David Cage, head of Quantic Dream and Creative Director/Writer on BEYOND: Two Souls made the trip down under to promote the upcoming title, which features Hollywood superstars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. It was our privilege to grab some interview time with him and pick his brain on the game. It was a pleasure to speak with such a humble, nice and endearing figure in the industry.
I just quickly wanted to touch on the success of Heavy Rain. I am someone who obsesses over numbers and keeps an eye on sales and box office numbers for films and stuff like that, and Heavy Rain is one of those rare titles that had the standard drop off, but then a resurgence. Every time I looked back at the charts, it seemed to hit another million and pick up its second wind, and then a third wind… did that fact have any impact on the relationship between Quantic Dream and Sony, in the sense that maybe it was validation for a concept with such uniquely dramatic and confronting themes for the industry at the time?
Not really, but it is something we do see now, three years later, like “oh, wait a minute. We keep selling Heavy Rain games worldwide”, which is a great thing. I met some retailers – I think it was in Asia – who told me that now when people buy a new PlayStation 3 console and they ask “what are the games that I should buy?”, the retailer keeps says “this game, this game, this game and Heavy Rain“. So, that’s great, and also there is the word of mouth – gamers talking about this game that they should try it. So, no, I think the relationship of trust with Sony was really based on the initial reactions to the game when it was released and to the fact that press and gamers seemed to respond very positively to the experience that was also something very different from other games at the time.
Yeah, after it came out it instantly became my favourite PlayStation 3 title. And I remember – annoyingly – having to defend it against people who would naively state that it wasn’t a video game, but an interactive movie. I pushed it on everyone I could.
But you know, different people have different expectations about what a video game should be. Some people think that video games should be “fun” in a special sense, like having a gun or driving a car and having this action… and other people think “no, that’s not as important. What matters is what you feel when you play”. And it’s true that we make games for this category of people having this type of expectations.
Yeah. And what confused me was when Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in NA) came out in 2005, there wasn’t this reaction and although, of course, they’re not the same game, they do share the same essence, soul and design/storytelling philosophies. And everyone loved it. Then Heavy Rain comes out and it’s suddenly an issue…
While I think that the essence of the two games was probably very similar, Heavy Rain probably had better implementation; probably a better story or a story that resonated better, maybe better technology… and I think game after game, mentalities evolve. And before Heavy Rain, very few people were interested in interactive storytelling or emotion in games. But then Heavy Rain arrived and then more games tried to explore this route, so now with BEYOND: Two Souls it’s less of a shock, I would say for some people. So yeah, slowly but surely this idea becomes accepted – that games may not only be about shooting, but about telling a story.
So, moving onto BEYOND: Two Souls, remind us of how long the script is for the game and how long it took to write?
It was 2,000 pages. It takes about a year to write.
And what was your writing schedule like in that period of time?
Oh, it’s working very hard… usually I work all week. I work a little less on the weekend, but usually it’s six days a week. And working 12 hours a day, 12-15 hours a day, so it’s quite intense and it’s a strange process because you really live in your story for a year. So it’s kind of disturbing… it changes a bit your social interactions with people and, you really live in your world for a year.
We’ve heard briefly about your personal inspirations for the story this time around, but were there any specific influences coming from other media, films, games…
There were a couple of scenes where I thought “okay, this is an homage to this thing” and I really enjoyed doing it. Maybe people will see it, maybe they won’t. But, you know Heavy Rain was really belonging to a very specific genre, which was film noir/thriller. What I tried to do with BEYOND: Two Souls is something probably more original and more personal, and there are probably references here and there to different films and books or whatever. [And some subconscious as well]. Yeah, but at the same time I think the overall journey is something I believe is more original probably than what I’ve done in the past.
And what was the whole process like of creating these characters, and then reaching out to Hollywood names like Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe for the roles? Was it a case of not worrying about the obstacles involved in getting them because you just had them in mind from the get go?
Well actually there are two processes. In the case of Ellen and Willem it was a little bit special because I had their names in mind pretty much as I was writing the script very early on. And when I was done with the script, I was pretty convinced that only Ellen Page could be Jodie Holmes because it was her; it was clearly the best actress for the part. So we just contacted her and hoped that she would accept, and the same thing for Willem, and we were very lucky because they said “yeah, that’s interesting – let’s do it!” But that’s not the normal process, because for the rest of the cast for example, we work with a casting agent named Suzanne Goddard-Smythe – she lives in LA – and she is a casting director for films and TV series. And usually, what we do is just talk about the characters and say “okay, we need this type of person, and this is his part and this is the kind of role he has”, and then she meets, sometimes 200 or 300 actors, chooses maybe 80 and then she makes a short selection of maybe 5 that I meet in person. And then I meet these actors and make my choice. So, that was the process for Eric Winter and Kadeem Hardison who are in other roles, and most other actors who are in the game.
And so, in particular, did you find that Ellen and Willem – or actors of that calibre and that name recognition – are generally more open to working in the medium now?
Yeah, in the case of Ellen and Willem, that was really the case. I mean, for Ellen we just sent her Heavy Rain and some press reviews, and the script for BEYOND: Two Souls and told her why we thought she would be amazing in the role. And then we met, and explained in more detail what shooting would be like, and yeah, she was just interested in the experience that was something new to her and I guess she was interested in the script and it was as simple as that. But you know, you can meet different actors; some actors are just interested in money and will do anything if you give them the right amount of dollars. And some people are not interested at all; they just don’t want to hear about video games because they think all video games are the same and they don’t want to be a part of this. So there’s different people will different reactions – you just need to find the right fit between the talent that you need and also the right mindset for these people. And this is exactly what we got with Ellen and Willem; they just wanted to try this new thing that was totally new for them and they wanted to be a part of it. That was the ideal situation.
What do you think was the biggest challenge for yourself and the team during the developmental cycle for the game?
Oh my God, the entire thing was a challenge to be honest; it was actually much bigger and more ambitious than we initially thought, and there were production challenges, technical challenges… and you know, initially we feared that working with Hollywood actors would be the biggest challenge and actually, that was the smoothest part because they were extremely professional and they came very well prepared. So honestly, working with them was a walk in the park. But there were some technical issues, especially when we worked on the ghost part, because usually you optimise your engine so, for example, what’s behind this wall doesn’t exist at all so we don’t need to think about it. But now, we had this ghost who could go through this wall and see what’s on the other side, or he could go very high and have a very large view of the sets so that’s another issue in a matter of optimisation. So we had to come up with very detailed environments and characters that could hardly be optimised because, as a ghost, you could get really close to anything and have a very large view of everything, so that was the ultimate challenge.
We didn’t want any loading screens during the game, so when you load your first scene there is a loading screen, but once it’s loaded you can play the entire game without seeing another loading screen. And that was another challenge because, actually, the game is streaming in the background all the time just to pre-load what’s coming next. So that was another challenge. And also, the nature of the experience that is always very different… you know, there are not two scenes that play the same way, and even within the same scene, gameplay can change very significantly. And there were some very challenging parts. There is a scene where Jodie runs down a slope and, my God, we spent a month for 30 seconds of gameplay, just to make it right and have the camera where it’s supposed to be, have the right pacing and just give you this feeling of being chased and you just running as fast as you can, and that took a lot of time. And there are many moments like this in BEYOND: Two Souls that may be very short in the final experience, but took a lot of time to be made.
And so you’ve actually gone to a few film festivals such as Tribeca because of the connections to the game and the nature of the storytelling; have you received some sort of gauge for the reception from that community to the project? A community who may not have been familiar or educated on the medium at all beforehand?
You know, it was a great honour to be the first game to be a part of the Official Selection of a film festival, especially when it’s as prestigious as Tribeca. So it was interesting because I think – the people at Tribeca – they wanted to talk about the different forms of storytelling, and they thought that what we were doing was exactly what they were looking for. So it was a great opportunity to put a game like BEYOND: Two Souls in front of an audience that was a film audience. And it was interesting because they didn’t know what to expect. They heard about the game, they knew it was featuring Ellen Page, etc., but at the same time, when I talked to people in the theatre before they could see the projection, they thought “oh, is this going to be about shooting, is this going to be about driving… what kind of video game is this?”
So there were a lot of pre-conceived ideas about what a video game was supposed to be. And actually, we showed them this scene where Jodie is a homeless girl, and she lives under a bridge and needs to find a way to make money to buy some food… and I think they were a little bit taken by surprise [Laughter]. And it was good. And that was also the first time that Ellen Page could see an entire scene, and she told me she was really surprised too. I mean, she shot all these things, but when you shoot things alone on an empty suit in this mo-cap suit, you don’t realise how it’s going to be and what the final result will be when it’s going to be filmed and with the music and all this stuff. So I think she was really pleased with the result.
With Heavy Rain, you had the four main protagonists and at certain points, they can die, but the story continues and is obviously shaped by their passing in many ways. With BEYOND: Two Souls, you have only one in Jodie, and so that concept of continuing after death can’t really work. We know you’re not a fan of retry screens, so with those facts in mind, how branching can the game get? Will there instead be decisions made that may not lead to death, but an entirely different section or path that you maybe wouldn’t ordinarily seen if you played it another way?
Oh yeah, of course. The first thing I want to say is that we didn’t try to replicate the experience that was Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain is Heavy Rain; it had its own style, tone, language… but BEYOND: Two Souls is a different experience where we’re trying to explore different moods. And depending on how you play, there will be entire parts or scenes that you will see or miss. It really depends on how you play and there will be many different consequences to your actions. Although Jodie can’t die the way that characters did in Heavy Rain, many other things can happen.
From the more recent footage that we have seen, it’s become clear just how varied the situations, locales and experiences are that Jodie gets into. Again, not to compare anything to film, but in terms of storytelling techniques on a whole, we see it more often in film where a tone can flip across the acts and it draws people out of their engagement and comes across disconnected and abrasive. Did you ever have that thought or concern in the back of your mind when writing the story out?
You know, actually, that was never a concern for me because I had the entire story in mind and knew what kind of journey it would be. I was fine with this idea that it could be a little bit disorienting for people at first to jump through time and see her as a kid and then a teenager and then an adult, but I knew that slowly that would build something stronger; as the pieces of the puzzle would fall into place, all of these things would start to make sense and it would create a very interesting dynamic for the narrative where the player – instead of just watching the story being told – would actually have to connect the dots by themselves and really see the consequences of something before seeing the causes, which would create this momentum that I was looking for. And that’s really the feedback we have from the first people that played the game, is that “oh, we were a bit lost at first, but things fall into place and it truly makes sense and makes the experience stronger”. So that’s what I was hoping for, and from the first people that played the game, this is what seems to happen.
That’s good to hear. And finally, just quickly, we saw with the Dark Sorcerer demo that you guys are exploring emotions and genres outside of what we’ve seen so far. A comedy game in particular is something that hasn’t been done much, especially not in the last decade or more. Do you think that genre could be the basis for an entire game, would you be willing to explore that further and do you think it would require some supporting elements from other genres, like action, to stay interesting or engaging?
The Dark Sorcerer was just a prototype, so it’s not our next title, but I really enjoyed making it and I think there’s definitely the potential to create a comedy game. And I think it can be really interesting and funny to do and to play. I don’t think you need to incorporate, necessarily, action elements or anything. I think you could create a game that could be a romance, for example, just be a love story or just be a comedy. You don’t need the action element necessarily to make it interactive. And that’s something that will still need to be demonstrated but that’s something we strongly believe in.
Yeah, because that would be a wildly different experience, again…
Yeah, it would be fun. Who knows, maybe we will do it someday.
Awesome, well thanks so much again for your time!
Oh thank you.
We want to thank David Cage for taking the time for us, and to PlayStation Australia and Hausmann Communications for organising the interview and making it possible. BEYOND: Two Souls comes out October 9th nationwide, exclusive to the Sony PlayStation 3. You can download a demo come October 3rd.