Beyond: Two Souls is being marketed to film fans, but is that audience really receptive? And does it mean Quantic Dream has stopped talking to gamers? Brenna sat down with studio founder and auteur David Cage to find out.
You’d never know that David Cage is in the middle of a whirlwind promotional tour if not for the fact that one side of his shirt has uncharacteristically been left untucked; that, and the fact that his eyes glaze a little in incomprehension when I mention his appointment with Dave in London this weekend. Sony’s been zipping him around the world in the last few weeks before Beyond: Two Souls’ launch; he probably doesn’t know what day it is, or what continent he’s on.
Despite this, and despite the fact that I am the last appointment of a very long day, he’s very charming – polite, warm, and gracious in the face of yet another games journalist turning up to quiz him on his interactive movies and hunt for headline-bait quotes.
But I’m not feeling antagonistic; I feel like Cage and I are on the same team. I spent the previous evening in a cinema, carefully buying my own drinks, as Cage discussed the future of interactive media with a panel of film experts, in front of an audience largely composed of local cinemaphiles (you can watch the whole event on YouTube, if you like). I came away with the feeling that the panel and audience kind of didn’t get Beyond: Two Souls; they seemed confused as to how much freedom the player has, whose role the player takes, and what it is about games that is special. Nobody on the panel had anything derogatory to say about gaming; nevertheless, if there was a page, I think Cage and I were on it and a lot of other people were maybe looking at another book altogether. That’s the attitude I walked in with, anyway; Cage, as I mentioned, is very gracious; he wouldn’t let it devolve into an us-versus-them discussion. Read on for our full conversation.
VG247: I was at the panel last night and it gave me all sorts of ideas for interesting questions, but I’m going to start with a really boring one that you get all the time, because it’s going to lead into some others. What are the strengths of games as a medium – as opposed to a film, or a book – that make it the right medium to tell the story of Beyond: Two Souls?
David Cage, founder of Quantic Dream: It’s really the interactive nature, of course, of the medium that’s fascinating. The fact that it’s not just someone telling you a story; it’s someone creating a narrative space in which, as a player, you can evolve the way you want, to find your own journey and tell your story that will be unique to you. That’s what I really enjoy with interactive storytelling, and only games can do this actually, because when you watch a film you can’t change what’s going on. When you play a game, you can make decisions and these decisions can make consequences and you can actually make the story yours, which I find very appealing.
The game becomes like a mirror asking you questions about who you are, what would you do if this was happening you? What would you do in this situation? And actually you need to give answers about things that hopefully will never happen to you in real life but still teach you something about who you are.
Do you think people do choose to do in-game what they personally would do in real life, or do they pick the most correct thing, or the most badass thing?
If I didn’t have the experience that I have I would say oh no, they just make the choice that they think is best for the game, that would be the most rewarding considering where they are, but actually that’s not true. It’s very interesting: I had an experience with this player who said he was playing Fahrenheit and there was this scene where the ex-girlfriend of the character comes back to pick up her stuff, and you can be very cold and very distant, almost rude with her – or you can be very nice, and fall in love again, and it turns into another scene. And this guy told me that he was in real life a very nice person usually, that he hates to be cold and rude. It’s just not the kind of person he is.
So he played the game once and when the girl knocked at the door he was very nice, because that’s what he instinctively would do. And then he said okay, I’m going to play the game one more time but this time I’m going to be rude and very cold to see what happens. And actually she knocked at the door and she looked so cute and he couldn’t help but be nice again. I have many stories like this, of people really forgetting that this is a game and just playing the way they are.
One of the most interesting things Cage said during the panel was that he believes paying too much attention to feedback means you stop being a creator and instead “become a marketing person”. As such, Heavy Rain’s metrics probably haven’t significantly shaped Beyond: Two Souls – well, besides getting Sony to cough up $27 million for it.
I have the same problem, actually; I can’t be bad in games like Mass Effect or whatever. It’s very difficult to be rude, I think. Do you have any metrics from Heavy Rain suggesting there were choices like that, which were really binary? Any stand out moments that really divided people, or where there was almost no divergence?
We published all the metrics last year.
Oh, really? Oh yeah, you did too. Excellent researcher, me.
We did find that about 75% of the people who started the game finished it, where the average in the industry is around 30%. We had metrics about who kept the finger and who killed the guy to save the son, and I don’t remember all the figures but that was very, very interesting.
So there wasn’t a big stand-out one. Have you played Gone Home?
Not yet, entirely. I started it, and I thought it was very interesting. I thought that it was a very different and very interesting experience, that was much more about exploring than about anything else and I thought well, this is very interesting.
I feel it had some resonance with things you’ve said in the past, that I’ve read, about gaming and interactivity and storytelling, because the manifesto that they published when the Fullbright Company was formed was that they wanted to use the mechanics of games to tell the story rather than the way some other games – not any of yours, obviously – make the game first and then tack a story on later.
I agree. I totally agree.
And these guys wanted the story to be built right in – and built out of the mechanics. But I wouldn’t say Heavy Rain did the same thing at all. It’s something between the two things. On the one extreme end, a story built right into the game, in the very mechanics, and on the other extreme, a game where the story is a completely separate thing. Heavy Rain is somewhere in the middle, a more cinematic experience.
Yes. You know, different people try different things. There is some kind of storytelling in Journey.
There is some kind of storytelling in Gone Home. There is some kind of storytelling in Heavy Rain and Beyond. It’s just different people with different approaches to storytelling and emotions in games. And that’s great. I mean, that’s what makes the medium so interesting, is that we don’t all do the same things the same way. But, at the end of the day, we all try to create an emotional involvement from the player; we try to get them emotionally engaged in the experience. We just use different ways, different tools, different techniques to achieve this. And that’s fine.
So are you at all interested in starting from gameplay mechanics and building from that, as opposed to starting from the story and working from there?
Actually I don’t try to start with the story or the mechanics. I try to think about both at the same time. That’s really my approach. Otherwise, my gut feeling is that you can tell which one came first. So for example, with Beyond the initial idea was a girl having a link with an entity, a ghost. And I thought it was a very appealing story, because you want to know why they have this link and who is this ghost, and what happened.
Ohh, but it’s also a unique gameplay feature, being able to control the ghost.
In the matter of gameplay, you think oh, I can switch between the girl and ghost and be a ghost – so the gameplay is there from the first sentence, and the story is there too. This is the kind of ideas that I really like.
“We need to create experiences like Beyond that these people can play so it can become concrete for them. We need to create games that can be played by people who are not gamers, because the controller is still a barrier for most people out there.”
You mentioned before that one of the things you like about the medium is that the player can tell their own story. On the panel last night I felt that the other participants might have had a misconception of how that would actually work in that they felt it was much more open-ended in each scene. Do you find that frustrating – doing promotional work like Tribeca, speaking to cinema audiences rather than hardcore gaming audiences? Does it get on your nerves to have to keep explaining?
No, no! Not at all. I find film people very open-minded, and-
That’s a bit of a change from gamers, ha ha. Sorry, that was rude.
[Throwing hands up, speaking into the dictaphone.] I didn’t say that, okay?
No, you didn’t. You definitely did not. I shouldn’t have said that.
Honestly, I find film people very open-minded and they understand what we’re doing very quickly for whatever reason. You know, when we went to Ellen [Page] or Willem [Defoe], they were not gamers. We just said, it’s a story, but the main protagonist is controlled by the player and depending on what you do the story adapts. And they got it, they got it very quickly. For them, it sounds like a very simple proposal and makes a lot of sense, and yeah, this is what they expect.
The thing is that we need to create experiences like Beyond that these people can play so it can become concrete for them. They understand the concept, now they need to understand the implementation. But you know, to do this we need to create games that can be played by people who are not gamers, because the controller is still a barrier for most people out there. This is also why I would have loved this Beyond Touch app to replace the controller with an iPhone or Android device, to make the game more accessible to people who are not gamers.
I know you can’t really talk about upcoming projects, but the PlayStation 4 has a capacitative touch pad on the DualShock 4. Is that something you’re thinking of working in, to break down that barrier further?
It’s still a bit too early for me to make calls on this. I need to see what people will say on Beyond Touch, on Beyond, and see if they thought that was a good answer to the problem or not. My hope of course is that they will like it, but will it allow us to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have played because the controls would have been too complex? If this is the case, then that’s part of the answer, and we may want to continue exploring this direction.
Returning to the theme of people not quite understanding the concept, I did notice that one of the panel participants said something about, oh, “you can choose to kiss Ellen Page”, which really struck me because Jodie is the character that you’re playing. So unless there’s a scene I don’t know about where you’re possessing a guy who gets to kiss Jodie or something, it seems like there was a little disconnect between his perception of what the game is and is about, and the perception that I had, as a gamer: that Jodie is the player character. I mean, she’s on the posters, she’s on the cover, she’s all that’s been talked about. I wondered if it was a cinema thing, of thinking of oneself as outside the observed character – whereas the gamer tends to connect with the avatar. Or whether it was just like, “oh, it’s a video game, it must be about a dude”. Did you notice that?
“You’re really in the shoes of Jodie Holmes from the first to the last, so of course everything is seen from her point of view. The decision to kiss or not kiss belongs to Jodie and not to anyone else. I get very often the question ‘do you realise that it’s a risk to have a female protagonist?’ If she’s an interesting character, and if I feel emotionally engaged in the story then okay, what’s the problem? I can’t see why it would be a problem to have a female protagonist.”
Ha ha, no, I didn’t pay attention to that. But you’re right. You know, [the panel participants] played Heavy Rain but they didn’t play Beyond. It’s difficult to know, just from a few videos, what the experience is about, because when you play Beyond you’re really in the shoes of Jodie Holmes from the first to the last, so of course everything is seen from her point of view. And Aiden’s point of view, to be fair. The decision to kiss or not kiss belongs to Jodie and not to anyone else.
Which is very exciting, because Beyond is a big triple-A game with a woman very much in the centre. It’s really gratifying – to me anyway, because clearly, I’m a woman. In Heavy Rain, Madison was playable, and there were female characters in Omikron and Fahrenheit, but is this the first one you’ve done that’s female all the way through? I feel like it is. Was that challenging for you?
No. I really enjoy writing female characters. I really enjoyed writing Kara, the short that we did. No, it feels like something very natural, for whatever reason. You know what? I get very often the question “do you realise that it’s a risk to have a female protagonist?” What do you mean exactly? “Oh, do you really think gamers want to be this young girl? They want to be guys, dudes, with big muscles and big guns.”
And I say, well, okay, some gamers may think that way. But other people may be more open-minded and think okay, if she’s an interesting character, and if I feel emotionally engaged in the story then okay, what’s the problem? And that’s my hope. I think Ellen is an extraordinary Jodie Holmes, she gave an incredible performance, and I think she has a very strong journey, so I can’t see why it would be a problem to have a female protagonist.
Did you produce the entire 2,000 page script or do you have a team of writers working with you?
Actually, I write pretty much alone.
All of it?
I have people reading and criticising what I’m writing, but I’m the only person writing.
That’s quite unusual, isn’t it? It’s usually more of a collaborative process in projects of this scope.
Different developers have different ways of working, and there’s no right or wrong way I guess, it just depends on how you want to work. For me, writing is a very personal thing, so it’s something I have difficulty sharing. I think you need to make the silence around you, to listen to your inner voice in a way, and really try to find out what you really have to say. And this is a very personal journey.
Did you get any critique during the writing process that really changed Jodie in any significant way? Or did you have her fully-formed from the beginning?
I have a team that is very good at criticising, so, I got a lot of criticism, so yeah, I made changes. I made changes on set, shooting some scenes with Ellen, which was really funny because there was a point where she probably knew more about the character than I did. She really felt – I think she felt really close to the character for whatever reason. There were moments – a couple of moments, not many – where she said no, Jodie wouldn’t do this, or she wouldn’t say that. It was like, wait a minute, who’s the writer here? But actually she was right, so we changed it, on set. That was a very interesting part of the collaborative work.
Can you give me any examples that aren’t grievous spoilers?
[After a moment's thought.] No.
No! Ha ha. It feels like it must be quite a difficult game to promote in some ways, because of the non-chronological storytelling and the fact that it is so story-heavy, so anything you show is potentially spoiling the full experience for somebody.
There’s always a difficult balance to find between showing too much and not showing enough. Because this game is so different, we felt – with Sony – that we had to show maybe more than we really would have showed otherwise. When you work on a shooter, show a level and everybody will get what the game is about. When it’s about storytelling, when each scene is different, that’s the main challenge. And when the scope of the game is so big, because you have these scenes where Jodie’s eight years old and she’s a little girl, and scenes where she’s chased on the roof of a train, and another scene where she’s in Somalia, a scene where she’s homeless, and all these other scenes.
You feel like, okay, we need to show the scope of the game and show it to people. This is a real game, it’s fully playable, it’s not just a long cutscene. And you need to evangelise and convince and maybe show a bit more than you would like to. But at the same time, we’ve not showed so much compared to what’s in the game – big, big scenes are still in the game and have not been shown yet.
Lots of surprises still to come, then.
Beyond: Two Souls is a PS3 exclusive due in North America on October 8; in Australia on October 9; and in Europe on October 11.