The Quantic Dream boss reflects on his gambles with Heavy Rain, the inspiration for Beyond, and the future of his studio.
David Cage is a developer who needs no introduction, but as there's a space at the top of this page, I'm going to give him one anyway. He's the founder and CEO of Quantic Dream, the developer behind Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and now Beyond: Two Souls.
Amid the chaos of gamescom last week, we sat down at the Radisson Blu in Cologne to discuss the gambles behind Heavy Rain, the ways in which TV writing is influencing Quantic Dream, and the personal inspiration for Beyond.
Q: Before we talk about Beyond, I have a couple of questions about Heavy Rain. I know you've said that you were unhappy with the way the game turned out, but looking back at it now, what is your favourite scene? Was there one moment that stood out for you?
David Cage: There is one scene that I particularly like, it's "Father and Son" - the scene from the beginning of the game where you look after your son. What I like about it is that it's a limited environment. I like the fact that the light is dwindling, and that you see darkness coming, in real-time into the house. And I like the fact that you can decide what kind of father Ethan should be. Whatever you decide, it makes sense - it's consistent with the characterisation and story. You can be this very nice character who really went through hard times but at the same time does his best to take of the second son - you give him food, help him with his homework, put him to bed. Or you can be this father who is totally wrecked by pain, playing basketball outside in the rain and watching videos of happy times, leaving his son, leaving his life. Both work in the context. You decide, you make the characterisation, you make Ethan the character you want.
Q: That scene was the second one you showed off. The first time I saw you in person was when you were presenting that very level, in a room upstairs at this same hotel...
DC: I remember that. I remember how scared we were. I mean, it's crazy because on Heavy Rain, the first scene we shot was the fight with Mad Jack - the rain and the mud. [we thought], "No big deal, it's going to work for everyone." Then we thought, "What's next?". We had a couple of scenes that would make everybody happy, then we thought, "No, we should show Father and Son."
We had many discussions internally at Quantic Dream, and at Sony, saying, "Well, are you sure? It's a very slow scene, not much happens. What will people think?" It was a tough decision, we were very nervous to show it upstairs - I totally remember it. The scene was about 40 minutes of this father taking care of his son, and we were really wondering what people were going to think. And at some point we said, "You know what? This is what the game is about. If they hate it, fair enough, but we are true to the game we make."
Q: And it paid off.
DC: Yeah, the feedback after we showed the scene was surprisingly good. I think people didn't know what to expect after that first fight scene, and when they saw a more emotional moment, where we played with the silence and the darkness coming, they said, "Wait a minute, this is not another game. This is something new."
It's funny, because we're taking the same way with Beyond. We're showing this first scene, which is really just explosions and spectacular stuff, and it's fine with everyone. But really the game is not this; the game is something totally different and surprisingly emotional. People are going to be really surprised.
Q: So if people come into this expecting another Heavy Rain but with a supernatural angle, they're going to be very taken aback?
DC: Oh my God yes. Honestly, yes. My goal with Beyond - and with any of games - has never been to give people what they expect. If I'm doing that, I'm doing marketing - I'm not doing my job as a creative person. My job in creative is to come up with something you never thought of, something you were expecting without knowing you were expecting it. So my goal is to surprise you, yes. And no, Beyond is not a copy-cat of Heavy Rain. It's not the same game with another story. It's a totally different game, with a story to tell. But it tries to achieve the same things: emotional immersion, to make you feel like you're with these characters, sharing what they feel.
Q: One of the things I wanted to ask you about today is a follow-up to something you said here, all those years ago. When you presented the "Father and Son" scene for Heavy Rain, you recommended that people play through the story once and then never touch the game again. Will Beyond be like that as well? Should people play the game once and then leave it?
DC: It's the same approach as for Heavy Rain: Play it once and then don't replay it. You can if you want, but I think the best way to experience the game is really to make choices and then never know what would have happened if you'd made a different choice. Because life is like this, and Beyond is the life of Jodie Holmes. For me, it's more interesting to have players defining the life of Jodie - this is your version of the life of Jodie. And you can talk to other people and see their versions, and compare what you did, what you missed, what you saw, but never know what would have happened if... I think that's the beauty of the thing.
I was really surprised, because I talked to many people, and many people respected my recommendation, at least for the first walkthrough. Some people said, "I had this guy die, and I thought, 'Oh f*ck, I want to know what's going to happen with him, but I remembered what you said and just kept playing.'" So many people did it that way... although most people came back after one complete walkthrough and said, "Alright, I want to know what happened."
Q: Well, if you've got the game sitting there, it's hard to resist temptation.
DC: Yeah, fair enough.
Q: Heavy Rain looked like a risky experiment in the lead up to release, but the final product was very successful. And before Heavy Rain we had Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, which was similarly unique for its time. Why haven't more developers attempted to make these kinds of games?
DC: There have been two games - Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain - two games showing this direction, and maybe that's not enough. And though Heavy Rain has been a commercial success, maybe it wasn't huge enough to convince people to spend their money. Maybe they need to see more commercial success to consider it as a valuable proposition, and that's fair enough.
'When you buy a game by Quantic Dream, it's a vision to take away.'
It's also a very different way of approaching development, and game design and writing. Many games are written in groups: you have 15 people in a room, you have maybe one writer, one programmer, one marketing guy, and they make the story. But with the games we make, it's with one writer, on his own, making his own story. There's no rationale behind this. If you ask me to justify why this scene is like this and not like that... I don't know, it's just the way it felt! And maybe I'm wrong, maybe there are other ways, better ways of telling the same story - but this is my story. And this is also what you're going to buy. When you buy a game by Quantic Dream, it's a vision to take away.
Our industry has a hard time trusting authors. They always feel they are the diva, the uncontrollable device, almost - and many publishers hate that. They want people they can control, they want 15 writers so that if one goes the project carries on. And if they want to change something there won't be someone saying, "Wait a minute, I'm the author! You can't change my work!" Which is something I do a lot.
So authors in games are difficult to manage, and something that is scary for many people. That's not the case in films. Can you imagine a film where there's a group of people writing...?
Q: Well, that is the way American TV is written. And of course in Hollywood, you do get studios stepping into films and having them re-written by someone else.
DC: TV is an excellent example. But usually you have a showrunner, the guy who has the vision, and then you have a bunch of people under his direction, which is different from having a marketing guy running everything. So I think this is reason why there aren't more games like this - because to a certain extent, it's easier to work on a first-person shooter than to say, "Ok, what emotions are we going to trigger? What story are we going to tell?"
But there are games like... Walking Dead was a very interesting example, I thought, of people trying something different of interactive narrative. They do it in their way, with their own solution, and that's fine. I'm not expecting people to copy-cat what we're doing. Every studio has some vision of this, and it's great to see other people trying.
Q: Are you a fan of Walking Dead? I'm really enjoying the Telltale's work, so far.
DC: I'm a big fan of Walking Dead in general. I really love the comics, I love the TV series. I found it very original and interesting. I'm not a big fan of zombies in general, but I thought that was an interesting take.
Q: So you'd never make a Quantic Dream game about zombies?
DC: You know, the thing is if you make a game about zombies... it's been done before. And fine, it can be very fun and very entertaining. But what I liked in Walking Dead, it's not so much about zombies, but the characters. It was about the personalities confronted by something. You could replace the zombies with aliens, monsters, whatever you want - it's still there. I'm always interested in the real content, not so much the background.
It's the same thing with sci-fi. I love sci-fi, and I love Battlestar Galactica. It was a fantastic TV series. But what I liked about it was that sci-fi was the background, not the subject. It was mainly about this group of people confronted by extraordinary events, and that was what really got me on board. If it was just about laser guns and spaceships, I would have probably been bored.
Q: Given what you were saying a moment ago about writing in gaming, would you ever consider handing over that responsibility to someone else? Would you trust another writer to handle the script for a Quantic Dream project? The games you've worked on so far feel very personal.
DC: Yeah, these games are very personal. Since Heavy Rain, I write a lot about me and my experience, my life. I don't know if that makes for better stories, but I feel I'm being more sincere, more true to what I want to say and what I want to write.
I'm in a very special position at Quantic Dream, because I'm the CEO of the company and I'm the writer. So it's easier for me to trust myself as a writer, because there's no other option, but also it puts some pressure on everything, because I play with the life or death of the studio with each idea I have. When you come to shows like this you come with a lot of confidence, and you want to show people how passionate and excited you are. And I am, but actually this is very scary. I mean, what if I'm totally wrong with Beyond and no-one likes it, the story's crap and its wrongly directed and I've done everything wrong? It's something terrible for the studio. My studio has been there for 15 years, and I've bet everything, again, on the fact that Beyond is going to work in my favour this time. So that's a lot of pressure, and it's easier for me to take this pressure if I feel I'm in control of the story, because then if it fails, it's my personal failure. It's easier to accept than if it's someone else's failure.
But to answer your question, the evolution of the format, the evolution of the studio, requires that more people become capable of writing this kind of stuff. I'm very interested in what's going on with TV series, where's the showrunner and a team of writers, writing in the same direction. And this is actually what I'm building at our studio right now.
Q: You're moving towards a TV-like setup?
DC: Yeah, where I could continue to have the vision and the ideas - I have ideas for the next four or five games. This is what I love and I really enjoy but at the same time, instead of me spending a year away from the studio writing the damn thing, I could work for the team - people who could be more talented than I am, and bring in new ideas that I've not thought of - and work together in creating this thing. So, we're starting on this right now.
Q: Your games have a tendency towards exploring sci-fi and supernatural themes, but at the same time, you've said that your stories are informed by your personal experience. What is it about these subjects that interests you? Are you a big believer in this sort of thing, if you don't mind me asking. I know that's a rather personal question.
DC: A big believer in what?
Q: In the supernatural. Do you believe in ghosts, for example.
DC: No, I'm afraid not. I'm an atheist, I don't believe in God at all.
Q: That's interesting. So why are you so drawn to telling a story that has these elements in it?
DC: There are some personal reasons around this. One of them is... actually, I lost someone close in my family. Death is something really strange. I mean, you have the concept of death when no-one around you has died, and you understand that it's very sad. But when you lose someone close, you have a totally different approach to it. Suddenly it takes on a whole different light. I have never been very interested in religions, I just say that they are nice theories. And one day I was thinking about what death could be, without religions, without God sitting on a cloud, or whatever. Can we have another explanation for that? This is what drove me to write Beyond.