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I, Robot: David Cage on Kara, why PS3's not done yet

David Cage's Kara demo was always going to be GDC's headline. Nathan Grayson grills the French maestro on life after Heavy Rain.

"I'm very interested in all human topics in one way or another. You know, I don't think Kara is really about sci-fi. I think it's just a background. I'm more interested in the emotional questions Kara asks. It happens to be used in the context of sci-fi, but it could have taken place in the past, future, or present. All the stories I tell are about characters and emotions."

Quantic Dream boss David Cage marches to the beat of his own drum. OK, that's a tremendous understatement. He takes the drum, meticulously re-forges it in his own image, and then uses it to launch a precision missile strike on gamers' tear ducts. Sure, he may goof up from time-to-time (see: Fahrenheit's entire final act), but his company takes chances that'd drive other triple-A developers to immediately pick up the phone and tearfully tell their piggy banks how much they love them.

So then, what's Quantic Dream's next big investor nightmare? For now, Cage and co are keeping things under wraps. However, during a recent GDC session, Cage gave fans a tiny, tech-flavored taste of what's ahead with the undeniably impressive “Kara” demo. No, the brief yet emotionally charged tale of a robotic girl who nearly ends up in the scrap heap for developing emotions isn't a snippet of a new game, but it does showcase some damn impressive mo-cap tech. Also, many awkwardly placed instances of near nudity, because Quantic Dream, you guys.

I caught up with the fiercely independent, surprisingly soft-spoken developer after his presentation wrapped and quizzed him on everything from his curious decision to build yet another PS3-specific engine, Journey's success and its impact on story in games, David Jaffe's tirades against story in games, Cage's not-quite-love-affair with sci-fi, and tons more.

VG247: Right off the bat, you mentioned that the Kara demo was running in real-time on a PS3. It looked very nice, of course, but why not embrace the hypothetical next-gen like, say, Unreal Engine 4?

David Cage: We're really focused on PS3 right now. And it doesn't do to have a generic engine, because the [next-gen] hardware could change so much that we'd pretty much have to rebuild from the ground up based on hardware. We really want to have the best possible engine.

There's a time for everything. We have this close relationship with Sony, and we just wanted to work on PS3 because this is a console that everybody has at home today. We just wanted to push the envelope on this console and show that it can actually go much further.

So you're saying the PS3 still hasn't fully been tapped yet?

I don't think so. You can do much more with this console. And Kara just shows that we can do more than what we did with Heavy Rain, and hopefully, what we show in the future will prove we can do much more than what Kara did.

And that was a year-old version of the demo, correct? Why did you opt to show such an early take instead of something more recent?

This was a proof-of-concept. It was a technical showcase a year ago, and it's great that we could find the time and resources to work on this production. Then we said, “OK, this is done,” because we got it to work in-engine. So we were happy enough with it a year ago, and then we looked at it recently to decide if we wanted to share it with other people. It still works. It's definitely not the best my studio can do, but it's still good.

I really enjoyed the whole motif of the Kara demo. The robot-human distinction and the idea that she's merely one of hundreds of carbon copies are both extremely interesting topics that games haven't really covered. So Kara's not your next game, but would you ever be interested in exploring these themes in a full game?

I'm very interested in all human topics in one way or another. You know, I don't think Kara is really about sci-fi. I think it's just a background. I'm more interested in the emotional questions Kara asks. It happens to be used in the context of sci-fi, but it could have taken place in the past, future, or present. All the stories I tell are about characters and emotions.

Even so, your recent projects have all taken a plunge into sci-fi's nanomachine-enhanced waters. Why is that your backdrop of choice?

As I've gotten older, I've really come to like having our reality, but with a little twist. Because if it's just pure reality, it can be boring. But if you add just a tiny little fragment, it becomes something that's acceptable to audiences, it doesn't take the focus away from what you're trying to say – but at the same time it creates some kind of distance.

I saw Kara's robo-heart beating. It was – digging deep into the realm of pure thesaurus gold – icky. It made her feel incredibly vulnerable and powerless, though, which is something you don't often see in this day and age of military men, space marines, and my own upcoming social game, KillVille. Do you think games could stand to explore that idea more? After all, games give us control, so what happens when it's taken away in a truly meaningful fashion?

I think that having a character who's just strong and has all the skills and is supposed to be invulnerable is just boring. I think very few movies and books do that because they discovered a long time ago that having a character that has a wound somewhere – that is vulnerable and fragile – is much more compelling because it resonates with the audience. We all have a weakpoint. We're all fragile and vulnerable in one way or another.

So it helps when creating a character to identify these things. You know, I don't see myself as someone with big muscles who's gonna kill whoever. My son is 11 and he loves that. But I'm 42. I'm too old.

Your engine's journeying into the deepest reaches of PS3 territory right now, so do you think PS Vita – a machine of similar power but wildly different architecture – would be conducive to the type of experience you create?

I think they could work very well on Vita. We're built on story-driven experiences, so we'd need to think of an experience that's really tailored toward the Vita. But it could work just as well. Maybe it would be shorter or episodic or downloadable.

Meanwhile, on PS3, Journey's had the whole gaming industry buzzing. Mere words can't describe their excitement, so they've taken to the language of bees and cell phones. But I digress. Journey evokes a huge emotional reaction by letting players create their own experiences in tandem with a colossal world and other players. In that respect, it's sort of on the opposite side of the spectrum from your work – which is also very emotional, but highly directed. Would you ever consider crafting a more minimal story like Journey's?

Oh yeah, I'm totally fascinated by what they're doing with Journey. I don't think that it's on the opposite side of the coin from us. We do the exact same thing; we just use different means to achieve them.

I'm not all about story. Rather, I'm all about emotion. And there are different ways of achieving or triggering emotion. You can do it through storytelling, or you can do like thatgamecompany did with Journey or Flower. Or, say, Okami did it in a different way. All these games try to create an emotional space that resonates with the player, and they do it in different ways with different styles. That's great! It makes the medium rich and diverse.

Recently, David Jaffe's been taking to his soapbox to decry story focused games – or at least play up a focus on mechanics first and story forty-second. How do you respond to his oftentimes vehement rejection of the types of things that have gotten you where you are today?

You know, different people, different tastes. But I'm a little bit surprised that Jaffe takes this view, because when I look back on God of War, I thought it was a good action title – but what really made it stand out were story and characterization. If you take those out, you just have another action game. And I'm sorry that David Jaffe doesn't see this.

While the EAs and Activisions of the world duke it out with same-y sequels, you take your wildest ideas and run with them. In the triple-A scene, Quantic Dream's definitely an exception – not a rule. From a perspective of wider industry health, is that disheartening to you?

We are in a strange position, because we are an indie developer in many ways, but with the financial means of a triple-A developer. So it's a strange mix, because we have total creative freedom to do whatever we want, and – at the same time – we have the financial means thanks to Sony's support. So it's a very fortunate position we're in.

Now, I don't have to judge what other people do. I mean, it's a business for a lot of people. They need to make money, and there are many risks involved. At the same time, you cannot blame them for trying to recoup their money and make more. Thing is, I don't think making money and milking the cow is in my company's DNA. We're really serious and honest about what we're doing. We're really passionate about all this. We want to be pioneers – to take risks, discover, and fail. As long as we learn, progress, and explore.

My work is about exploring. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong, sometimes I find something. That's the beauty of it. That's what makes it interesting. Yeah, it would probably be more reasonable to do Heavy Rain 2, 3, 4, and 5. It would make my life easier and I'd make more money. But that'd probably boring in a way, so it's great for me to do Heavy Rain, then have time to work on Kara, then work on something else.

Exactly how much of it is really you, though? You're a very outspoken person, so naturally, attention tends to focus on you. What about your team?

Well, people see my face, but there's really a very talented team behind me. Without them, there would be no game. And they're not just people who are paid to do a job. They're really as passionate as I am about what they're doing.

I have the vision. I write the script. I'm the director. But everybody contributes. Everybody tries to share vision and talent and bring something to this project. But at the same time, someone needs to make a decision. Someone needs to say, “It's going to be this way.” And maybe I'm wrong, but we need to decide. So that's me.

Right. But that's still quite a bit of power. Off the top of my head, only Hideo Kojima strikes me as another triple-A developer who exercises that tremendous level of control. Do you think the industry could benefit from more coherent, passionate visions?

For many reasons, the industry tends to fear careers when it's just one person. Some of them are divas and difficult to manage, but also, it's a risk for investors. “OK, if something happens to David Cage, what about the project? Where are we going?”

So you need to convince people that there's a reason to do it that way – that it makes sense and is best for the project. There's a captain on the boat, but it's difficult to convince people. They prefer when it's 10-15 people are collaborating. But if one person leaves, you don't have the project anymore.

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