Note: iOS 9 + Facebook users w/ trouble scrolling: #super sorry# we hope to fix it asap. In the meantime Chrome Mobile is a reach around
hot  /  reviews  /  videos  /  cblogs  /  qposts

Why Heavy Rain proves Ebert right

4:00 PM on 02.26.2010 // Anthony Burch

[Editor's Note: We're not just a (rad) news site -- we also publish opinions/editorials from our community & employees like this one, though be aware that it may not jive with the opinions of Destructoid as a whole, or how our moms raised us. Want to post your own article in response? Publish it now on our community blogs.]

"Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control."

Roger Ebert said this. He is correct.

Now, that's not enough reason to discount an entire medium as being incapable of producing "high art" -- it might be true if games were nothing more than yet another linear storytelling medium, though they obviously aren't -- but it goes a hell of a long way in explaining why Heavy Rain has been so divisive.

During an average Heavy Rain playthrough, two forces constantly compete over control of the characters: the player, who wants to see interesting things and feel like his input actually matters to the story, and the actual characters, who simply want to be true to themselves.

This is what Ebert was talking about. This is why, for many, Heavy Rain just doesn't work.

(Spoilers for the film Se7en, and Heavy Rain. Joseph Leray gave me the idea for this editorial.)


Think back to the movie Se7en. Remember the ending? Not the big, shocking, oh-god-that's-so-gruesome-but-kinda-cool twist, but the scene that directly follows it.

Detective Mills, having lost everything dear to him, has to decide John Doe's fate. He desperately wants to avenge the death of his wife, but Somerset has warned him: John Doe wants you to kill him. He wants you to be overcome by Wrath.

What if we could choose whether or not Mills should pull the trigger? What if, as Heavy Rain so often does, we were allowed to decide not only what Mills should do, but subsequently who he is as a person, and what the overall theme of the film should be?

On the one hand, that'd be a satisfyingly difficult choice to make, in the context of a BioWare RPG or whathaveyou. No clear "right" answer. Could be a pretty suspenseful moment of contemplation for the player.

On the other hand, Mills is already his own character: he went through the entire film getting into arguments and beating up paparazzi. If the player made Mills put his gun down and let John Doe rot in prison, it'd be wildly inaccurate with his character, and it'd effectively demolish the thematic punch of the scene's true outcome. Se7en is (amongst other things) about the ubiquitousness of human evil, and how we can't truly separate ourselves from it. If Mills lets John Doe live, it becomes a story about a Really Good Cop triumphing over a Really Evil Guy.


It'd be ludicrous to let the audience choose what Mills should do. Why, then, are we allowed to do exactly that with all four of Heavy Rain's protagonists?

For the vast majority of Heavy Rain, I, as the player, have only two options: I can force the characters to do things that they wouldn't normally do for my entertainment, or I can feel useless.

Take the "romance" scene between Ethan and Madison later in the game. Madison wants to have sex with Ethan, but Ethan -- possibly having just cut off his pinky finger, run through power lines, crawled over broken glass, and earned a concussion from a car crash -- says that "saving Shaun is the only thing that matters." Madison goes in for the kiss. The player has a choice to make: do you let Madison kiss Ethan, or do you make Ethan refuse?

Even ignoring the fact that Ethan specifically tells Madison nothing matters apart from saving Shaun -- he doesn't say "nothing, apart from me getting my freak on" -- this is a guy who has gone through immeasurable mental and physical trauma to save his son (unless you made Ethan refuse to complete any of the trials, in which case I'd have to ask why you're even playing the game). This is a guy who knows that every wasted second brings his son closer and closer to death. Under no circumstances would it make any sense for this guy to have sex with Madison.

But if you're curious about how the sex scene will play out, or if you have some personal interest in getting these two characters to screw regardless of their motivations, you can force Ethan to have sex with her. Congrats: you get to watch a sex scene and a murder at the same time, as Ethan's true character is obliterated before your eyes. Ebert proves himself right: your ability to control the story has resulted in a bad story.


But what if, when Madison moves in to kiss Ethan, you refuse her? What if, understanding Ethan's nature, you push Madison away? Great -- you've maintained the integrity of the story and its characters, but you've also reduced the game to nothing more than a finicky DVD which must be unpaused every few minutes. If Ethan's character is already pretty well set in stone and you're just going through the motions you would expect him to go through, then why are you involved at all? If your personal interaction consists of nothing more than giving up your identity and making a character do something he would normally do anyway, then what differentiates your experience from that of watching a film? Your input no longer matters.

Heavy Rain's player/avatar dissonance is even more pronounced when the player and the character desire different things. Say you're interested in getting the "best" ending, because you really want the Four Heroes trophy. Since you assume that getting to Ethan's son is the best way of assuring Ethan survives, you successfully complete the first four trials without difficulty.

Upon reaching the fifth trial, however, you find yourself in a pickle: the only way to get the final piece of the address is to force Ethan to drink poison, which will absolutely, positively kill him in sixty minutes (if you've already completed the game, please try to ignore the fact that it absolutely, positively does not). You want Ethan to survive so you can get that Four Heroes trophy, so you decide not to have Ethan drink the poison. But wait: you just created a version of Ethan Mars who is willing to endure intense physical torment and commit murder to save his son...but who won't drink some poison to completely ensure Shaun's survival? That doesn't make any sense. You wouldn't accept that if you saw an otherwise-consistent character do that in a film, would you?

And don't even get me started on how your decisions, combined with that stupid plot twist, can turn Scott Shelby into even more of a laughably inconsistent character than he already is (so, you'll drown kids to test their fathers, but you won't let a would-be murderer die of a heart attack?).


"But," you might say, "what about a game like Half-Life 2? That's a linear story, but you still have the freedom to dramatically sabotage it. You can spend the entire prologue throwing milk cartons at the residents of City 17, if you really want to. How is that any different?"

You can definitely sabotage Half-Life 2 if you wish, but the alternative to "sabotage the story" is not "get bored and feel useless." While you don't have any input over the direction of HL2's story, you still have a personal reason to keep playing: the action sections that comprise the majority of the game are fun enough that even if you don't give two shits about Alyx Vance, your input still feels relevant.

If you wanna sabotage HL2's story, you can, but you'll still have some fun with the shooty-shooty stuff. If you don't sabotage HL2's story, then the shooty-shooty stuff just feels more meaningful. It's an imperfect combination of story and gameplay, but the failure of one part doesn't destroy the entire experience. As Heavy Rain consists of nothing beyond some QTEs and a boatload of story decisions, it's got nothing to fall back on if the player decides to ruin the story by screwing with the characters.

Ebert says player choice can ruin a story. If we're talking about purely player-driven narrative, he's wrong: Boatmurdered, Alice & Kev, and Permanent Death prove there is a unique and beautiful power in giving the player some freedom to make their own individually meaningful stories, rather than just passively absorbing a pre-baked experience crafted by someone else. To claim that pre-baked experiences are inherently more meaningful than player-created ones is nonsense.

If we're talking about forcing the player through a totally linear story à la Half-Life 2, he's right, but perhaps not right enough to justify dismissal of the entire medium. Many players who don't sabotage story games find them uniquely compelling. There's something to be said for allowing the player to be the protagonist of a story rather than a passive witness, sabotage possibilities be damned.


If we apply his line of thinking to "interactive movies" such as Heavy Rain, however, Ebert is totally on the money.

The characters of Heavy Rain are not blank slates, or characters whose identities we fill in through our own decisions -- they aren't like Gordon Freeman or Commander Shepard. They're characters with existing histories and personalities. By granting us control over these characters, the player is forced into an awkward position of half-agency: their desires intermingle with our own, forcing us to either relinquish our own sense of control and relevance, or actively participate in a story populated by characters who make ridiculous and self-defeating decisions.

As courageous as Heavy Rain is, and as suspenseful as some of its later QTEs are (three cheers for potentially permanent protagonist death! A fourth cheer for alliteration!), the player's ability to manipulate the behavior of its characters actively and irreversibly harm the story. You can shake your fist at Ebert for as long as you want, but it won't change the fact that he made a good point -- and that Heavy Rain proves it true.

 Setup email comments

Unsavory comments? Please report harassment, spam, and hate speech to our community fisters, and flag the user (we will ban users dishing bad karma). Can't see comments? Apps like Avast or browser extensions can cause it. You can fix it by adding * to your whitelists.

Status updates from C-bloggers

Gamemaniac3434 avatarGamemaniac3434
Hey, my new blog is up! A few days ago! Go read it! Before......before its too late. Please. *walls start crumbling, reality starts oozing out, things begin to eeeeeeeeeeeeeee
Amna Umen avatarAmna Umen
Alright so I'm looking for a few games for my newly repurchased DS. I'm already set on RPG as it's all I have pretty much. Were there any good puzzle games? I've heard good things about Professor Layton.
FlanxLycanth avatarFlanxLycanth
I made chocolate and banana cake because why not.
able to think avatarable to think
After hearing Persona 4 Dancing All Night come out of my surround sound system; I can safely say my $20 Playstation TV purchase was totally justified. The bass on Best Friends (Banvox Remox) literally shook the floor. It's freaking awesome!
LinkSlayer64 avatarLinkSlayer64
I wish I could say I made this 'shop. [img][/img]
SeymourDuncan17 avatarSeymourDuncan17
Triple brown, triple brown, triple brown meow. Triple brown, triple brown, triple brown meow.
Alfie avatarAlfie
Was on the front page and was greeted by a new post, which I clicked to find "You cannot see the future". Then refreshed and it was gone. I saw Chris's post on Eight Days' cancellation as it was brought, new and unready, into the world! Rare and wonderful
Archelon avatarArchelon
Community Question: Have you ever purchased a game only to regret it later and then sell it/give it away, only to even later regret selling it and wind up purchasing it again?
gajknight avatargajknight
A decadent staircase adorned in gold rises into infinite darkness. Writhing beings beyond comprehension lurk in the shadows, their mere presence encroaching on the edges of human understanding. A blood moon glows . I am losing my mind. I need more eyes...
Mike Wallace avatarMike Wallace
We need to be implanted with microchips because I'd really like to know how much time I've spent playing different video games my entire life.
RadicalYoseph avatarRadicalYoseph
If there are rainbows in Xenoblade Chronicles X, Reyn must be in it as well. You can't have a rainbow without Reyn, baby!
The Dyslexic Laywer avatarThe Dyslexic Laywer
I really hope Xenoblade become it's own franchise, it has way too much potential to simply being reduced to 2 games.
Sotanaht avatarSotanaht
Touchable Holograms? When this eventually matures and hits market, almost all our regulars will vanish for weeks.
Serethyn avatarSerethyn
Xenoblade Chronicles Wii for €10? Sure, Nintendo, don't mind if I do!
KnickKnackMyWack avatarKnickKnackMyWack
Super Smash Bros. 4 has too much content. So much so I almost don't want a sequel. I honestly hope that NX gets a "Super Smash Bros. For NX" port rather than a new installment. It could be a GOTY edition and come with all of the DLC.
Batthink avatarBatthink
Flegma avatarFlegma
Bought my first full-priced physical 3DS game ever - New Style Boutique 2: Fashion Forward. I'll try to write a post on the previous game at some point before doing the same with NSB2.
Terry 309 avatarTerry 309
How do you guys manage to buy all these games at day 1 with such huge backlogs?
FlanxLycanth avatarFlanxLycanth
Guys if I were to do a thing, how many of you would watch my thing because I was thinking of doing a thing but I dunno if people really like that kinda thing so I just wanted to know if you liked that thing because I'm thinking of doing a thing, you know?
Atleastimhousebroken avatarAtleastimhousebroken
Bayonetta 2 is 40% off in the EU Nintendo eShop today. If you have a WiiU and don't have this game you are a horrible person and I want nothing to do with you. You can amend your errors by buying it. Xenoblade Wii is also 50% off as well.
more quickposts



Invert site colors

  Dark Theme
  Light Theme

Destructoid means family.
Living the dream, since 2006

Pssst. konami code + enter

modernmethod logo

Back to Top

We follow moms on   Facebook  and   Twitter
  Light Theme      Dark Theme
Pssst. Konami Code + Enter!
You may remix stuff our site under creative commons w/@
- Destructoid means family. Living the dream, since 2006 -