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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Beyond David Cage; the games, the art and the man

Article by Matt S.

For someone so often referred to as ‘outspoken,’ French-born game designer and the mind behind Heavy Rain and the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls, David Cage, is remarkably softly spoken.

Sitting in a small conference room with nothing but the air conditioning humming in the background his quiet and measured answers to questions demand attention, lest the words be lost. Back in the office typing up his comments for this feature I discovered it was difficult to catch a couple of thing he said, despite the microphone being placed square in front of him on the table.

He’s also modestly confident. Despite the memorable success of Heavy Rain, and despite being the driving force for one of Sony’s most valuable developer partners, Cage is sure of the games he would like to develop, but shrugs off any suggestion that he is on the same path of innovative approach to game design that has made Miyamoto, Molyneux and Kojima near-household names within the games community.

But he is certain of the value of being a 'name' game designer in the future, in the belief that the games industry is on the same path as the film industry, where individuals will be credited with the creative direction of a project that hundreds of people worked on. “There was a time in the film industry where all people knew was the name of the studio making the film, but they didn’t know so much about the director or the writers,” Cage said. “And now we have reached the point where people are going to see a film just because of the director attached to the project. Now people understand that there are individuals behind films and that the studio financing it is not the most important thing.”

“I do think there is going to be a time where people will identify the talents behind the games and will go out and buy the game because it’s the creator behind the game,” he said. “We see this already with Miyamoto-san and Kojima-san, but more and more individuals are being recognised as important developers. Jenova Chen is an example; I think there is a big community out there that will but Jenova Chen’s next game simply because he’s involved in it.”

It will come to no surprise to anyone who has followed Cage’s career that he is quick to make comparisons between the film industry and gaming. Heavy Rain was hailed by critics for its cinematic approach to storytelling, and then attacked by another set of critics for arguably preferencing narrative for gameplay. In the minds of many it is arguably too cinematic, and therefore difficult to defend as a game.

Undeterred by those critics, Cage’s new work, Beyond: Two Souls, takes cinematic gaming even further. In Beyond, players will be playing a game where every action, reaction and line of dialogue was delivered by real, motion captured actors. It’s a game with a Hollywood-standard cast (lead actors are Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page), and it’s the kind of game that simply wouldn’t have been possible without current standards of technology.

Many of Cage’s critics point out that in his public presentations he often seems overly eager to advocate for the most advanced technology possible. He was, after all, the one to stand up on stage during a PlayStation 4 event and spend a great length of time in demonstrating the level of detail that the console would allow him to add to a character’s face.

These critics largely miss the point of why Cage is so excited by the advances that the next generation of console hardware enable. “I’m often misunderstood when I explain this; technology is the tool that we have to create experiences. The better the tools are the more flexibility we have and the more subtlety we can add into the game,” Cage said.

“But the tool is not the experience. The best tools and technology in the world won’t create a good experience if you have nothing to say,” he added. “I often make the parallel to the history of film. In the early days films had to make do with all kinds of technical restrictions. Resolution was very low. Films were silent, in black and white, and the image was not very clear, and so actors had to do a lot of pantomimes; they had to jump all over the place when they were happy and cry in a very visual way so the audience could get what was happening.”

With no small degree of pride Cage is claiming that in Beyond the technology has allowed the capture of the reaction of the actors to the events unfolding around them with a degree of subtlety that is comparable to being able to read people by looking into their eyes. A feature such as this is not necessarily an easy sell to the public in presentations, because the nature of subtle things is that their value is not obvious on paper or in concept. But Cage is confident that seeing is believing, and that this technological gambit will resonate with audiences well beyond the idea that it is just another gimmick thrown into a big budget game.

In other words, it’s not the technology that Cage is enamoured with; it’s the narrative depth that technology enables.

New technology, new challenges

It's not just about being technologically advanced; Beyond also promises to change the way games are made.

It needs to be emphasised that this is a game that is being built entirely by motion captured actors and at a high level of detail. Dafoe and Page were covered by motion sensing dots to record every possible sequence in the game, and performed while surrounded by infrared cameras. These cameras surrounded the actors at a a full 360 degrees to allow manipulation of the action in 3D afterwards.

The actors needed to memorise hundreds of pages of scripts and perform scenes over an over again with different reactions to take into account player input. Undoubtedly this was a new experience for the actors, and according to Cage, the experience was more like that of theatre than film.

“I was very interested in the stage experience of Willem Dafoe,” he said. “Few people realise that he had a theatre company for 20 years or so and he still does a lot of stage acting. You could tell he has a real presence and commanded attention whenever he was doing something. It was quite impressive.”

“I don’t think we could have convinced any actor to join in with this project,” he added. Page apparently called the experience an “acting boot camp” and despite weeks of preparation before the ‘filming’ commenced, both actors were not comfortable at first. There were no identifiable cameras to hide behind, no special effects, no costumes. It was pure acting. Once the actors were comfortable with that, Cage said, the entire experience was liberating for everyone involved.

“We needed actors that would be curious, adventurous, and not risk adverse, because we knew from the start that this would be a challenging experience and we needed people that would be looking for a new experience as actors. We were able to find two great actors that were happy to do something they haven’t done before,” he said.

“What Page and Dafoe said many times was that the whole experience was getting back to something very bare. Beyond was just them, their imagination, the director, the script, and then they were acting. It was liberating.”

One interesting side effect of Cage’s dedication to cinematic narratives in games is the structure of narrative itself. Games are longer than films, but by the same token if a game developer were to ignore the three act structure that films are bound to, then the resulting narrative’s pacing would be alienating to an audience that has grown up with the three act structure in film and literature.

On the other hand a game developer also needs to understand that players might only be making an hour’s progress at a time. The solution in both Heavy Rain and Beyond is elegant; Cage adopted a 'fractal' approach to narrative structure. The overall game is a three-act narrative, but if you were to break it down into smaller blocks of a half hour or hour at a time, there would be smaller three-act structures within the overarching plot.

In other words, a cinematic game’s plot needs to be almost mathematical in order to match with both the attention span of players for individual play sessions, while also offering the complete, epic narrative expected of small sections of narrative sewn together within the one product. For this, a cinematic narrative is constructed in a way that isn’t dissimilar to a good quality TV series.

It’s all about narrative

Cage’s advocacy of narrative in games is often where people draw the conclusion that he is ‘outspoken.’ He is broadly critical of the use of violence in games, but less often reported is the fact that he doesn’t believe that his approach to game design is the only “correct” one.

In fact, he is a great fan of a wide range of innovative approaches to narratives, and is excited to see what is going on in the indie development space at the moment.

“The problem I have with storytelling with games, generally speaking, is that they are usually games are structured around violent actions and loops, with some nice cutscenes in between,” Cage said. “It can be annoying because the story is not told through gameplay. The gameplay is about violent, repetitive actions, the story is told through the cutscenes.”

Campaigning against violence in games on some moral ground is not Cage’s intention, however. As skill testers and entertainment, he believes the kind of desensitisation towards violence in most AAA-budgeted games can be a lot of fun. The problem is that that this fun stops at fun, and Cage believes that games can transcend that limitation. Or to put it simply; Cage believes that games can be entertainment, but they don’t need to be limited to entertainment.

“It’s like going shooting plastic ducks at the fairground. That's cool and it’s fun but there’s no context. You’re just shooting plastic ducks,” he said. “This type of experience triggers a physical response such as creating adrenaline. Your heart beats faster, and you’re excited about what’s going on. The response is very primitive, but very strong. It’s very easy to create that as a developer, and that's why so many AAA-developers do it.”

“It’s a big part of the industry right now and it’s not going to disappear because it’s entertainment and some people enjoy that. At the same time my hope is that we’re going to see more games trying to say something serious and offer experiences closer to films or poetry or art.”

So while you’ll see violence in Cage’s games, and within certain situations the violence will be central to the plot, the violence will not be a simple roadblock of nameless zombies that players can guiltlessly mow down before moving on to the next cut scene as it is in a game like The Last Of Us.

“In Heavy Rain there’s a scene where you need to decide whether to kill someone to save your son,” Cage said. “You’re in the bedroom of the daughters of the guy that you’re supposed to kill and he’s on his knees begging you not to kill him. Then it becomes a difficult decision to press the trigger because it’s something that is emotionally moving. I’ve had players tell me they needed to turn the game off and think about it for a while before making that decision.”

The concept of a moral dilemma is in itself nothing new to the game’s industry or pop culture entertainment, including the AAA-budget game. The Last Of Us concludes with a major moral dilemma. Mass Effect games contain multiple moral dilemmas in each of them, and over in the film industry Willem Dafoe’s classic turn as the Green Goblin generated this classic quote: “This is why only fools are heroes - because you never know when some lunatic will come along with a sadistic choice.”

But where the games industry and film industry alike have struggled when creating moral dilemmas is in making it core to an interactive experience. Further, both industries continue to struggle with giving the moral dilemma the kind of emotional gravitas that it deserves, Cage argues. “What I tried to do with Heavy Rain and now Beyond is try to merge storytelling and interactivity in a way so that it’s the player through his actions that tells the story and not the passive cutscenes. But sometimes there is some confusion about my position. I’m not claiming that all games should be like Heavy Rain or Beyond, it’s just that the path that I explore myself. There are many other people out there trying different things and this is exciting and as long as developers are trying something new and different, I'm happy.”

The Unfinished Swan, Journey, Gone Home, Papo and Yo and Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons are all very different games to Heavy Rain or Beyond, but all examples of superb storytelling in games in Cage’s estimation. It’s also noticeable that they are all considered to be “indie” titles.

“I’m very excited about what’s going on in the indie space right now, much more than in the AAA space,” Cage said. “When there is so much money involved sometimes you lose creativity and can’t take risks, but you see some of these indies that have tiny budgets and little time; these indies need to be creative and they do create very interesting things.”

There’s parallels here with the film industry, too, and this has a lot to do with the economics of the industry. Up until the 70s, the kind of technology and financing required to make competitive films in Hollywood as an independent filmmaker were prohibitive. Cheaper equipment to make films with led to a 'democratisation' of the film industry, and now independent films have developed into a fine and lasting heritage as part of the Hollywood landscape. Games have only just started to become democratised with the advent of tools like Unity and Kickstarter that allow small developers to find financing and then produce games of a technical parity with studio-backed productions.

And so the indie developers have been able to pick up the baton for creativity and run with it while the AAA-game publishers are left to make the blockbusters. While Cage identifies most strongly with the independent developers, it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that his development team is in a position where it enjoys a budget that his peers could only dream off.

It’s a privilege that Cage is in no hurry to forget. “We have the mindset of an indie developer, but with the support of a major publisher and console manufacturer in Sony. When someone gives you creative freedom we have to recognise that we have the responsibility to make the game at least a reasonable commercial success.”

“But we also feel a responsibility to create something interesting.”

Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @DigitallyDownld
Beyond David Cage; the games, the art and the man
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