February 24, 2010
Note: storytelling is paramount in Heavy Rain, so I've purposely limited my descriptions to its prologue. You can read without fear of spoilers.
I am the target audience for Heavy Rain. I'm a devoted gamer hungry for something different. I'm a father who has begged for games that address me and my concerns. I'm a theater artist who wants more expressive characters and complex stories. I'm the guy who's tired of saving the world, and I'm sick of guns.
Heavy Rain addresses all those concerns. Why, then, does it leave me feeling so cold?
Creator David Cage has said "Heavy Rain is not a videogame..." and he's mostly right. The first trophy the game awards is called "Interactive Drama," which suggests how Cage and his team at Quantic Dreams see this game from the player's perspective.
The problem with this description is that Heavy Rain's interactive elements intercept the drama that might have emerged from the player's experience inside the story. Ironically, the game that doesn't want to be a game is sabotaged by its "game-ness."
Heavy Rain fails as interactive drama because my interactions have almost no dramatic dimension. Heavy Rain mistakes player input prompts for agency. It assumes calibrated control over an avatar's movements produces a stronger connection between player and character, when in fact it produces the opposite effect. Ultimately, playing marionette with an on-screen character distances me from the inner life of that character and forces me to focus on activities that have very little to do with drama.
Heavy Rain situates a system between the player and the game that heavily mediates the player's experience. Such systems exist in every video game, but the trajectory in narrative game design has been toward system/interface invisibility, with games like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 erasing (or seeming to erase), the lines separating player from in-game experience.
Heavy Rain adopts an opposite approach, persistently interjecting on-screen prompts, timed or sequential button presses, and other "do this now" commands that repeatedly remind the player he or she is playing a game. What's more, the gamepad itself functions as a recurring object of player awareness, with on-screen indicators to tilt or shake the device precisely as the game requires.
I don't object to games making me aware of their 'game-ness' (nod to Mr. Suda), but Heavy Rain is at cross-purposes with itself in this regard. It wants to immerse me in a realistic, character-driven story with detailed environments and atmospherics; but it also wants me to remain outside that experience, ever-vigilant for the next quick-response button-press.
The game insists that I focus, even for mundane activities like carrying groceries, on carefully following directions delivered to me visually on-screen. The simple act of carrying groceries is subsumed by the mechanical procedure of executing a series of prompts for no apparent reason. This, for me, is the primary disconnect in Heavy Rain. My mechanical game-directed actions don't amplify or add meaning to the in-game behaviors they execute. They don't pull me in; they keep me out.
And so the game manages to reverse the player/avatar relationship. In Heavy Rain, I'm the object manipulated and the game plays me. While I can imagine a game leveraging this role-reversal in exciting ways (Eternal Darkness comes to mind), Heavy Rain does little with it that feels meaningful. My job is to press the right buttons when I'm told and occasionally respond to a palette of choices I'm given. After I respond, the game delivers me to the next situation where I will be precisely instructed how to proceed. The game treats me like a trained monkey.
Confoundingly, I'm given control over exactly how slowly I wish to open a door or flush a toilet, but my decision to take a shower triggers a cutscene in which I watch the character shower...followed by motion control prompts to dry his hair with a towel. It all feels arbitrary. Characters reveal their thoughts when I pull the L2 trigger (e.g. "Should I work or tend the garden?"). But when I'm prompted to pick up a wedding photo and look at it, he has no thoughts at all. The game cuts to a closeup of his face and a small smile appears, but nothing more. Why? Once I've returned that photo to its place, I'm unable to pick it up again. Why?
I want to explore the rest of the house, but when I attempt to descend the stairs, the game cuts to a shot of the character's face, and I hear him say "I'd better take a shower and get dressed before I go downstairs." Why am I free to impose my choices on this character by exploring his environment in an un-timed fashion, but only upstairs?
Such constraints permeate the experience of playing Heavy Rain, and when the stakes are raised later in the game, they feel especially confining. The game is at odds with itself from beginning to end. It persistently reminds me that neither I nor my avatar possess consequential autonomy. In Heavy Rain, the game itself controls the game, and that doesn't feel much like interactive drama to me.