A Short Commentary on Heavy Rain
I just finished playing through Heavy Rain (I use the term “play” loosely) and I must admit that it was one of the more pleasurable interactive experiences I have had in a while. Unlike with more traditional games – such as Fallout 3 – the reason for my feelings of joy, surprise, and excitement as I played this game did not come from an exhilirating experience provided by the intense rush of engaging the world. Niether did it come from the challenge provided by the systems of rules governing the mechanics of the text. Instead, what pleasently surprised me was the narrative.
Unlike other titles, Heavy Rain shows how videogame (I use the term videogame loosely) narratives can be relevant to, and evoke emotions from, mature audiences, how they can show a sense of aesthetics rivaling, and perhaps surpassing, that of film, and provide an engaging experience surpasing that of any other medium, including that offered by the concept of “gamification” (but that will be explored on another post). Most importantly, Heavy Rain demonstrates a very important fact that not very many scholars engagig with digital media seem to understand: videogames are not a genre, they are a medium. In other words, the “videogame” should not be compared to “the novel”, it should be compared to “the book”.
At any rate, this is not about the medium, but about Heavy Rain.
*WARNING: there are spoilers*
I have already engaged in conversations about the text with some (one) of my more intellectual friends and he stated that they were disappointed with the plot twists that the author uses in the narrative – particularly that of the villain – and argued that the title violates videogames because of the cinematic approach. He said that while he enjoyed the presentation of the title, he wasn’t sure that games have to become cinema to be appreciated for the story, and I agree. I could not agree more with him when he stated that “nobody expects movies to become videogames for respect”, which obviously leads to the possible opposite being true – nobody should expect videogames to become movies for respect.
I would like to start by addressing the bit about the characters, starting with Scott Shelby. This likable old man is introduced to the player as a detective investigating the murders of the victims killed by the Origami Killer. He was one of the two characters playable in the early demos of the game, and was often featured as the protagonist. Mixing a calm, cool personality with a bit of a temper. His empathic behavior and his dedication to the wellbeing of the victim’s families, as well as his relelntless determination to the pursuit of justice, to the point of facing one of the most powerful men in the city, make the player connect with the character. The fact that the character is an extension of the player, and the fact that the decisions made by the player hace real time effects on the life of Shelby and those around him (which, in turn, reflect back to the player in the form of possible remorse or regret) further enhance the feeling of “Scott Shelby, the good guy”. However, it turns out that Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer. When this narrative turn happens, the player experiences feelings of betrayal. This evokation of emotions is a trait of art… but I’ll talk about art in a bit… the fact about Shelby and Heavy Rain is that it forces the player to connect with the character in a deeper, more meaninful way than any other medium could. This connection is true of all characters.
By offering an evolving narrative which constantly shifts based on the player’s actions, the player becomes immersed in the narrative and in the immediate reality of the characters. Actions as small as deciding to nap under a tree instead of work, or even how long one cooks eggs, might cause a shift in the narrative. Many of these small choices could cause a shift in the narrative as radical as the choice to leave a character’s partner to drown in a car. This gives players an augmented degree of agency in the development of the narrative and gives them the ability to become co creators of the story as well as the protagonist of the story simultaneously.
As far as the cinematography of the title is concerned, the approach taken causes a split in the quality of the experience created. Although the cinematography is dull at times, specially when the player takes control of Jayden to hunt for clues, it is hard to deny that during a large part of the game the cinematography of the title rivals, and at times even surpasses, that of Hollywood. When one takes into consideration that the title was attempting to create a cinematic style emulating that of the classic Film Noir, it becomes obvious that the title does, in fact, succeed at taking the best elements of film and integrating them into an interactive narrative. The fact that the title is set on a contemporary world, however, make it – to some degree – transcend the genre of Film Noir and crosses into a kind of Neo Noir. Now, this is not to say that Heavy Rain is the final step in incorporating cinematic technologies into actual gameplay – from what I have seen of the trailers of L.A. Noir that title will take the Heavy Rain experience to a next level – but it is unquestionable that the narrative leaps that Heavy Rain makes over the hero quest romance plots traditionally related to videogame narratives are enormous steps in the right direction.
Now, as far as the cinematography of the title is concerned, I think it does a superb job of complimenting storytelling with visuals by taking it to the next level. This does not mean that videogames must be cinematic for them to have a solid narrative. Even before cinematic scenes began to be implemented in games during the PS1 era, videogames were telling deep, engaging, and meaningful stories where each character had a personal narrative just as deep. Just think back to Final Fantasy VI or Phantasy Star IV and you will see what I mean. Furthermore, when you consider titles like Portal, which integrates the story and the narrative* into the gameplay itself with groundbreaking results, and titles like Power Rangers (Sega CD) which are precursors to Heavy Rain and use a cinematic approach to attempt (and fail) to tell a story, then it becomes evident that cinematography is not needed to tell a story. However, it is an undeniable fact that Heavy Rain succeeds in using cinematography in a game experience to offer an engaging narrative that becomes all the better through interactivity. By giving the player a number of choices that lead to vastly different outcomes, the game makes the player question the self and reflect on the choices they have made. With the choices being irreversible (with the exception of starting a new game), the game allows the player to experience, and explore, the concept of regret. Will the player kill a father to obtain a clue about the son’s wereabouts? Will the player drink poison to try and save the son? Is the player willing to risk the death of two characters to save one, or will he / she leave one character to die in order to save another? All of these situations allow the player to explore the “what if”, which opens up a world of possibilities not in the game necessarily, but in the mind of the player.
That’s one example of how Heavy Rain “matures up” the genre. Could other style games do this? Sure. In Valkyria for example, if the game autosaved every time one of your squad members died in battle (instead of giving you time to re-load) it would be an incentive for the player to reflect on his actions before carrying them out and to curse at himself after loosing Vyse or Aika. I don’t know that this would be as powerful as going to the wrong location in Heavy Rain and not saving your son, but it would be a step into a direction that might or might not be the right one for that genre. And that is what gets me to the core of what I want to say: genre.
Heavy Rain is not a game: it’s interactive fiction. As much as I would love to say that all videogames are interactive fiction, I’m not some of the more hard-line pro-narrative scholars, and as much as I would like to say that all videogames have a narrative, I’m not of the school that a couple of years ago tried to give a narrative motif to Tetris. On the other hand, I’m not like many of the non-gaming media theorists who never played anything after the Great Crash of 83 and claim that all videogames are about systems of rules and can disregard narrative – a design approach that would unquestionably turn Final Fantasy into a stat-builder and Mass Effect into a standard fare over the shoulder shooter. I like to think that I understand the fact that there is a spectrum for videogames where on one side you have games like Tetris, which are all about rules without narrative, and on the other side you have Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair, which are all about [bad] narratives but have a minimalist gameplay mechanic. I know that next to Tetris you have sports games where an individual can create the narrative (using the term loosely) of the created player as part of the LA Lakers (or whatever team you favor) going to the playoffs and loosing to the Celtics (or whatever team you also like), and next to Dragon’s Lair you have Heavy Rain, where there is not just one narrative but many (hundreds perhaps) numbers of variable narratives which the player navigates through based on how he engages with the (limited) rules guiding it. Somewhere near the middle you have the Fables, Fallouts, Bioshocks, and Mass Effects (on the slightly more rules and gameplay than story driven structures) and the Final Fantasies, Ar Tonelicos, Ateliers, and Metal Gears (which are slightly more towards the narrative side of the spectrum). Sure, games do not need to become movies to be respected, but given that “games” are a medium, not a genre, (the term “videogame” is closer to “book” than to “novel”) we need to learn to appreciate what each genre brings to the table and how it makes a case for the medium as a legitimate form of expression as a whole, and I think that Heavy Rain has a lot to bring to that discussion.
* The terms “story” and “narrative” are related, but not synonimous in media studies. The term “story” is used to refer to the overall “plot” of a story that all the players share (i.e. “it’s about wondering in the wasteland doing quests, fighting the Enclave, and finding your father) while the “narrative” is more closely related to how each individual player/character uniquely experiences the world through the rules that govern it (i.e. “go outside, blow up the town, shoot the sherif, rescue dad”). If you ask me it’s a distinction we could do without (we should just have two different “narratives”, as the term “story” is misleading), but I’ll make that argument (maybe) in some other post.