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Interview: Spoiling Heavy Rain with David Cage

Ludwig Kietzmann
March 19, 2010

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Once a major release has been completed and propelled to the top of the sales charts, the critical discussion surrounding it typically evaporates just as the Next Big Thing appears on the horizon. But Heavy Rain -- whether you like it, love it or loathe it -- has been kept afloat in popular opinion, with critics still debating its controversial design and embarrassing themselves as they attempt to shoehorn water puns like "afloat" and "evaporates" into ham-fisted introductory paragraphs.

We drew Heavy Rain's director and writer, the soft-spoken, passionate and occasionally enigmatic David Cage, into the ongoing discussion and asked him to elaborate upon the game's story, its technology and its critical reception. Oh, and the nature of the Origami Killer, which means ...

SPOILER WARNING: The following interview contains massive, big-huge spoilers for Heavy Rain. If you have not completed Quantic Dream's cinematic adventure, do not proceed beyond the break -- and don't even think about reading the comments. Just turn around and slowly R2 away.

Joystiq: There's a trophy in Heavy Rain that says, "Thank you for supporting interactive drama." What's the story behind that?

David Cage: It was a simple way to say thank you to people who supported what we tried to achieve with this. We sometimes said in the past that buying Heavy Rain was some kind of political thing to do. It was like voting for this industry to change and evolve. And by buying the game this is exactly what people did.

In which ways were you most successful in creating that "interactive drama?"

You know, the main goal of Heavy Rain was to trigger different types of emotions and not ones you usually find in video games. So, it was not about stress or fear or tension or frustration, it was about empathy. It was about sadness, it was about depression, it was about making you feel uncomfortable. And, basically, enlarging the kind of emotions that you can feel. I think, reading the reviews, reading the forums, talking to gamers, this is something that people felt and reacted to very positively. And I heard people were crying playing the game, which is basically the greatest thing you can hear as a game creator.

Earlier today, Richard Hilleman from EA said that when you work on a game for two to four years, and when you're done with it, the only emotion you feel is relief. Do you think that's true?

I don't know if it's the only emotion, but I definitely feel relief. I feel relief for me, for my company, because I was personally exposed. I'm, you know, jumping on tables for two years, saying, "This is going to be something, give it a chance," etcetera etcetera. If the game was a disaster, that would probably have been the end of my career. So, you certainly feel relief, but at the same time, I feel really happy. Not only for me but for the people who trusted me to make this game, including some key execs at Sony who took a big risk in signing this game and pushing us forward, and giving us support during all these years, because I think that if Heavy Rain had been a disaster, it would have had consequences -- probably for them to a certain extent.

I'm proud, also. I'm proud and it's not an ego thing, I'm proud for my team. People worked very hard for years, and really working hard and hoping that we were doing the right things. I'm really happy for them and proud of what they've done.

Was there a clear line during development, between when you were making the tools to create this game and, "Now we're making Heavy Rain"?

Yeah. We were heavily relying on tools, and this is a cultural thing in the company since the first game was made. It's always a risk, because you spend a lot of time working on the technology and the tools, rather than working on the game. But you hope that the time you lose at the beginning will be time that you save in the end, and that will allow you to go further to make tweaks and changes in a much easier way. But it's something that made us really nervous, because you need to draw a line, because there is a moment where you just lose time, and there is no way you're going to save time in the end because you spent too much time working on the tools. So, yeah, this is the way we worked.

How robust and effective are the tools at this point for you to be able to say, "Okay, I want to do another story on this platform"? Or maybe even for someone else to do a story?

Well, actually, we always saw Heavy Rain much more like a format than just another game, so as part of the format, we have the grammar that we have established to tell a story. But also the interface, of course, also the production pipeline and all the tools behind it. Now, this is really easy to use to create something else and tell a different story using exactly the same pipeline. You can get a very different experience in the end -- different world, different characters, different gameplay -- but still based on similar rules. That was an investment, definitely, but now it's there and it's interesting to see how other people would use it.

So, it's safe to assume that you'll also be using the same technology in future games?

Not exactly. We would use the next iteration of the technology and especially we would work on a new iteration of the engine. People gave very positive feedback about the graphics in Heavy Rain and the characters and stuff, but we believe this is still very far from what we could do in the very near future. So, we want to improve that and we hope that our next product will really show a big gap in graphical quality.

Going to the film comparison -- were there any "deleted scenes" in Heavy Rain? Things you couldn't finish and had to cut from the main game?

There were no scenes that we were unable to finish, but there were scenes that were deleted for other reasons, especially because we have a very slow start in the game. We wanted to really take the time to use the characters, make you know them and like them and feel real empathy for them, and create the relationship between Ethan and his family, and then with his son. But at the same time, there were a couple of scenes there that were maybe redundant and were just saying the same thing and were just slowing everything down a little bit too much. So these scenes were deleted.

One of the main criticisms has been against the actors. How do you respond to people saying they weren't satisfied with the performances, even though the technology was really good?

Yeah, well, you know, you can always complain about this or that. My only question is: did you feel something when you played? And you cannot say "yes" and say "the actors were not that good." It's not possible, because why did you feel something if the actors were not there? The actors did a great job, usually. Some people complained not about the acting so much but also the fact that some of them had some kind of accent. Yeah, okay, well, we will do a better job next time. But does it affect in any way what you felt and what you experienced? I don't think so.

I noticed that the voice actress for Madison was different in the DLC that was just released. Why the change?

Well, some of The Taxidermist's assets were created like, two years ago, and we just wanted to use these assets. It made sense to do it that way. But for the full game, we used someone different.

You've said that the game is meant to be mature and aimed at adult gamers. Where did you draw the line in terms of content that would be inappropriate and appropriate for that intention?

Anything that was not gratuitous was appropriate. This is exactly where we draw the line. There are scenes, like when you see Madison in the shower in her first scene, that may look gratuitous at first but, in fact, I think it really helps to build a relationship with the character. You saw her really fragile and vulnerable and naked, and this is out of the way now, and then you can really start to like her as a character. I think that the perception of Madison would have been very different without this first scene where you share intimacy.

The city is never mentioned by name in the game, as far as I know.


Is it Philadelphia?

It was some kind of mixture, but yeah, we spent some time at the beginning of development in Philadelphia with the team and taking pictures and filming and exploring different places. We were there with a movie scout to take us to different places. We wanted really to see especially poor areas and industrial areas, because we wanted the background not just to be a background. We wanted it to tell something about, maybe our societies in general, maybe about the US especially. In most Hollywood movies you see Miami or you see Las Vegas or you see great places and scenes. But it's pretty rare that you see poor environments and this is something that really impressed us when we visited Philadelphia -- how many poor people there were, how violence was really there -- pretty much everywhere -- coming from poverty and how some people are left behind. This is really in the background, it's not the subject of Heavy Rain, but we were really shocked by what we discovered there and we wanted to talk about it.


I was actually very interested in the ARI glasses. So, Norman has a problem with Tripto and you have to keep making the decision, "Am I going to take the Tripto or not?" I think it's the barman in the vision that tells him not to overindulge in "you-know-what." But is he talking about Tripto or is he really talking about ARI?

There's a strange mixture. [laughs] And there are strange things happening between ARI and Triptocaine. It's not really explained in Heavy Rain how they relate to each other, but they relate to each other, definitely.

Is it possible for Jayden to die just by using too much ARI?

Yes, yes. And he can become crazy and he can die by OD-ing. I mean, many different things can happen to him. I thought it was also a nice way to talk about addictions in general, and you can see it like addiction to virtual environments ...

To work.

Yeah, to work, to many different things. And I thought it was an interesting way to talk about it.

Did you think that the glasses -- compared to the setting of the game -- maybe felt a little anachronistic? Like they were a sci-fi element?

Hmm. That was a question at the very beginning and ARI is really the only element that is not exactly from our world. But at the same time I thought that it was maybe not available today, but that it would be in the very near future. All the design around ARI was based around two things. It was based on added reality experiments, and there are things already existing today where you can wear these glasses. I saw a very impressive demo from, I don't know what lab, but where they had tanks actually moving around your environments. So, really, using reality around you but adding the information to it. If it exists in the labs today, maybe it's not that far away.

And the second thing: it was based on a commercial from HP, where it's filmed like this [Minority Report gesture] and where the character can use data as if they were physical objects. So, when he wants to take his pictures, he can just open them and they appear, and he stretches them or wants to get rid of them. We thought that was really interesting and very intuitive and very ... wow. We thought that, as it was the only element that was okay not to pretend this is sci-fi, this is yeah... it's not today, but it could be maybe ten years from now.

It would help game development a lot if you had access to those tools now.

Ohhhh yeah.

If you press L2 in the game, it brings up the character's thoughts. But I wonder if, at some level, the characters are lying to the player, because when I press that button and I'm playing as Shelby, I don't have "Oh, I'm a serial killer" popping up.

We thought that was not in his mind. I don't know that, if you're a killer, if this is something that you have in your mind: "Oh, by the way, I'm a killer." We paid attention to check his thoughts and make sure that he doesn't lie at any point, although he doesn't say all the truth all the time. But all his dialogue can be read in two different ways. You can read it first without knowing who the killer is, and say, "Oh, that's fine," but once you know, it takes a different meaning. Be careful because that's a spoiler, by the way. [laughs]

Oh, I'll definitely mark everything past a certain point as a spoiler. It's why I left these until the end. It's interesting, because you're playing as yourself, but also as someone else at the same time. It's strange that you're not always privy to the same things.

It's a strange relationship with this character, because you realize at the end that he lied to everybody, including you.


Because he had his own agenda all the way, and you thought that you were making him do what he was supposed to do, but at the same time he used you also to follow his own agenda.

But you also lied to the player. [laughs] I'm not calling you a liar in a bad sense, but when you're in the antique shop and the camera cuts away, and you don't see that Shelby has gone and done something ... I thought that was pretty clever, because in retrospect, it changes your whole motivation for completing that scene. At first, you feel like you're going to get in trouble ...


And you won't be able to catch the killer.


But now, when I think back on it, you're actually doing a bad thing.

This is something I really enjoyed in the writing. It was to make sure that every single thing of Shelby had these double meanings, and that if you don't know he's the killer, it's fine, it makes sense. But if you know, it takes another meaning. I really enjoyed that and think it worked most of the time and, in fact, when you play it, you discover that in one of his first scenes, when he goes to Hassan's shop, one of his choices in the dialogue can be, "I also lost someone I loved," when he's talking to Hassan. And, in fact, this is the key to the story, because he's talking about his brother and this is why he killed everybody.

So, there are clues here and there that you may notice or not, but once you know, definitely there are different hints that weren't there. So it's not coming out of the blue, like, "Oh my god why is he the killer?" There are reasons and if you play again, there are different things that give you clues about this. But, at the same time, very few people discovered he is the killer before we reveal it in the game. That was really a pleasure, because when you work on something that is a whodunnit kind of mystery, if people know after half an hour -- "Oh, of course I knew it was him" -- then you've lost. But here, everybody loves Scott Shelby.

Yes, he's my favorite character.

He's everybody's favorite character and so it's really a shock when you realize.

I suspected Blake.

[laughs] He was a good suspect.

He was very aggressive ...


When you're playing as Ethan, you get the choice of killing the drug dealer or sparing his life. I was curious as to why, when you kill the drug dealer, there didn't seem to be a consequence at the end. You get the code, but shouldn't Ethan go to jail?

Well, there is no reason for him to go to jail if the drug dealer is found dead. Nothing leads directly to him.

Doesn't he throw up next to the body?


That's not enough to get him in trouble?

... Why?

I thought that would be significant evidence. I thought he deserved to be punished. I killed the drug dealer on the second time I played, and didn't agree with it.

Okay, so the first time you didn't shoot?


And the second [time] you shot.

No, I don't think there was any evidence against him at this stage, especially because the guy is a drug dealer. The first lead was probably, "Okay, he's a drug dealer, so some kind of junkie came or another drug dealer," or whatever. But, it's a very short time frame in the game, we're really near the end here. And, you know, if you had killed the drug dealer and managed to save your son, it would have been a very cruel ending to have the police come in and arrest Ethan. By the way, you need to go to jail. Shit.

That would have been a downer.

It's a little bit immoral, but it asks a very interesting question to the player. This scene was all about -- can we make killing someone in a video game something significant? Because in most games, killing people is what you do, so you don't care and you shoot zillions of people and you don't give a shit. Here, what I wanted to do was say, "Look, you just need to press this trigger, you kill this man and you get a reward. Do it." And we realized about 80 percent of people don't shoot, just because it's about role play. They feel they are Ethan, and they believe Ethan would not kill. And that's really interesting, because it's so easy and it's a part of saying, "This is not a video game." It's suspension of disbelief at some point and you forget that this is about a video game. And you don't kill anybody. Come on, it's just a bunch of pixels in a program. So you can shoot and get your reward and move on.

Beat the game.

Yeah. But here, there is this suspension of disbelief where people say, "Well, wait a minute, he's a father, he has these daughters, I cannot take a life to save my son. It's not fair. It's not what Ethan would do." And this is one of the scenes I really enjoy.

I wasn't sure why, after Madison escapes the apartment -- if she escapes the apartment -- she'd be able to phone agent Jayden. I don't remember them ever meeting in the game.

They never met but, actually, she's a journalist and she knows -- because everybody knew -- that a guy from the FBI was there and she had a contact at the newspaper. It was easy for her to find his number.

I actually didn't realize that she was a journalist until Ethan found out, so it was a bit of a surprise to me.

That's great! So you got all the twists. [laughs]

How about the Origami figure in Ethan's hand when he wakes up? I can't explain that.

I can. [laughs]

Would you like to explain it to me?

Uh ... no.

... Okay.

Actually, no, because this is what Hitchcock calls a MacGuffin. He said a very interesting rule is that you can only have one MacGuffin in a story. A MacGuffin is something that is not explained. And one is okay -- if you have three, then that story doesn't make any sense. But if you have something where you leave the audience space to, you know, try to understand and make up their own answers for that, that's fine. And I thought that worked in the context of Heavy Rain, not to explain but have people figure it out.


[laughs] I don't know if you're happy with this answer.

I'll take it.

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