by Jason L Blair
Those who only view footage of Heavy Rain or whose button presses are laden with skepticism may well file away game developer Quantic Dream’s latest release as nothing more than a pretender to the Dragon’s Lair throne. Anyone who plays the PlayStation 3ñexclusive though will find little beyond superficial connection to Don Bluth’s old-school animation sewing kit. Where Dragon Lair‘s control prompts were little more than thread tying together sequences of canned animation, Heavy Rain differentiates itself with lots of innovative ways players control the characters, and the game controls the players in turn. In a postñGod of War world bursting at the seams with Quick Time Events and treasure chests vulnerable only to relentless button mashing, Heavy Rain‘s simple button prompt mechanics can be misleading. It is not a glorified DVD game nor is it strictly an interactive cut scene. It is a new breed of media that will, if you’re a willing subject, engage you harder than any video game ever has before. Yes, even BioShock.
But I’m not here to review Heavy Rain. I’m here to study it. As a student of story, I am interested in all forms (and most theories) of narrative, particularly the sticky in-between places where story attaches to character and character to observer or, in this game, participant.
Since Heavy Rain doesn’t belong to a video game genre with an established rulebook, David Cage and the team at Quantic Dream turned to the closest cousins they could find: the lessons learned from their 2005 outing Indigo Prophecy, and the movies. Heavy Rain borrows components from a lot of cinematic sources: You’ll find the discomforting grime of Seven, the devilish games of Saw, and a gumshoe straight out of the rain-slick streets of your favorite crime story. The game weaves all of these into a tale of loss, regret, and redemption, or selfishness, greed, and ultimate failure, or some odd mutt of a tale, depending on how you play.
While the story doesn’t seamlessly gel, and has some boggling plot holes (ìHow did they not see that?î), the game stands high on the strength of immersion and some very inventive narrative tricks. And its tricks are ones that game designers looking for new ways to fuse story and game would do well to learn from. Of all the ways Heavy Rain innovates, four areas stand out to me and lead to some interesting questions about my own work, not only in video game story development, but tabletop story game design as well.
Countless (Not Really) Possibilities
The marketers are pushing the idea that even the smallest decisions in Heavy Rain ripple through the game and alter your path. From what I’ve observed, that’s not entirely trueóbut I also don’t care that it’s not entirely true. I appreciate the effort, especially in a format where there is no fudging, no riffing, no going beyond where the story takes you. Behind the curtain of video games, you will always find code. Hard, unfeeling, if/then code and it won’t simply make things up on the fly. Still, I saw enough branches to glimpse the sprawling flowchart at the heart of this game and appreciate the effort that went into it.
You will make decisions though, including lots of minor ones, that will alter your experience so that the way things went down in your game will be different than my own. Far from open-ended, these decisions are picked from a fistful of options that seem to cover the bases when it comes to realistic responses to certain situations. However you navigate these choices, the story comes together to an impressive degree. It’s a remarkable feat.
The decisions you are given seem to fall under a handful of categories that I’ve classified based on the length of their reach: the binary, the scene-changing, the game-changing. The binary are minor choices such as brushing your teeth or not. Scene-changing decisions alter how a situation plays out in a single scene, with little to no effect on subsequent scenes. Then there are game-changing choices that will affect the options and situations that come up later in the game.
All these choices are held together by either choices that aren’t really choices (meaning they lead to the same end) or by game events with no pretense of choice. If you’re looking for them, you’ll see the cracks, but the way the story ties together is brilliant and I wonder how I can use the idea of countless (not really) possibilities in my own games, both those I design and those I run.
How can we offer non-illusory player choice that doesn’t make us scramble to accommodate it? How can we constrain player choice in a way that doesn’t feel limiting but logical?
Heavy Rain lies to you. You’re controlling characters you don’t know everything about and you’ll find out a person you’ve come to know and trust may not have deserved the gentle hand by which you guided them. And the best part, what really gets me hopping, is that you will then judge that person. You will have been them, you will have struggled on their behalf, you will have found out you were deceived, and then you will be given the gun. Do they deserve mercy? Or is there a cry for justice? Do your actions forgive what they’ve done, or condemn them?
A character’s history is often limited to the salient points on the character sheet, with their story unfolding in a single direction during play. How can we give players tools to grow the back story of characters in a manner that is not trivial?
While playing Heavy Rain, I found myself predicting the prompts, trying to find the patterns behind why I need to press R1 instead of waggle the controller to achieve a certain effect. There were instances I got pretty good at it but before I had a chance to get cocky the game would change up the pattern. And when I expected an X but the game gave me an O, it was an unkind affirmation that the underlying mechanic was not my friend. It was the gatekeeper. What I want is just beyond its uncaring and unfeeling prompts, and I have to earn my advance by inches. If I fail, I leave the fate of these actionsóand potentially the charactersóto the whims of the designers. Heavy Rain lacks a fail state. A character could die and the story would just keep on going. This was bigger than having to stare down a Continue screen for the umpteenth time. It wasn’t annoying, it was exhilarating. It kept me from becoming lax in my playing.
Gamers like to know what abilities their characters will be using to accomplish certain goals. That’s why they buff their fighting skill or spend points increasing their mana pool. They want to know which aspects of their character they need to alter if they want to affect the game in a particular way. They want to use certain methods to resolve situations and want their characters to be good in those areas.
In a tabletop game, is there a way to keep gamers from anticipating the resolution mechanics without marginalizing the character choices they have made, or making the rules arbitrary?
Perhaps Heavy Rain‘s greatest narrative strength is how control over minor actions, seemingly mundane tasks, cements the bond between player and character. By seeing characters in their downtime, their non-plot time, I fell into each character and tried to give them the best outcome possible. Their struggle became my struggle. My failure was their failure, and not in some intangible sense but in the very real world of cause and effect. I didn’t press the right buttons in the right sequence and my character paid the price. For the first time in a video game, I was invested in the well-being of the character and not solely in the accomplishment of a goal.
But because I was so invested in each character, I would turn on myself when one character would confront another. Now that I’m on the other side, controlling the mouse instead of the cat, all bets are off. Nailing the suspect to the wall was five minutes ago. In the here and now, that suspect’s gotta protect himself and he’ll do anything to make a clean getaway. All’s fair in love and shifting narrative viewpoints.
How do we go about making investment in all characters equally rewarding? What do we gain from doing so? What do we lose?
Aside from being an incredibly moving story, Heavy Rain brought to mind some important questions about how stories in video games can be told outside the typical action-cutscene-action model, or even the emerging level design-as-story tool paradigm. It questioned the assumptions video games have been coasting on for so long. On top of that, it made me consider how to incorporate those things in tabletop design. It did what I desire of anything I watch, read, or hear; it inspired me.