Side note: For awhile I have debated on how to approach writing an article regarding Heavy Rain. I wanted to explain my how my game unfolded as well as my initial feelings towards how it approached presenting the story. That's when I saw Anthony's article. I suppose you could say that this is a counter argument to his article even though I do agree him. Anthony does provide some solid and valid reasoning behind his statements. Yet while I respect his opinion, I still feel there's another side to this coin. So please, do not see my blog as just a disagreement... I'm not saying Anthony is wrong. I am simply trying to show that another mindset regarding the topic does exist in order to keep minds open.
I also apologize and give out a warning in advance; I will be spoiling the game in order to help backup my argument.
"Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control."
The common belief regarding games is that since the events in the game are triggered by the player's actions, games lose the feeling that often comes from watching a film or reading a piece of literature. Yet this is entirely true. The standard argument is that with a film or novel, the viewer/reader has no opinion but to accept whatever the director and author have happen within their work; that regardless if the audience disagrees with an outcome or highly disapproves of the choices the characters freely make without the audience's input, it is how the story will unfold. The same can be said for games, however.
Regardless if you feel games can be considered artistic or not, you cannot deny the fact that the writing process is used to write a game's plot as it is to write a film's or literature piece. Talent and skill are still needed in order to produce a solid piece. The same writing techniques need to be used effectively if the game's plot is going to make sense. There's still a beginning, a rising action, a climax, a falling action, and finally a conclusion. Figurative language, personification, and style are still applied. Descriptions are still required to help develop the setting, characters are still developed, and dialogue becomes an important, crucial aspect of the piece.
Where the difference between the three mediums - games, film, and literature - is what we see when all these pieces to the puzzle are finally put together. With a novel, short story, and any other form of writing, we can easily sit down to analysis the work. We can scan each sentence of each page and pin point exact locations where a metaphor was used or an example of irony is shown. Movies, on the other hand, are not quite that simply but it doesn't mean that the script and story board presented did not contain these elements. When watching a movie and a character speaks, it becomes bluntly obvious that colloquialism was used within the script otherwise the actor would not have known to speak in a certain way. So if even within pages upon pages of text to back up a solid plot and character development for a movie, films are still acclaimed to be masterpieces. Though this is where my question comes into play... Why can't games get this same recognition?
I want you to keep my statements above in mind as you continue to read my counterargument. It is the foundation upon which I will be building my defense for Heavy Rain. And again - I cannot stretch this enough - any references I make towards Anthony's article are not to state that he is wrong, but only how he could be wrong.
The problem I see here is that gamers are often referred to as the audience, thus causing the conflict between what the story needs in order to progress and what the player chooses to do. As Anthony states in his article, "it'd be ludicrous to let the audience choose". This is where I am afraid I must disagree with him. Why? Because the player isn't the audience. The player is the actor and director working together. You are deciding to act out a particular
I want to point back to Anthony's article. He explains that in films the characters already have a set personality that a player's choice can disrupt. He mentions that the player can cause events or situations to happen that would be inaccurate and contradicting to the character's already set personality, such as what if Mills putting the gun down in the movie Se7en. Yet, what if this is how you wanted to portray the character? How can that be wrong?
Let's take a look at Ethan. The game firmly establishes that he is a good, caring father. He was willing to jump in front of a car to save his son and blames himself for the death. However, it can be argued that certain things you do within the game can be unfitting to this character set up. For example, you can choose to ignore Shaun when he visits Ethan's apartment in the beginning of the game. What type of "good" father would do that to his son? Especially if a few days later he's ready to risk his life to find him? Well, you can interrupt actions in a way that still defines Ethan as a bold father.
Let's say you choose to have Ethan do nothing but he isn't doing it by choice. Instead, his depression is so severe that his motivation isn't there to want to do anything even though he still loves Shaun due to feeling so useless. You can even state to the psychiatrist in another part of the game that Ethan feels as if Shaun deserves a better father since you failed to protect one son. Ethan says that if he could anything for Jason than he can't do anything for Shaun, therefore Shaun doesn't need him. You can say that the moment Shaun disappears is Ethan's snapping point, that he breaks free of depression's grip on him as his love for his son fuels that lost sense of determination. This brings the player back to Ethan's set personality. If the player is playing with that mindset, then how could you say they are wrong or messed up the game?
What if you fail a trial or choose to not do it, you ask? Well... Surprise! You just provided Shelby right! Even if Ethan doesn't complete the trial or you have Ethan not accept it, Ethan still tried. It isn't like the game gives you the ability to just sit on your couch during those four days and mope until Shaun dies. Ethan still at least goes to each location to attempt to do something. You're still forced to carry out the game's theme, you just end up not living up to the expectations set upon you.
The truth is is that each player is going to have a justification as to why they choose to do or not do something. Anthony mentions about how it seems illogical for Ethan to have sex with Madison since Ethan's mind is focused on saving Shaun. However, perhaps the player chose to have intercourse because they felt Ethan needed it for reason. For example, my best friend told me that Ethan had once told Madison that if things were different, a relationship could bloom between them. He said that since it was obvious that a deep emotional understanding was developing between the two of them, he felt the need to let Ethan have something good happen to him in his life. Does this make Ethan in his game a bad father? No, it makes him a man. A human being. Biological urges are going to exist and emotional desires are going to clash. This is why Ethan could have done what he did.
Naturally though, at point someone is going to slip up and make a mistake. Perhaps you mess up a quick time event or make the wrong decision with the end result being the opposite of what you intended. This is where the passive “bystander” aspect of film comes into play for a game. The player may have the ability to choose how they want an event to play out, and even if a mistake is made, that doesn’t mean we should forget that there is still a set, existing storyline. What you do triggers the chain of events that the developer has already put into place. In a way, the developer has a safety net set up for you in order to allow the flow of the story to continue without feeling like incomplete based on your mistake. It alters the story into a new arc that morphs to fit your “decision” regardless if it’s the decision you freely wanted or not. It builds onto the game’s aspect of accepting consequences that follow the actions you performed. Just like in real life, you have to learn to adjust yourself to the situation you get placed in.
If you are not happy with the outcome, well, you’re not happy. You can choose to go back and reload an old save if you have one or restart your game in order to attempt to have a different outcome. Otherwise you must pick up your role as the actor and continue to play through your set of events in order to reach the end and complete it. Even if you’re not fully happy with what happened, it doesn’t mean the game is going to sacrifice entertainment.
I had developed a strong emotional connection to Norman. I liked his attitude (or at least the attitude I helped plant within him at the beginning) of being an intellectual man who was great a problem solving but lacked field experience. I often had him stumble during fights and his responses in situations generally started off passive because he wanted to avoid confrontation if possible. Though if needed, he'd get involved. I had him panic during the scene with Nathaniel, causing him to shoot him. I'll never forget how sympathetic I felt towards Norman as I watched him lower his gun in shaking hands saying, "I... I killed him..."
Throughout the rest of the game I had him stand by his evidence. He always thought things through logically and hated being told he was wrong when he had proof to back up his statements. Needless to say, I grew to despise Blake due to how hostile he got towards Norman; more times than none they never agreed on a damn thing. This of course got extremely intense when I ended up getting Ethan arrested after the third trial. Norman started to believe Ethan as he pleaded with the police to let him go to find Shaun, especially since Ethan's psychological profile didn't match up to the profile of the Origami Killer's. Blake disagreed which resulted in him assaulting Ethan, beating the crap out of him demanding that he confessed to the murders and revealed Shaun's location. Norman tried to threaten Blake to get him to stop but he was just kicked out. Pissed and determined to prove Ethan's innocence, he reported Blake but the chief was too pleased with having a solid suspect to care.
Norman returned to his office after failing to do anything. My heart sank as I watched him shut the door before falling to the floor. No, he wasn't suffering from another drug trip. Instead he buried his head in his arms and cried (or at least I think he did; I say he did) since a man was being brutally beaten for no reason while eating up time to look for Shaun and the real killer. He pulled himself together eventually after looking through evidence again and helped Ethan escape. I had him trick the guards, steal the handcuff keys from Blake, and let Ethan go even though his thoughts told him he may regret it. I felt such a sense of admiration for Norman as Ethan went to thank him for freeing him and his reply was something along the lines of, "Don't worry about who I am, just go save your son." To me, he was the hero since without him, Ethan never would have gotten a chance to save Shaun.
Then I screwed up on a timed event.... Norman died... I was devastated. My heart raced as I madly pressed every button on the controller, trying to be prepared for any event that could possibly still save him. I kept screaming in my head, "Oh god, Norman... It can't end this way. Get up! Get up! You'll be ok! F**k!" As the screen faded to black, I panicked - almost dropping my controller - trying to reload the save before the game auto saved his death, but I was too late. I sat my controller beside me and literally had to wipe tears from my eyes. My hero was dead.
The characters in Heavy Rain may have an established identity, it does not mean that the player’s interaction will demolish who the character is. If anything, the player’s interaction is what defines and creates the story. I highly doubt that if I just watched a scene of Norman dying that I would have nearly cried like I did. Especially without any of the previous development I did in the game to help his noble traits mature. This is the feeling that comes from being allowed to partake an every aspect of the game.
Is giving the player the ability to tamper with every part of the game a risk? Possibly. Is it a bad idea that will ruin the story? Not really. After all, if the developer has multiple endings and multiple scenarios prepared to carry on whatever may occur in a person’s playthrough, then it should be safe to say that the story is more than secure even if the player interacts with it. After all, how do you specify what the official story is? How do you decide whether or not the order and how the events develop are wrong if the story is still consecutive? Every one of Heavy Rain’s choices are nothing more than a road on Quanticdream’s map. The developer has a marked a variety of destinations for us to reach for but we’re allowed to choose which road we want to follow.
I know that Anthony states that this is a "pre-baked experience" that the player is only on the ride for, but I personally see it as more than that. While it is true that there are games out there that allow players more freedom - such as The Sims - it's only freedom if you express the lack of boundaries. Comparing The Sims to Heavy Rain is like comparing a banana to a pear. Both maybe fruit but they're of extremely different textures and tastes.
I don't deny the fact that you can create unique, powerful with it, but the game itself does not promote more than basic emotions. Your created Sims express their likes and dislikes towards people, they can fall in love and have a family, or experience death. However, it's impossible to experience a deeper sense of connection to your characters just with the tools the game provides you. If you want the reasoning to marrying a character to have a meaning, or if you want a reason as to why a character's death means so much, you have to fill in the blank and create it yourself. While I know that right now it sounds like I am agreeing with him, I just want to ask this... What if you're not a creative person? What if you never try to develop any sort of story for your characters but did nothing more than observe how your Sims acted as you tended to their daily needs?
Chances are the player won't feel any sort of connection towards their Sim unless the player has the ability to do so. I do highly admire and praise Robin Burkinshaw for Alice & Kev and Ben Abraham for Permanent Death, I can't bring myself to say they are better than Heavy Rain, just as I can't say Heavy Rain is better them. Even though both type of games try to express the idea of a player narrative, they both are different. The Sims is more of a set of tools handed to the player. Sitting someone down to play it and asking them to develop a narrative would like handing a paint brush and canvas to someone who has never painted. Sure, the person can produce work; they can take the brush, swirl some colors, and attempt to put an imagine onto the canvas. Yes, you can call it art but it's not a "masterpiece".
Heavy Rain, on the other hand, is like building a model. The base already exists giving you something to build upon. The framework is already put together for you. You put it together though based instructions to guide you. However, you still have the feeling of satisfaction from completing it and hold a sense of pride for any of your personal finishing touches. Even though anyone can put a model together (aka push a button in Heavy Rain), each model will still look different. Does this make one better and the other one shittier? No, of course not. Both deserve praise but for different reasons.
Heavy Rain may not be perfect, but it does go to show that allowing the player to be involved so deeply can be an extremely awarding, unique experience. It maybe an opposing strategy but it does go to show that even if Ebert - and Anthony - make good points, I'd like to think that Heavy Rain also proves their statement to also be false.