the individual. I couldn't find any literature on that proving this, and there isn't. There's been a lot of studies worldwide.

When I played Heavy Rain and came to the scene where you have to chose whether or not you're going to shoot the drug dealer, that had a major effect on me, but I don't think the effect was to promote violence.

GDF: "I want to kill someone!"

Yeah.

GDF: On the contrary, I think it touches you on an emotional level. It makes you think about what you do -- but that doesn't mean that you are going to, if you were even in real life in this situation, you would pull the trigger. Because it's very different. It's very different.

Heavy Rain is also very different, in the sense that many games are focused on combat. Heavy Rain is not. It encompasses a lot of activities that other games encompass, and a lot of activities that other games don't, right?

GDF: I surely do think that our industry also has to level up to a certain degree. I'm seeing it more and more. What I mean by that is that, more and more, even FPSes are narrative-driven to a certain degree. There is more and more story, there is more and more context, and I think we're slowly but surely going from an industry that was targeting teenagers with adult-rated content to an industry that is targeting adults with, it's not toned down content, but it's more contextually-driven content.

I was just interviewing the producer of Need for Speed: The Run, and he said "Our real drive for this iteration of the franchise is to create a story that is meaningful." That's certainly a big difference from even five years ago.

GDF: It seems to be the direction, I think. But I think it's simply because people in general want to understand what they're doing, actually. Who they are, and what they're doing. What's the purpose of being this soldier, or this driver, or this soccer player, at one point, maybe, and to relate to the character that they embody. And to understand what drives him or her, and interact in a more meaningful way with the other characters, and the environments, regardless of genre.


There's definitely a debate among developers how much the player imbues him or herself into the character and how much it's like seeing a character in a film.

GDF: Yep. I think that even when you are watching a movie, and when you are basically seeing those actors -- known actors in particular -- when you're seeing them act, you are identifying with them. Maybe not with all of the characters, but some of the characters. Maybe not with the entirety of the character, but something in the character. And that makes you vibrate. You're, at one point, in an intimate relationship with these characters.

Now, where to draw the line when it comes to gaming? Are you yourself when you're playing? Are you embodying a character? Most of the time you are embodying a character, but I think that it doesn't make a lot of difference.

But because however you contextualize it, either telling the player "it's you, yourself", or telling the player "you are this rookie solider in the army", the player will put a lot of himself in the character. Whatever you give him, he will take on board. And this kind of strange mix happens.

And I think it's similar to watching, passively, a movie, for instance. The same exchange happens. So I don't know if there is this cut between yourself, the character, and the actor.

It's just this mix happens in your brain, and you're engaging on an emotional level. And there's this alchemy happening that basically makes the character not exactly you, not exactly only what you're embodying. It makes also the difference between reality and fiction, to a certain degree.

Heavy Rain plays with that a bit, because you have four characters. So the player gets to inhabit, or experience, four different perspectives.

GDF: But you see, this a very good example. When we started working on Heavy Rain, there was always someone in the room saying, "But won't the players be confused, at one point, to play four different personas?"

And in the game, when you play the game, you don't even ask yourself this question. Never. You just switch and -- pffft! -- that's it. There's absolutely no problem for players. I haven't heard anyone say, "Well, I was a bit confused at who I am." No. You're given this possibility, and you embrace it immediately.

The game was good about visually, and otherwise, communicating who these characters were, too. The initial scenarios where you encounter them, that kind of stuff. Clearly, that was very deliberate.

GDF: Of course. You need to introduce the character, you need to give some story background and make sure that it's not totally out of the blue. But it doesn't need to be a long sequence. It can be relatively short -- a few seconds -- to introduce the character. And then you learn through playing who he is, and what his motivations are. And at one point, you embrace these, and you become the character.

In your talk, you called on developers to -- the word you used was "subversive." Put subversive content in games. I was wondering if you could discuss that a little bit.

GDF: In what context, exactly?

You were talking about the film Blow-Up, and how 1960s movie directors pushed boundaries.

GDF: The developers should step up. I find it relatively amazing that developers almost never have the opportunity to say what they think about ratings. We're not involved in any rating boards, except the USK in Germany. So in most countries in the world, developers, game creators, never can say what they believe should be the rating of their games, and to explain, also, what they're doing.

And I'm not only talking about justifying. I think most of the boards are publisher-driven, and of course they are looking at things from their perspective, and defending what they see as important to them. Never has the approach of the developers been taken into account, and I think it's important that we do now.

What I was also saying is that on the film side, things have changed, because certain film directors stepped up and said, "No more. I don't want to go by the Hays Code anymore. I want to talk about homosexuality. I want to talk about mixed races. I want to talk about all those subjects that you are forbidding me to talk about."

And then a major studio -- you know, MGM was the Electronic Arts of films at that time -- said "I'm not going to release this movie under the code that I accepted to share with my fellow studios." So people, at one point, said, "No more. We want to change this." And I think we're at the point where we should also step up and say, "We must change this."

Did the studio do that to back the artistic value of the film?

GDF: That was what they said.

If you can get gamers interested and cognizant of the fact of what they're missing, maybe they can make the publishers aware that they feel this way too.

GDF: Sure. The thing is, that until consumers saw Blow-Up, they didn't know what they were missing.

Same problem with games?

GDF: Same problem with games, certainly.

Do you have a sense that developers aren't not only not speaking up for themselves in regards to ratings, but also not pushing boundaries? That you don't have the equivalent of the directors who are sick of the Hays Code?

GDF: This is changing. There are more and more director-type creators at the head of studios, working within the studios, and having more and more influence on how games are created. The more and more central figures who drive the creative vision of a particular studio -- at Quantic it's David Cage, but [also] Kojima -- which probably wasn't the case maybe 10 years ago.

The more and more creators that, also, the consumer recognizes today -- the press and consumers, the whole ecosystem sees them as, sometimes they're called the visionaries. The creators, the directors, those are the people that drive the industry forward.

I think these people should also start. But I'm talking to a lot of them, and a lot of them back what I'm saying, and say, "Yeah, you're right. We should do something about this."


To return to the beginning, why, then, are you doing the modified edition?

GDF: The reason why we're doing it is that, well, there is this deal in place with this distributor. He wants to have a 16 version, so we are releasing it. It was also, I would say, an exercise -- it was an act for us to understand where the limit was.

And we were extremely surprised by what we've been asked to change in the game to go from an 18 to a 16-plus, which I think makes absolutely no sense. The difference between the PEGI 18 game and the PEGI 16 game is one scene: the scene with where Madison dances in front of Paco in the nightclub.

The scene in the office, in the nightclub?

GDF: In the office in the nightclub. We didn't really get a reason for that. Obviously, it's because she's forced to do it with the gun. Very honestly, if I would have had to put a token on the scene, I would never have thought it would be this scene. Because for me, this scene has been written... It's clearly over the top.

We wanted players to feel a little bit uncomfortable, because it's a scene where we wanted to show that Madison was ready to go very far to get to the information she was seeking -- that she was really strong-minded, and that she was prepared to take a risk to obtain what she wanted.

However, apart from the fact that she dances and has to undress up to a certain limit, she can't really come into harm's way. There's nothing you can do -- we didn't want her to be raped, or whatever. Of course not. So you feel uncomfortable, as the player, and we wanted you to feel like Madison -- like you know what's going on here, and I really don't want to undress, and I have to, etcetera.

On the other hand, the only outcome of this scene is you take the lamp, you slam the guy, and then you take revenge on him. But also in a really relatively humoristic way, I think. She presses his balls, and he has to say "Ahh!" And it's clearly over the top. For me, it's kind of strange humor, but it's not something [where] a 16-year old can't see this scene. Come on. There's nothing in this scene that's shocking to me. And we felt that this was an excuse.

Excuse?

GDF: That the wrong rating had been given in the first place, and they wanted just for us to cut something in there, to say there is a difference.

While it's true from the perspective that, if you're aware of what the choices and options are in that scene, we know that no real harm can come to Madison.

GDF: Of course.

But playing through that scene before you know what the outcome is, you can have a really sick feeling in your gut about what might happen there, right?

GDF: It is true. It is true, but this is also what we wanted. Because we want the player to feel uncomfortable -- and if you feel uncomfortable, it means that you're a normal person. You see what I mean?

But is there something shocking in this scene at the end? I'm sorry, no, there's nothing shocking. There's nothing, I think, that makes a difference between a 16 and an 18 rated game.

I expected for instance the finger cutting scene, maybe, because that's quite a dramatic, emotionally heavy scene, and some people might say that it's a bit violent. That, maybe, I could have maybe understood -- but not even. That wasn't the case.

What did you have to change about that scene that you're changing?

GDF: Well, they wanted multiple changes. At the end, it was so complex to do what they wanted, that we decided to go for a fade. So you enter the office, there's a fade to black, and you hear what's happening. And you basically understand that she's hitting him and is getting the information.

The topic of depictions of sexual violence against women is certainly something that needs to be handled sensitively.

GDF: Totally. But we're absolutely not endorsing it in any way. Or it's not an invitation to do that. On the contrary, it ends badly for Paco, and at the end you felt proud of Madison, the girl.

How do you feel about the treatment of Madison as a character in general in the game? Because I've heard criticisms. Some people feel like there's too much "woman in peril" stuff in the game.

GDF: She's a strong character, to me. The very first scene, she's fighting against, I think, three guys, if I remember well -- it's in her nightmare, of course. She's quite clever. She is athletic. I think it's quite a nice role.

Yeah, but nobody's chasing Jayden around in his underwear.

GDF: That's true. But there is a reason why she's in her underwear in that apartment. She can't find sleep. She was basically in bed -- you understanding me? She was basically in bed. We didn't want to show in a particular sexist way, just for the sake of showing a butt, or a breast. For instance, when she goes into the shower, there's also a reason for that.

We wanted to show, at the same time, that the character was strong but also fragile. Not because she's a woman, but that's the characterization of her. And I think she's a central character. If I compare it to other games, I think it's an interesting role for a female character.

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