Who was there: David Cage, founder, co-owner, lead designer, and writer at French game studio Quantic Dream, designer and director of the PlayStation 3-exclusive Heavy Rain.
What they talked about: Cage began the talk by giving the audience a brief rundown of Quantic Dream’s history, with picture slides of the 64-camera motion-capture system that was used to create Heavy Rain. He then debated Heavy Rain's genre: Is it an adventure game or an interactive movie? He settled on "interactive drama," despite saying he still thinks it remains open for debate.
Cage then showed some sales statistics: Despite Heavy Rain being what he called a "risky IP," he showed that the game has an overall score of 89 percent on Metacritic and good critical reviews around the world. According to Cage, Heavy Rain has sold around 2 million units worldwide since its release; he was quick to admit that this number is not much but instead settled on the idea that it still means something if you consider that Heavy Rain is not your typical action adventure game, particularly because its heroes do not wield guns (even though they actually did).
According to research Cage presented (which wasn't sourced), around 72 percent of players who started playing Heavy Rain finished the game. Cage said this was momentous when you consider that the industry average is around 20 percent (again, no sources for this data). He then talked about the reasons that set Heavy Rain apart from other video games. According to Cage, Heavy Rain was a game for adults, when most games are targeted at teenagers; it was not based on violence or physical action; it was not based on repetitive mechanics; and it was not based on the same paradigms that have been recycled throughout the industry for the past 30 years.
Heavy Rain aimed to answer these challenges and create a game that not only would feature adult themes, but that would also introduce more subtle, complex emotions into gameplay and steer clear of the 10 basic actions that video game characters tend to perform (that is, running, jumping, shooting, and the like). "The story of Heavy Rain is really about child abduction," Cage said. "That's not an easy sell. But we wanted to say something meaningful, and we wanted the audience to remember this game for a long time." Cage then talked about the varied interactions that Heavy Rain utilized, something he called "freeing the characters from the interface." To do this, Cage and his team experimented with a few new paradigms: the emotional (it’s not what you do but what you feel that is important); story driven; meaningful (the game has to resonate with players); and an experience for adults.
"I wanted to find a way to allow the player to become the actor, codirector, and cowriter of this experience. I created the context, but at the end of the day, I allowed the player to tell the story through gameplay and not through cutscenes. Everything in Heavy Rain could be played. Players do not want to move between watching, playing, watching, playing." Cage then elaborated on the role playing in the game, which he said many people laughed at. The fact that players can have the characters do mundane things like brushing teeth and drinking juice was deliberate. Without these mundane actions, Cage said, it would have been impossible for players to really attach themselves to the game's protagonist and really feel his pain throughout the game's story. Cage then talked about the nightclub scene in the game, where the character of Madison performs a striptease. This was meant to make players feel uncomfortable, so they could identify with Madison's own situation and discomfort in the story. According to Cage, this kind of characterization is a problem in games. Most of the time, he said, characters are simply empty shells because game designers are under the false impression that players want to project themselves onto the characters they play. However, a medium like film is successful in creating complex characters that find themselves in realistic, normal, and everyday situations; thus allowing the audience to relate directly to them and become emotionally invested in the story. Cage believes games aren't up to that level yet. He said in most games, what matters most is not the journey but the challenge, which is a mistake.
"In Heavy Rain, we tried to move the challenge from the controller to the mind of the player. I don’t care how fast you can move your thumbs. If you fail in Heavy Rain, you need to reconsider how you deal with the situation, as opposed to most games, where if you die, you have to go back and do it all over again until you are fast enough to move on. In the context of a story-driven experience, this makes no sense. Why would you want to go back?"
Cage then talked about Heavy Rain's interface and its control layout. "Game mechanics are evil," he began. "We need to do more than just run and shoot in games." Heavy Rain used what Cage calls a "contextual interface," in which players are not limited in the number of actions they can perform; rather, this varies with the context of the situation. So, the same button can be used for many different actions, according to the scene. Cage moved on to discussing the moral choices in Heavy Rain and the number of consequences offered to players. For example, in a scene where Ethan must decide whether to kill someone to save the life of his son, players are faced with a difficult choice. Cage said he received a letter from one player who turned off his console for two weeks to think about what he'd do. (In the end, he made Ethan kill the other character.) "That's about the slowest gameplay ever, right?" Cage joked. "But it was important because you have to give meaning to the idea of killing someone in a game. We kill people in games all the time, and we never care. But I wanted you to care for this one. We wanted the game to become a mirror for players…to make them really question who they are."
After 30 years of game development, Cage believes the industry has reached a stage where every avenue has been explored. Video game rules like mechanics, levels, bosses, points, platforms, cutscenes, ammo, and inventory have to be forgotten for the industry to move forward. A new language must be invented to allow developers to explore new avenues. We cannot, Cage said, allow ourselves to become the only medium that is "empty." Cage's solution to this is to take away power from programmers and give it to game writers and allow them to control the direction of a game.
"We can make games about love, fear, homosexuality, handicapped people, politics, and more. We need to create more meaningful experiences; that’s where the value will come from."
Cage wrapped up with a special surprise: Pascal Langdale, the actor who played Ethan Mars in Heavy Rain, was at the panel. He took the stage and did a very special impersonation of Ethan by shouting "JASON!" into the microphone.
Quote: "This is Pascal. We have done very strange things together. Nothing sexual."--David Cage.
Takeaway: David Cage passionately believes that games need to change if the industry is going to survive. While the way he expresses these ideas may not suit some, there is no question that what he is saying makes sense.