David Cage, the director and writer of Heavy Rain, made a sobering discovery about the public perception of video games. In an interview just a few weeks before the release date, he recalled that some parts of the world had seen what Heavy Rain offered and didn’t like it for surprising reasons. “One territory asked me to change one scene because it was too emotional,” Cage recalled. “I read the email ten times to make sure I got it right. What do you mean 'too emotional'? Can you change the end of Titanic, it's really too sad. Same thing for Gone With the Wind—just add a couple of jokes near the end so we don't cry. Woody Allen's too funny; Coppola, too real; Scorsese, too violent.”
This was when he realized how little progress games had made. There is a belief that games are not a medium, merely toys designed to entertain children. The attempt to create more sophisticated, potentially more mature experiences in games transgresses on this general perception. The indictment, while unspoken, is clear—games should never be anything more than trivial distractions.
Games Are Dangerous Toys
Heavy Rain enters into the games industry at a time of transition. On the one hand, games are making significant strides as a primary form of entertainment, with blockbuster titles such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 rivaling film with sales of over $1 billion U.S. The depth of gameplay and even narrative is forcing, sometimes uncomfortably, reassessments their place in entertainment. On the other hand, games themselves are demonized much in the same way that comics once were, frequently being cited as the scapegoat for everything from divorces due to game addiction, to mass murder “incubators” that train people in the art of school killing sprees.
The audience for games is growing, and at the same time, the fear of their possible side effects is also on the rise. There is a generation gap occurring where the youth continue to embrace and integrate gaming in their lives. The older demographics see a foreign, alien threat that they fail to recognize as similar to the very persecution they endured themselves for listening to rock n’ roll when their elders felt music was a corrosive social element.
This attitude towards games is understandable considering that the medium was first conceived and marketed as a trivial entertainment device. When the technology was simplistic, with cartoon-like graphics, it was mainly because it was economically viable to do so. However, that all changed in the 90's when the consoles became popular enough to justify a marked increase in production quality. This phase of gaming introduced now standard components, such as more powerful machines, recognizably human characters, interactive environments, and complicated gameplay.
Of course, as games became more complex, the audience demanded more challenging content and shocking subject matter. Mortal Kombat was a prime example of a game whose controversial content made it extremely popular with gamers, but whose violent imagery caused quite a moral backlash amongst socially conservative detractors. Video games had finally done what other forms of art had done for centuries—shock the status quo.
Parents who had seen their children playing harmless, cartoon-like games such as Super Mario Bros. were outraged to see realistically rendered adults literally tearing still beating hearts out of bodies with a fountain of blood. Violence now looked more authentic, uncomfortably so for some, and explicit sexual content was not far behind. As soon as sex entered into the scene, the controversies became massive, such as the infamous Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas “hot coffee” that got even the attention of Hillary Clinton, or the recent Fox News fiasco with the original Mass Effect. Where film and literature are considered perfectly acceptable venues for sex and violence, games are not. Part of this was the stigma that toys should not be covering these topics. The other part was the nature of games, their interactivity, somehow made these concepts even less savory. The line of thinking was that it was one thing to simply be a passive observer to acts of sex or violence, but it was unacceptable to be a participant, even virtually.
It also because of this interactivity that one of the most famous arguments against games as an artistic medium was formed.
Choice Removes Art
Back in 2005, famed film critic Roger Ebert wrote about games on his website with the Chicago Sun Times. He said, in no uncertain terms, that games could never be art, precisely because of their interactive nature. Years later his famous argument that games cannot be art is still being discussed today.
“There is a structural reason for that,” Ebert says. “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”
He also cited how Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet would get completely derailed as a game by a player forcing the title characters to strip off their clothing and stand on their heads. Because the player doesn’t have to follow the intent of the author, the experience is now null and void.
This circles back to Heavy Rain, a game that is already inciting an unusually high level of debate precisely because it attempts to create an artful, authored experience, while still providing the player with a degree of interactivity. Where most games and discussions about games revolve around graphics or console supremacy, Heavy Rain has already incited discussion about whether it is a game, whether it succeeded at its goal, whether it refutes Roger Ebert’s argument or simply validates it.
David Cage calls Heavy Rain an interactive drama. His goal with the game was to create a cinematic experience that drew on the strengths of the typical big screen thriller, while at the same time giving players the interactive experience traditionally associated with games. Cage has further evolved a concept he calls “the rubber band narrative”, where he conceives a game as having a fixed beginning and end point, but the events between those two points can stretch and contract to accommodate player choice. In a sense, while Cage is the author for the start and the finish of the story he turns authorship over to the player for the middle portion. This manifests itself in a variety of ways throughout the game.
Choose Your Own Adventure
The plot, without saying too much, involves a serial killer who preys on children. He is called “The Origami Killer” because he kidnaps young boys, holding his victims captive for several days before drowning them and leaving their dead bodies with a piece of origami in the victim’s hand. The central conflict of the game is that Ethan Mars, an architect, is recovering from the loss of one child at the hands of a tragic car accident, only to lose his surviving son as the latest victim of the Origami Killer, meaning that the child has four days left to live.
The game opens with character building segments that illustrate Mars’ life, his son’s reluctance to communicate with him, the decrepit home he retreated to after the separation from his wife. On top of all of these layers, Cage complicates things by adding choice.
Players can attempt to communicate with the son; they can try to dutifully follow a schedule of ensuring the boy does his homework, eats his dinner and goes to bed on time. Or, players can simply have Ethan Mars sit in his office; ignoring the boy, watching old videos of a time when he had two children, or stand in the backyard, morosely throwing a basketball at the hoop while the child watches TV inside. It is now up to the player to decide whether Ethan Mars can try to salvage this ailing family relationship, or simply let it stagnate further. Here, the choices can define the narrative experience, rather than dilute it as Ebert postulates.
By the time the player has arrived at the conclusion of the story, major characters may have lived, died, or even been removed from their job, and thus the story. Choices are given to kill, be killed, or make other sacrifices. Relationships can be kindled, shattered, or completely ignored. The Origami Killer can even get away with his crime, if that is how the player wishes the game to unfold.
Heavy Rain elevates the player into the role of the author, the director and the actor. The gamer chooses what characters will say and do over the course of the story. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, players cannot hijack a car, shoot up downtown and visit a prostitute on a whim, but they can bond with the characters in a way GTA isn’t capable of, become emotionally invested in the events and the consequences to the people involved, and experience an incredibly broad and subtle range of emotions. Rarely does a game attempt to provoke the emotions between a parent and a child, but that is precisely Heavy Rain’s central theme. Rather than confront an ancient evil, a futuristic alien race or even a corrupt dictator, Cage presents a simple, relatable nightmare.
This is where Heavy Rain is causing some interesting disruption in the circles of the gaming community. Its radical departure from traditional controls and mechanics in favor of communicating an emotional experience rather than a gameplay experience has sparked debate about its very nature as a game. There have been passionate criticisms that Heavy Rain is actually little more than a movie asking for occasional inputs here and there in order to keep playing. There are also similarly adamant assertions that one of the most interesting things about Heavy Rain is that many people don’t realize their experience of the game was unique from that of others.
David Cage himself commented that some players of the game assumed the plot was fixed and were surprised to hear how differently events unfolded for others that had made different choices. It never occurred to them that a character could refuse an action, or never occurred to them that it was possible to succeed at a particular situation and that failure was avoidable. In creating Heavy Rain, David Cage, along with other developers such as BioWare, has created a new kind of “water cooler” moment. Rather than discussing what was seen on a film or television program, people can discuss, “What did you do?” and share in the discovery and surprise of finding out how others have dealt differently with the same situation. This is also where an interesting conflict arises between the notions of choice and art.
There is a new issue that critics, academics and even audiences have to deal with. Where is the line drawn between the intended authored, artistic experience and the freedom of the player to choose actions based on personal preference? One discussion that has recently come to light surrounding Heavy Rain is a fundamental conflict between player choice and character logic. In a traditional narrative, if Ethan Mars is concerned with saving his son, the story will go on to illustrate the lengths to which he is willing to go in order to achieve this. In Heavy Rain, however, because Ethan Mars is a fictional character under the control of the player, the choices a player makes to entertain themselves may run counter to the established “emotional logic” of the character, thus creating disconnect that some say reinforces Roger Ebert’s arguments about games and the traditional perception of art.
In other words, if Ethan Mars is willing to do anything to save his son, but the player decides to simply sit back and do nothing, just to see what happens next, the narrative has been “destroyed” by the player. The intent of the story, character, and “author” David Cage, is that Ethan Mars will undertake any action to save his child. The player, however, wants to see what happens if things play out differently and chooses to have Ethan perform an action that would deliberately sabotage his attempts at finding his son. The story is trying to go one way, the player is in conflict with that intent, but has final “authority” since he or she is holding the controller.
This raises questions that have never really been addressed before. If Cage is the “author” of this experience, but actually hands over the reins of characterization to a player over the course of the game, then does the player define Ethan Mars, or is Mars still the product of Cage’s artistic intent? Other games, such as the Fallout and Mass Effect series have circumvented these issues by giving players a blank slate upon which to explore their worlds. They allow the player to define the character. But other games, such as Heavy Rain, and more traditional games such as the God of War series, or even the Halo series, take an existing character with their own past and peculiarities and, for a short time, allow players to step into the shoes of these characters and live their own lives.
One genre allows players to create their own role, while other genres ask players to live the role of another person. Both of them, however, are complicated by the very interactivity that games are best known for. And then there is the issue of choice versus “fun.” In a typical narrative, the entertainment itself comes from watching events, both good and bad, unfold for the characters. In a game, however, where it is a player controlling the character, the player can be torn between wanting to avoid an unpleasant turn in the plot in order to maintain a beneficial condition for the character for “optimal play.” This is seen in Mass Effect 2 where potentially dramatic and entertaining disagreements can result in the death of or inability to retain valuable crew members, where a “bad” choice can have negative repercussions on the player’s actual success, thus impacting on their enjoyment.
Games have matured in both technological and narrative scope. It appears that they have also entered into a challenging frontier of confronting perceptions of art, artist and audience. When the lines between these begin to blur, what are we left with? It’s a question that will take several years, and many, many more games of Heavy Rain’s scope to answer.