Heavy Rain

Director David Cage talks about the emotionally manipulative video game that has inspired Neil LaBute to make a film

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Rather than speeding around in a car or karate chopping bad guys in a fervour of macho-sweat, Heavy Rain is supposedly designed to make the player base decisions on emotional response. Roughly, the plot is that you are a father whose son has gone missing. One day, you find evidence that your child has been kidnapped and is still alive. You must collect various clues sent by the kidnapper in order to locate your son. At every opportunity, the characters you meet are not merely a collection of pixels, but their manner and story are meant to make them feel like people you can relate to. Thus, if you have to shoot one of them, they feel like a real person; you know the names of their kids, you’ve seen them cry. In attempting to make them more “human”, or “real”, your actions are supposed to more resemble moral decisions. 

Whilst the idea of a new genre of immersive video gaming is obviously exciting, it is one that is inevitably going to have practical drawbacks. The story is incredibly compelling and its sheer depth and intricacy makes it a great deal more gripping than a bog standard ‘kill as many people as possible’ type of affair. Though the game manages this immersion fairly successfully, it is not enough to elicit the emotional responses it intends. Where you might be faced with the choice to kill a drug dealer who has two daughters, the awareness of playing a video game factors a great deal into your decision, whereas this is not a factor in real life. It would be possible to play and enjoy the game simply using curiosity as the main drive for decision-making. Heavy Rain seems like a step towards a fantastic innovation, one for which the technology is not yet fully developed or available.

Visually, Heavy Rain is remarkable. The constant drizzle and obscure camera angles are disorientating and really help to set up the emotion of the plot. Inspired by the game, director Neil LaBute created a short film based round the topic: How Far Would You Go To Save The One You Love? Dazed Digital managed to speak to the writer and director of Heavy Rain, David Cage, about archetypes, abduction and Avatar.

Dazed Digital: What makes Heavy Rain unique as a computer game?
David Cage: We are trying to create a new genre with Heavy Rain. It’s not a video game like the ones you probably know; it’s not based on the same paradigms. It’s really a new kind of experience. So, everything had to be invented; the language the grammar, the visuals, how you can write a script where the player’s actions have consequences on the plot. Nothing like this was around.

DD: As well as playing with a new concept, was the technology new?
DC: Absolutely everything. We needed to invent a way to cast actors and to direct actors on stage using performance capture, exactly the same technique as James Cameron used in Avatar. The we needed to create these virtual clones because we wanted 3D characters that would look exactly like the real actors; the way they move, talk, their facial expressions and so on. All the technology had to be invented. We wanted to have a real sense of directing so we invented tools with 3D cameras, got the lighting managers to emulate real lighting on the set... Everything had to be created because nothing was there.

DD: Were you aware of Avatar whilst you were creating all this?
DC: Not at all. We’ve been working with performance capture for ten years, so we mastered the technology and knew what kind of work it would require. This was done in parallel but in fact the two projects are quite similar, although the results are really different. We are in real time, Avatar is pre-rendered. But at the heart of the project it’s the same technology; it’s the same work on stage with the actors. The script of Heavy Rain is 2000 pages long, which is about 20 times the size of an average movie script, so this is at first a lot of work. And of course it’s non-linear.

DD: What was the main difficulty working on a non-linear script?
DC: There were many difficulties. No one understands exactly what you’re doing as you do it because there is no point of reference. So actors had to trust me a lot. The other was that we asked them to do many things that were sometimes contradictory. The player would only see one of these choices but the actor has to play both. Also, we shot for about a year, shooting every day, which is at least three or four times that of a feature films.

DD: Is the child abduction plot designed to elicit strong emotional response?
DC: The story came from something that happened to me. I’m a young father, I have two kids. And one afternoon I lost one of my kids in a very crowded mall, he was five years old at the time. I thought he was with my wife, she thought he was with me. There is this moment of complete panic and terror where you wander, “Oh my god, what if I don’t find them?” That was probably the most horrible ten minutes of my life. Fortunately, we found him. So I wanted to imagine if I couldn’t find him again. And that was really the starting point of the whole story.

DD: So was it an exercise in catharsis?
DC: You’re right. I think it is very interesting to put the player in the shoes of this character. The game allows you to question whether anything is okay to save someone you love? Would you kill someone, for example? Would you take a life? That’s an interesting question and most of us would never be confronted with it in real life, which is good news. But I think this question in the safe environment of the video game is quite interesting.

DD: Was it a concern that people without a child would not have as strong an emotional response?
DC: I really have questioned that in the writing process. I knew that parents would react very deeply to this as it would resonate with their personal experience, but I wandered whether people who didn’t have kids would react in the same way. It seems that they understand the relationship; they get into the story and they want to save their sons.

DD: What techniques did you use to draw people in?
DC: It’s most of all a writing technique. I used archetypes to create quick empathy with the player. An archetype is a character that within a couple of minutes of watching him and listening to him, you feel that you know him because you’ve seen him before and you know what kind of person he is. So you feel emotionally on board with him very quickly. Once this process is in place, the player will feel what the character feels, and this is exactly the goal.

DD: Do you see a possibility of a range of different story lines? Perhaps a comedy or horror?
DC: With Heavy Rain we never thought we were working on one story, we only felt we were working on a format; a format able to tell any story because we are inventing a new language where, though your actions, you tell the story. It’s not an experience where you’re passive, it’s really you are the teller, you are the actor, you’re the write, you’re the director.

DD: Do you mean there is a potential for other genres within Heavy Rain?
DC: There are still boundaries. There is a story and the story has a genre and it’s always the same killer. But how you experience this story can really change, you cannot make it a comedy or whatever. You can use the same language and the same interface and writing techniques that we’ve established in Heavy Rain to create a comedy or whatever. You could even do a Shakespeare adaptation, though it would be very challenging as you would need to write extra stuff that are not present in Shakespeare pieces.

PlayStation 3 releases the game 'Heavy Rain' on Feb 26. Neil LaBute's short film 'How Far Would You Go'? is available to view online from 19 Feb at: www.heavyrain.com
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