Tug Your God Out

Dwell into the pasttime of empowerment; video games

My “problems” with Heavy Rain

I’d like to start off with a disclaimer.  I don’t hate Heavy Rain. I don’t want to hate any game and I certainly don’t want to hate a game I spent nearly two years constantly putting atop all of my most anticipated lists. I certainly don’t wish death upon this genre (as I love this genre even though it gets little love over in the West) or David Cage or anyone who actually liked Heavy  Rain (my hate for Heavy Rain lover Scott Davis stems from other reasons, contrary to popular belief.)  In fact there’s quite a bit I did like about Heavy Rain that I would love to see more of.  Quantic Dream is probably the only studio to get Quick-Time Events (QTEs) right.  Sure, they’re somewhat tolerable in God of War and Heavenly Sword, but no one quite does them the same way.  Heavy Rain’s action sequences, even after you realize that your input has little effect on the outcome, are still some of the most tense moments in gaming so far this year. The chase sequence with Ethan is definitely going down in my favorite moments of 2010.

No, Heavy Rain is fun when it tries to act like a video game and not a DVD that gets stuck on pause every 6 or 7 seconds. What Heavy Rain does “wrong” isn’t exactly wrong perse, it’s actually a problem inherent to the nature of video games in general and one David Cage can’t escape no matter how many times he claims Heavy Rain is more an interactive movie than it is a game.

And this is where I start to have problems with Heavy Rain.  David Cage wants Heavy Rain to be a movie which works because of an author’s control.  For a movie someone has to sit down and write a script featuring character arcs and (hopefully) consistent characters that grow.  But video games rely on another source for authority and that comes from player choice.  Without player choice a game is simply not a game.

Yet games, by their very nature, have difficulty striking a balance between the intrinsic narrative and the extrinsic narrative.  Take Grand Theft Auto 4 for example.  You have the Nico Bellic in the main narrative Rock Star has created.  This Nico claims he’s come to America for a clean start and he wants to leave his old life of killing behind.  He is for the most part a pretty solid, interesting and conflicted character as he has this inability to let one part of his past go; one that Rock Star can tell a pretty powerful story with.  However there’s also the Nico Bellic in the narrative that you, the player, controls.  It’s the Nico Belic that stabs a guy in the neck and beats up old ladies the minute you have control of him; the minute the game switches between the two narratives.   Your Nico is the one that takes time away from his “search” (as not to spoil anything) to go bowling with Kate and hang out at the tittie bars with Roman. Of course GTA4 allows you to skip all of those things and I believe (I haven’t confirmed this) you can finish the game without killing anyone at all, there just seems to be a disconnect between the two Nicos when you’re allowed to do whatever you please. 

Think about it in any game you’re given control.  Everyone tries and breaks the game.  You attempt to kill important NPCs.  You attempt to go places you’re not supposed to go.  You do every trick in the book to see what bases the programmers didn’t cover.  Raise your hand if you really sat and listened to anything anyone said in Half-Life 2.  You you were off looking around the room, jumping on shit, and maybe even trying to shoot whomever was talking. Very few of us ever play a role straight up.

Heavy Rain has these very realised characters in Ethan Mars, Madison Paige, Scott Shelby, and Norman Jayden.  The narrative arc Quantic Dream sets up for them is fascinating.  But then you introduce player agency.  Yes, you can roleplay these characters (although even doing that it’ll fall apart as we’ll see when we get to Scott Shelby) to a T but you’re a gamer first, and a performer second.  I’d say typically 99% of us gamers want to see as much of the game on the first go as possible.  We want to grab all the achievements/trophies in one go through.  Even if we don’t consciously set out to do so, I think it colors our thinking enough to effect OUR choices.  But the problem is the choices become ours, not the characters.

During the Trials the Origami Killer puts Ethan through to see how far he’s willing to go to save Shaun, to see if he is the perfect father, Ethan has to kill a man, overcome severe physical pain, cut off a portion of his own body, and lastly drink poison.  The first problem arises when you get to the poison.  Usually drinking poison kills you and this poison will kill you in sixty minutes.  Of course later (or if you’re thinking outside of the narrative) you realise this is nothing more than a Trial of Faith and the posion doesn’t kill Ethan, but in that moment before making the choice you come to a dilemma. You want to see the best ending and receive that nice Four Heroes trophy, right?  You know that everyone’s been making a huge deal about how characters can die during the story because of choices YOU make.   Well here’s a choice that YOU, not Ethan Mars, is making. Does Ethan drink the poison? Oh, shit. If he does, there goes my perfect ending and my Four Heroes. There goes being able to see that portion of the story. If I don’t, am I being true to Ethan Mars? This man will do anything to save his son. You however will do anything to save Ethan Mars.

Ethan will kill another man to save his son, but won’t sacrifice himself to ensure Shaun’s survival.  Would you accept this character as believable?

And of course, he’ll do anything to save his son even if it means having sex with Madison. Wait, what? Back at the motel he reiterates to Madison that the only thing that matters is saving Shaun.  And  I think Ethan’s pretty goddamn serious about that — I mean he did just kill a man, cut off his finger, and drank poison all for Shaun. The character of Madison WANTS to have sex with Ethan and goes in for the kiss despite the fact that Ethan only wants to save Shaun. Shaun is drowning and every second counts. But you get the choice.  And of course what are gamers going to do?  Who didn’t choose to let Madison kiss Ethan and then go through the awkward sex scene.  Thank God for Dragon Age: Origins or this would be the creepiest moment in gaming.  But great, you let Madison and Ethan have sex.  You’ve now created an Ethan Mars who’s willing to kill a man, mutilate his body, and drink poison to save Shaun, but is also willing to, when time is of the essence to sleep with a journalist. 

You’ve created an inconsistent character and an inconsistent story. Is it a bad story? Maybe not so, but ok — say you didn’t let them have sex. You refuted Madison’s first kiss and kept the roles in tact and the integrity of the story. Good job — you just pushed play on the DVD remote essentially.  This was the way things were supposed to play out in the movie.  Your choice, if you choose the “right” one, renders you as the player useless. Seriously, why are you even there with the controller in your hand? Why aren’t we just watching this on a DVD?

Is it fair to criticize Heavy Rain for this? I don’t know, but it just seems bad that you have two choices and one results in a ruining of the characters and narrative while the other results in the movie going on as normal.  It’s perhaps a problem the medium never will be able to overcome.  Striking a balance between narrative control and gameplay control is, at this point, nearly impossible.  They’re two competing forces where one has to be sacrificed for the other.

If you look at other interactive fiction games, Heavy Rain tries to interject too much player control for it to work.  Games like Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and the Professor Layton series present fully realised characters and let you come along on THEIR journey.  You do make choices and solve the puzzles (gameplay) but that is for the most part kept entirely separate from the narrative.  You can interchange almost any puzzle within the narrative of a Professor Layton game for another puzzle and it would still work the same.  But you play Professor Layton not only for the puzzles but for the characters and their journey even if you are just a bystander in the overall action. A contentious third-party to it all.

But even if the puzzles are too frustrating or on another hand too boring, at least the narrative is interesting enough to pull you through the gameplay lulls (although I’m sure some may debate me that Trace Memory is interesting enough to do this.) As mentioned earlier I love Heavy Rain’s action sequences but there are huge enough gaps between each sequence where the gameplay really does nothing.  It really does amount to a DVD menu at times, requiring you to push play (or X….or twist your hands in knots hitting X, triangle, L1 and R2 or something) to move forward with the narrative part. At least in other games where you can break the intrinsic narrative, there’s something to at least motivate you.  Many people criticize RPGs like Final Fantasy for this.  If your main goal is to save the world and you know where the hell Sephiroth is, isn’t it out of character to go race chocobos at the Golden Saucer or partake in that insane side-quest for Knights of the Round when you should be going straight to that cave to kick some ass?  At least the Golden Saucer and the Knights side-quest offer some sort of reward be it a tangible weapon or an enjoyable (if only nonsensical) diversion.  Heavy Rain offers little beyond some QTEs.

Is the narrative interesting enough to overcome the slights in gameplay?  Even with some major plot holes Heavy Rain works in keeping you interested, entertained and pushing forward until the revelation of who the Origami Killer is.  And it all falls apart from there on out.

Scott Shelby.  He’s revealed as the Origami Killer in the end, yet you’ve been controlling Shelby throughout portions of the fiction. Clever, in an M. Night Shamalyan kind of way I guess.  Although in teasing several times that Ethan is the Origami Killer, Ethan even outright announces that HE IS THE ORIGAMI KILLER,  you pretty much scream out that the Origami Killer has to be one of the playable characters and that all the over-the-top would-be Origami killers are just red herrings.

Much like what Shamalyan attempts to achieve with his twists is what Quantic Dream was going for.  They wanted you to go ‘What the Hell’ and then go ‘CLEVER! SUBVERSION BE DAMN! I HAVE GUIDED THE ORIGAMI KILLER ALL THIS TIME!”  I guess then, by extension YOU are the Origami Killer, and as cheesy as it is would work if it made any sense. To accept Shelby as the Origami Killer you have to ignore almost everything about the Shelby sections. 

Not to address Mike from the comments to directly, but you’ve claimed that Heavy Rain’s story is arbitrarily better than 97% of games to come out in the last five years.  I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed Gears of War or how prior to Gears of War it was ok for a video game to have a bad story.  Then magically reviews of Gears of War came out and slagged the story as a negative.  Certainly stories and narrative technique has become increasingly important in video games in the past five years but rarely do I feel as lied to in those other 97% than I do in Heavy Rain.  Final Fantasy games very much have inane plots, grandiose in scale, but rarely are they dishonest within their own context.

We’ll branch off to some other points but the main problem with dishonesty and Scott Shelby is the ability, while playing as him, to see his thoughts with just a quick press of a shoulder button.  If Shelby is going around years later destroying evidence, you’d believe that to be on his mind wouldn’t you?  I’m not actually sure how a serial killer’s mind works but you’d assume being a child murderer would be in his thoughts at some point.  Actually you’d think that would probably be in the forefront on his mind. It’s not like a inconsequential thing he does like driving to work. It’s more like a goddamn hobby of his.

Ok, sure he’s masquerading as a detective trying to catch the Origami Killer, but even if he’s playing that role on the outside why is he playing it on the inside of his head too?  I know actors occasionally go bat-shit insane with method acting; if you’ve ever seen Tropic Thunder Robert Downey Jr.’s character is a silly exaggeration of this, but to say Shelby’s gone to great lengths enough to become a detective in his own mind you’re, for one, stretching and for two, ignoring the fact that he’s hidden Shaun inside a drain pipe during this time. He’s not switching the character off only when conveniently when you’re watching his thoughts.  If this were the case then the only explanation we’re left with is a break in the fourth wall and Shelby knows he’s in a video game. 

True Heavy Rain does break that wall all the time, but only for the sake of gameplay.  Big white Dual Shock controller prompts over the enviroment aside, there’s nothing that breaks the narrative fourth wall within Heavy Rain. So there’s no precedence in which we can even jump to the conclusion that Shelby is a self-aware video game character.

The man’s a serial killer, a child murderer, but throughout the narrative he feels compassion for his fellow human beings.  If you search through the Encyclopedia of Serial Killers one common thread you might find in nearly every case (dare I say all of them) is the complete inability to sympathize or feel for another human being.  They have some sort of mental disconnect in their interactions with other people.  Generally, they don’t see people as people.  Yet he very much sees Lauren as another person. He even puts his life and body on the line to help her out.

This is the mother of one of the children he killed.  Does that ever show up in his thoughts?  Isn’t he the least bit worried about being there?  He killed her son but feels for her?  He even has his chance to be rid of her and chooses (the character, not the player) to bring her back and in a touching moment give her his coat. He has a chance to be rid of Mrs. Bowles, another woman’s life he destroyed, yet rather than just let the suicide note be, he hurries off to save her.  You’d think if his goal was to eliminate eidence then letting Mrs. Bowles die would be in part of that goal. With no more Bowles, he would be able to search her trailer without interference.

Yes it’s hard to rationalize a serial killer but how do you really rationalize a serial killer that draws a moral line against suicide but also has drawn a line where it’s ok to kill children? Honestly, if you’ve drawn the line that it’s ok to kill children, nothing is beyond your rehensible reach.  The only thing worse is if he raped the children before drowning them.

Just honestly go back through the game colored with the information that Shelby is the Origami Killer. No matter what you do during your play through that fact never changes.  Listen to Shelby’s thoughts on everything.  Watch what he does.  Would the murderer really do these things if he was attempting to get away with it?  Would he really refer to Shaun as the kid that “disappeared” when he knows exactly where Shaun is located.  Would he really lament for the end of the rain?  After all the rain is his modus operandi.  There’s several other cases where he speculates on what, if he was the murderer, should have already known.  I’ve leaving out a boatload of other examples, but we’ll gladly form a list if anyone so demands, but once the conflicting dialog starts adding up, it just becomes ridiculous.

The game has to ignore all of Shelby’s thoughts and actions for the reveal to work.  And when it starts to ignore all of this it becomes dishonest.  It lies to you all for the sake of a big twist. It’ll ignore portions of the plot just to make you smack your forehead and proclaim David Cage and Quantic Dream geniuses. Did it need a big shocking ending?  Maybe for some but what it had going was great.  I was willing to overlooking some of the gaps in gameplay because the story was interesting and thrilling, but the moment the game decided to say ‘LOOK WHAT WE DID HERE’ and ignored all the interesting and thrilling parts I felt cheated.  I would have easily believed any of the red herring over-the-top characters if they had plausibly been the killer.  But Shelby as the killer just doesn’t feel plausible in the least.  It feels like cheap subversion.  I didn’t need a twist, I needed an ending that at least worked with what came before it. And even then with a little more work, the twist could have been splendid.  Some people feel that Indigo Prophecy’s ending sucked but at least it worked, as crazy as it was.

Should we fault Heavy Rain for the dissonance between player controled narrative and authorial narrative? Probably, although it’s a bit interesting that they at least attempted to offer both when the previous way was to completely separate player control and narrative.  But at least that way worked.  Gamers and reviewers seem to be giving Heavy Rain points for effort on this part, but why does Heavy Rain get a free pass? Why should it get a 10 out of 10 or even a 9 out of 10 if it doesn’t work?  It’s a nice step forward only potentially.  Now someone else has got to come along and take what they’ve done and make it work.  While I believe making it work is nearly impossible, that’s why I’m not making money by making games. That’s the job of game developers to go and make this work, or at least make it less noticable.

Still if its broke, how does it achieve a perfect score on effort alone?  This isn’t a kindergarten coloring project where not being able to color inside the lines is no big deal.  It’s a troubling thought indeed in this industry where Metacritic review scores are considered the infallible barometer by publishers and market analysts.

And then should Heavy Rain be faulted for being dishonest in narrative? You’re goddamn right it should.  During all of the hype and promotion for Heavy Rain, David Cage blurted out that he doesn’t think Heavy Rain should be judged as a game. It should be judged as a movie.  Sorry, but video games have a long way to catch up to legitimate movies if this is the best you’re going to come up with. And if this is being lauded as the best that video games has to offer with the 9s and 10s — then i think we’re just proving how far behind we are as a medium.

Again I don’t hate Heavy Rain. I really don’t.  Most everything before the twist was fairly well done and it’s an important step for the medium, but all I’m saying is this is only the first step. Let’s not act like we landed on the moon or that we’re High Art yet.  I’m not saying video games never will become High Art, or important pieces of art, but let’s not act like Heavy Rain is a tour de force that competes with a Nabokov novel or Bergmann film.  They’re very much still a commercial, pulp medium more align with the Nick Carter detective stories or a Michael Bay film. Getting rid of player choice would help immensely, however then what you’ve just made isn’t inherently a game. 

Where I don’t like Heavy Rain is how transparent it makes the disconnect between the player’s narrative and these characters who aren’t blank slates.  Ethan Mars has already been colored in before you ever pick up the controller, yet you get to make his decisions.  I’m not sure if the solution is just to make every video game character a blank slate, tabula rasa or a silent, passive character that we then project our own thoughts upon, but again it at least works for the most part.  It seems like the only way to have pre-drawn characters is to completely separate narrative and gameplay.  It not only works in Professor Layton but let’s also not forget it works in other genres like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  It was the universal choice for Game of the Year and it featured pre-drawn characters in a linear plot. You controlled Nathan Drake in getting from point A to point B of the plot but everything else was handled by the intrinsic Nathan Drake once you got to your destination.  You had no control or choice over how things unfolded.  But again, the gameplay portions were compelling enough and the story drove you to continue further.

I think Heavy Rain would have worked had it not screwed up the story with its twist and if the game play at least was entertaining all the way through.  The narrative disconnect would have been easy to overlook. But yes, congrats for at least trying to mix the narrative up.  In all honesty neither of the above solutions are all that desirable even if they do work, but again — let’s not just give them points for trying.  What score do we give the game that gets it right and makes it work? An 11? A 12? Do we then demand the Spike Video Game Awards to be as serious as the Oscars?

I guess Mike, in a way you’re right — it is definitely a game to discuss and makes us break apart the medium much on the same level as Uncharted 2 back in September did (to which Dave may comment on as he’s one of the people who was privy to my “dissertation” of Uncharted 2) and certainly those games don’t come around that often.  I enjoyed the majority of it and I think there’s a lot of good things here to build upon and I hope someone builds upon them, but I just think it’s fundamentally broken in both gameplay and narrative and I can’t see given something that messes up both a passing grade.

Also I can’t leave without pointing out a lot of this is spurred on by two articles from Destructoid written by Jim Sterling and Anthony Burch.  I don’t usually agree with Sterling on a lot of things and I don’t agree with all of his thoughts on Heavy Rain, but I agree with enough of it to use it as enough of a jumping board that I have to at least mention I’m taking off of his article. Burch’s article is fascinating but my problems player driven narrative dates back long before reading that article, which actually was published after I had completed Heavy Rain. Same with the Sterling article.

Sterling’s article “How Heavy Rain has lowered the bar for game narrative” and Burch’s “Why Heavy Rain Proves Ebert Right.”  Also fun is GamesRadar.com’s 15 Big Plot Holes in Heavy Rain.

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03/30/2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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