Heavy Rain and the Destruction of Traditional Game Design

September 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

[Spoiler Warning: I’d recommend you play through Heavy Rain before reading this article since I spoil quite a bit of its story in here. It’ll also be a confusing read if you haven’t played it.]

Heavy Rain by Quantic Dream is a game with lofty ambitions. “Games are immature,” it sneers, “here’s how we can grow up.” Whilst it’s certainly a noble ambition to try and move any medium forward, be it film, music, literature, or architecture, any casual observer would be forgiven for thinking David Cage’s team is going about it in the wrong way.

Instead of pushing the medium forward into its own unique space, where the specific benefits and disadvantages of the ‘ludios‘ in mind, the developers have instead employed the world of cinema as a crutch, and taken a huge step back in the process.

The theory behind this new game design philosophy seems to make sense on paper. Film, as an established medium, has already worked out how to tell a gripping story through decades of innovation. Thus, the world of film could be used as a basis for so called ‘interactive drama’ (which incidentally provides inspiration for the most pretentious trophy title ever conceived) with all the interactivity games allow roughly taped on top of it.

So let’s start with the obvious, is the story told by Heavy Rain a good one? On the whole, yes. The voice acting though a little patchy in spots is mostly pretty good, and aside from a final scene twist the overall story makes sense and flows well. Then again, the quality of the story here isn’t what’s being examined, Heavy Rain could have told a story as gripping as the Wire and still fail fundamentally as a game. In other words, a game needs to justify its existence as a game, otherwise it might as well have just been a movie.

Heavy Rain’s primary addition to the cinematic formula is that of choice, and ostensibly it seems to do a pretty good job of it. You can choose to let your clichéd loose-cannon sidekick beat the snot out of a witness, or intervene at the risk of losing his help. You can shoot a witness or choose to let him live. Within scenes there are many different options to choose from, each of which producing a specific outcome.

The problem is that with any illusion of choice in a game there a barrier that you can’t escape from. One scene early on asked me if I was willing to drive the wrong way down a highway to save Ethan’s son. I should note that he was asked, but I was tasked with answering on his behalf. Putting innocent people’s lives in danger for the sake of a poorly acted son by the request of a serial killer who had given me no guarantee that I’d actually get what I wanted wasn’t something I was willing to do, so I searched for the ‘drive away’ option. It wasn’t present.

Providing the player with choice is all well and good, but it’s also important to remember that that lack of choice is going to become that much more jarring when the player finally reaches it. I’d reached the barrier at this point, and the smoke and mirrors were revealed in all their glory.

Of course, if I was in Ethan’s exact position I would have likely acted differently. The problem therefore is that my motivations don’t match up with my character’s. The player is introduced to Ethan when his son is ten. That’s ten years of experiences that are driving him to want to save his son, but which the player was absent for, and thus cannot share.

An approach which relies upon events that have occurred outside of the experience’s runtime work in films because the audience isn’t an active participant. We may not share Luke Skywalker’s wish to explore the galaxy because we haven’t shared his boring rural existence but the film still works because we’re not the ones making his decisions. A game works differently; we need to share the hopes and dreams of our protagonist or else we can’t effectively empathise with him or her. We need to want the same things to make reaching the conclusion of the game satisfying.

A game cannot keep the audience in the dark in the same way a film can. This is made abundantly clear when we reach Heavy Rain’s climax and it transpires one of the characters was the killer all along. The audience has been playing as this person for a good few hours, and whilst in a movie this revelation would be shocking, as it reveals what he was really up to in all those scenes, in a game it’s just confusing when you’ve been making choices on the behalf of a character that you don’t know the true motivations of.

On a moment to moment gameplay level Heavy Rain can be a bit of a chore to play. The strange control scheme may make characters look more realistic in their movement, but the trade off here is that they’re awkward to control. It feels impossible at times to get in front of objects you need to interact with thanks to how characters seem unable to turn at angles any less than 90 degrees and the static camera angles the game employs don’t help matters when they’ll change without warning mid-scene.

Thankfully you never really need to control your character with much finesse because whenever the action gets the least bit intense the game turns into a giant quick-time event. These have proven to be a very divisive inclusion in past games; some love the way it allows events of a far greater scale than anything which could occur in normal gameplay, whilst others see them as reducing games down to a series of button presses, with little space left for the all important choices present in normal play. Much of Heavy Rain’s quick-time events come off as feeling very non-interactive, which only serves to add more fuel to the ‘why does this need to be a game’ bonfire.

That last sentence really sums up the crux of the problem with Heavy Rain, in that it never really justifies its status as a game. The desire to tackle a more mature subject matter is certainly a sincere one, but the game never really delivers on this in a way which makes it seem proud to be a game. It’s a movie with some rudimentary choices thrown in, but ironically because it’s so scripted you end up making far less choices than you would do in your standard Halo firefight with the added disadvantage that you’ll never get to see what would have happened if you’d taken the other option.

If video games want to move forward, then they need to do it on their own terms. They need to do things that simply aren’t possible in other mediums, to provide an experience you’re truly content playing through rather than watching or reading. The simple truth is, without the emotional presence provided by real actors, video games are never going to be able to match the visual storytelling of cinema: our princess is in another castle.

PS. Having to shake the controller at pivotal moments in the story is possibly the most immersion breaking thing I’ve ever been asked to do by a video game. It also looks ridiculous.


§ One Response to Heavy Rain and the Destruction of Traditional Game Design

  • Anonymous says:

    Some good points. I didn't dislike the game but it was indeed a bit strange to play as the killer, especially when you've made choices during the game. It became a bit awkward actually when I started to suspect that he was the killer. It felt "wrong" from a story perspective.

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