Heavy Expectations

It’s spring break, which means it is time to catch up on research—and, being a video game researcher, that means justifying the purchase of a PlayStation 3. The first game I played on the new system got me thinking of Overqualified, a series of humorous cover letters for real job openings posted to the web. Generally, the letters make writer Joey Comeau sound out of touch with reality at best, and dangerously psychotic in many cases. In particular, I’m reminded of his letter to Nintendo:

We need a new Mario game, where you rescue the princess in the first ten minutes, and for the rest of the game you try and push down that sick feeling in your stomach that she’s “damaged goods”, a concept detailed again and again in the profoundly sex negative instruction booklet, and when Luigi makes a crack about her and Bowser, you break his nose and immediately regret it. When Peach asks you, in the quiet of her mushroom castle bedroom “do you still love me?” you pretend to be asleep. You press the A button rhythmically, to control your breath, keep it even.

We need an airport simulator, where the planes carry your whole family from A to B, job to job, and dad still drinks in the shower and your older sister still has casual sex that she confides might bring back a feeling she’s certain she didn’t imagine. Where the plane touches down and you all lean forward in your seats because of inertia, and again and again someone says “I hate to fly”.

The author writes this because he thinks he will sound deranged. It might have actually gotten him a job at Quantic Dream, however, the developer of Heavy Rain.

As numerous interviews can attest, Heavy Rain director David Cage has had lofty ideals for this game, seeking to move into new genres and new emotional experiences. The funny thing is—despite how crazy the above letter might sound—it’s not the idea that’s screwy, but occasionally, the execution.

The tone of the story very much resembles the final paragraph of Joey Comeau’s above letter; the gameplay, such as it is, very much resembles the previous paragraph. Following on-screen prompts to press buttons enables a character to help his wife carry groceries, steady his breathing, apply her make-up, mutter uselessly, glance at things littered around the room, or (potentially) initiate sexual intercourse. Sometimes the prompts speed up in a series of “quicktime events”—press the buttons quickly as they appear to chase down a criminal or dodge incoming blows. Screwing up means failure, possibly death, but you do have more than one character to control, and the story has an ending even if all characters die. Comparisons to point-and-click adventure games are not off the mark, as there are multiple scenes in which you must walk around a room looking for some object that offers a button prompt; perform the prompt, and watch the scene unfold, with little thought or additional input required.

Perhaps all those other, mundane uses of the buttons (like the aforementioned groceries) are just practice runs to get you familiar with the controls and help you be less likely to die later. As Michael Abbot seems to suggest, though, it’s easy to feel like most such prompts are the unnecessary virtual equivalent of turning a page, some minimal amount of input from the reader in order to progress the primarily author-driven narrative. I don’t mind a primarily author-driven narrative, myself, but I did find myself frequently wishing that my input mattered more. (Perhaps it did matter more than was apparent, and this will only become apparent upon replaying the game..?)

I enjoyed Heavy Rain, though I’m still trying to piece together why I did. In some ways, it really let me down. Other writers have already aptly taken apart its plot holes, mechanical issues, and niggling issues in production (e.g., see Mitch Krpata and a summary of various opinions by Michael Abbot). The major test for me, however, was whether it finally offered a gaming experience in which the consequences of failure fit neatly into the narrative, such as death being a permanent and meaningful alternative to the die-and-retry approach of most games.

In this department, either Heavy Rain failed me, or I failed it. All of the characters I controlled survived the entire game—and I restarted two scenes to avoid the consequences of my failure. Why would I sabotage the very experience for which I purchased this? It was not because I wanted the sense of mastery that this game frustratingly denied to players who see games as about this appeal over all others. Rather, I restarted a couple scenes because control and interface issues occasionally presented greater narrative disruptions to me than repetition.

A major recurring problem for me was that I couldn’t read all the on-screen prompts properly even on my relatively large HDTV (I’m still waiting for the HDMI cable to arrive in the mail). Moreover, the button prompts are not always placed in ways on the screen that make their purpose apparent. I’ll try to avoid spoilers as I explain this, but in one scene, I chose one button prompt over another, and this resulted in leaving behind another character for dead whom I certainly had time left to save, and was actively attempting to save. Living with an error in button-pressing, rather than a failure in reflexes or a hard moral choice, presented an even greater narrative disruption than having to replay that scene.

Mind you, I did face these other sorts of options as well: I felt more suspense at the button-pressing reflex tests, and more investment in the moral choices, than I would’ve felt if I’d just been watching such scenes as a movie. I believe that even a minimal amount of player input can sometimes heighten personal investment in a scene (e.g., shooting cops making dialog between crooks feel more intense in Kane & Lynch). Sometimes, however, I think Heavy Rain could’ve shortened my minimal amount of input to save me the trouble of trying to navigate around coffee tables with the weird control scheme.

I did enjoy Heavy Rain, as I said, probably largely because it’s just so different from other games, and certainly at least in part because I was actually interested in the story and characters. I do plan to replay it again on a higher difficulty setting (which demands quicker reaction time in life-or-death scenes). I suspect the experience will lose something when I know the plot twists in advance, but perhaps it will gain something as well when the walking controls are already familiar to me, the visual cues for button-prompts are (hopefully) more clearly visible in HDMI, and the ramifications of my actions become more apparent to me compared to what I chose my first time through. (And this time, hopefully, I’ll get myself killed a couple times.)

Even if I have to conclude that Heavy Rain is only a shadow of what I’d hoped it would be, however, I can say without reservation that I hope future games take similar risks in genre. I admit that I’m not sure how many of these scenes will hold up during my replay, but it was refreshing to play a game in which you spend more time rocking a baby to sleep than blasting enemies with a gun.

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