Ok, I lied
The first twelve paragraphs are about David Cage. AKA David De Gruttola. AKA Composer-turned-game designer. AKA Founder of French developer Quantic Dream, responsible for excellent implementation of David Bowie (see: Omikron) and poor implementation of twist endings (see: all other games). AKA second only to Peter Molyneux in being a recognizable game designer that internet commenters love to hate.
Tonight, David Cage has something to say about emotions, but doesn’t he always?
The setting, however, couldn’t be more different: Cage is on stage at the SVA Theater in New York, sharing the spotlight with other actors, film directors, and famous personalities known mostly for being famous who are all in town for the Tribeca Film Festival.
And they have chosen to be here. At a videogame demo -- or, as the man who was standing behind me in line explained to his friend: “An interactive entertainment preview.” It's like CD-ROM adventure game box descriptions all over again.
In listening to nearby audience members woefully explain the concept of videogames and the utter lack of recognition when Cage took the stage, it became abundantly clear that everyone here is a starf*cker and they are just waiting until this Frenchman gets off the stage so they can undress Page and Dafoe (not in attendance, sadly) with their eyeballs and imagination.
But for now, Cage is on stage and he’s getting emotional.
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It's kind of uncomfortable. The Tribeca host who introduced Cage on the stage is now staring at the side of Cage’s face with dead eyes, like a cat high on feed who believes the kitchen wall has something very important to say about cat life. It makes me think of that wonderful Konami E3 press event. Meanwhile, the audience is staring at their answerphones, occasionally looking up to see if that guy ... yes that guy is still talking, well okay then ...
In the most long-winded way possible, Cage explains that his latest game Beyond: Two Souls is about a homeless girl on the run and a ghost buddy that helps her out. He says that but with 500 extra words about emotion, art, and thoughts on the future of videogames. I'm just kind of occupied by the press notes I was handed that proclaim him to be the creator of "story bending," an innovative technique that blurs the line between player and storyteller. Tribeca should have also included the rumor that Cage invented the internet.
The Cage may leave GDC, but the GDC may not leave the Cage.
Who is David Cage? I thought I saw him pretty clear in one moment. Actress Ellen Page, who plays the female lead in Beyond: Two Souls, commends Cage's directing in a really forced, Hollywood-nice way, like you do on a panel in front of 200+ people. Cage just stares at the ground with a goofy smile. Like a shy fat kid complemented by his piano teacher, he's so overwhelmed he can't work up the words. These are the moments Cage lives for. Moments of validation. He's a starf*cker, too, but of a different type. He wants to be a fox skin that David Lynch wears around his neck and occasionally pets.
People seem to really dislike Cage around here. It's rare a Cage-related story is posted without the majority of comments ruthlessly tearing the guy apart, staff included. I can't help but laugh at some of these comments because there is truth to them. There is also truth to something Herman Hesse said, "If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us."
Reacting to low review scores like falling on a sword, gamers can be overly emotional -- just about every topic online is met with a heated reaction. There is often a desire for validation, wanting film critics and politicians to respect and love our medium as we do. You ARE David Cage (how's that for a twist ending?)
OK, I lied again.
I'm going to talk about David Cage for five more paragraphs. But know now, starf*ckers, this is not an article about David Cage. It is about the technology, creative talent, and studio that lets Cage be Cage as he approaches a new era of MAXIMUM CAGE with Beyond: Two Souls and his upcoming PlayStation 4 title, of which we only know contains old-man tech. Hollywood olds need love too.
Despite being flown across the country, shacked up in a hotel that looks like a futuristic, glass hen house for humans with more money and escorts than they can shake their dicks at (Dear fellow at room 1908, I enjoyed the discussion you and your two female friends had at 2 A.M. about who has the “most perfect tits.” Glad you settled it. Sincerely.) and invited to a game demo disguised as a film premiere, I didn’t actually talk to David Cage. Frankly, I don't think I'm missing much.
The man has said a lot. He’s a vocal and emotional speaker who wants games to progress. Whether you agree with him on what a game is or what “progress” really means is not as important as that he is such a visible figure that you can know what he stands for at all. This is a man, after all, who recreated himself virtually so he could introduce the player to his virtual game (see: 2005’s Indigo Prophecy).
He stands up for what he believes in, sometimes against gamers and sometimes against ratings boards. I think this is a good thing.
So, really, this is an article about everything not David Cage that goes on at Quantic Dream. But, you probably shouldn't take my word for things at this point. Similar to Cage, I too like to pause the dialog so I can seek validation for my interests and hobbies. I spent $40+ on macarons: please let me know if this is agreeable, dear reader.
Dat dank motion capture tech
I’ve been thinking lately, is it David Cage’s fault that Heavy Rain kind of sucks?
Do note I say “kind of,” as I enjoyed the game. The atmosphere, quick-time events that made interacting with controller into a game of Twister, and pace of the script was a bold and refreshing approach to adapting adventure games for current consoles. Mention TellTale's Walking Dead and I'll mention its sluggish pace, gameplay at odds with storytelling (slowly investigating every area of a train for a vague magical adventure game object while in dire straits = double ugh). But like most, I was dumb-founded by the performances and finale of Heavy Rain which is where the "sucks" part comes in after the "kind of."
A better question: Is it David Cage’s fault that Beyond: Two Souls is kind of awesome?
Like any Cage-related post on Destructoid, there will be comments below saying Cage isn’t even capable of making a movie. Hey poo-brains: Cage has never attempted to make a movie.
That is known. What is unknown to most is the bizarre, convoluted performance capture setup Quantic Dream used during Heavy Rain: first, voice is recorded in a sound booth and captured alongside facial animation. Then, body animation is captured while the audio recording is playing. Finally, these two different elements are spliced together. Strangest of all, each performance is done solo. These different performances are stacked together to make a series of awkward conversations on screen. As Cage observantly points out, “All subtlety is lost.”
Beyond: Two Souls may not be a next-gen title for consumers, but it may be called a next-gen title for those working on the production. The leap in capture equipment between Heavy Rain and Beyond is significant. Quantic Dream’s new tech lets Cage be an honest-to-God director instead of some sort of magician, miraculously making the most out of amateur French actors playing Americans with stilted dialog delivered through a complicated performance capture process.
Now, Cage gets to place up to seven actors in a room that act out scenes in a tiny 20 x 20 theater where performers must wear skin-tight black suits and white balls (90+ on face alone) all over. It’s not exactly a natural setting, but neither is sitting in a make-up trailer for two hours before shooting a film.
"At first it was [distracting], you can't physically touch your face if you are crying you have to break everything up," Ellen Page said at a panel following the Beyond: Two Souls screening. "I got used to it. When you shoot a movie you need to do make-up and hair every morning; this was nice because you just put on your suit and you're done. That was actually faded away pretty quickly, but of course on the first day it's unusual."
This new capture setup lets Cage, at long last, be an actual director. Free of two-part recordings and isolated performances, Cage can now direct the flow of conversation, action, and (HOLY FUCKING SHIT SNACKS) emotion. The results are good. The performances are natural and, at times, powerful, even when the words are not.
"From a tech standpoint, we now have the ability to capture faithfully their performance and present it in real-time 3D," Quantic Dream co-CEO Guillaume de Fondaumière told me in an interview (ostensibly, the 12 minutes that I flew out to New York for -- well, that and the macaroons at Bouchon Bakery which are delicious, especially the lemon). "That wasn’t the case before. To a certain extent, why ask these terribly talented people to bring their craft to videogames if we can’t do anything? Today we can."
Can? Sure. How about should?
On why Ellen Page will probably never do a game again (it's hard work!)
Like their writer, the characters of Beyond: Two Souls are direct, vocal about their feelings, and intensely emotional. Despite a lack of subtlety in writing, Ellen Page and her surrounding cast make it work.
Color me surprised. When Heavy Rain debuted in 2010, the term "Uncanny Valley" graced many an editorial. The facial models of Heavy Rain were advanced for the time, but the crude emotional reactions created an unnerving effect -- by looking too human, these characters were suddenly freakishly non-human. Going into Beyond: Two Souls, I expected the effect to be tenfold since these are faces I know very well as a lover of film. Even Rockstar, a developer that played a key role in progressing videogame performances to where they are now, has turned against celebrity actors since the PlayStation 2 days.
"When you know the actors, it’s a little more challenging for us, the developer. I think it's still not perfect. but the more tech evolves, the more we are going to have means for faithfully representing the actors," Fondaumière said, "but only now have we reached a point -- I hope you seen it tonight -- we are not totally through the uncanny valley but we are close to it. We are through it 99-percent of the time. It’s a challenge."
It may read like hyperbole, but I agree. When watching the in-game performances side-by-side with the studio performances, it becomes clear how uncanny valley is a thing of the past. Part of this has to do with stylization, changing Page and Willem Dafoe's (getting that PS4 old man wrinkle tech may be the missing 1% that Fondaumière suggests) faces just enough so that they aren't an exact representation of them.
Rockstar used celebrity actors to bring character depth to its rough PS2 polygonal models, leaning on immediately recognizable voices and personalities. Samuel L. Jackson plays Samuel L. Jackson, even if the script says different. In contrast, Quantic Dream is bringing character depth to celebrity actors, in hopes of weaving a more believable narrative that keeps the illusion of high stakes and consequence alive throughout the adventure.
With no camera, 360 capture, no lighting, and no marks on the floor, Beyond's cast is able to enter a natural stage second only to theater.
"It takes you back to the purest form of acting. It was really wild. He guided us and we had a lot of fun together," actor Eric Winter said at the panel.
The experience is still a grueling one, Page said, due to shooting 30+ pages a day (compared to 3-to-5 on the set of upcoming indie thriller The East), memorizing a 2,000-page script, and delivering separate reactions that play on different emotions within the same recording session.
These are issues specific to games writing that have nothing to do with technology. These challenges will be here to stay. It will be interesting to see what performers are capable of rising to the tremendous task. Ellen Page may be one of the first.
Meet David Cage's dad
Before meeting Fondaumière, I didn't know what a co-CEO is. I'm still not entirely sure.
A nice way of putting it is that he runs the business while Cage runs the creative process. Another way of putting it is that he's Cage's dad. He's the one that sets Cage up on his playdates with Hollywood talent, finds the funding to let Cage be Cage, and pushes for better, new technology. Without him, Cage would still be around but he wouldn't be nearly as well known.
Also, dude's been knighted! KNIGHTED!!!
I had one question I was very anxious to ask Fondaumière: David Cage is a very visible game designer who is vocal about his feelings on design, people either hate him or love him -- are you ever concerned with how this affects business?
Fondaumière's response in full:
We talk a lot about it. He and I. It’s always difficult. On one hand, we both want to move the medium forward. I, on my side, step forward and try to move things. I had a talk last week about "Are games culture?" We both don’t want to be here just to make money. We make it for a living, but we love the medium and want to push it forward. But of course there is always a risk; by talking out loud, people start pointing fingers at you and disagreeing with you. Maybe that affects the rest of the business … you have to be careful sometimes. David has even said, 'I don’t want to speak out anymore,' but I keep pushing him. He says important things and he should continue to say them; sometimes it hurts; sometimes we may lose sales because of it, but in the long run, we are pushing certain discussions forward or at least contribute to it. I think it’s important.
Fondaumière shied away from directly discussing it, but it appears that he tries to influence development in subtle ways. Lately, he has been bringing on Hollywood talent to work at Quantic Dream, guiding Cage in developing his stories. You can read this one of two ways: Cage only can write so many 2,000-page scripts on his own or Fondaumière read the reviews of Heavy Rain. It may just be a mix of both.
"David has so many ideas that Quantic Dream doesn’t have enough resources to put all of these ideas into games," Fondaumière said. "Our job is to turn these ideas into projects. So we are trying to attract talent: script writers, directors, photographers. That’s currently what we are working on. It’s challenging but a very interesting process."
Cage is now joined by two other writers in script writing Quantic Dream's PS4 game in development. The results are "very positive" Fondaumière said, but are they positive enough to sustain Quantic Dream?
No other developer puts such a focus on narrative storytelling while pursuing expensive talent and production, which makes me wonder if Quantic Dream can survive the FPS-hungry market climate. Does Beyond: Two Souls have to sell more than Heavy Rain, in order for Quantic Dream to continue, I asked.
"If it’d sale the same, yes. It’d be sustainable business. The production budget of Beyond is comparable but a little higher than Heavy Rain," Fondaumière said.
Fondaumière said the project will be a success if it sells 2.5 million units, but he hopes it well sell more.
Evolving capture technology, Hollywood talent, an amiable business partner. These are the things that let David Cage be David Cage.
But, there is one other thing that I haven't mentioned yet: YOU, the people who buy his games, discuss his GDC talks, and listen to what he says. It's validation Cage wants and it's validation you give, even by hating him. But why not validate him and his arguments, when no one else is getting on stage? No one else is going to Tribeca or insisting on spending a chunk of its production budget on Hollywood talent.
Cage is a contradiction of sorts. He's a pioneer but not a visionary. A director but not one always concerned with game design. He is not gaming's David Lynch, because gaming's David Lynch hasn't arrived yet. David Cage has to come first, along with all the things that prop him up.
There is no red button we can slam that will prevent David Cage from being David Cage. So, let's hope MAXIMUM CAGE is a good thing.