Develop talks to David Cage about Beyond: Two Souls and wooing the mainstream

The Quantic Dreamer: David Cage

[This feature was published in the September 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Heavy Rain had a huge impact upon consumers. But do you feel it has really had the level of influence on the wider games industry that you had hoped for?
David Cage: Being influential has never been a part of my objectives. I follow my instinct and make games by passion. With Heavy Rain, I was just hoping that the game would be successful enough to let me continue explore this path. Our industry is so crowded with games based on violence that proposing an experience where characters have no gun was already a challenge by itself.

Actually, the reaction of the industry came as a surprise. Seeing many talented game creators sharing their enthusiasm for the game was a great honour. Still, today Heavy Rain is often mentioned as an influence for future titles. I was certainly not expecting anything like that. The game has not changed the industry of course, but it showed that a different approach to games was possible, and that the market was ready for that.

On that note, it seems that Quantic Dream regularly defies what we expect from video games. Why can you do it, when other developers appear afraid to?
I have always been incredibly lucky in my career to meet people who trusted me and allowed me to develop my ideas.

Since Heavy Rain, Sony has been a fantastic partner, giving the time and resources I needed to make the games I wanted, while giving me total creative freedom. I honestly don’t know what I did to be in this situation. I am someone sincerely passionate, I am a hardworking person and I always had clever and talented people working with me at Quantic Dream.

I am also stubborn enough to stick to what I believe and not change my mind every five minutes, which allowed me to keep working on emotional experiences when everybody thought it was a stupid idea. I also try to listen to people around me when they show me that I am wrong.

When you stick for so long to an idea, you have a chance that one day it pays off; if you don’t die before. I realise how lucky I am at the moment, but I am also clearly aware that this is a very fragile situation: I take so much risk with each that I can lose everything in one game. My creative freedom and my independence entirely rely on the fact that each game is successful enough. You are free as long as your games sell enough or receive some sort of critical acclaim.

Moving onto Beyond, where did the idea for that game first form?
Like many people, I have been confronted to the loss of someone in my family who passed away. This experience was a real shock, so I needed to find a way to make something positive out of it. I started thinking about life, its meaning – or lack of meaning – how we grow up, how we learn and change through the years, how we become who we are, until the day we die.

Of course, it is impossible to summarise the experience of a life in a game, but I thought it could be interesting to try to create a journey into the life of someone. I also wanted to talk about death and what’s on the other side under a different light and give my own version of what awaits us after we die. All this sounds like serious themes for a video game, but we tried to make Beyond an entertaining emotional experience with some meaningful moments.

Have you had to make any major changes or concessions to the original vision during the game’s development?
I don’t really think that way. A project is a living thing, it grows, it evolves, it finds its own voice, and this is what will ultimately make the originality and the strength of the final experience. What matters the most to me is that the original intention of the script remains intact, even if it takes a different shape or colour than what I first imagined. Usually, projects become much better than what I hoped for, just because there is this strange magic happening during development, the moment where the talent and hard work of the team make all the pieces of the puzzle finally come together.

The only real concessions that I make are for censorship. After twenty years in the industry, I still don’t understand why there are different censorship rules for video games than for films or TV. I think we still need to work to explain our medium better and be respected as any other art.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in creating the game?
To be honest, pretty much every single aspect of this game has been a massive challenge. Beyond is by far the most ambitious game created by Quantic Dream, and I feared many times during development that this time we put the bar a little too high.

We had technical challenges to address, with a completely new engine and the desire to push the PS3 as far as we could. The idea of having an entity that could fly around and go through walls forced us to think totally differently about rendering and memory optimisations. We didn’t want loading screens during scenes so everything is continuously streamed to always get the highest graphic quality with a maximum of diversity whatever the player does, in sets that are not formatted and very diverse.

The complexity and the diversity of the project have been incredible challenges too, requiring a year in shooting with 160 actors, about 50,000 unique animations, 20,000 unique camera shots. In Beyond, each second of each scene is unique in the game, which means that polishing and tuning the game required an insane amount of work.

But if I had to resume all these challenges in one word, I guess it would be ‘emotion’. My goal through the development was always that tech, production, art, acting, music, everything goes in the same direction to create the intended emotion for the player. It was definitely the most interesting part of the work.

What makes Ellen Page’s role in Beyond more significant than that actors offer other video games? Were you inspired by Andy Serkis’ involvement with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West at all?
The idea of two characters, one being a human, the other being a spirit or a ghost, is a very old idea that has been used many times before. You can think of guardian angels too, which is a very popular urban legend, and many books or films have explored this idea. I was interested in having my own approach to this theme and see what I could do with it.

What I liked about the character of Jodie Holmes was that she was really unhappy about the situation: all she wants is to be like everyone else, but the presence of this ‘thing’ always around her forces her to adapt and lead a life she doesn’t like. Aiden, the entity, is not a power or a pet, he is a character with its own personality. He can be very nice and protective to Jodie, or he can be very violent, possessive or jealous. He doesn’t understand the rules in our world, he thinks that Jodie belongs to him, which creates conflicts.

Actually, the entity is the part of Jodie she wishes she could change, the thing that prevents her from leading a normal life, the thing that she needs to accept and learns to live with. Even if most of us do not have a link with an invisible entity, we all have our Aiden, the thing in us that we need to accept because we cannot change it. This is what Beyond is about, what will hopefully make the game resonate with players by evoking themes and situations they feel familiar with.

You’ve said numerous times that casting Ellen Page was not a marketing decision. But is mass appeal and sales something you consider when you make your creative decisions?
I hope that my publisher won’t read this interview, but, no. Actually, I don’t think you can be creative if you have a marketing plan in the back of your mind. To create something, you need to trust your instinct, discover something you find unique and exciting, something that will make you work incredibly hard with a smile, something that will justify that you sacrifice three years of your life.

It has to be strong, moving, rich, surprising, it has to be something you absolutely believe in up to a point you could bet your life on it.

If you can find an idea like that, if you are sincere all the way creating it, there is a good chance that other people will feel the same about it. It may sound like a very naïve business approach, but it kept me alive in the industry for the past 16 years.

Beyond stars Hollywood actors, such as Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, and it even received an extensive showing at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. Why are you so keen to associate this project with the film industry?
I am not particularly looking for links with cinema, but I don’t refuse them when they happen. There was this opportunity to present Beyond at the Tribeca Film Festival as a part of the official selection, which was a worldwide premiere for a video game. I saw this invitation as an honour from a parent industry with which we have a lot in common.

Beyond is a story-driven experience featuring talented film actors and aiming at triggering emotions, we were very excited at the idea of showing our work on a big screen to movie fans and hear what they think. We came here with a lot of humility and respect, being absolutely conscious of the distance that separates us from films, but also proud of working on such an amazing medium.

The reception has been fantastic. There should be more opportunities for our two worlds to communicate because we have a lot in common and definitely a lot to share. People who think that video games should grow in complete isolation from the rest of the world make a mistake: we have so much to learn from films, theatre, poetry, music, literature and art in general.

We should keep our eyes and ears open and welcome all collaborations with people from the outside, because this is how we will grow and make better games in the future.

When you presented Beyond at E3 this year, showing more action-heavy sequences with Jodie in training before beginning a mission, many were quick to say that it looked much like a stereotypical war game. Was that deliberate?
All people who are familiar with my work know that I am incapable of making a stereotypical war game. There are so many developers doing that very well, but this is just something I am not interested in. The scene we presented uses the context of a conflict zone but it is not about war or shooting at enemies, but about story and emotions. I cannot talk too much about it so as not to spoil the story, but although the scene may look from far like another action game, it has more to do with Heavy Rain than with Call of Duty, as you can imagine.

Showing this scene was a very interesting experience for me at many levels: it proved how gamers are used to mechanics. When you show them a character with action mechanics, they immediately think that this is the game and that they will just get 20 levels doing the same things.

Beyond is not built that way. Each scene is completely different not just in matter of setting but also in matter of what you have to do. This action scene is for example the only one of this type in the entire game. When you want to tell the story of someone through 15 years of her life, you cannot have your character doing the same things in each scene for those 15 years.

So there is a scene where Jodie is a kid, a scene where she is homeless, a scene where she is a fugitive on the run, a scene where she is an agent in Somalia, and many other scenes, and each scene is unique and different, each scene offers a different situation and different gameplay.

Finally, you’re releasing a new IP at the end of a console cycle. Businessmen might say this is something you shouldn’t do. What makes you think otherwise?
In 16 years running Quantic Dream as a CEO, the one thing I learned is to never listen to businessmen. I remember a discussion with the president of a major publisher in the 90s telling me that PlayStation 1 would just be a trend that would die in the next six months. He thought PC was the future. We know what has happened since then. So I don’t listen to businessmen. I just trust my instinct.

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