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Heavy Rain drenched in noir

Fresh off the heels of Indigo Prophecy, French video game designer David Cage decided to take a trip from Paris to Philadelphia to scout potential locations for his next project. His team at his studio Quantic Dream arranged a tour of the city from a location scout who had worked on the Oscar-winning “Philadelphia.”

Cage had dreamed of a bright and dreamy city, teeming with people. “We’re from Europe and what we see of the U.S. is what we see in the movies. It’s shiny and full of nice-looking guys and girls,” he says.

But to his astonishment, “there were barbed wires in the middle of the street and people protecting themselves,” he says during an interview. “Abandoned factories and railways and bridges that lead nowhere.” At one point, he say, he exited his car to take a better look down a vacant street only to have a man approach “menacingly.”

There can be an inherent sadness in the streets of Philadelphia -- and Heavy Rain, the game that Cage created from the experience, which will be released at the end of this month, does feel different. Eschewing the bright lights and explosive sequences that dot many big budget titles, Heavy Rain turns the darkness that Cage saw into a backdrop for mystery about a character named the Origami Killer and a father’s journey to find his missing son. (The killer’s penchant for leaving origami figures was a nod to the end of “Blade Runner,” Cage says.) The art direction is brooding and as the title suggests, torrents of rain play a key role in dampening the mood of the game.

Cage is part of a new generation of video game makers who are tapping darkness -- both emotional and aesthetic -- as a way to tell fresh stories. Literature has Chandler, Hammett; film has David Lynch and David Fincher; television has David Chase and Matthew Weiner. And video games have David Cage, who wants to popularize a type of video game noir.

For Cage and Quantic Dream, his mid-size game studio, creating the right environment was paramount and the first thing that Christophe Brusseaux, the creative director for Heavy Rain, did when he began working in Philadelphia was create the lighting. “There’s a global color of each theme and we tried to improve the emotions by adding some specific color.” Rousseau says that he also tried to give some “humanity” to rain and to adjust it to each of the game’s four characters. “We’re much more like ‘L.A. Confidential,’ ” he says. “But with a little Humphrey Bogart.”

Video games have done an excellent job of using darkness to generate horror. Franchises such as zombie thriller Resident Evil and the gruesome Dead Space have been able to scare players by using shadows and shock sequences. But Heavy Rain does something else -- it’s less scary than it is discomforting. The pacing is slow as each of the four main characters walks, not runs, through vignettes.

In one sequence, photojournalist Madison Paige must elicit information from a suspect by seduction in the back room of a night club. Players must guide her, choosing the correct answers, as each false response means that she must remove an article of clothing. Far from lurid, the scene could find its place in the oeuvre of the Coen brothers as Madison’s exposure becomes more unsettling.

“When I designed the scene, I wanted to test players, because if you don’t feel involved, players will simply want to see her undress and won’t feel anything special,” Cage says. “But if you succeed in that sense of empathy, the last thing you want is to see her naked and that will be uncomfortable.”

As much as film is borrowing from video games ( James Cameron’s “Avatar” used technology owned by French publisher Ubisoft), the relationship works both ways. Heavy Rain was a massive undertaking for Cage and his team, who took more than four years to develop the game and worked with more than 100 different actors for the motion-capture sequences. Set designer Thierry Flamand, who worked with Jean Reno on the 2001 crime thriller “Crimson Rivers,” was tapped alongside film director Mathieu Kassovitz, who directed the game’s cinematic sequences with Cage.

Flamand says that work on the game was liberating as he was not bound to reality when creating the more than 60 different sets. Scenes could be edited with computer-generated images to fit the game’s art style. “In ‘Crimson Rivers,’ there were specific sets -- it was very dark walls and a specific atmosphere,” Flamand says. “But for the game, I was able to propose or change a little, to make things a little more exaggerated.”

A subtle approach

Cage’s interest in darker atmospheres is indicative of a wider shift among game designers. Last year, Seattle-area designer Tyler Glaiel released a free game online called Closure that’s in the running for three Independent Games Festival awards this year. In the game, you must use light to create space for your character to walk on to cross from one end of the level to the other. With its washed-out monochromatic color scheme, shakily etched protagonist and nails-on-chalkboard soundtrack, the game drew comparisons to David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” Glaiel says the comparisons are merely incidental -- at 19, he was 15 years too late to see the film when it was released and says it’s on his list of movies to see.

Glaiel was responding to something he hated about video games. “They felt cheap,” the game design student at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., says. Glaiel says that horror games, in particular, felt boring as they relied simply on shock and “emotional” games relied on the same palette of expressions. “I didn’t want to use the sadness or loneliness as emotion. Instead, I wanted fear or oppression,” he says. “Every piece of the game makes you scared, but it’s in your head, because there’s no actual danger in the game.”

Glaiel’s decision to dial back the cheap shock value for something more subtle is reflective of a maturing video game demographic. As the average age of players moves into the mid-30s, they are starting to ask for the same type of nuance they see in other mediums.

Of course, whether subtlety will sell is a big question. Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research for Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, says that while Heavy Rain poses some novel additions to the video game industry, it may not be able to find an audience.

“It’ll get great reviews and not sell well,” he predicts. “I think it’s too adult and too mature for the average teenage boy. Basically, it’s ‘The English Patient’ of games.”

Evan Wilson, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities, agrees, noting that critical acclaim doesn’t mask that many aspects of Heavy Rain are nontraditional. Wilson does note that “these genre-creating experiences open the door to much more creativity and financial opportunity for future games.”

Even the latest entrant in the Halo franchise, Halo 3: ODST, took a darker turn and used architecture to create a different mood. “We focused on noir in urban landscapes,” says Joseph Staten, creative director for ODST at Bungie, who cites “The Third Man” as inspiration. “Noir helped us set the tone for the city, especially the mist and big angular shadows on the buildings.”

Jordan Thomas, creative director at 2K Marin for BioShock 2, says that video game players are demanding things like more sophisticated lighting techniques to create the game’s mise-en-scène. Thomas channeled the latent eeriness of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 ghost story “The Woman in Black” that he saw in London’s West End for some of the art direction in BioShock 2. “BioShock 2 is more about tragedy than horror,” Thomas says.

For Cage, the mission of Heavy Rain is to widen the range of emotions that are still nascent in the industry. “In video games, we still like to have powerful characters that succeed at everything,” says Cage, in the maudlin spirit of fellow countrymen like François Truffaut. “I think there is a lot to discover in sadness and depression.”

calendar@latimes.com


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