"Why make videogames when you can make art?" David Cage asks, as I visit him at Quantic Dream headquarters on Boulevard Davout in Paris.
His delivery is plain, without pomposity. He doesn't even look at me but seems lost in thoughts about his motivations, what drives him down this difficult path, looking for new ways to tell stories with emotional complexity in a medium where the safe bet is to make another shooter.
Cage is short, unshaven, thin-haired and soft-spoken. His face is agile with eyes that dart away in response to difficult questions, probing the corners of the room for answers. No hint of showy, executive self-assertion; instead a sense of ceaseless searching.
It's a somewhat scruffy mug for a game studio CEO, but one befitting of a videogame auteur (though he shuns the "videogame" moniker, preferring "interactive drama") responsible for the offbeat 2005 effort Indigo Prophecy. At the moment, Cage commands an army of 70 employees, hard at work on his latest interactive drama. The game in progress, Heavy Rain, has already generated a lot of buzz, based only on a tech demo presented at last year's E3.
The demo, called "The Casting," is a five-minute monologue in which a young woman named Mary Smith goes from hopeful actress at an audition to wistful happiness, broken-hearted sadness, suicidal despair, lethal determination and, finally, disappointment. It's not a scene from Heavy Rain, but a showcase of the cutting-edge motion capture Quantic is using, commissioned by Sony for E3.
Facial animation has become a key feature in Sony's next-gen vision. At E3 2005, the pliable cheeks, breakable noses and rolling eyes in Fight Night Round 3 were highlights among scarce PS3 offerings. Last year "The Casting" raised eyebrows on and off screen, and since then Heavenly Sword has impressed us with cut scenes created at Peter Jackson's CGI company, Weta Digital.
And Sony is far from alone in chasing the facial animation dream. Valve keeps refining its muscular system in Episode Two, and BioWare's upcoming space opera Mass Effect relies heavily on sophisticated animation to make dialogue vibrant.
"Videogames today are about primitive emotions," Cage says. "We need to bring it to the next level, closer to theatre, literature and cinema - art forms that can convey any kind of emotion and tell any kind of story. Except, we don't only want to watch it, we want to be a part of it."
The potential rewards are threefold. Better facial animation means greater range and nuance in acting; the sheer artistic difference between Johnny Drama and Helen Mirren. Second, expressive faces make players care about characters and story, motivating us to keep playing. Third, it opens possibilities for new types of gameplay. When characters smirk, wink, wince and display facial tics, it's no longer enough to merely listen and read the HUD. You need to keep your irony detector, gaydar and bullshit gauge calibrated, and to adjust your approach depending on emotional response.
The motion capture for "The Casting" was done in Quantic's in-house studio, on the floor below Cage's office. It's an empty space with an intricate pattern on the floor and looks like a basketball court with scrambled lines. As Aurélie Brancilhon performed the role of Mary Smith on this strange stage, she was covered with reference points, about 50 markers in the face alone, for cameras lining walls and ceiling to focus on.
It's an expensive setup, but a game like Heavy Rain would be impossible to make without an internal studio, Cage says. While the details of the game are still shrouded in secrecy, he says it's a game with "no weapon - there are much more interesting things to play with than weapons," and that just shooting body movement and facial expressions takes an estimated five months. That's longer than it takes to shoot a movie.