This is the second interview with David Cage in a series. Read the first interview here.
Kevin Ohannessian: I read that you had your own incident with your son in the mall, and that inspired the beginning of the game.
David Cage: I was in a mall on a Saturday afternoon–it was a very crowded mall. My son was 5 years old. I thought he was with my wife, my wife thought he was with me, and when we met again we realized he wasn’t with either of us. For the next 10 minutes, it was a total state of panic and fear–it’s impossible to describe what goes through your mind in this situation. You wonder what will happen, if you won’t find him again, if that was the last time you saw him. And you feel horribly responsible for what happens, and you feel guilty. And if something bad happens to him, you will never recover. Fortunately, after 10 minutes someone said over the speakers, “Your son is waiting for you at the desk.” It was really something to see him again, and you suddenly realize how scared you were. The starting point of Heavy Rain is, what would’ve happened if I didn’t find my son again. I just wanted to write the story of Ethan, and beyond that, question what it means to love your son, which is very different from the love you can feel for your girlfriend, for your brother. It’s a very specific type of love, the one you have for your kids.
Were there inspirations behind any of the other scenes? Behind the trials?
With Ethan, it became quite obvious. Once you ask, “How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?” you need to think of everything you are prepared to sacrifice for someone. Someone says in the game, “What is love if it isn’t sacrifice?” I fully agree. You only know how much you love someone if you know how much you are prepared to sacrifice for him or her. This is the question that I thought for the killer to ask Ethan, or even for Ethan to ask himself. So, the first trial is just, “Are you ready to take risks?” The answer could be yes, could be no. Then, “Are you prepared to endure pain?”–which is the second trial. “Are you prepared to sacrifice a part of yourself?” Then, “Are you prepared to kill someone?”–which is a very difficult moral choice; is taking a life okay to save the life of someone you love? And the last one, “Are you prepared to give your life to save someone you love?” I thought these were very difficult questions to answer and I was very curious to see how players would react to them.
Speaking of the last trial, the reveal that the poison was harmless was interesting. What was the decision behind that? What did that reflect on Scott Shelby?
I don’t know what story you got, but did you see the version where he saves his son and died? That was the initial version. I wanted a sad ending, because for me the story of Ethan was one of redemption, and in a Christian way. You can only find redemption by giving away your life. I was also interested in the emotional rollercoaster, to be honest–you take the poison and you firmly believe you just sacrificed your character and that he’s going to die. And then you go save his son and feel relief–but at the same time, he looks at the watch, and you know that he’s going to die. But you know what? He doesn’t die. So you feel up again. And depending on the story, he can leave and be killed by Blake, and then you feel down again. I thought that was so powerful, just to go through these moments and feel relieved, and feel stressed, and feel depressed, and feel relieved again, and finally get the ending. It was exactly what I wanted to explore with this game.
Why did you make one of the protagonists the killer? Was that always the plan, or did that come about organically?
As far as I remember, Shelby was always the killer. I felt it was a great twist, especially since I tried to build this character, not to be this super nice guy, but to be this tough guy with a really human side–he can be very nice and help people, but at the same time be violent and feel anger. He looks real. I always felt that the player would really like him from the beginning. It was such an interesting twist for me to create empathy for a character and then to tell you after 10 hours, “You know what? This character that you really like? He is the killer. All you did playing with him, was just collecting clues and lying to these people, just to enjoy the pain of these parents.” It was very interesting that the player could read what he has done in the story in a totally different way. When you initially play as Shelby, not knowing he is the killer, you play really generally and you just discover things. But by the time you discover he’s the killer, you realize, everything you’ve done has a very different meaning. I was very excited by that, although I wasn’t the first one to do it.
Besides Shelby, Madison also has a hidden identity. What was the decision behind her hiding that she is a journalist?
With Madison it was a different story. All these characters, the question they are asked, is, “How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?” It’s obvious with Ethan, it’s really his plot. At the same time, it becomes Madison’s story. He starts to fall in love with Ethan and she cannot tell him the truth. And it’s the question to her, “How far are you prepared to go to save Ethan–and to keep Ethan?” With Shelby, it’s the same story–how far is he prepared to go to save his brother, in a way. I was also really interested to explore what it means to tell the truth, to lie–to lie to yourself, to lie to others. When you really love someone you try to tell the truth.
Except for Ethan’s glimpse of marriage in the beginning, no one really has a good relationship in the game. Norman doesn’t seem to have everyone, Scott has an unusual relation with Lauren.
It’s true, but honestly it wasn’t really a conscious decision. It really came in the writing to have only broken characters–they’re all broken for very different reasons, but you can tell that something happened to them. With Ethan it’s obvious, because you play what happened to him. But something happened to all of them in the past, something that broke them. And all of these characters take this opportunity with this investigation, this possibility to save this kid, to find redemption in one way or another.
The story is very customizable to the player. Why did you embrace the idea of a non-linear story?
I really enjoy the idea that there is not one story. There are parts of the story that I really like, the very pessimistic endings, because it’s my vision of the story. But at the same time, I am really glad that there is a possibility that Ethan ends up happy and saves his son, and has a new life, maybe with Madison, depending on how you play. I like this idea that Shelby can be killed by Ethan or he can be killed by Lauren. I like the fact that there are many possibilities, because I think this is what life is about. No one knows what can happen to me based on different decisions I make, and no one will ever be able to tell me what would have happened if I behaved or said something in a different way. And I think in this sense, Heavy Rain is very close to real life, much more than a movie where you can only know one possibility. In Heavy Rain you really feel like you have the choice, and what happens to you depends on you.
The game leaves a lot of unanswered questions: What happened in Madison’s past to give her the insomnia? What happened to Lauren’s husband? And the one epilogue implied there is a new nemesis for Madison. Are these things going to be covered in the DLC (downloadable content)? Or a sequel?
There won’t be a sequel, just because I said everything I wanted to say in Heavy Rain. I am happy to spend more time with these characters, to give more clues about where they come from, why they are broken that way, and what happened to them before. But part of this will depend on the success of Heavy Rain. The first Heavy Rain Chronicles DLC is a little bit special, it’s called “The Taxidermist”–it’s the only Chronicle that doesn’t really relate to the backgrounds of the characters. It’s just a short story of something that happened to Madison. I would definitely like to explain the background of these characters, and why they are who they are at the beginning of the game. I wrote all the back stories at the time I was writing Heavy Rain, because I needed to know who they were, where they came from, just to know who they would react.
A few years ago when Mass Effect 1 came out here in America there was a backlash over the mature content; are you worried about something similar happening with Heavy Rain?
No, honestly. I think this is a very positive story. It’s really all about love and redemption and sacrifice; these are very positive values. “How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?”–this is a very positive question. So no, I don’t expect any backlash. I think people will get it.