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David Cage, founder of French studio Quantic Dream, feels strongly about the evolution of games as a medium. Starting out in 1997, the company debuted the David Bowie co-starring Omikron: The Nomad Soul for PC and Dreamcast in 1999.
But Cage is probably best known for his company's 2005 game Xbox, PS2 and PC title Indigo Prophecy, known as Fahrenheit in Europe, which was critically acclaimed for its inventive storytelling and immersive techniques - and is now available on the 'Xbox Originals' program for the Xbox 360 for those wanting to investigate it in more detail.
Going even further is the company's PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain, described at one point by Cage as "a very dark film noir thriller with mature themes", and which was shown behind closed doors to select members of the press last week at E3. It intends to take the narrative and emotion-oriented elements of Cage's previous title much further.
In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, Cage discusses here issues as diverse as capturing true emotion in games, what it really means to make a "mature" game, the true diversification of the gaming audience, and the controversy that surrounds games in the mass media.
The first and most obvious thing that I want to talk about is emotion in games. One thing that comes to mind for me is that you're going very far into realism, and quite often, the more realistic you get, the more difficult it can be for players to identify with the characters, given the Uncanny Valley situation. So why do you want to push toward realism?
DC: I agree and disagree with your statement. You don't have to be realistic to create emotion. Of course it's not required. There are many, many examples of that in the game industry. What I'm interested in with realism is that I want to learn, basically, what it means to perform for an actor, and what it requires to translate this performance from a technical and creative point of view. Basically, I want to learn, and we really learned a lot working on the casting demo, for example, not only from what worked but also from what didn't work.
I think the uncanny valley is something that people talk a lot about, but I think we'll start to see the end of it. We're not out of the Uncanny Valley yet, but we can start to see how to limit it. Once we have learned how to create really realistic characters, then they will be contrasted to nonrealistic characters, and we will apply what we've discovered to different types of rendering and characters.
So you don't feel that realism limits your audience?
DC: No, I'm the opposite. To tell you the truth, I think it's easier for a major part of users to relate to something that looks real, as opposed to something that's totally out there. I wouldn't say this is my personal opinion, because as an educated gamer, I can relate to basically anything based in talent. But I think a lot of games explore realism, and I think it's easier for players to relate to something that's close to what they know, rather than something totally strange.
Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain
In my opinion, multiple decades of cartoons and animation and advertisements that are recognizable but not realistic, now seem quite mass-market. The Incredibles, for example, is a great example. That sort of technique gives you the ability to exaggerate, and reality can constrain you.
DC: That's absolutely true. That's one way of doing it. I think cinema would be limited if it were only The Incredibles or Beowulf... you see what I mean. I think exactly the same of games. There's room for different styles and different stories to be told. I think rendering is not an end in itself. When you're a developer or creator, you don't wake up in the morning and say, "I'm a creator for non-realistic roles!" or for realistic roles.
A trait relies on the story, most of the time. What is my vision? What do I have to tell to the world? Then you think, "What is the best way of telling the story? Is it realistic? Is it non-realistic?" I'm quite agnostic about that. I'm not saying everything should be realistic or non-realistic. It really depends on what you want to say.
With graphics that are realistic, do you find that it's more difficult to take those characters outside of reality or the game universe? Like with Indigo Prophecy, when the story begins to go sci-fi.
DC: It doesn't matter, honestly. In cinema, as demonstrated, you can tell any story, even the most absurd or non-realistic ones, with realistic rendering. Think about David Lynch movies. Think about Brazil. It's an insane story, but it's realistic. It's live action. So no, I don't think there are stories that can't be told with cinema rendering. You can do whatever you want.
But it's really interesting to work with real actors. When you think about Pixar and The Incredibles, for example, how do they work? They film real actors to see how they move, and then they have animators trying to recreate and exaggerate and add, et cetera. But basically, it's based on real actors. We are not at this stage yet. I still want to discover what it takes to create an actor and where emotion comes from.
For example, we discovered the importance of the work we're doing with facial animation, after [developing] the casting. We discovered how to capture that. I think we gained a lot by capturing the eyes of the actors, because suddenly, it was not keyframed. However good you are, it's always keyframed. You can see it's keyframed.
But here, it's captured, so you have all the micro movements, and it's incredible. We knew that from the start, but it was even more than we thought, how much goes through the eyes. It's really insane. The micro movements... the things you do when you talk, just moving your head a little bit... a lot goes through that. So we learned.
Have you seen what Naughty Dog did with Uncharted? They tried to use that kind of tactic, using real actors and having them deliver their lines. Is that sort of a similar direction to where you're going?
DC: There's a big difference. Honestly, I loved the game. I thought Uncharted was very interesting. There was some very, very interesting aspects to it. The big difference between Uncharted and what we're doing here is that Uncharted was still structured like a video game. It gives you a bit of story, then action, then a bit of story, then action - like porn movies, when you think about it.
Porn movies are structured in exactly the same way, except that the action is not the same (laughter), but it's the same structure. Most video games are done like that. It's one thing to do a great cutscene, even if it's real time. It's another thing to try to tell the story as you play, so the story's not told through cutscenes -- it's told through gameplay. So you don't need acting performance in cutscenes. You need interactive performance.