Control freak: Will David Cage's 'Heavy Rain' videogame push our buttons?
If David Cage has his way, it will soon be game over for the scatter-gun mindlessness of generic shoot-em-ups. His vision: virtual worlds in which even the most minute decision can have dire emotional consequences.
Sunday 21 February 2010
Nothing so complicates a child's relationship with his parent as the death of a sibling, and when we first see Shaun Mars and his father Ethan alone together, it's plain that they are struggling to navigate the hostile unfamiliar territory in which they find themselves. Deprived of his co-conspirator and protector, the previously effervescent Shaun is monosyllabic and sullen; Ethan, meanwhile, is barely able to function. As the camera follows the pair into the cheerless house that Ethan has moved to since his marriage ended, there seems little reason for hope.
But once they are home, it is soon clear that the bond between them has survived this terrible assault – that, in fact, it is the only thing keeping Ethan from falling apart entirely. He makes his son a snack. He asks him how his day was. He helps him with his homework. He feeds him a healthy dinner. And, eventually, the faintest echo of their former happiness becomes audible. When Ethan tucks Shaun in at the end of the evening, the future doesn't seem so grim.
Then I played it differently. This time, Ethan was beyond repair. Leaving Shaun to rot his brain with cartoons, I steered his father outside to play basketball, but ended up just staring at the rain. I took him back inside only to sit brooding in an armchair, barely noticing the implicit reproach as his hungry son found himself a bag of crisps. There was no homework, no bedtime – no connection at all. As Shaun slept fitfully in front of the television, the room seemed to fill with loss. And somehow, the electrical impulses in the console, and the polygons on the screen, transmitted themselves to the controller in my hands, and from there travelled to my brain and my heart. And I felt a little lonely.
The cause of this unexpected and unprecedented twinge was Heavy Rain, a new videogame. Heavy Rain eschews rocket launchers and power-ups in favour of a character-driven story about love, sacrifice and a serial killer that splinters in myriad directions according to the choices the player makes. If the man behind it is to be believed, it is the beginning of a radical new era in console gaming, one that will fundamentally change the way we think of play, and herald a new art form as vital and innovative in the 21st century as film was in the 20th. His name is David Cage, and he believes that videogames should not be cartoon gun fights, but a surrogate lived experience, transporting the audience into the emotional life of the protagonists by directing them to open drawers and scramble eggs and answer the door; and, somehow, he has persuaded Sony to spend millions of dollars on testing his proposal, on the hypothesis that it has the potential to draw an extraordinary new audience to a sphere that has traditionally been the preserve of pockmarked adolescents. The stakes are high.
Sitting in his Paris office a fortnight before Heavy Rain's impending global release, Cage fields call after call from jumpy Sony executives, as his 100-strong development team surreptitiously surf the internet for early reviews. The critics are sold, so far, on Cage's intricate tale of a serial killer who picks off a city's children and drowns them in wells. But this is no guarantee that gamers more used to explosions will buy a copy. Cage looks a little spooked. He and his staff at development studio Quantic Dream have been working on the game for four years, and for the last six months of the process he has regularly worked 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week.
"We think we've done something great," he says fretfully. His earnest expression is somewhat undercut by the faintly 'Allo 'Allo quality of his English accent, which rhymes "bought"with "pout". "We think we've done something that could open doors to others. If Heavy Rain is a huge commercial success, it will show everybody in the industry that the world is sick of first-person shooters, that people are ready for an adult gaming experience. If we fail, it will say, please keep making the same old stuff. So we have a responsibility to the industry to make it work. And of course, if you think you've done something great, but everyone else thinks it is crap, then you've got a problem."
If Cage is right, both about the stakes and the merits of his creation, then gaming could be about to embark on an extraordinary transition, and in 20 years' time, the people who make these games could be as fêted and culturally imposing as Ken Loach, Zadie Smith or Simon Rattle. If he is wrong, they will remain in the ghetto: a large and profitable ghetto, to be sure, but a ghetto nevertheless. As "I Feel Good" blares once more from the cellphone in his pocket, it's strange to look at this doughy, balding game designer ' on the cusp of middle age and consider that many of the unresolved matters about the medium's future will hew closely to the answer to another question: is David Cage an artist? Or a mere organiser of virtual worlds?
There has been no shortage of games with serious ambitions in the past, of course. Cage's previous titles, Fahrenheit and Omikron: The Nomad Soul, both contained elements that have reappeared in Heavy Rain; and there are many free titles available online which try to elicit more complex reactions than those drawn by Pong and its myriad successors: Passage is a platforming memento mori in which the player keels over and dies after five minutes; Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, as crass as it sounds, makes a powerful political argument by forcing the player into complicity in horror. Perhaps best-known and most remarkable is Façade – a graphically primitive conversation simulator that gives the player half an hour to intervene in a failing marriage, and does things with characterisation and artificial intelligence that no big-budget mainstream release has come close to.
Façade, in particular, was an attempt to answer a question that has plagued games from the beginning: is there a way to create characters who react plausibly to a player's interventions? If so, there is real hope for those who believe in "interactive narrative", where every player gets a story that follows the path they choose to chart – but so far, most attempts have been laughable. To distinguish the blood-spatter patterns of a zombie hit with a rocket launcher and an alien struck by an axe is no problem. But human avatars' responses to your actions are usually as spontaneous and context-specific as you might expect from a trained parrot.
As a first step, Façade tried to solve this problem by replacing the parrot with something more like a brain-damaged human; Heavy Rain, by comparison, is probably the best-trained parrot in history. A noirish thriller that features four major playable characters, its script runs to many thousands of lines of dialogue, and 12 distinct endings, with endlessly variable ways of getting to them. Cage estimates that the game has roughly as much content as five feature films. He wrote the whole thing on his own, and he is tremendously proud of it. Instead of the problems that most console titles throw in the gamer's way, Heavy Rain purports to offer real choices instead: the way Ethan treats his son in that early scene will have small ramifications throughout the game, and you are never sure how the quick decisions you are repeatedly forced to make will return to bless or haunt you.
"We don't have 'game over' situations," says Cage. "If you die as one character, you can play through to a different ending with the others. We saw the game as a journey, not like a series of obstacles that you need to go through. The point is for the experience to change when you change your actions."
None of this is cheap, and with a cast of 90, a full musical score, and a marketing push that features a short film by Neil LaBute about emotion in art, the investment Sony has made is substantial. (While the publishers will not disclose precise figures, to give some idea, last year's biggest videogame, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, had development costs of £25m-£30m and a publicity budget of about £130m.)
Of all the jewels in Quantic Dream's crown, though, there can be little doubt that the greatest is its motion-capture studio, which stands comparison with anything used in Hollywood. Even years after its construction, Cage opens the door to the cavernous space with the barely suppressed excitement of a new home owner. "This is where we shot it all," he says. "It's quite something."
It certainly is. Resembling nothing so much as an oversized squash court, the floor of the 7000sq ft space is covered in black strips marking out key positions; it is surrounded by 28 infra-red cameras, and buttressed by a sophisticated sound studio. Cage walks to the back of the hall, where an otherworldly props store lies behind a curtain, everything made of wire mesh or else given a neutral covering so that the game's designers can render these reference objects convincingly for the screen. We walk past a mannequin whose face is covered in what look like ball bearings, and Cage picks up a drill swaddled in gaffer tape and foam. "This is a gun," he says. "That's a chair. That's a bed. That's a chest of drawers. That's a car. That's a bicycle."
The filming process, all things considered, makes Avatar sound like a walk in the park. Pascal Langdale, the actor behind Ethan, came back repeatedly over a period of 18 months; for Jacqui Ainsley, who plays a freelance journalist called Madison Paige, it was more like three years. Instead of going through scenes, each action was broken into its constituent parts, and played out again and again to match the range of possibilities in the script; the actors performed dressed in skintight black overalls with oversized ping-pong balls at every key joint, and dozens of that mannequin's ball bearings glued to their faces. "You don't know how much information is being picked up by the cameras," says Langdale, "but actually just the opening of a fridge door, if you're in a scuzzy hotel room in a bad mood, you open it in quite a different way than you do in your family home. And you can really see the difference from scene to scene."
Cage, according to Langdale, is an obsessive operator, intimately involved in every aspect of the production. "He is the head of all departments, all the time," he says. "He has a handle on how everything should go, and everyone else has to ' follow his line. When we were at work and he walked in, everyone would stop and turn to him, even if all he was doing was choosing something from the refreshments table. He has this authority and vision that other people are in awe of."
In the three years that Ainsley worked on the film, Cage was present in every single session. "He's a perfectionist," she says. "He had an incredibly clear idea of what he wanted."
Cage does not demur from this characterisation, which fulfils a sense of the game-maker as auteur that he plainly enjoys. "One of the actors we used arrived saying, 'I shot a film with Stanley Kubrick, I can make a video-game,'" he says, walking back to his office from the studio. "When he arrived, he started to change his mind. He was working without a set, without a partner, he had no point of reference except me. He had to trust me." Later, he adds, "When I started crediting myself as writer and director, I saw that as a political act. This is not a game made by 20 people plus 12 marketing guys, trying to find an average of what everyone likes. I'm doing the work of an author and there is no compromise. It's really the story I want to tell."
Although Cage insists that "I'm not a frustrated movie director, I'm not making games because I can't make movies," it is hard not to notice that his points of reference are almost all from the silver screen. "I'm inspired by film-makers such as Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Orson Welles," he says, and pauses, deciding whether or not to say it, and then takes the plunge: "I feel a little bit arrogant, but I feel really close to Welles. Not the weight, I hope, but with Citizen Kane, he was the first one to use the camera to tell the story. And I got the exact same feeling in Heavy Rain. In other games, the camera is just a window. We use it to create emotion."
As far as it goes, this is not a totally crazy comparison; it is true that the camera shots in Heavy Rain are sculpted in a way that other titles rarely attempt, and it's also reasonable to place Cage alongside Welles as someone determined to make use of every tool at his disposal. But there is a problem: the story in Heavy Rain, albeit relatively sophisticated by videogame standards, does not exactly have a "Rosebud" payoff. The dialogue clunks like a faulty boiler. If you saw it at the cinema, you'd be furious that you paid money to be told a tale so blatantly stripped from Silence of the Lambs or Seven.
Not all of this is fair criticism. Many of Heavy Rain's claims to ground-breaking status are about structure, not plot; and a story that will feel derivative when you watch it is rather more involving when you're the one deciding whether or not to shoot. Also, major games studios are a very long way from sinking major investment into anything without a bare minimum of visceral thrills. Still, there are some who believe that games industry's baby-brother yearning to be like Hollywood can be deeply counterproductive – that, in fact, it's fine to look instead to games that make no bones about the fact that they are just games, spectacular, joyful experiences such as Super Mario Galaxy or Guitar Hero.
"You don't make art by imitating the paraphernalia of other art," says Jesper Juul, author of the influential Ludologist blog and visiting professor at the New York University Game Center. "It's OK to get your hands a little dirty by borrowing from other media, but it can be troublesome when people make games that want to be like movies, and you can get this attempt at making them art that is heavy-handed."
For Cage, however, this kind of borrowing is entirely natural. Born in 1969, his parents bought him his first computer after a holiday in Canada spent mostly at the arcade; but as a teen, music took over, and eventually he settled into a career as a commercial composer. That brought him back to videogames, and the weakness of some of the titles he saw prompted him to wonder if he might do better himself. "If you'd met me when I was 10, 12, 15 or even 20, I'd never have said this is what I wanted to do for a living," he says. "I'm not technical. I'm not a programmer, I'm just a writer. But one day I thought of writing the games I was dreaming of playing." Cage found the money to pay six more technically minded colleagues to work for six months on a demo of what would become his first game, Omikron; the games publisher Eidos saw it, loved it, and gave him a production deal.
Fahrenheit, his next title, put him above the radar. If the story was a little ham-fisted – an entirely conventional narrative about a mass murderer (something of a theme) suddenly invaded by mind-warping aliens halfway through – there were moments in the game unlike anything anyone had seen before, in particular the opening. Lucas Kane, the lead character, finds himself in a public bathroom with a corpse that apparently died at your hands; it's up to you to decide how to deal with it, and your choice will be permanently consequential. A moment later, you're the detective trying to catch the man you just helped escape.
In those breathtaking moments, Fahrenheit combined an emotional response with visceral activity to create a reaction quite unlike anything found in literature or film. I still remember the first time I played it five years ago, and the panic and sense of responsibility I felt as I hid the body, scrubbed the floor and hurried to hail a cab. But that sense of agency quickly broke down. Whatever I did, the ultimate consequences never varied much, because they all had to be written in advance. "The problem is that that ambition of a flexible model of fiction points in the direction of kinds of technology that really don't underlie the game," says Noah Wardrip-Fruin, author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. "There are some real strengths in terms of how Fahrenheit presents its fictional world, but ultimately... the story can only [proceed] in very limited ways."
In Heavy Rain, the trick is better concealed, by a bigger budget and many more pages of script. But, extraordinary though it is, the strictest judges still deem it a failure. "It's not a problem that can be solved by budget," says Michael Mateas, one of the creators of Façade. "With Façade, there's lot of ways we failed, it's a hard problem. But at least we tried to take it on for real, instead of trying to find some trick around it. We hoped people would move on from that, and they haven't."
To be fair to Cage, this is not a problem he denies. His greatest ambitions, he says, are bound up in emergent story-telling, a technology probably 20 years away, whereby the computer can generate story and dialogue on the fly. In the meantime, without the technical capacities to produce that canvas himself, he simply has to work with what's available. "I'm always unhappy with the games I've made. Heavy Rain deserves eight out of 10. I don't think my next game will be more than an eight," he says, pausing before a giant poster for the game (tagline: "How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?") "But they answer questions I have about what's possible."
Fahrenheit: Another Cage creation, and it shows. Features a ground-breaking narrative freedom and control scheme. Still worth spending some time with some five years after its release. The remarkably well-implemented mental decline of the characters and branching storyline are just two highlights.
The Sims: Though featuring little in the way of aims, The Sims has still proven captivating enough to make the family-raising franchise one of the biggest-selling games ever. Encouraging the inner voyeur is big business and, seemingly, appeals to both sexes.
Flower: To guide Flower's trail of petals up and over the green crest of a hill is to experience a transcendental calmness: awakening dormant flowers triggers the renewal of nature in areas of urban decay, a subtle commentary on human exploitation of the landscape.
Passage: More like avant-garde art than a game, Passage recreates a whole lifetime in just five minutes. You begin life as a young man faced with two choices: to accumulate wealth or seek love. Solitude is the key to wealth, while finding a wife may open new paths but close others; a poetic study of life and death.
Façade: Players interact with an embittered couple, in a bid to persuade them to stay together. Façade (below) uses an ambitious, albeit ultimately limited, system of artificial intelligence, which ensures no two scenarios conclude in the same way. A genuinely novel experience.
Five big-hitting franchises
Mario: Nintendo’s Italian plumber, the gaming world’s most recognisable face, revolutionised adventure gaming with the release of Mario 64 in 1996 and pushed the boundaries of role-playing and driving games.
Grand Theft Auto: While the premise – to make your way in life by any means necessary (pimping, killing, thieving etc) – is contentious, there can be no doubting the ambition or entertainment value of the experience, taking in entire cities reproduced in some detail.
Zelda : A close second to Mario as Nintendo’s chief franchise. Princess Zelda is prone to being kidnapped – so it’s a good job that hero Link is on hand to save her. Masterpieces of programming, Zelda titles challenge both exploration skills and lateral thinking.
Metal Gear: Espionage is the name of the game here – creator Hideo Kojima building in a unique stealth mechanic the player uses to help Solid Snake, a hero in the tradition of James Bond, infiltrate enemy bases to thwart their nefarious schemes.
Halo: Redefining the mechanics of first-person shooters, Halo was almost singlehandedly responsible for the roaring 2001 launch success of Microsoft’s Xbox console. Nine years on, and Halo 3: ODST on Xbox 360 was released to no less hype – or popular acclaim. MP
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