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The Problem Is Choice: SH Shattered Memories & Heavy Rain Review + Analysis

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I've long argued that in order for gaming to move forward and distinguish itself as a respectable storytelling medium, it needs to start employing its unique advantage of interactivity in order to allow the player to make choices that have a meaningful effect on the way the game's narrative develops.

Two games released in Europe last week claim to be doing just that. Heavy Rain, a PlayStation 3 exclusive from Quantic Dream, is positioning itself as an evolution of the 'interactive drama' concept the developers introduced in their previous game Fahrenheit and has attracted considerable attention for its creator David Cage's desire to tell a more thoughtful, slower paced and mature story than is true of most action-oriented game narratives. Meanwhile, the Silent Hill series seeks to break out of the stagnation that fans and critics have found it in since Silent Hill 2 with Shattered Memories, a retelling of the original game's story for Wii, PS2 and PSP. Developers Climax Group have attempted to refocus the series by removing the notoriously clunky combat altogether and having the game 'psychologically profile' the player by their in-game actions, altering the shape of the game as it progresses.

REVIEW #2

Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Barely Playable; 0: Non-Functional.

SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES
Developers: Climax Group
Publishers: Konami
Consoles: Wii (version played), PS2, PSP
Players: One

HEAVY RAIN
Developers: Quantic Dream
Publishers: SCEE
Consoles:: PS3
Players: One

Both of these games represent interesting experiments in how a player relates to a game's story. Heavy Rain relates the player to their environment predominantly through a selection of button presses or controller motions that are related to a choice of actions: while folding origami, for example, the player will be given several potential directions in which to push the analogue stick, which will in turn make the character fold her paper in that manner. Balancing on a narrow plank on a building site requires the player to angle their Sixaxis controller so that the on-screen character doesn't lean too far in one direction. While this system is clearly inspired by the notorious Quick-Time Events which have been plaguing players since Shenmue, there is a greater leniency in timing built to prevent the game from becoming an endless test of reflexes, while choosing not to perform the action on-screen is sometimes taken as an alternate player choice that leads to a different set of consequences rather than immediate failure. The game's prologue, in essence a disguised tutorial session, introduces this concept in a natural and elegant manner, albeit one which, like most game tutorials, ends up far outstaying its welcome.

Shattered Memories' basic mechanics are rather more conventional, with analogue stick movement and a pre-set action button, but the player choices, which will come to dictate everything from the environments the player moves through to the characters he meets, are worked into the game through a series of intermissions in which players perform tests for a psychiatrist (the results of which then affect the following section of play), as well as the game 'reading' what the player chooses to look at during play: focus on maps or information signs, the game will assign you a practical and thoughtful personality. Ogle posters of scantily-clad women for minutes at a time and... well, you work it out.

Both systems perform their function well. Although it is occasionally unclear what action Heavy Rain's selection of inputs will yield, they are intelligently mapped so you feel as though your movements are interacting more directly with the on-screen world. This also makes the action sequences, in which buttons must be applied quickly in accordance with the scene's faster pace, a more intuitive, natural and genuinely thrilling prospect than the average QTE, where the frustration of having to find a random button is eased by the fact that the action you need to perform will be somewhat related to what is happening on-screen. That the game's four main characters are all supposedly able to die only adds to the suspense, where every missed input feels like a squeezed trigger in Russian roulette: one too many will kill you, but which one? More consistency still wouldn't have gone amiss (why does turning a steering wheel suddenly switch between moving the analogue sticks to jarring the controller?), but the gulf in ease between Heavy Rain's inputs and the traditional QTE are a world apart.

On Shattered Memories' behalf, the game uses the Wii's motion-control capabilities to intelligent effect for the most part. Even if the merit of performing specific motions as a substitute for in-game button presses is still subject to debate, the use of IR aiming has been the Wii's most significant and successful point of evolution over standard game controls. Directing protagonist Harry Mason's torch using the point is easy, rapid and vastly more intuitive than the usual third-person analogue stick equivalent that I assume must be in play on the PlayStation versions. In a game where selecting what you are looking at is of great significance to many aspects of the game, the precision is welcome. Little diversionary puzzles also utilise the IR to unlock latches or open various items and while some may see these as unnecessarily slow compared to simply pressing a button, I found each action perfectly responsive and easy enough that they felt satisfying.



But while both games take similarly brave approaches to how the player interacts and influences their stories and world, both fail to build on those success for very different reasons.

While Heavy Rain's input system enhances the sense of interactivity above the standard pre-set control schemes, the game's story and the world enveloping it are so completely lacking in cohesive logic that the drama is stripped of any weight and not only often feels ridiculous or trite, but at times even dishonest. Writer/Director David Cage's claim that this is gaming's first mature and serious dramatic narrative is buckling within minutes of the first story chapter: while the surplus of clichés that flood the game from the start may not be such a problem for those who won't be looking for them (as a writer, it becomes survival instinct to spot these things in your own work), it won't take long for even the most casual of players to notice quite how much of the plot hinges entirely on its characters acting miles outside basic common sense. A happy child twice runs away from his parents for no discernible reason, the second time while waiting to receive a present. A woman tips off a suspect in a serial killer case that the police are coming to get him by shouting down the phone, even though the man who called alerted them originally is standing right next to her. In the subsequent chase, the SWAT team prefers to allow the suspect to escape than use the guns they have brought with them, while the helicopter hovering dramatically overhead doesn't think to give chase to the taxi the suspect escapes in. These problems, of which there are many more which would mean divulging spoilers, are only made worse with the mistakes made in the game's need to accommodate player choices across several divergent paths: the writing seems to assume that no-one will not notice if plot-affecting reactions and deductions are based on what information the player, rather than the character, has at his disposal. Meanwhile, the cost of allowing characters to die or be put out of action mid-narrative is that large chunks of their storylines either cover the same ground or are altogether disposable. It feels as though the story is comprised of a series of individual scenarios that were unrelated but sounded exciting on paper, that were later haphazardly glued together more as an excuse to justify their presence than to form an intelligent narrative structure. Equally damning is how, in his search for respectability, Cage couldn't aim any higher than the trashiest of Hollywood fare like the Saw series in search of story ideas to rip off. Cage deserves credit for devising a gameplay system able to accommodate a more dramatic story than the medium is used to, but when every facet of the story that system is built around is so broken and incoherent, all impact is immediately lost. The claims to maturity, meanwhile, are made to ring hollow by the copious amount of gratuitous nudity on display and the lecherous attention to detail on the lead female Madison's character model (will there ever be a woman in next-gen gaming who doesn't walk like a hooker or wear jeans that ride halfway up between her buttocks?). Her scene in a night club is not only tacky and embarrassing to participate in, but made worse by how it is presented without even a shred of irony or self-awareness. The only saving grace is the hysterically overplayed accent of Mexican club owner 'Paco', which is about as 'mature' in its sensibilities as the game ever gets.

Where Heavy Rain suffers from a feeling of directionless for its inability to tie its wide-ranging story threads together, Shattered Memories spins its yarn so thinly and messily that almost the entire game ends up feeling like filler material. While Harry Mason gets ferried between different locations on the hunt for his daughter, there's rarely any explanation as why he ends up at the places he does beyond the fact that the game happened to place him there to change the scenery. The psychological aspects of the game, where the haunted town evolves to reflect the protagonist's state of mind, is a neat idea but implemented with little consideration. While the characters' and locations' outward appearance may change a bit, none of the puzzles or the player's path through the game is affected in the slightest no matter how divergent your actions. What part of Mason's psyche do the 'nightmares' represent? If the monsters are supposed to evoke something Harry is running away from, there's nothing in either the story or their appearance to hint at what that might be. Not only that, but in a choice between the imprecise combat that has been a focal point for the series' criticism or these new sequences, in which the town freezes over (a neat real-time effect, at least) and monsters come out of the woodwork to chase you down, there will be few who won't go running back to the combat with open arms. Almost gamebreaking in their atrocity, the 'nightmares' mostly consist of several minutes getting lost in the hopelessly unintuitive map design before either dying because the game arbitrarily decided that Harry wasn't strong enough to shrug the monster off his shoulders, even though the character obviously registered the required 'throwing' motion, or throwing away the controller in frustration at having to come to a virtual standstill to access the useless map that gives you a checkpoint to reach but fails to annotate any of the walls stopping you from getting there (which you can do either in the short intervals while the monsters can't find you, at which point you've probably run miles too far in the wrong direction, or during the chase, when your inability to run whilst using your phone means almost certain death).

Heavy Rain's story might have undermined its players' choices, but at least those choices (usually) made some impact on more than the game's aesthetics. Shattered Memories' claim to be 'playing the player' is never followed through to a meaningful purpose, a shamefully specious blanket to cover up the otherwise unfocused and outdated design. Both games offer a tantalising whisper of how player influence can have an exciting and positive effect on gameplay, but are crippled by their inability to either have the bravery to pursue it to its fullest extent or to apply it to a coherently written and structured story. Whilst the attention he has gathered for his game show him to be a more competent publicist than dramatist, I'd still like to see what David Cage could do with someone else's story or at least a very harsh editor reining him in, as somewhere within Heavy Rain's bulge of ugly and unneccessary story fat lies an innovative and exciting game: the friend whose PS3 I played the game on enjoyed it more than I did and regularly got annoyed with me for 'taking the story too seriously' – but then when a game has deliberately positioned its story as its key selling point and designed the gameplay around it, I couldn't be so forgiving. It's such a shame that these two games, so full of potential for setting new landmarks in player interaction and evolving narratives, ended up foiled by their own bad choices.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories: 4

Heavy Rain: 5



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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!