For a second, I forgot I was playing a game. So much so that the day after I finished Heavy Rain for the PS3, I watched one of my favorite crime films, Seven, and involuntarily tried to control Brad Pitt’s responses and movements. I couldn’t. I’d never felt so bereft watching a movie, the TV screen dividing us in a permanent chasm.
Heavy Rain changed my whole perspective on gaming. For those who aren’t familiar with the game, it could best be described as a noir thriller action-adventure game where players controlled almost every aspect from the mundane chores of shaving and preparing lunch for your kid, to death-defying trials like driving opposite traffic and warding off a mad doctor who wants to dissect you for kicks.
It was a mesmerizing experience from beginning to end. But somewhere between the gorgeous 3D models and the taut grip of my wrist on the controller, I realized this wasn’t just the future of games I was seeing, nor even film. This was the future of entertainment and story-telling where the line was so blurred, there was no division. The next-generation of gaming wasn’t just about prettier graphics, but taking the experience to a whole new level.
It’s not to say Heavy Rain wasn’t without flaws. But I’ll delve into that more after talking about some of my highlights from this generation and how they reflect on Heavy Rain.
Did you kill him?
I’ve never experienced so many consistently amazing moments as I have in this generation of games. Roaming the rooftops of the cities in the Assassins Creed series was grand and majestic. My first duel in Red Dead Redemption was probably one of the most exhilarating moments I’d felt- I’m in a western! The train sequence in Uncharted 2 made me forget every action sequence I’d seen up to that point. Arkham Asylum was the penultimate Batman experience, surpassed in Arkham City, faithfully depicting the character as both action hero and detective. The Modern Warfare’s were absolutely brilliant, although the first one had more shocks for me (the opening execution and the nuclear scene still give me tremors). Bioshock 2 and Infinite both had amazing sequences, but the first one with the, “Would you kindly?” reveal had me questioning free will and destiny for weeks.
This makes for an intriguing shift in the way we view entertainment. It’s not just a developer dictating paths for us to follow, even though they set the parameters of the world. It’s the player who gets to interact and experience the world with his own unique perspective.
Now I know this isn’t anything new per se. Ultima, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and other RPG’s give players a lot of freedom and have been doing so for decades. But what is new is the sophistication and boldness with which the “freedom” is executed. Boldness doesn’t just mean the most outrageous and crazy thing, though one of the “bolder” examples would be going on a shooting rampage in an airport in Modern Warfare II. It’s also about nuance and the ability to cultivate sensibilities and emotional investment in the story arc.
There’s two primary ways I see this being done. The first is by recreating a cinematic experience and letting you live it out. The second is by taking advantage of game mechanics to evoke emotions in a way that would be impossible with film.
I’ll mention Metal Gear Solid 4 as an example of the latter. About a third of the way through, you suddenly played one of the opening scenes from the first Metal Gear Solid on the original Playstation. The graphics were primitive, even though at the time, they seemed remarkably detailed. The textures were faded, pushing the PS1 to its limit. I remembered how young I was when I played it, remembered my feelings of awe. It’d been almost 14 years and now, it was a feeble shell of what it had been graphically speaking. Suddenly, Solid Snake woke from his dream, coughing, checking his health, grumpier, but looking a hundred times more accurate with the PS4 technology than the low-poly PS1 model. He’d aged and I felt as old as Solid, the cycle complete as we went back to his (and our) roots. I don’t think this would have been possible in a movie, even with flashbacks because of its active nature.
It’s funny to think that it wasn’t so long ago when an amazing cutscene was enough to make me want to buy a game- I bought every Final Fantasy and Onimusha for that very reason. Now cutscenes don’t even factor in my decision, or in worse cases, a distraction that makes me wonder when the game is going to start. Audiences, especially casual gamers, have been willing to overlook blocky polygons if it’s meant more immersion in their games. Wii’s last-gen financial success is proof of that. While motion controls have their limits, you can’t have a game be emotionally engaging without the physical element, because in that case, you’d just have a movie.
It’s You, Murphy
Combining movies and games isn’t a new phenomenon. The string of FMV (full motion video) games from the 90s like Night Trap to Sewer Shark are examples of games that tried to blend the two, some better than others. You can even go further back to Dragon’s Lair which was absolutely stunning for its time. FMV’s were an exciting phenomenon, and some were genuinely good games. I loved 7th Guest, Phantasmagoria, the Wing Commander Games. Star Wars: Rebel Assault was the game that inspired me to work for LucasArts long time ago.
While most of these games were amazing to watch with superb visuals, they weren’t so fun to play. More importantly, you never felt like you were actually the main character. In Dragon’s Lair, did you ever mistake yourself for Dirk?
Part of that was a result of poor controls, the other, a rough interface, whether point and clicking on the mouse or toggling buttons on a joystick. Dialogue options were always text choices and movement was awkward at best. As the years progressed, FMV games, along with many adventure games, stopped being made. Many thought they were relics, signaling for the obituary.
Quantic Dream slammed the gates back open. First with the Indigo Prophecy, which had its problems, but was still very interesting (in the first scene, you murder someone, and the whole game is you trying to figure out why you did it). This was followed by Heavy Rain.
Taking a shower, preparing plates, flirting with my wife. Part of my mundane life, or the tutorials for one of the most unique games I’d played? Heavy Rain integrated the controls to make daily movement easy and intuitive. Brush your teeth, use the six-axis to shake the control side to side. Open the door, use the analog to copy the motion. Incorporating these controls into every aspect of the game made the characters easily relatable, a move that was simple enough to where you had to wonder, why hadn’t anyone done this before?
The plot revolved around hunting down the Origami Killer and saving your son. But it became much more than that, a test of character, the Kobayashi Maru of contemporary times. There’s plot holes, sure, and some of the sequences are confusing- I still don’t understand how Shaun, Ethan’s second son, disappeared right under his nose at the park. But the key point is, I couldn’t put the controller down. The character threads entangled me and I wanted to see what’d happen next. A big part of my curiosity was to find out how I’d respond in certain situations, which more often than not, ended with me being repulsed, or relieved, by my decisions.
In one of the most grueling sequences in the game, Origami Killer wants to see how far you’d go for love. He orders you to cut off your own finger. You mimic the slicing with the controller. But right before you do, the dual shock controller thumps with your heart and the music intensifies. There’s a prompt to confirm whether you want to actually cut your finger off. You affirm, hold down the buttons, then fling the controller downwards like the drop of a blade. It slices your finger off and Ethan drops to the ground, screaming in pain. Inside, I felt myself shriveling. Did I do that? At the same time, I was emotionally moved. He did this for the love of his son. You ask yourself, would I do the same? But here’s the catch. You can refuse. You can just say, screw it. I’m not going to do that no matter what.
Dialogue isn’t controlled by scrolling through texts (this is not a choose-your-adventure book). Thought bubbles float around you, and you have a time limit for your response. It keeps you focused, tense, but feels totally natural. Do you “trick,” or “buy,” a woman for information? Do you get a teddy-bear for your son or tell him to go to sleep right away and miss the chance to bond? You wait too long on any selection, and you either won’t get the information or elicit the emotional cue you hoped for. Further on in the game, say the wrong thing and Ethan doesn’t make love to Madison, the female protagonist.
In the first stage where Madison is playable, she washes her face, listens to music, takes a bath (yes, there’s videogame breasts exposed). Intruders eventually try to kidnap and kill her. Ironically, the voyeurism of the opening sequence was a thousand times creepier than the point she gets her throat slashed (which turns out to be a dream). Later, when the mad doctor tries to drill into her and Paco forces you to strip at gunpoint, I felt so violated. Note, not “Madison,” but “I.”
Any of them can die. I got Madison killed, Jayden too. The game moved on with the remaining characters. There is no guilty verdict in the form of a “game over scene.” On several occasions, I tried to intentionally kill myself by doing nothing just to see what would happen. The game responded by allowing my character to survive. The only way I died was to try to survive but screw up enough where I was killed- very much unlike the Resident Evil series and other games with demanding quick time events resulting in death with failure. In Heavy Rain, consequences are free of game mechanics like gimmicky status sheets of good points vs. bad points, kill the weak man or help him.
Despite the freedom the director, David Cage, gives you, he’s still able to convey his overarching vision. None of the message is compromised, even though the journey there can take a hundred permutations (well, maybe not a hundred, but a lot). The sheer amount of work that must have gone into preparing the branching scenarios is breath-taking. Imagine Scarface, The Usual Suspects, an Amadeus where you controlled the diverging plot points. What if in any romantic comedy movie you watched, you picked who you fell in love with?
The developers behind the game, Quantic Dream, also do work as a motion capture studio. Technically speaking, their achievements on Heavy Rain are manifold. It’s a delicate line between realism and the uncanny valley (the point in computer graphics where something is so realistic, it no longer looks digital, but doesn’t achieve enough realism so it ends up looking ‘uncanny and strange.’), and they, more frequently than not, succeed.
Human physiology is a funny thing. It seems very basic, and yet is so complex. Facial movements aren’t bones that have specific focal points of motion and spheres of influence. Instead, there are muscles and skin sliding all over one another, affected by lighting and the environment. Look in the mirror and try opening your jaw. You’ll be surprised to see it affects your temples, creates a small shift in your forehead, a slight motion in your brow. Recreating this digitally is not an easy feat. But you can tell the game took the effort to do it with details like wrinkles, pupil dilation, and basic hair physics.
Similar to the sliding muscles that affect every part of your face, the ambitions of Heavy Rain pushed the envelope of story-telling by giving us a more complete picture of its physiology. It wasn’t just multiple points floating haphazardly, but a living, vibrant organism, constantly evolving and growing, connected chemically and emotionally. Did it always succeed? No. But the effort that went into making something very different makes this my next-gen hero.
A friend of mine joked the ultimate the goal of games is to recreate the holodeck from Star Trek. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. But we’re starting to see glimmers of a form of entertainment that’s more rich and imaginative than any other medium can hope for. The possibilities in the current crop of titles seem to be boundless, technical capacities increasing exponentially with the advent of the next generation. The world environments I see in games are breath-taking, and soon, game characters will look more realistic than real life.
While I was playing Heavy Rain with my wife, she asked an interesting question. “If the characters are all digital, does that mean there’ll no longer be any movie stars?”
To which I shook my head and answered, “No, the movie star’ll be you.”
Peter Tieryas blogs at tieryas.wordpress.com