Brainy Gamer Podcast - GDC '11 audio diary 1
Pulling their weight

Rollercoaster bias


David Cage says Heavy Rain succeeds where other narrative games fail because it delivers an "emotional, story-driven, and meaningful experience for adults." Cage made his case in a talk at GDC entitled "Creating an Emotional Rollercoaster in Heavy Rain."

Before I get to the substance of Cage's talk, a little disclosure is probably in order. I didn't like Heavy Rain, and I'm dubious about many of Cage's claims about his game. I entered his talk skeptical and exited unconvinced. Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by his ideas about game design, and some of his assertions are undeniable. Cage makes a strong case for why so many narrative games leave us feeling cold and a little embarrassed. As a designer, he's shooting for something richer and more mature, and he's a passionate advocate for games aimed at adults.

The bias problem
David Cage is certain. He knows what he knows, and his proof is in the pudding Quantic Dream cooked up for us with Heavy Rain. Cage wants to deliver hard truths to a room full of designers invested in the future of narrative games, but his vision is impaired by three limiting biases:

  • Selection bias - Cage uses his own work as proof of his theories, so all the evidence for the validity of his claims traces back to Heavy Rain. The other games Cage cited in his presentation were used as foils against which the superiority of Heavy Rain could be seen.

  • Measurement bias - Cage measures his data toward an expected outcome. He doesn't account for alternative or negative responses to the game, so the measurement tools he relies on - "critical acclaim," "commercial success," and "industry accolades" - skew his conclusions toward his desired results.

  • Experimenter bias - Cage wants to prove that his own work points the way forward as game design, and he relies on qualitative evidence, which is not a problem per se. Bias is introduced when the experimenter fails to account for the variability inevitable in qualitative research. The experimenter must show that he understands this and has done his best to lessen its impact or account for it in his conclusions. Cage doesn't do this. Heavy Rain succeeds because he says it does.

Having noted these biases, Cage's ideas still deserve a hearing. In a nutshell, here's what he said:

Heavy Rain is purposely different from games aimed primarily at teenagers and based on violence. Cage noted that even ostensibly 'mature' games put the player in the shoes of a good guy, who then proceeds as a mass murderer through the game. Furthermore, according to Cage, most games rely on over-familiar, repetitive mechanics. "We've based games on the same handful of paradigms for 30 years. ...How much meaning can there be if all we can do is shoot people and jump on platforms?"

Technology, says Cage, has progressed much faster than the concepts behind games. Heavy Rain was an effort to be more ambitious, and Cage outlined four primary goals the game tried to achieve:

  • Feature adult themes and tone
  • Tell a meaningful story
  • Offer varied interactions
  • Experiment with new paradigms.

"It's about freeing my players from the interface," Cage noted. Heavy Rain was designed to keep the player inside the game and develop an empathic relationship to its characters. To achieve this, Cage wanted to steer players away from experiential tropes like competition, aggression, and win/lose. He also wanted to avoid cutscenes. "The player should play the story. I didn't want to make a game that the player would watch. ...I wanted the player to be the actor, the co-director, and the co-writer of the game."

Cage believes role-play reinforces involvement, and that's why Heavy Rain includes trivial tasks like shaving and drinking a glass of orange juice. Such activities glue the player to the character, according to Cage. When something important happens later, "it matters that you were in his shoes earlier" doing little things. This identification process is vital in creating an emotional connection. It makes later decisions more difficult and meaningful, Cage contends.

Cage described Heavy Rain's blend of old and new writing techniques. Classic elements like narrative arc, conflicts and obstacles, and closure serve narrative games, but they aren't enough when player interaction is added to the mix. "Most games we call non-linear consist of linear missions we can do in whatever order we like." Heavy Rain offers the player the possibility of "bending stories" with fixed start, middle, and end points, but "narrative space" in between for meaningful player choices. These options don't result in win or lose outcomes; instead they present different outcomes the player feels responsible for producing.

"We tried to create varied and subtle emotions." For example, Cage and team wanted to impart a strong sense of discomfort when the player must disrobe as a female character in front of a man - a significant behavioral departure from what most games suggest to male players. "Identification is everything," noted Cage. "You don't project yourself into an empty shell."

Cage sees Heavy Rain as a major departure from other narrative games. "Most games are about challege. Heavy Rain is about the journey. We tried to move the challenge from the controller to the mind of the player." In Heavy Rain, failure is not bad or good. Players bear with the consequences of their actions, which creates a more immersive experience. "The journey is what really matters," noted Cage.

Late in his presentation, Cage began to lob bombshells. "Game mechanics are evil." "Mechanics are a limitation." "Forget video game rules. Mechanics, levels, bosses, ramping, points, inventory, ammo, platforms, missions, game over, cutscenes ARE THINGS FROM THE PAST."

He also offered some poignant observations. "Killing someone in a game is the most unimportant thing you've done in your life. ...Actions should have consequences." Cage believes we must present genuine moral dilemmas, not merely branching path options as 'choice.' "We didn't ask you if you wanted to be good or bad. Our goal is to ask you questions that are difficult to answer." Cage described meeting one player who, when faced with the choice to kill a man in the game, turned off his console for two weeks to think about it.

"Why are we the only medium in the world that is so empty?" Cage asked. Video games exist as a niche medium because the industry has made them so. If a solution to better storytelling in games is to be found, several realities must be faced, according to Cage.

  • Narrative and emotion are generally not considered important by developers.
  • Action and narrative are typically disconnected.
  • Most games are too long.
  • Mechanics are a problem.
  • Characterization is often inconsistent.
  • Creators are not empowered.

"We need to have the writer ruling development. He should be the god."

Cage believes story and gameplay should be designed simultaneously from the drawing board stage. "Anything can be play; any story can be told. I made a game about child abduction. As long as it's sincere and done with talent, it can be done. ...Make games for adults. Seriously."