What Heavy Rain Might Tell Us About Choice

I have a few blog posts on deck that I’ve started but keep putting off. (Such is the nature of dissertation writing, I suppose.) I beg your forgiveness again, then, for posts few and far between, on happenings that may seem like yesterday’s news. Today’s late-to-the-game post is on Heavy Rain, one of the few games that makes me want a Playstation 3 (along with The Last Guardian, Team Ico’s upcoming game).

I’ve been seeing some fascinating interviews lately with David Cage, director of Heavy Rain and head of the development studio behind that game and its predecessor Indigo Prophecy (a.k.a. Fahrenheit). As you might have been hearing, one of the big points of buzz around Heavy Rain is that when characters die, they stay dead, so as to tell a more seamless and less frustrating story—a mechanic discussed elsewhere on this blog and in one of my articles. I’ve been fascinated to see that some gamers reacted with skepticism (or even hostility) to this idea when I first published on the topic, but it looks like some might be warming up to it—albeit with some reservations—now that it’s actually being implemented in a promising fashion.

Consider this interview with Cage. Cage explains, “We always found that ‘game over’ situations were quite frustrating for gamers,” noting the repetitiveness of dying and replaying. “Here we just wanted to make it that dying is just a part of the story.”

Among regular gamers, however, this raises a frequent question: What’s to keep players from just reloading an old save to prevent that from happening? In the interviewer’s words, “If you choose one way and you don’t like what happens, can you go back, or is it set for that playthrough?”

Cage does his best to reassure that they have no desire to “frustrate” players, but notes also that “we hope to convince players to continue with the consequences of their actions because this is what will make your story unique and different.…”

The interviewer presses: “So there will be multiple save slots?”

Cage relents: “There will be different save slots, but we will encourage the player to play it the way it’s supposed to be played.”

I found this exchange fascinating because it so closely parallels conversations I’ve had with other gamers about what games need to do in order to be able to tell stories more complex than those of summer action flicks. A friend of mine, for instance, once pointed to Fallout 3 as an example of why games aren’t able to make players deal with their consequences: If you screw up and lose an important item or ally, you don’t “deal with the consequences,” but just reload a recent save. My response to this is that Fallout 3 is a great example of a game with only a halfhearted system (at best) for dealing with consequences. Yes, if you screw up, you will face negative consequences permanently—but there’s nothing there to encourage you to keep playing that way. Heavy Rain, however, is supposedly a game that puts this at the heart of its design, where dying is not “losing,” but an equally valid way of getting through the game, giving access to content you wouldn’t experience otherwise. (Cage even notes that, of the multiple endings, the ending where all four protagonists die is his favorite.)

The tricky thing here is that some players are simply more interested in “winning” in the most complete way possible than they are in exploring characters or themes (what I’ve described elsewhere as prioritizing “mastery” over “story”). This raises some interesting questions for me. Do game designers have a responsibility to make games appeal to both story-loving gamers and hardcore completists? Or, looked at another way, do game designers have a responsibility to offer players options for a more convenient gaming experience over options for a more fully realized dramatic experience?

This is a consideration other media producers don’t really need to worry about as much. When you buy a DVD, certain ways of interacting with the product are standardized, like chapter selection and the ability to pause. Games offer a broader range of methods of interaction. Considering a distinction Jesper Juul makes in Half Real, we could identify that some interactive elements are available within the game world itself (like choosing between different dialog options), while others take into consideration the concerns of the real world, outside the game (like choosing where to save your game). Protagonists face choices within the game, facing the consequences of their action, but players should also have some ability to choose how the game is played so that it fits into their lives conveniently.

In a way, this might be a matter of the respective rights of the player and the developer: Shouldn’t the player have the right to choose how the game will be played? If you don’t like letting your characters die and you want to play it differently, shouldn’t that be an option?

On the other hand, shouldn’t the developer have the right to encourage audiences to approach the story a certain way? Some narratives are meant to be challenging—not in terms of “did you push buttons fast enough,” but “how will you deal with this disturbing event”?

These are both valid design issues, though I think that in the case of a game that is largely predicated around “dealing with consequences,” making it easy to avoid consequences you don’t like kind of undercuts the whole point of the game. There are ways to make the game convenient for players’ real-world situation—like fast and frequent autosaves—that also discourage playing it like a die-and-retry style of game. (Or, for a compromise of sorts, completing the game once could even unlock the ability to save wherever the player wants in future play-throughs, to ensure that you don’t just see the same game on the next time you play.) This approach is, after all, based on the notion that the story will be more emotionally engaging and affecting when it’s not disrupted or repeated, when it’s not treated like a boss fight to be beaten. This is an attempt to mesh emotional storytelling with interactive gameplay.

In another interview, David Cage states:

My biggest frustration is I went to the theater to watch Gran Torino and I left the theater extremely frustrated. And I thought, “Oh my God. When will we be able to create experiences like that in video games?” We are just telling stories about little boys shooting and jumping. When will we be able to tell real stories with real characters and real emotions?

It must be frustrating for writers and directors to see people react to All in the Family as an uncritical celebration of racism, or to Fight Club as an uncritical glorification of violence (not that either is unproblematic). I imagine that asking “Will we be able to reload from saves?” feels similarly like the person asking has largely missed the point. I’m hoping Heavy Rain turns out to be sufficiently compelling that a game without trial-and-error comes to be seen as a viable branch for the medium rather than a head-scratching puzzle for the hardcore.

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