The PlayStation 3-exclusive cinematic action title Heavy Rain came out last month to strong sales and high levels of critical acclaim. While the game has its share of vocal detractors (many of whom have valid criticisms) there's no doubt that the game is bold, takes risks, and is connecting with an audience.
To that end, Gamasutra spoke to the game's director, David Cage, head of French development studio Quantic Dream. Quantic Dream made a critical splash a few years ago with Indigo Prophecy -- known also in Europe as Fahrenheit. Though critics and fans generally agree that the game stumbles by the end, it showed the potential of interactive, cinematic narrative in games. Many say that promise has come closer to being fulfilled by Heavy Rain.
From the nature of interactivity to the game's less-than-perfect English voice acting, this interview touches on different facets of this interactive drama -- and includes a few spoilers, too, so be warned.
Something that I've been thinking about while I've been playing this game is that very often when you're playing a game that's got a psychological component, it concentrates on that. Say it has shooting mechanics; they're not as polished as a shooter, and so the game gets evaluated against shooters and is found lacking.
I felt that your decision to back away from traditional gameplay mechanics actually helped ensure you don't get compared to other games by the players. Was that intentional?
David Cage: It was... not intentional, but we became conscious that that would be the result in the end. In fact, the initial idea was to say: there are some fantastic games out there based on the rules that we've followed for twenty years. These games are incredibly well-implemented, they look fantastic, and technology's great. They follow, by the book, every single rule that this industry has defined for twenty years.
And still, when you play them, you've got this strange feeling that they lack something; they don't have this depth, this meaning, that you would look for -- because they are based on mechanics, and basically it's doing the same thing in different levels with different enemies; basically you do always the same thing. Sometimes you just stop playing and say, "Why am I doing this, by the way?" Yeah, it's fun, but, when I turn off my console, that's it. There is nothing left in me when I stop playing.
When I stop watching a movie that I really like, the movie left something in me that changes my vision, or the way I am, or how I think, or how I see the world, or whatever. But when I stop playing this game, nothing's left. We thought that, if it's not possible to use these rules and get better results -- emotional results -- maybe it means that the rules are not reliable. Maybe we should change them; maybe we should break them and invent new rules that would allow us to go further. That was exactly how we thought of Heavy Rain.
You put the button prompts in the game. With Fahrenheit they were at the bottom of the screen, overlayed. Now they're in the environment. Why do it that way?
DC: In Fahrenheit, you had to look at the 3D world, what you want to interact with: look up and say, "Okay, it's this movement", make the move and look down for the result. Basically, it's really unfocusing. What we wanted to achieve is the fact that you look at something, and you know at the same time you want to interact with this. This is how I'm supposed to do it, and here I can see the result. So your attention is focused only on the object, and you got all of the information at the same time.
That was really a challenge; it was a change we made maybe a year before the end, so it was a massive change. It really changes the entire look and feel of the game. We were really scared that it would look strange with symbols flashing here and there -- that people would just feel, "Oh, this is a video game." It would remind you all the time that this is a video game. And in fact, it didn't happen. We thought it was not that intrusive, and after awhile you don't see them at all.
There is a balance -- there's a certain amount of "gaminess" in the game. Particularly, I'm thinking about things like the power plant: you've got the maze through the tunnel, and the challenge with the wires. How much do you want to stick to gaminess in the design, and how much do you want to back away from it?
DC: I try to back away, but sometimes I feel bad about this and get to feeling I need to do something a little bit more gamey. But I'm happy with the balance in Heavy Rain, because it's almost like a reference to old games, and old adventure games especially. There is also the scene with Manfred when you need to get rid of the fingerprints, which is really --
Which, apparently, I screwed up, but I thought I had gotten it right; but I found out I got into the police station.
DC: You forgot something. Yeah, and that's the kind of gameplay mechanics [we use]. Having a little bit of this is fine when it supports the story -- when it's not just something to keep you busy, when it really means something and has its place in the narrative. That's fine.