"Heavy Rain Is Not An Adventure Game"

by Andrew Reiner on Dec 04, 2009 at 12:40 PM

David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream turned heads with Indigo Prophecy's unique approach to storytelling, now the team is putting the finishing touches on the highly anticipated PlayStation 3 title, Heavy Rain. Even with Quantic Dream burning the midnight oil, David took some time to answer our questions about interactive narrative, and why Heavy Rain is not an adventure game.

Heavy Rain is often referred to as an adventure game. How do you feel about the application of that genre title to the game? In what ways is it appropriate or inappropriate?

Adventure games are a very clearly defined genre based on established mechanics: exploration, inventory management, puzzles and dialogue choices. There is generally a focus on story and characters with a very slow pacing and cut scenes to make the narrative move forward, generally in a quite linear way.

Based on this definition, Heavy Rain is NOT an adventure game. There is no inventory in the game, no object to combine or examine, no puzzle, the game does not rely on everlasting dialogues. The story is told through players' actions and not through cutscenes, and players' actions have significant consequences on the narrative. Last but not least, Heavy Rain offers a diversity of situations and gameplay, as well as some spectacular action sequences.

So to make a long answer short, I don’t think Heavy Rain belongs to the adventure genre, although it is about story and characters. I don’t know to what genre the game belongs. I don’t think it is that important though to put it in a specific box with a label on it. At the end of the day, if people enjoyed it, they rarely wondered if it was because it was an action/adventure or an RPG.

“Adventure games are dead” is a common phrase in the gaming industry. Do you think that discussion is even relevant in the current gaming landscape?

I'd probably agree with that phrase. The Adventure genre is one I really enjoyed but it has struggled probably because it's been unable to evolve with the games becoming outdated and of less interest. Again, I am talking about games based on inventory management, puzzles and dialogue choices.

It certainly does not mean that people lost interest in good stories and interesting characters, but more in the specific experiences this type of games had to offer. Heavy Rain offers a new approach to interactive storytelling: it is not based on mechanics, it fully integrates real time 3D and cutting edge visuals, it mixes storytelling and actions, and most of all, it offers players to have a real impact on the story. It is not just about seeing one or another cutscene at the end, it is about living different stories, being the writer, actor and director of their own story.

In any form of storytelling, characters are defined largely by their actions. How do you deal with the challenge of relinquishing control over those actions to the player while still maintaining a cohesive narrative?

That was definitely the main challenge in the writing of Heavy Rain. I wanted to offer many options in the story while guaranteeing that all of them were consistent with the characterization and the main plot and had the same narrative quality. Consistency was always my obsession. I found no absolute answer but solutions emerged from the writing. In every situation, many logical things can happen based on the decision made by the player or the fact that he succeeds or fails in making something. These actions have natural consequences on the plot but do not interfere with the characterization.

The technique behind this is to create narrative bottlenecks, strong contexts for choices, where I can predict what the player will want to do. It creates a very fluid experience where it seems that you can do whatever you want. In fact, the player does what I “encouraged” him to do, which helps to create a consistent characterization and a better experience. I also discovered that many players integrate some role playing attitudes in the way they behave. As they identify themselves to the characters, they want to do what they believe their character would do in the context (and not necessarily what they would like to do as players). By doing so, players also actively participate to the consistency of characterization. A good example of this is the forced strip-tease in one of the scenes we presented: most male players were exclusively focused on trying to find a way not to get naked in front of this ugly guy, which means they felt they were Madison and they behaved accordingly. 

Right now, Quantic Dream is the only developer making games in this style, focused so intently on story and character. Why do you think more developers haven’t attempted it?

Our industry is entirely focused since its creation on creating games for kids and teenagers. What this audience wants is simple instant fun with guns, cars and explosions. Some video games managed to make incredible things based on this paradigm and it is today the most secure choice on a financial standpoint for a publisher.

Quantic (and Sony)’s bet on Heavy Rain is to say that there is another emerging market of young adults and adults looking for a different type of interactive experiences based on a different paradigm: they want experiences that are journeys and not series of obstacles, that bear meaning and emotion and not only adrenaline, that explores other themes closer to cinema or literature, but that are fully interactive and visually stunning.

Quantic Dream has focused for twelve years on new ways of triggering different types of emotions with interactivity. We have a tradition of working on innovative titles and taking risks on new ideas. We were fortunate enough so far to meet publishers understanding and sharing our vision and giving us the possibility to develop our ideas. We also invest very significantly for years in R&D to develop tools, pipelines and engines to serve our objective of creating emotion-driven experiences.

This combination of things put Quantic is this position today but it is definitely a rare luxury to have the budget of a AAA title to work on an original IP and concept. In a certain way, we are probably the most expensive indie developer in this industry…

On a separate point, I think that few publishers understand today the importance of narrative and emotions even in first-person shooters, although cinema has proved for a long time that special effects and action alone do not make good movies if there is not a good story and some exciting characters.

The industry is also very slow to understand that our customers are not exclusively 15 years old anymore, but according to recent surveys they are 35… We seem to ignore this point and continue to make games for kids. By doing this, we limit our audience and let older gamers quit playing and move to other entertainment platforms like internet, cinema, music, iPhone, etc. when these people should be our primary target because they have money to spend (and not only at Christmas…). But in order to reach them, we need to raise the quality level, add creativity and meaning and change some of our core paradigms.

This is not a simple step to make for this industry, so we continue to do the same things the same way as long as it keeps selling. I don’t think that this is the right way of preparing the future. We may end up being a cultural ghetto for kids and geeks when we should be a major entertainment platform in the coming years. This is really what is at stake.

I wish that more developers will have the possibility to be creative and bring new concepts to the table. More publishers need to understand the importance of innovation in our industry and take risks accordingly, but consumers also have a responsibility in this situation. By buying more original games rather than sequels of sequels, they send a message to decision makers about how they want this industry to evolve.

Do you see this style of game becoming more prominent in the future?

I would like a better balance between games for kids/teenagers and games for adults. At the moment, it is probably a ratio of 99% vs 1%, I would be really happy with a 70% vs 30% ratio as a first step…

Again, this is not a personal fantasy, it is an absolute necessity for our industry and a natural way to evolve. Think of the first movies that were made a century ago: very spectacular scenes that were shown in fun fairs to impress people and entertain kids. Cinema successfully evolved from a fun fair attraction to art. Video games were also born in fun fairs. We still have to evolve and become an art.

Heavy Rain features multiple playable characters. Can you talk about your approach to making these characters believable and making gamers care about them?

I have a very simple technique for that: I usually start with an archetype, a type of character that players will quickly feel they know by the way they look, talk, behave. We have all seen before an FBI agent very professional and cold, totally involved in resolving a case in spite of the local police lieutenant, we have all in mind a film noir detective working alone with his own methods and following his own rules. All these archetypes came from movies, tv series, novels, comics, and they form a part of our commonly shared culture.

Archetypes are the entry points to characters. They allow to break very quickly the barrier with the player and to make him comfortable. He thinks he knows these characters forever and can predict how they can/should behave.

Once this is established, the challenge is to go beyond archetypes by adding layers of complexity to the characterization that will surprise the player and make him feel there is more than what he thought. He believed he knew everything about this character, and then you can reveal other aspects of his personality that he did not suspect. By doing this, you can create rich and surprising characters without spending hours to create empathy and make players care for them.

Once this is done, identification can fully work. By feeling empathy for these characters, the player identifies himself to them, puts himself in their shoes and shares what they feel.

Gamers have a tendency to reload previous saved games if events don’t play out in their favor. Will Heavy Rain allow this? Do you see it as damaging to the narrative?

Heavy Rain will allow players to access any scene that has been already played. I wanted this feature to be implemented although I think it damages the narrative because I thought they would want to access different points of the story and see what would have happened if he had done something else.

Personally, I would prefer players to play the game once and not go back, to create a story unique to them and never know what would have happened otherwise. But this is a designer’s dream and I see no reason to frustrate players by imposing this.

Heavy Rain got some attention very early in its development because of its impressive visuals. What can you say about the importance of high-quality graphics to the experience of the game?

The story of Heavy Rain led us to a realistic type of rendering. Although I don’t think that this is required to create emotional experiences in general, it was definitely the rendering that worked the best for the game. When you work on realism, there is really no middle ground: you are realistic or not.

We made very early on an important decision that made our lives much simpler: instead of working on huge environments with a low level of details and interactivity, we decided to work on smaller environments but as detailed as possible and as interactive as they can be. Our scenes don’t take place in open cities but rather in a house for example, where attention is paid to every single detail. Some scenes just take place in a room, but highly detailed and with many things happening. Another rule was that each scene uses a unique environment. We don’t come back to places, scenes are short and usually fast paced, which means that the player discovers a lot of unique environments and never knows what to expect next.

Regarding characters, the game also features a quite impressive gallery of faces and surprising people… all based on real actors. They were usually created as full virtual clones of real people, using their face, their voice, their body, their movements and facial animations. We developed all technologies and engines internally at Quantic specifically for Heavy Rain.

I believe all this work plays an important role in the experience offered by Heavy Rain. The story and the characters aim to look and feel real, sets, animations, faces are as close to reality as possible today in real time 3D. It was really useful in creating believable emotions, empathy, and make the player feel he is “playing reality."

What was one of the lessons you and your team learned from making Indigo Prophecy and have applied to developing Heavy Rain?

We learned a lot from Indigo, from what worked as well as from what didn’t work. We see Indigo as the prototype to Heavy Rain, and we wrote a better story, redesigned an interface integrated in 3D, imagined a new approach to action sequences, redefined bending stories and how actions can have consequences, significantly improved the technology and tried to imagine scenes never seen in a game before.

Most of all, what I learnt from Indigo is: 1) it is possible to create an experience based on story and emotion for an adult audience, and 2) players can have interest for this type of experiences if it is written and executed right. Just discovering these two points would have been enough in my mind to justify the hard work put in Indigo.

In Heavy Rain, the gameplay appears to be relatively simple, chiefly giving gamers an avenue to travel through the story. Are good storytelling and complex gameplay mechanics incompatible concepts?

“Allowing the player to make complex things in a simple way” was one of my tag lines designing the game. I wanted the challenge to be in the mind of the player and not only on the controller. I am not a big believer in mechanics in general. Creating patterns and loops spread through levels is not my vision of creative design. I try to explore contextual actions which means that what you can do changes based on the situation. It is much more complex to write because your characters have virtually access to anything, which means more freedom and more problems on a design standpoint, but I believe this is the only way to go. It is almost impossible to create interesting  and complex emotions with a hero only able to run/jump/shoot/crouch, and you end up having to tell the story in cut scenes.

So in short, I don’t believe that complex mechanics are necessary for good storytelling because mechanics are based on loops and narrative hate loops. We need to invent new ways of interacting not based on mechanics. I believe this is where the real challenge is.