Last night, the Princess Anne Theater in London, UK, played host to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' annual games lecture. The guest speaker was Quantic Dream's David Cage, the man behind Heavy Rain and the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls, and his topic of choice was the oft-discussed, never-resolved question of "can games become art?"
Cage took to the stage and explained that he was there to talk about two things: firstly, how his company Quantic Dream handles interactive storytelling and the question of emotions in games, and secondly, his own vision for the future of interactive entertainment -- both where Cage believes it will go and where he feels it should go.
"When I founded [Quantic Dream] 16 years ago, it was really about creating experiences that would be about emotions in games and interactive storytelling," he explained. "It's really interesting to see how sometimes people consider that interactivity and storytelling are two things that cannot work together because they are too different, in essence."
"We talk a lot about replayability, but before replaying the game let's make sure that people play it entirely first."David Cage
Opinions vary on this note, of course; while some critics particularly enjoy experiences that are more interactive stories than traditional "games" as such, others remain unconvinced. Others still believe that there isn't one set future for games, and there's space for a variety of experiences -- a viewpoint I personally concur with.
"I was very interested, as maybe you were, to see this interview [actually a panel discussion] with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, where basically they said it cannot work; [that] it's impossible to tell a story if the player is in control.
"Actually, they said, 'you know what, it's really not Shakespeare, the kind of stories that you can get in games.' I think this is a very interesting statement from major talents. They're incredible geniuses, these people, and they've made some of the most influential movies of the recent period."
Spielberg and Lucas' thoughts echoed those of the late Roger Ebert, who famously asserted that video games can never be art back in 2010. While there's a convincing argument that the inherently chaotic nature of interactivity makes traditional storytelling difficult or impossible in the gaming medium, and that the real stories come from emergent, non-scripted narratives in experiences like Minecraft and its ilk, it is, as with so many arguments, not exactly a black-and-white issue.
"It's interesting to see that maybe they're not fully aware of what this industry is really doing," continued Cage. "Because actually we are making it; we are creating interactive storytelling. To tell you the truth, my gut feeling is that this is the most exciting evolution in storytelling since films were invented. So we would really like to get these guys on board and tell them 'look, it's not only about me and Quantic Dream; many people out there work on interactive storytelling, and you should have a look because maybe there is something interesting for you guys. There is maybe something you could be a part of."
Cage responded to the famous "it's not Shakespeare" quote by challenging Spielberg and Lucas to work with him on an interactive interpretation of Shakespeare. "It's a challenge," he said, "because you would need to write the parts that Shakespeare never wrote, and be just as good. Steven, George, let's go. Let's do it."
"We're fine setting up a story and we're pretty good at ending one. But Act 2? The part of the story where, having established the hero's problem and gotten him up a tree you throw narrative rocks at the poor schmo? That part, we're not so good at."Warren Spector
Cage believes that story is a primary factor in getting the player emotionally involved with a game -- not the only way, but an important one.
"Most people who start a game stop before the end," he said. "And actually it's only 30 per cent on average of the people starting a game who play it until the end. 30 per cent. In the case of Heavy Rain, it's about 75 per cent. Why is that? The story. The story is what makes you care about the experience, and makes you carry on. You want to know what will happen next. It's a very powerful device. So in a time where we talk a lot about replayability, which is something important in the industry, we say wait a minute, before replaying the game let's make sure that people play it entirely first. Which is, at the moment, not the case."
This is something that other creators also struggle with -- over on our sister site Gamesindustry International, for example, Deus Ex creator Warren Spector described the difficulty inherent in developing an "act 2" for people who expect anywhere between 15 and 100 hours of entertainment.
"We're fine setting up a story (Act 1)," wrote Spector. "And we're pretty good at ending one (Act 3). We do denouement well enough. Our beginnings and endings tend to be fairly linear and brief. But Act 2? The part of the story where, having established the hero's problem and gotten him up a tree you throw narrative rocks at the poor schmo? That part, we're not so good at. And we have trouble with that for one simple reason, I think: Time. No other medium is like that. Even a short game is the equivalent -- in commitment of time on the part of the user -- with the average television season."
Cage believes that there are other challenges, too.
"The first challenge is to manage to convince gamers themselves; they are really used to a certain kind of experience," he says. "For some of them, they think that a game should first and foremost be about having a gun and shooting at something. And yeah, there are some great experiences doing that very well. But at the same time there are other types of experiences, and you need to convince them that having emotion in a game can be just as exciting, as interesting as shooting at things. But in order to do this we also need to invent a new language, because interactive storytelling is something that needs to be invented."
"You want to be very creative and have a lot of imagination; but at the same time you need to be organized, structured, give consequences."David Cage
Cage acknowledges that a lot of interactive storytelling up until now has relied on the established language of film, but also notes that games have to experiment with adding new words to this language -- experiments that aren't always successful. Not only that, but games have to deal with technical constraints, ranging from virtual actors to cameras and animations -- not to mention the fact that while a typical movie has about 100 pages of script, a game with a branching plot can easily extend to 2,000 pages or more.
"What's really weird about this thing is that you want to work with your left brain," he said. "You want to be very creative and have a lot of imagination, and create these great characters and great situations. But at the same time you want to use your right brain, because you need to be organized, you need to be structured. You need to give consequences."
Cage strongly believes that it's important to start from something very simple: having something to say. With Heavy Rain, he says, he discovered that it was possible to write about something personal, rather than relying on being inspired by movies, other games and things he hadn't experienced himself. Through writing Heavy Rain, he figured that he wanted to create a story that was about having a journey rather than a challenge -- the difference between working through a number of different emotions and overcoming a series of obstacles that gradually become more difficult.
"Can we use AI to have a virtual director? A model of how Scorsese, for example, films?"David Cage
Cage went on to discuss how dealing with "virtual actors" worked, specifically with regard to things like the PS4 Sorcerer tech demo, and the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls.
"Directing actors in performance capture is a very special job," he said. "It's not like being director on a set. It's probably more challenging even than dealing with green screens. You rarely shoot an entire film in green screen; here you shoot the entire game. So the role of the director all the time is to explain what's going on, and try to recreate reality on set so the actor knows what to do. It's a very different experience for actors."
Cage notes that everyone he's worked with over the years -- be it David Bowie on Omikron: The Nomad Soul, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe on Beyond, or children and amateur actors on other projects -- has responded the same to the challenges of performance capture.
"On the first day you can read in their eyes 'what am I doing here? These people are crazy!'" he said. "That's the first day. On the second day they seem to realize 'wait a minute, I'm free. I don't know what these guys are doing but actually they don't give me any constraints. There is no camera, no lights, no marks on the floor, no wire of any kind. We don't need to take care of sound or anything, so I'm free to act."
Cage compares the art of acting for performance capture with minimalist theater, noting that many actors find themselves enjoying this sense of freedom and the fact it's essential for them to use their imagination. There are key differences, though, most notably the interactive element of things -- this necessitates not only the recording of different lines and scenes according to the choices the player makes, but also considering how the finished product will be "filmed."
"In gameplay you don't know what the player is doing," he said. "So many games just put the camera in the back of the character, but in the matter of cinematography this is not really interesting. We have developed very interesting technologies to still keep a sense of cinematography during gameplay too."
Cage went on to demonstrate Quantic Dream's in-house tool that was used to "film" both Heavy Rain and The Sorcerer. The tool allows the team to play with various virtual lenses and adjust camera angles in real-time, letting them continually experiment with the best way to frame various scenes in a way that both looks good and makes sense to the player.
It's this "filming" aspect of games that Cage believes will play an interesting role in the future of the medium.
"An idea that I've had in mind for a while is that instead of filming with a camera on your back, I'm thinking 'can we use AI to deal with the camera, and to have a virtual director?'" he pondered. "So you could probably have a model of how Scorsese, for example, films. You could probably create an algorithm that uses this type of camera, this type of framing and these kind of lenses, and these kind of movements in general. And then you could probably have a script that sends to the AI system what's going on emotionally. 'This is a very stressful sequence.' And then your AI moves to Scorsese mode.
"This R&D doesn't exist, this is pure science-fiction," he admitted. "I don't know of anyone who has done it yet. But I think it's an interesting way to solve our problem that we have when filming gameplay. In cutscenes, no problem; you saw the tool, you can do pretty much what you want. But with gameplay, you don't control where the player goes, so you need to have something procedural. That would be a very interesting solution."
"Let's talk about real people. This, for me, is the real next-gen feature."David Cage
Ultimately, Cage's personal wish is that the industry will move as a whole towards what he calls more "meaningful" experiences -- games that talk about real people and real issues.
"What is it like to have a handicap, for example?" he mused. "What is it like to be homosexual? What is it like to talk about politics; about real issues in the real world, and not just about fantasy worlds and barbarians and whatever. Let's talk about real people. This, for me, is the real next-gen feature."
Cage argues that this is a natural evolution for the medium -- as someone in his mid-40s who has been playing games since their inception, his tastes, interests and desires have changes over time. While he acknowledges that there's still a market for those who like to shoot at monsters, there are also markets made up of people like him who have different expectations from the things they choose to spend their free time doing. "If they can get an experience that is more meaningful, more emotional and more interesting, they will feel more rewarded and will be interested in the medium instead of watching TV, going to the cinema or reading a book," he said.
He's particularly keen to broaden gaming's audience and make it more accessible to others -- not by dumbing down mechanics, but by making a broader variety of emotional, meaningful experiences that will appeal to those who might not have considered picking up a controller before. And he believes that we're getting close to a point where that will become a reality now.
"We are at this point where we can stop making pantomimes to tell very simple stories, because the technology didn't allow us to do anything else," he noted, drawing comparisons to the film industry's development over time. "Now we can move to something more complex and more interesting, because the technology is there. And we can use it to say something."
Cage believes that this move will come not necessarily from the big studios who are pumping out blockbusters; instead, he draws comparisons between indie games and the "New Hollywood" movement of the '60s and '70s -- the movement that gave us notable directors such as De Palma, Scorsese and Coppola; directors who chose to do things the way they wanted rather than being beholden to studios. Cage cites titles like Gone Home, Journey, Rain and Papo and Yo as what he hopes will be "the future of games" -- our modern-day interactive equivalent of "New Hollywood."
"Big blockbusters won't disappear, and big studios won't disappear," he added. "It's just that there will hopefully be a better blend between studio productions and indie development to give more choice to the public and to the gamers in general."
Choice is very much a good thing, and it's a growing strength of the industry as it stands in 2013. Whatever you may think of Cage's titles, it's hard to disagree with his assertion that the medium as a whole can only benefit from greater freedom of expression and willingness to experiment, all brought about by continuing improvements in technology. Whether or not Cage's new title Beyond ends up being any good or not remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: he's going to continue doing things his own way, regardless of what others say he "should" be doing.
You can read the full transcript of Cage's talk on the BAFTA site.