Heavy Rain

Much has been written about Heavy Rain, from the reviews that celebrate its unique take on storytelling in games, to criticisms of its narrative, to its treatment of its female characters. It’s an ambitious game, certainly, and one which falls into a long cycle of titles that lay claim to the future of interactive fiction.

Spoilers follow.

My experience with it is contradictory. There are scenes that I think work incredibly well – the initial mall scene where you struggle against hundreds of characters to push through; trying to squeeze through the electrified wires; the blackout scene in the train station where characters collapse as you touch them. But for every mechanical triumph, there are a number of elements, narratively, mechanically, and thematically, that the game simply didn’t work for me – and in some cases had me laughing out loud at their absurdity, most notably tying a superior officer’s tie and making another character some unwanted eggs.

In trying to divine just why the game didn’t work for me, I want to focus on just one scene. One that I find conflicting narratively, and one which I think illustrates the central problem with the game’s storytelling and choice of core mechanics – Chapter 16: Suicide Baby.

And because the game is so tied up in the storytelling language of film, I think it’s only fair to approach it in the same way I would a scene from a film. There are other approaches that I’d love to see taken such as the game’s attitude to mental illness, it’s strange use of symbolism (especially with regards to water), or its mother/child relationships rather than father/child.

But maybe some other time.

Background

As presented to the audience, Scott Shelby is a private investigator following up on the Origami killings. In this scene, he is at the house of Susan Bowles, the mother of a previous victim, to see if she can reveal any more information.

He spies a baby alone in the living room, but can’t get in because the door is locked.  After finding another way inside, he discovers the young mother has slit her wrists in the bathtub. He drags her out, dresses the wounds, comforts her baby, and in return she gives him a cell phone that contains information about the investigation. Scott leaves and gets in his car, with Susan still lying on her bed and her young child still in the living room.

The scene in context

By the end of the game, we know that (spoiler) Scott is the Origami Killer. This bizarre sleight of hand would have been still implausible but at least palatable if we weren’t able to hear Scott’s thoughts as he muses on why he is at the house. The game misleads us by having him never think about being the killer while we are in control.

This reveals the gaping narrative chasms when you put the scene in context of the larger story. The real reason he is at the house is to obtain the phone to remove the evidence of him being the killer. This is obviously problematic, because narratively this can’t be revealed here because it would remove the story’s driving question of ‘who is the killer?’, and we can’t let the player know because they need to want to play Scott – and in fact they do because out of the 4 characters, he is the most interesting and 3-dimensional.  So, to make this work, the game essentially has to lie to the player narratively and mechanically, and not for the first and last time.

That’s the wider context, which crumbles under even the most cursory scrutiny, what about the scene as presented?

Scene Structure

This scene can be broken down into a number of beats that describe a change in the value or goals of a character within a scene as they overcome obstacles.  This is important here, because it lets you see the dramatic structure of the scene – but it’s also an indicator of when the game is giving you ‘busy’ work to do, which I’ll return to in discussing the game’s mechanics.

The beats of this scene, as seen through Scott’s goals are:

  • Get inside the house, blocked by the front door being locked
  • Find the woman, blocked by having to search for her, then breaking down the door to find her attempting suicide in the bathroom
  • Tending to her wounds, blocked by having to find the bandages
  • Question her for information, blocked by having to quiet the baby
  • Change the baby, blocked by nothing
  • Feed the baby, blocked by having to find the bottle
  • burp the baby, blocked by nothing
  • Talk to Susan, obtain the phone

As you can see, there are a few beats in the middle where Scott isn’t really blocked by anything.  They could be taken out and the ‘plot’ of the scene wouldn’t really change.  The action and the emotional context might be altered, but there’s no real drama in there, and no surprise when the emotional value shifts.  The game seems to know this though because it’s here that it gives you the densest and most complex mechanical tasks to do to paper over the dramatic cracks.

Action & emotional throughline

In placing this scene within the larger narrative of the game’s story, it’s worth deconstructing what we learn, either about the characters or the plot. One model for that is to look at the action line of the scene and the emotional throughline of the scene.

Looking at this scene from the action line as it relates to the entire plot, Scott is investigating the killings and in the end is given a phone that hopefully contains more information. The other events in the scene are bounded entirely within it – they have no impact on anything else in the narrative. If Scott had found the phone through other means, the plot would not be substantially altered.

Looking at the scene from a character emotional perspective, you find pretty much the same thing. Emotionally, Scott is in the same place as he was at the beginning. Nothing substantive has changed. Within the scene, there is a change in the emotional charge – his reaction to the woman in the bath or his coddling of the child – but those charges, again, don’t carry out into the rest of the narrative. If the scene hadn’t happened, how would Scott have been changed emotionally? It’s possible there’s an internal dialogue going on in there, possibly about the loss of a parent, or encroaching loneliness, but there’s nothing that brings it to the surface as the events are never mentioned again.

From the plot-line, what has the player / audience learned about the narrative from performing these actions?  In reality, very little.  We are no closer to finding out as the audience who the Origami Killer is.  No facts have been revealed at all, but we are led to believe that obtaining the phone will give us more information – perhaps in the next scene.

What we learn about the character though is unclear within the framework of the story because it is internally contradictory.  We are shown Scott being initially sympathetic, but then he leaves having done the bare minimum to save Susan – in the end leaving her alone.  This is in opposition to the danger he has previously put himself to save people.  We’re shown him as being good with children, which does add to our sense of him as a sympathetic character, but we aren’t able to do anything about that.  The core of the character feels unclear here, and as such the player’s emotional engagement oscillates…but to really dig into the player’s emotional change, we need to look at the dominant charge across the whole scene and who the player empathises with.

Empathic transference

By placing such an emotive act at the core of the scene, the game transfers the players emotional response and empathy to a non-player character. My sympathies shifted almost immediately to the attempted suicide rather than remaining with Scott. This, in turn, opens up the narrative question of ‘will she be alright?’

The player, acting as Scott does little to bring those sympathies back to him – in fact, everything he does after binding her wounds seems tied with continuing his investigation. He does interact with her crying child, but this is a mechanical action rather than an emotive action directly tied to the scene. While it might produce an emotional response, it is one that is connected to that child’s needs rather than Scott’s or the Mother’s. It also stretches the scene out mechanically, which I’ll return to in a moment.

This open question remains until Scott eventually leaves – with the player unable to make any further choice to help the woman. This is an out of character response because we know he helps women in distress – we have seen it in the past, and we have also been mechanically engaged as the player in doing so. At the end of the scene, our empathy is still with the woman, and rather than the question leaving the scene be ‘what is in the phone?’ as it should be, it remains ‘will that woman be alright?’

Mechanics

In the beginning, the player is free to wander around the house, and once in the house, they have limited freedom, but the majority of the interactions here use the game’s quicktime event model, where button presses or movements of the analogue sticks trigger actions that move the beats of the scene forward.

Let’s go back and look at that beat list, because it illuminates one of the key challenges that Heavy Rain faces in integrating its mechanics with its narrative.

  • Get inside the house, blocked by the front door being locked
  • Find the woman, blocked by having to search for her, then breaking down the door to find her attempting suicide in the bathroom
  • Tending to her wounds, blocked by having to find the bandages
  • Question her for information, blocked by having to quiet the baby
  • Change the baby, blocked by nothing
  • Feed the baby, blocked by having to find the bottle
  • burp the baby, blocked by nothing
  • Talk to Susan, obtain the phone

In those first few beats, the game gives the player a sense of broad agency, which translates into them being able to make choices in how they approach the problem, albeit within the limited narrative scope of the game.

In trying to get inside the house, the player is free to wander around, interact with parts of the house, ask themselves questions about what might happen next, and make mechanical and goal-oriented choices. The same goes for finding the woman. Tension is built through the player exploring the space of the house, noticing what is out of place, and in the way the house is built to funnel them towards their goal, but not without first having them try some red herring locations.

By the time we reach tending her wounds, the possibility space of actions has collapsed. It’s a simple puzzle to figure out where the bandages are likely to be, fetch them, and then to wind them around her wrists. What the game has started to do here, is stretch out the beats with much smaller actions. In the preceding beats, the character’s goals and by extension the players were presented, validated or thwarted, and new ones created through a constant back and forth of action. Here though, the game stretches out the individual beat with button presses to move onto the next stage. The actions themselves may seem meaningful or the controller actions may mirror the in-game movement, but they don’t actually present a change in the core value of the scene.

And this manifests in the dominant action sequence of the scene – changing the baby.

The game asks you to perform a number of ‘quick-time’ event button presses & controller movements to change the baby’s nappy, find some food for it, feed the baby, and then burp it. Each of these beats is essentially blocked by nothing more than the actions you need to perform to move onto the next one.  There is no surprise to achieving them, the emotional core of the scene doesn’t change by doing them, and there is no new block to overcome in order to progress when you successfully complete one.   The game tries to hide the fact that you are doing essentially ‘busy work’ by giving you the chance to wander around, but finding the baby’s food is so simple that it hardly counts as a serious block to moving forward.

There is no meaningful choice, no player expression, no emotional charge, and no significant shift in the narrative beats in the scene for these events.  In short, the game is stalling.  Plot wise, if this set of actions didn’t exist, it would have no effect on the narrative progression of the game.  Emotionally, you could argue that changing the baby grounds you and reveals something about the character, but what it reveals and how that reveal connects – emotionally and narratively – to the broader story & experience is non-existent.  The game never puts you in the position of interacting with a child again, it never expands on the emotional resonance of that event, and in the end it negates all of that action when you realise the character you’ve been playing has been the cause of all of Susan’s suffering.

Superficiality

After the Wheeler Centre unconference, there was a number of interesting posts by Daniel Wood about the nature of criticism, and one of the points he made in this particular comment was around how it was easy to review the ‘superficial’ aspects of a work, but to really dig into what made them special you had to dig underneath.

I think Heavy Rain fails, both as a narrative and in the end as a game, because it is dominated by the superficial. Characters, while physically lifelike, are emotionally opaque, one-dimensional, strangely motivated, and in the end not particularly relatable themselves. Mechanically, the quicktime events while mirroring the in-game actions with the controller actions, frequently connect with in-game moments that have little to no impact on the experience – witness the number of times a scene starts with a player sitting down or in a car and the first action is to open a door or stand up. At the scene level, the game is interested in short-term visceral thrills that seem to have little relation to the rest of the plot. And at the plot level, the game trades in a sleight of hand that is as infuriating as it is intended to be shocking.

Which is not to knock the game’s ambition, and to also acknowledge where their experiment has succeeded. The much-touted mall scene is a powerful example of players heavily identifying with characters. Some of the decisions that Ethan has to make in order to save his son force players to reflect on the same moral dilemna. There are moments in the game when you can see the potential of their approach to quick-time events, and to mirroring in-game action with controller action, but these are all too easily washed away in scenes where you need to do a sexy dance to discover more information about the killer, or cook eggs for someone who decides they don’t like them, or when you tie a police-commissioner’s tie.

In the end though, all of this deconstruction & critiqueing collapses down to a single question – is Heavy Rain any good?

It’s a unique experience certainly, but one that is dominated by its surface characteristics; it’s a lofty experiment that falls far short of its goals; it’s badly written and it frequently falls back on being a test of reaction times. I don’t think that it’s particularly good, but it does shine a light on what the strengths of our medium are – and that those strengths aren’t necessarily best served by trying to duplicate the narrative framework of film.

Which is something I hope to cover in a future post – are we as a medium best served by being lumped in with film?  Ken Levine doesn’t think so & I hope to look at with a local eye soon.

One thought on “Heavy Rain”

  1. I thought Heavy Rain was a good attempt at an ambitious game format, but it was severely let down by a huge number of implausible actions that broke any sort of empathy towards the characters. The scene you’ve looked at killed any sort of empathy towards the mother, with Scott Shelby happily taking the phone and leaving several minutes after tending to a woman who had tried to take her own life, yet when bandaged up said she’d look after her baby. You just tried to kill yourself woman and 5 minutes later you’re fine to look after your child, and we’re expected to swallow that as the player. My thought was not whether the mother would be all right, but that the baby was basically screwed because it had a parent who was not mentally capable of looking after it.

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