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Big Ideas: Video Games According to David Cage

August 27, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

David Cage has reached a creative juncture, he says, which allows him to do exactly what he wants -- and what he wants to do is expand the palette of the game industry, bringing in more emotion, and luring in the gamers who weren't hooked by Heavy Rain with his latest project, Beyond: Two Souls.

Starring actress Ellen Page (Juno, Inception), the game follows lead character Jodie Holmes from ages eight to 23. Not much has been revealed of the plot, but Cage's comments below suggest that its themes and action sequences may be something of a Trojan Horse.

In this extensive interview, Cage also talks about how he got his start in the game industry, how he's completely changed his writing style since he began working on games, and how he views other creators -- and they view him.

He also calls for the game industry to grow up, saying, "I often think that the industry suffers of the Peter Pan syndrome. It's the fact that we don't want to grow up, so we stay kids. But there is a moment where you need to grow up as an industry."

Why Ellen Page -- both as an individual, and why work with an established Hollywood actress?

DC: Well, I was not looking for a name to put on back. I was looking for a talent, someone who would fill the role perfectly. Actually when I started writing the script, what I used to do as a writer is grab pictures of actors on the internet, and have them in front of me, so I can look at them as I'm writing -- and look at them in the eyes and think, "What would they say in this situation?"

The first image I found was Ellen in an independent movie she made called Mouth to Mouth, where she had a shaved head and a very strange look. What really interested me in her features was she looked very strong and angry and upset, and at the same time she looked very vulnerable, and I thought that was an interesting starting point for my character.

So I started writing this thing, and each time I needed a picture, I was looking on the internet about Ellen, and I was finding an image that was working perfectly for me in the scene I wanted to write, because she shot movies between the ages of 10 and 23 -- I think she's 25 today -- and my game is taking place between the ages of eight and 23, for [Beyond character] Jodie Holmes. So, I could find images of Ellen she was 15, 16, when she was 18, and that was very interesting.

I realized that I wrote for Ellen Page, with really her in mind all the time, and I thought the character -- she would be fantastic in this thing. So we sent her the script, and a package with a copy of Heavy Rain, and a couple of reviews, and a nice letter saying, "Please, would you consider being a part of this?"

And she answered very kindly. Her agent came back to us and said, "Yeah, Ellen loved the script. She would like to be a part of it." So we met in LA, discussed the project, and that's how everything started. So, I was really not looking for the fame of Ellen, that was really not a marketing thing, it was not about selling more copies because I have Ellen Page on board. It was really because she was the right fit for the role.

I wanted to talk to you about when you're creating a virtual character that resembles Ellen Page inside the game -- how close should her appearance be to real-life? Is there any balance of realism that they wanted from [Page's] side?

DC: Well, it's more than a balance; we copy her one-to-one. It's a scan. It's a 3D scan of a face -- a 3D scan of the body. And it's a perfect clone, and it's precise to the millimeter. So, it's her. It's exactly her. So, what we do is, we play with her haircut and we change the clothes and that's it. But the body, it's exactly Ellen. So, yeah, the likeness is pretty precise.

You didn't use performance capture for Heavy Rain in the same way.

DC: No. On Heavy Rain [laughs] it was a very different technical solution. Because of the technical constraints -- and this is still the way most games are done today -- you shoot face and voice on one side, and then you have sometimes even another actor coming and doing the gestures in sync with the audio that was recorded.

So it was very comfortable on a technical point of view; it makes your life as a developer. And also there were so many constraints about performance capture at the time that it was difficult to do everything. But the issue with that is you split the performance in two. You got face and audio on one side and body on the other, which means you lose the body, and most of the body language. So, you split the performance, you lose quality, and this is how Heavy Rain was made.

It was good enough, and we were reasonably happy with what we got, but then we saw James Cameron shooting Avatar and working in performance capture, and we thought, "Wow, this is a huge step forward, because suddenly you can have the full performance as one thing."

So we worked on this technical prototype called Kara, which was the very first thing we shot in performance capture. And when we saw it, we realized how much we lost in the past not shooting like this, and so we got organized around this new idea, and all Beyond is now shot in performance capture.

All the roles?

DC: Yep.

So everyone we're seeing in this game is a real actor.

DC: Yes.

And you think it's essential for everything, from the smallest to the biggest roles?

DC: Well, it's a matter of consistency. You don't want to have Ellen Page looking absolutely fantastic and having all the other actors around looking like video game characters, so yeah, you want consistency, you want the same quality.

Visual quality, but also quality of acting. Because Ellen is not just on her own, which is also a big difference with Heavy Rain, because on Heavy Rain, when you record voice in a sound booth, you can only do one actor at a time, so not only you lose all the body language, but you also lose the interaction between the actors, having the right looks -- and having the right interactions with the environment and moving around, because you don't move the same way if there's someone in the room in front of you or if you're alone.

So, with performance capture on Beyond we can shoot up six characters -- face, body, voice -- at the same time. So we have very complex scenes where they're all together and they can really touch each other, and interact, and just act pretty much without any constraints.

They have even less constraints than in a film, because in a film you have the point of view, you have the camera. "Oh, you should look here, and you should do that, and don't move too much, because you're not in that light anymore." Where, what we do, there's no lights, there's no camera. You're onstage. It's like having a play, being in a play. It's pretty much the same thing. No point of view, just deliver a performance, and be in the scene.

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Bernardo Del Castillo
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"You don't want to have Ellen Page looking absolutely fantastic and having all the other actors around looking like video game characters, so yeah, you want consistency, you want the same quality."

I can't begin to enumerate how many misconceptions David Cage has about videogames. Don't get me wrong, awesome technology he's got but it is all a shallow shell.

I'll take Journey's or Shadow of the Colossus' emotionally magnificent gameplay systems and stylized aesthetics any time before the awfully awkward, albeit "realistic" gazillions of poligons in Heavy Rain. It shocks me that he says hes a big fan of thatgamecompany or Team ico, because to me, his approach is the complete opposite (on a side note, neither of those teams are really indie).

Writing, as heavy handed as it is in QD's games, is NOT very good. Indigo Prophecies had probably one of the most convoluted nonsensical and downright silly plots I have ever witnessed. And Although sections of Heavy rain are interesting, as a whole, the writing and direction only rival B grade tv series (thank god the supernatural elements were abandoned). From what I've seen so far from Beyond, it also seems to fall into rather juvenile conventions.
It makes me wonder if maybe Quantic Dream shouldn't be outsourcing more of its work to writers and directors who know what should be portrayed in camera.

Also, it seems to me that as interesting and "innovative" as his technological endeavours are, QDs games are basically point and click games with a really impressive layer of makeup on, they tend to forget the wholistic experiential design of games. Improvement and advancement is not solely based on how good the game looks or how faithfully the emotional depiction of a face can be accomplished.

I do find his observations on female characters interesting. It is true, that we often rely on male characters who fit in rather standardized roles and situations. While it seems more acceptable for female characters to have a wider emotional range. This also makes me think of japanese games and their often overloaded emotional charge even in male characters that is also a bit different and interesting. However, his gender politics are a bit skewed, and it seems he cant even concieve a woman playing his game because she wants to, and not because "her husband is playing".

I suppose his merit there is making the game appealing to an external viewer, not player, but that is also the problem... Don't get me wrong, I am not in a crusade against cutscenes, I think good games know when to rely on the tools they have, be it fully player controlled or not. But I often wonder if some of Heavy Rain's Quick time events wouldn't just work better as cutscenes or on the other hand, as fully controlable sections. It's NOT about how many cutscenes there are, its about how engaging for the player the whole experience is: The driving section in Heavy Rain IS like Dragon's Lair, it is not remotely engaging, I would much prefer to actually "Drive", and this twitch cutscene watching pulls me out of the experience.

As an example, in one of the latest videos from Beyond, we were shown how you can walk up to a sniper and "possess" him. But you can only possess specific targets, and once in the shoes of the sniper, you can only shoot at the story target on the exact required moment. Why? Why flirt with the variety of options if you are going to deny yourself and the player the ability to pursue them?

So I don't doubt Cage is going somewhere, but do we want to go with him?

Mark Kilborn
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I disagree completely.

I don't view Cage's approach to video games as the result of misconception. If anything, I'd argue that people who rail against him in the way you do are guilty of being closed minded. He's creating some weird fusion of film and games, and while there are similar projects out in the world, there aren't many of them. I appreciate that, just as much as I appreciate SotC or Journey (both amazing games, but both fit more cleanly into the definition of "video game").

I don't know if I would say I enjoyed Heavy Rain. I feel it was a worthwhile experience. I'm a father, and the loss of a child is something I'm reasonably close to, so the story of Heavy Rain really connected with me. I became extremely engaged in it, and I didn't care whether I had a full range of options or whether I was actually driving the car or just reacting to prompts on a screen.

What mattered to me were the decisions. Do I kill this guy or not? Do I cut off my own finger? I felt physically ill making some of these calls, and that is a testament to how well Cage's characters, writing and design connected with me.

I often tell people that Heavy Rain is what you describe: an old point and click adventure that's been modernized. It's true. But I don't say that in a disrespectful way. I remember how amazing those adventures were when I was a child, and I was thrilled to find that someone dared to make one for adults (and I mean that in a serious way, not in a "big tits and guns and blood" way).

Cage makes the landscape interesting. Are his games perfect? No, but show me a game that is. Are his games interesting? To some but not all.

It sounds like you don't want to go with him. Fine, go play in your comfortable sandbox. I'm going with him. I want to see what risks he takes and stories he tells, even if I have to deal with some imperfections along the way or design decisions I wouldn't have made myself.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Oh you clearly misunderstand. I don't defend sandbox. I don't defend ALL OPEN ENDED at all (in fact I much dislike open ended for the sake of open endedness).
What I discuss is if his approach is the best solution for the situation. In my playthroughs of Heavy Rain, I felt more weirdly confined by the interface than invited to commune in the game world. There wasn't an organic synergy, but an imposed awkward mechanic enforcement (NO! you pressed the right trigger too fast! do it again IDIOT!)..

It may not have come through, but I am most respectful for his games, even if none of them are thoroughly well written or well directed. The famous Cut off finger scene, has little bearing on the plot itself, it's there for shock value, given the realistic nature of the game, there is much suspension of disbelief needed to even accept many of the situations in the story... I found a hard time just ignoring how the killer could even put all of the "games" together.
But that's not even the point: most of the story resources are so contrived that they fall short of the dramatic unity that is the target. By the end of Heavy rain i was just wondering how many more mildly connected "levels" would we have to go through. And that's the problem, the bottom line is that it -seems- adult, but has little respect for the players maturity, and ignores any subtlety. Look for "The son's room" if you want to look for a subtle piece on the loss of a son... Hell I'd even say that grim fandango has a more interesting subtext on loss and death.

And once again there is nothing wrong with modernized point and click games, they are not new, not "innovative" as shallow a term as that is. They work in a very specific context, but often limit your posibilities clearly from the start. With many situations, and given the promises of QDs games, I am often left thinking, I wish I could have done that different, when the only real option is to press the button at the right time to continue some action.
This doesn't mean it doesnt fit clearly In the videogame definition.
Quantic Dream Games, are the epitome of adventure games in the very classic style of 7th guest or, phantasmagoria, that question has never been at the center of this issue.

I would be much more connected to some situations in the game if they decidedly gave me or took away the controls from me, instead of presenting me every few minutes a prompt to make sure I'm still paying attention.

That said, there are some fantastic ideas, like the fact that you may not be able to solve the cases if you didn't collect enough information, or the posibility to change how some characters meet, but those moments rarely feel natural or empowering for the player. And in the end it's the same conflict: Does the game's form follow the function that brings out the best of the experience? The many absolutely jarring moments in his games prevent me from agreeing.

Matt Robb
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Critique of his writing aside, I fully agree with the annoyance you feel in those situations where interactivity is either "not enough" or "too much".

Interjecting some amount of interactivity just because you feel like it needs to be interactive is liable to rip people out of their state of immersion. If your target audience is adults, and you have them driving a car, either let them control it or have them watch it. They're adults, they know what actually driving a care is like.

If the point of the product is about decisions, give me interaction when I need to make a decision. As in your sniper example, if the only choice once you possess the sniper is to fire at a precise moment, just show it happening, no need to make me jump through a twitch-timing hoop to continue the story.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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@Anthony, yes it is clear, but it is extremely blunt and obvious at that,and it doesnt try to make sense within the complete narrative. The whole character arc for (was it ethan?) is a repetition of the assertion on how much you care about your son (and an incredibly awkward, rather nonsensical sex scene). There is nothing wrong with affirming how much the character wants to save his son, but the issue becomes rather obvious when the pieces are so uncomforably forced into "fitting" the plot.

@Matt Robb, yeah you are right im straying a bit into personal tastes with the writing, but you summarize my conflict on the experience/gameplay front perfectly.

Keith Burgun
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Is it just me or is this dialogue totally awful? I mean, I know it's a videogame and so it's supposed to have horrible writing, but... Gah. Gross.

"Shit that's not part of the protocol!" - "Shit"? Really? All of these years of engineering and knowing everything there is to know about this insanely complicated machine, and then it produces something that looks like self-awareness, and you say "Shit"?

"Yeah, but, your behavior is non-standard"

Who would SAY that to a robot that they built? A person who actually built a robot wouldn't sit there and reason with something they built. This is just bad, manipulative writing.

If you want to "grow up", hire a real writer. Someone who isn't a "writer for videogames".

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Well I wouldnt say that writers for videogames are bad because they write videogames, but yes, I agree that we give a lot of concessions to videogames because they are videogames. To me the whole emotional opening episode of Heavy Rain was a train Wreck (and lets not even talk about Indigo Prophecy because the dialogue must have really challenged the actors to enunciate them with a straight face). If QD's games were movies, they would be judged a great deal more harshly.

However, there are examples of very good Videogame writing, although most of the time it is often a lack of writing. IE: Dear Esther's narration coupled with the setting are very effective past the initial impression. Silent Hill 2 has rather laughable voice acting, but the writing itself is great. Team Ico does fantastic things with minimalistic exposition too. And even Modern Warfare (1) had pretty solid "epic action" writing.
Comedy also has some decent representation too, such as in Portal, Bard's tale, Grim Fandango or even GTA4. All of them have great sections.

To play devil's advocate here though, I'd say that Kara demo was probably just that, a demo and it's main focus was the graphical splendor rather than a writing showcase. however, the snipets of Beyond, we have seen make me giggle a bit too. Its a strange case, but I think that when it comes down to this sort of games, the best idea is to take a bit of distance. It seems that David Cage is completely enamoured with his team's technlogy and his scripts.
Maybe it would be wiser to let go.

Fred Aspen
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Keith, I think you missed the point with that dialog in Kara. It wasn't supposed to sound authentic. It was the standard contrived challenge given to every Kara off the production line as part of the test sequence, designed to check how she would react to make sure she does show the range of emotions. The tester would have said that same sequence many, many times.

Boon Cotter
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I quite liked the script in Heavy Rain. I recognise why many didn't, but for me the dialogue became like being immersed in a bizarre, discordant, semi-consciousness. It was as though each actor was a doppelgänger, an alien imposter, behaving as they believed a human would behave, expressing emotion as though lacking emotion. I don't think it was destructive. In the end, it felt like a Lynch film, or like the rare moments when M. Night Shyamalan is good.

I don't know if it was intended, or if I was just lucky enough to absorb it in a way that made it work for me, particularly as I usually outright despise voice acting in games (I think the only games I've thought were remotely successful were System Shock 2, Enslaved, Mass Effect and the Uncharted series).

At any rate, Heavy Rain felt like having a totally different emotional experience slammed into my face. I thoroughly... enjoyed (?) it.

Hendrik Ruhe
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I'm with Mark on most of the points.
Years past since I played Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit but even after all this years, I have so many moments stuck in my head like it was part of my own life. Personally, many interpretations of morality come from games. Sounds weird, but Final Fantasy 7,8,9 have played a huge role in my interpretation of good and bad - maybe even more than Disney did ^^
Heavy Rain doesn't get into the leage of those 3 FF parts in my personal list of most important games of my life, but is is still quite high ranked. It was short but so amazingly intense like no game before. And the moment I write "like no game before" - I mean it. Even though I cannot open all doors, even though the sex scene was weird - still I was so... under pressure the whole game. It was amazing.
I think the script is great when it makes me connect this much. It may not be of the highest art but it feels like it just wants me to feel like this and it does.

I'm looking forward to Beyond and I hope it will be as amazing as I expect it to become.

Vincent Hyne
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The main problem with David Cage is the fact that he does his own writing.

He should direct, since he seems to have learned along the years to do that well, and hire professional writers that not only know what they're doing with a pen, but also don't suffer from the second language English aping - which usually translates into generic unnaturally sounding garbage dialog.

As far as game mechanics go, there are no conventions and there are no rules. If what he does works, then that's all there is to it. The freedom and the constraints within that freedom are to be judged on their own merits, and how they work within the greater scheme.

It is disingenuous to give Heavy Rain shit for being a "button prompter" but to excuse Call of Duty and give it's 9's and 10's across the board. As far as linear, mentally stunting, livid garbage goes, Call of Duty and games like it win in every category. And an FPS is a genre that's an industry standard to boot, thus should be the most refined.

Give me one of Cage's games any day of the week.

But please. Please. Stop writing your stories. Make an outline and have someone who knows what they're doing write the dialog, the plot, the arcs, and everything in between.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Yes I can't agree more about the writing. I often think myself that if I wrote I couldn't really do it that well in english given its not my native language. I always say this, but when you watch heavy rain as a movie, the glaring subpar writing and plot resources really stand out. As Keith Burgun said, we give too many concessions to videogame mediocre writing.

Also true about ragging on Heavy rain for the button prompts, but then again Bagging on CoD just because it has become iterative and generic is weak.
Modern Warfare 1 had great epic action writing, much better than most of its contemporaries. It had button prompting for sure, and it was simple but it also never appeared high browed as a "superior innovative artform" and for that I felt very connected and entertained by it.
Just as a pointer though, Heavy rain still holds a 87% in metacritic, with all its deep flaws.
Of course that hasn't got anything to do with anyones's enjoyment of Heavy Rain (Which I enjoyed quite a bit, I even replayed it a few times). But you have to realize that there is something unintuitive and intrinsically broken about your game if in your third play through, you still fail twice the prompt for opening the door, or have your character running into a wall because the controls "dynamically adjust to the camera".
I'm not criticising the shape, concept or function of the game by itself. The conflict I have with it apart from the writing, is that seeking "innovative" controls and interaction, the game fails to feel adecuate.
No, it is not innovative, and it doesn't adecuately adapt to our interactions. And this might not seem as much but when a game depends so heavily in our immersion, it is a fatal flaw.

Giving an example that has also caused conflict because of the not-game discussion. Dear esther uses arguably completely mundane controls and interfaces, nothin in the surface is new about thechineseroom's game. It feels natural and effortless to run around the Island. The innovation is in depth not on gimmicky control mechanics and long winded badly written exposition.
And in this sense, its great for an action QTE in Heavy rain to feel clumsy and frantic.. but when even the most basic actions feel equally frustrating, it causes a fracture with the player's experience.

I know this might sound almost Draconian, but different is not always better, sometimes standards are there for a reason. As developers we should learn to aim for new when possible, but fall back into known when the situation requires.

Marwin Misselhorn
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I think you guys will be all relieved to hear that Beyond is the last project written by David Cage alone. He currently works on creating a team of writers, so they can work like in TV series. He stays as the showrunner and the director and gives the ideas and such, but most of the writing is done by other people.

Read here:

"Q: You're moving towards a TV-like setup?

DC: Yeah, where I could continue to have the vision and the ideas - I have ideas for the next four or five games. This is what I love and I really enjoy but at the same time, instead of me spending a year away from the studio writing the damn thing, I could work for the team - people who could be more talented than I am, and bring in new ideas that I've not thought of - and work together in creating this thing. So, we're starting on this right now."

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Praised be Zeus.

Yikuno Barnaby
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I liked Heavy Rain, but I like games that have an emphesis on action and great controls. I don't know why more games having taken the Resident Evil 4 gameplay element. You played the game as you're supposed to, but you were not safe on cutscenes!!

Steven Christian
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His biggest wonder is what image of the game non-players had?

Well I have personally never played the game as I heard it was full of Quick-Time-Events.
And those are horrible, hence I avoided it.

Tom Davies
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I don't understand why I never see and interview with David Cage where he talks about gameplay and interactivity. As this one THE major complaint about Heavy Rain, you'd think it was an obvious question. But no, the guy drives the interview the way he wants:

"What did you learn form Stig? -I learned they were interested in what we are doing"
"Have you spoken to any women who actually picked the game up themselves? [starts the answer with "yeah" but then keeps talking about how they played with their husbands]"
"Indie games?" Cites only the most famous semi-indie developers.

I find it interesting that he points out games like Shadow of the Colossus and Journey, which have little to no writing and rely mainly on gameplay to deliver the narrative and engage with the player, when his games are the exact opposite.