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Choice in Games: Heavy Rain

I use that word 'choice' with a certain degree of scepticism when it comes to Heavy Rain - generally based off my own experience of the game; Heavy Rain was a game billed as something of a revolution in terms of videogame design by it's developers, blurring the line between videogame, feature film and novel; and seemingly contriving to create a market for 'mature' content in gaming, games in which the player could interact with a 'real' world environment, with 'real' choices and 'real' consequences to those choices. Real in this sense referring to the fact that you as the player wouldn't play a fantasy character of some sort – a mage or a superhero or a space marine, but rather an ordinary person, with their own personality, their own faults and accomplishments in life. The enjoyment from Heavy Rain wouldn't come from slaughtering hordes of rampaging aliens, or conquering entire worlds or even saving the day, but rather from the consequences of the choices you make – and how well you make them. As the developers described Heavy Rain themselves:

In Heavy Rain you don't watch the story – you play it. The dynamic narrative unfolds through the players actions - not cut scenes - and every action has a consequence. The choices you make and the way you interact with other characters have repercussions throughout the storyline. With unprecedented responsibility over the fates of the game's characters, Heavy Rain is an emotional experience unlike any other as a mature game for a new world of adult gamers.

But what is choice? - And what type of choice does Heavy Rain offer us as the player...?

In the context of life (real-life), choice is having a range of possibilities at your disposal in your day-to-day life and the freedom to decide which you want – that can range from simple choices, about say whether you have cereal for breakfast or pizza, to much more important decisions – such as where you want to live or who you want to be friends with. The consequences of these decisions can range quite drastically, from relatively quite small things – such as being fuller after breakfast from eating pizzas, to much bigger things such as where you end up living or the lifestyle you have as a consequence of the friends you make.

Obviously not all decisions are simply a matter of little or large consequences though – eating pizza for breakfast everyday may be a simple decision with simple consequences in the short-term but in the long-term it could mean the bigger consequence of getting fat and possibly becoming obese. Likewise moving house or choosing friends could have little consequences for you aswell as large ones. Choices can also have a moral or ethical dimension though – was the pizza you ate this morning made by starving Ethiopian children who were paid $0.30 a day? If so you may be inadvertently contributing to the hardship of Ethiopia's Children. Vice Versa if the producer of the cereal is a strong supporter of the local community that makes their cereal and can be seen to provide a large benefit to the community then your choice of cereal for breakfast may have inadvertently positive moral consequences.

Obviously in both these cases the consequences are somewhat unrealistic and mostly useful just as abstract examples, but they do have some relevance to the subject of choice within gaming – since more often than not when gamers are presented with 'choice' it's choice with potential moral ramifications. Afterall many games feature multiple guns for the player to use and different ways to complete each goal (do you kill the guard on the left, or the one on the right first before moving ahead?) but these sorts of choices aren't usually consider proper 'choice' because they have limited consequences – whichever guard you shoot won't change how the level plays out nor will it effect the ending of the game or later events. In the context of games choice usually refers to the ability of the player to shape events within the course of gameplay – in some games this is the ability to create your own path through a level, others it's the ability of the player to affect the length of a game by shifting your opponents men and units, and others still the ability to make choices that will effect the game world and thus may change how the inhabitants of that world view you.

I'm not going to go into too much detail on levels of choice, since there are literally thousands of games that offer differing levels of choice, but I do want to use a few examples of games I think offer the player choice, but differ in the kind and presentation of that choice – I'll start with 'Deus Ex', then move onto 'Mass Effect', and then finally 'Ogre Battles – The March of the Black Queen'. I wouldn't argue any of these games have 'more' choice than either of the others but they do present it differently and that's what's of interest in terms of Heavy Rain.

In Deus Ex the player is given a series of missions – first from his government masters and then later from associates in the resistance – each with a selection of goals of varying value: From taking a terrorist leader into custody, to finding a back entrance to a facility, to finding a vaccine shipment, to scuttling a chinese freighter. The goals themselves are usually presented in a very straightforward 'A leads to B, B leads to C' sort of way, but when the player hits the ground in the mission they often find a range of possible ways to complete each goal.

The player is given a relatively simple goal, but this simple goal can be approach in a number of ways, so they are then offered a selection of tools to accomplish their goal and multiple ways to go about using those tools. The player can, for example, decide they'd like to sneak past guards, and use the darkness/cover/any augmentations they have to that effect, vice versa they may decide they want to kill everybody they see, in which case they can find a plethora of guns aswell as choose from a range of skills/augmentations that may increase their ability to kill with ease. It's also possible for the player to, in some circumstances, talk or bribe their way out of a situation rather than fight, which adds an extra level of choice for those who don't want to simply shoot their way through the game.

The most interesting part – and most fulfiling part – of this choice equation is that the game reacts to these decisions and different characters react differently to your behaviour because of it – if for example you kill lots of NSF during the first mission and generally talk and act like a killing machine in waiting then Paul will react negatively towards your behaviour, reminding you that you're part of a police organisation and not a hired killer, whereas Agent Hermann and several of the soldiers will react positively and comment on how much of a badass you are for being so ruthless.

Deus Ex is a good example of a game in which the player is given the freedom of choice to make their own decisions about how to act or behave in a game-world, where characters will react differently to a player dependent on their behaviour and accomplishments within the game, but which still follows a linear fixed narrative. Morality and decision making are central themes within the narrative of Deus Ex – even to the extent that you make your own choice about how the game ends, but the path you travel along to get to that ending is fixed – despite the many different routes you can take to get to that end result.

In a sense the choice presented in Deus Ex is more a question of: What sort of person do I want to be...? Granted the question is asked within the framework of a narrative driven by conspiracy and centred around an augmented supra-government agent who tackles a world-controlling power complex so you can't really feel that JC is an 'ordinary' person making decisions but the focus is still on individual choice and individual preference rather than global decision-making (excluding the last decision of the game that is).

Choice in Mass Effect to a large extent revolves around the player being responsible for an individual's decisions and the way they see that character relating to those in the world around them. In the case of Mass Effect you're responsible for Commander Shepherd's behaviour, his/her actions in response to events and in response to other individuals – aswell as what sort of person Commander Shepherd is – are they a man or a woman? What race, what colour, how tall, how attractive? What skills do they have?

Mass Effect is a good example of a game within which choice is for the most part about moral decision-making over say larger, more global, decision-making. You don't so much control how the game ends up but control what kind of character Commander Shepherd is by the time he/she gets to that end. You can for example choose to use force to accomplish your goal – by roughing up individuals or atleast threatening them; alternatively you can try to compel them by appealing to their good nature, or reasoning them with if you're neither too much of a paragon nor too much of a renegade.

Characters behaviour will change, dependent on how you behave towards them, and generally how you've acted during the course of the game – if you have a reputation as a killer or a thug who ruthlessly achieves their goal then characters will likely be afraid of you; vice versa if you always try to do what's right then people will treat you differently, and you may even be able to convince them to help you because of it.

Also of note within Mass Effect is the aspect of personal choice, I mentioned already the choice you're given in terms of 'who' Commander Shepherd is, this not just applies to physical and moral characteristics but also how they interact with other people – and specificially about how Shepherd relates to those in his/her team, you can for instance choose to start a relationship with one of your team, whether it be heterosexual or homosexual, which may develop into a physical event (I guess everybody's heard about or seen the notorious 'sex scene' already?), alternatively you can choose to disagree with a team member and sour relations.

Choice in Mass Effect is largely about personal preference – it's about what sort of Commander Shepherd you want to be, and what sort of class (from the general scheme of RPG classes) you'd like him/her to most be like. It's not so much about changing your destination, but rather changing what you do along the way to that destination and making you as the player feel comfortable with your commander Shepherd.

Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen is probably the most interesting choice of game I could figure to contrast with Heavy Rain, as unlike either Deus Ex or Mass Effect rather than focussing on a small group of individuals or a single individual making choices you play as the Lord of an army, and thus are responsible for the decisions – and consequences of the decisions, that the army as a whole makes. Thus the focus of choice in Ogre Battle is more about the sorts of choices you make as a leader, deciding what you think is best to achieve your army's end goal of seizing power. Of special note in the game is the alignment or morality system that judges your actions throughout the game and allows the game to react the sort of Lord you are.

If for example you employ creatures and units considered 'evil' that will generally lead to a lower alignment; likewise if you use higher level units to crush lower level units that will lead to a lower alignment. Actions have consequences in Ogre Battle – certain 'tricks' to beat the game quicker will usually lead to lower alignment, like using higher level units to smash weak units or fully healed units against leaderless units. But your alignment also relies on some random factors – such as what sort of tarrot cards you receive on liberating towns, and also to some extent on what your statistics some of your soldiers have on creation – since leveling up to particular higher or lower alignment classes relies on a range of certain stats hitting certain levels you can sometimes be 'forced' into having units of a particular alignment.

In effect alignment is a morality judge – If you play the part of 'noble hero', saving as many people as quickly as possible, never employing evil creatures and avoiding any and all contact with those with low alignment you are given the opportunity to recruit certain special characters who might not be available to a lower alignment Lord such as Tristan, and vice-versa if your alignment is too high you can't get characters like Deneb. Also characters on the battlemap (characters who speak to you once you reach the town they’re in) will react differently towards you dependent on your alignment and possibly give you items if they like you. Aswell as working on a larger, global scale, alignment also effects the way your soldiers/creatures can level up, with some classes locked out to soldiers of certain alignments – and soldiers alignments being affected by the actions they take part in aswell as their Lord's overall alignment.

Choice plays a heavy role in Ogre Battle, with it directly affecting the ending you get aswell as the range of units and options available to the player through the course of the game but there's an underlying subtley to it – since the moral cost of each action is never discussed you only get a feel that certain action are obviously 'bad' or obviously 'good' and therefore have to make choices based on how you want to play, and whether you want to do what would be considered 'noble' or not.

How do any of these games tie in with Heavy Rain...? Well, these are all examples of games where choice is extensive, with Mass Effect and Deus Ex both pushed as relatively open world ‘choice’ games in which the player is responsible for their actions – and even in the case of Ogre Battle, despite not being presented as the primary focus of the game you are given free-reign to achieve your goals. But Heavy Rain is a game focussed on player decision making rather than player development, it isn't an RPG, you don't develop your character from nothing or create their identity – you're given Ethan, Madison, Scott and Norman as fully formed characters and given the chance to experience things as them, making decisions as you go.

Choice in Heavy Rain differs very much from choice in any of the other games because choice in it depends much more on individual split-second decisions rather than well-thought out choices based on personal preference and to a large extent you are focussed on a particular outcome – even when other avenues of choice are available to the player they're often not that well signposted. Take for example the series of 'clues' Ethan Mars has to find by accomplishing a series of horrendous challenges – these puzzles involve Ethan making a sacrifice and usually badly injuring himself, but they're also for the most part presented as definite outcomes. Ethan must sacrifice for his son otherwise he's failed his part in the story.

In one of the puzzles he must crawl through tunnels and avoid electrocution in order to gain a piece of the puzzle – but at all times you have the option to leave, to simply give up yet this isn't as well signposted as the others. Instead the game offers a 'right' path and you have to try and achieve that path, if you don't then you still get to continue playing the game but you don't get quite as good an ending as you might of had you finished the game in the 'right' way. The 'choice' on offer is not so much about personal preference or ethics but rather about the ability of the player to achieve the 'right thing', failure to do so leaving the player with a worse ending. Two good examples of this are the scenes where Norman must either sate his addiction (the easy thing to do) or walk to the bathroom to throw water on himself and tame his desire, and the scene where Scott Shelby has to make a decision whether to give Kramer his medication or not when he begans to have a heart attack.

In the case of the scene with Norman, struggling to cope with his addiction, the problem isn't so much that you don't have any choice over the final outcome but rather than the requirements for achieving the positive outcome (Jayden being able to quit his addiction) don't relate well and don't make it feel like a choice so much as an achievement or a failure. In order to beat his addiction you must not only hammer buttons (in effect literalising the struggle Jayden himself would face to pull himself away relatively unnoticed) you must also get to the toilets in enough time for Jayden to wash his face.

I'd argue this was the wrong way to add choice to this aspect of Jayden's life, when you add time limit it unfairly penalises the player – especially in the case of a game like Heavy Rain where the player doesn't even know how to do what he wants before he has to do what he want - even when he knows what he wants to achieve because of the Quick-time style button pressing format of the game! Apart from a few actions being associated with certain buttons, most of the buttons you'll need to press aren't that obvious before you're told you need to press them – so it leaves a gap between the player knowing the choice they want to make but not knowing how to implement that exactly right.

In the case of Shelby, the problem isn't so much that you aren't given a choice but rather that the moral choice is more heavily signposted than the immoral choice – rather than standing off for a second so the player can make their decision then judging them afterwards the game constantly presents the particular angle which the developers intended the game to go in – it's clear from the scene with Kramer that the positive outcome would be to help him, and not helping him would mean some sort of failure. This itself jars with the fact Shelby only reaches this opportunity of decision after shooting numerous henchman, so in effect the narrative is telling you: sure it's ok to kill but only if the guys you can't look the guy in the eye one-on-one when you do it. As the player we're given a choice between helping and not helping, but the 'right' or 'moral' choice is much more obvious and implied as the correct thing to do.

I think here arises the problem with Heavy Rain: The game does give you choice but the 'right' choice is often much more heavily signposted than any of the other choices – and this becomes a problem since if a moral choice is going to feel worthwhile it must involve some sort of trade-off, traditionally in games 'being evil' – ie doing what would be considered in life the immoral thing to do in a situation is easier (and often more fun) but leads to negative consequences in game (characters reacting badly to you for example) whereas doing the right thing is often less fun, sometimes more challenging, but eventually more beneficial because you usually get the 'good' ending. The three games I mentioned earlier are examples that all use this sort of equation, despite the differences in style, narrative and game design, to great success. Yet pushing the player toward a single line of action when they're told to make 'choices' in Heavy Rain seems something of an oxymoron – afterall the concept of choice usually involves atleast two potential avenues of possibility of largely equal value, and when a game like Heavy Rain, which is focussed on the choices a player makes and giving them free reign, instead decides that there is a 'right' path and a 'wrong' path the choice in the game ends up seeming somewhat wanton.
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About Panzadolphin56one of us since 9:54 AM on 05.06.2011

Oh hey!

I'm former male model and celebrity nutritionist Panzadolphin56. This is my blog. I write things here.

...in case the blog bit didn't give that away.

Anyway! To the left you'll find my latest blogs, and beneath this you'll find a fairly comprehensive list of most of what I've written over the years (unfortunately some stuff does eventually get bumped off the list.)

I like to write from a fairly critical standpoint about games, usually analysis or talking about issues that interest me, I also do retrospectives from time to time, talk about games I've been playing, write the funny things that come into my head, and very occasionally do some crappy art.

I hope you enjoy what you read!

I also do Lets Plays (mostly old horror games) so if that's your thing then click here:


Everyone who clicks will not win a million dollars!


A little about me:

I am mostly a story person, good mechanics are good mechanics but button pressing never does anything for me. I like Horror, I like Cyberpunk, I like Neo-Noir (especially crossed with Cyberpunk), I like good art and good writing, I like games that cut against the grain or choose to challenge social or industry norms in some way.

I don't have a single favourite game but I am a big fan of the MGS games, Snatcher, the Forbidden Siren series, Silent Hill 2, the old-school Resident Evils, Advance Wars and Power Dolls, among many, many others.


Critical Pieces:

How ugly should Horror really be?
Of Inventories and Horror Games
Crafting A Good Game of 'The Thing'
Alien(s), Creative license and Borrowed Ideas
Crossing from TV/Movie to Games
Scope and Depth in the world of gaming
Boss Battles - When do they ever make sense?
Survival Horror Essentials
Colonial Marines: Well, that kind of sucked...
Disability, Disease in Games
Blood 2 and Post-Modernism
Topics, Tropes and Atmosphere in Horror games
Realism Vs. Fantasy - Who Wins?
The gradual drift away from the mainstream
Is There Horror in The Ugly...?
The Fourth Wall and taking games seriously
Are You Always Online?
Hype: Aliens Vs. Predator
To shoot stuff or not to shoot stuff?
Character Design and Choice in Games
Culture Vs. Creativity: Where do Stories come from?
Where you go Isometric-Strategy Games?
What's the Point of Games?
Do Horror games even still exist...?
Why are Characters Always so White...?
Choice in Games: Heavy Rain

A Magical Dolphin Plays:

The King of the Wood


Resident Evil Remake
Aliens Vs Predator 2
Sweet Home
Forbidden Siren
System Shock 2

Pick up and Plays:

Call of Cthulhu and the Spectre of Good Horror
Story Books and Nightmares in Rule of Rose
B-Movie Bliss: Extermination
Along for the ride with Michigan: Report From Hell
Some thoughts on Wargame: European Escalation
Skyrim: Impressions

Funny/Less Critical Stuff:

Get Yo Summer Game On
Lazyblog: Box Art
Escaping into the Darkness of Hellnight
Diversity what what?!?: Black Mamba Edition
Why Do We Still Have Exploding Barrels...?


Dead Space 3, in a nut shell.
CROSSOVER: Mario X Siren
Boss: Learning the Tools of the Trade

Front Pages:
Tales from Skyrim: The skinhead shopkeep
Steam ID:Panzadolphin56
Mii code:This is a thing?


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