Let's talk a little about game design. As a researcher and teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to express in words exactly what it is that game design is, or what I hope to teach to outsiders--even to gamers themselves sometimes. Capturing exactly what the difference is between design decisions and development process is difficult, since "good" design often fades into the background because it just works. As a player, one rarely notices all the individual rules and decisions that have been made, the experience occupies the conscious mind.
Discussing game design is difficult because it is a second-order task. A designer constructs the rules, environment, etc. but always in hopes that the player will experience something that is greater than the sum of those parts. When set in motion, the player(s), rules, environment and fiction all combine and create something that is not obviously discernible from a list of the game's rules. Further, since it is the player whom we as designers are trying to affect somehow, their perception and personal interpretation of what is happening is more important than what the game design document says should be the result. (Not that players can't be wrong or ignorant, but we still have to deal with their perception of our work.)
Finally, discussing the design of the kinds of games I like is very difficult, because there is very little opportunity for experimentation to verify any hypotheses about the way the game works. That is, I'm not often able to change one rule and see how it plays out. The games are sealed and finished, I can't tamper with them myself very often. Even in franchise games such as Assassin's Creed or Mass Effect, which are largely similar, many changes have been made between iterations, so it becomes difficult to nail down exactly what cause has led to which effect.
I crouch, a motionless shadow hunched atop a gargoyle. Below me, my prey. A squad of three clueless henchmen yammering amongst themselves, oblivious to the cowled death that lurks just above their heads. I bring up the augmented reality interface and smirk at their resting heart rates and relaxed posture. I feel a swell of familiar hubris underwritten by my brute strength and know that soon they will be relaxed to the point of unconsciousness. I make my move. Dropping down from my perch, I land with the silent weight of a stalking cat, and promptly face the wrong direction and savagely punch the air. The predatory confidence leaves me.
They're ganging up on me now, things are getting frantic. I swing my Amp and smash the insectoid creature one, two, three times. Two more rush up behind my adversary. My back is to the wall, the world is going grey except for the red haze around my vision. I call on my powers. A wave of electric energy pulses out from my hands, at a right angle away from my enemies. My camera angle works well for melee, but, being perpendicular to my body, sends my electrical power harmlessly off to one side. The monsters have their way with me.
Clearly, things did not go to plan in these two episodes. Both were repeated more than once as I played through Arkham Asylum and inFamous 2. Not so often to be game-breaking, but certainly annoying and absolutely at the cost of my immersion. Very little will break the illusion of playing the powerful, predatory Batman better than a clumsy flailing of fists in the direction most opposite to my foes. In both cases, though most particularly in Batman, I sorely missed a function from another melee-based combat game: the lock-on mechanism from Assassin's Creed. The more I thought about it, the more I wished I could play through Arkham Asylum with the control mechanics, and some version of the abilities, from Assassin's Creed. The ability to lock onto my target, effectively telling the camera what to point at and therefore telling Batman what to swing at, would have alleviated many of my errors - those frustrating errors where I know what I want to do, but I simply do not have the requisite fingers to manipulate camera, feet and arms all together.
When does an idea, a mechanic or a technique become too good not to steal? On one hand, the theft of other's work is, well, theft. But standing on the shoulders of others, building up on the work that has come before, is standard practice in all productive pursuits, whether artistic or scientific. Especially in the incunabular medium of videogames, standards are still being set, conventions being established. Matters of ownership and copyright, as well as basic artistic integrity are relevant and should continue to be, but did Henry Ford patent and claim ownership of the idea of having the steering wheel on one side, and pedals for accelerator and brake? (I have no idea, if he did.) The small differences that do exist between models of vehicle are enough to cause frustrating errors (ask anyone who has driven in a country other than their own how often they've turned on the windshield wipers instead of signalling a turn).
Where to begin with Gears of War? Yes, its a big-budget, AAA console action type game, which are meant to be just the kind of thing I'm mostly focused on, but I have only just played through it. Having played it now, I feel only slightly more inspired to write about it than I did before playing it. Tom Bissell explores videogames in a deeply personal way in his book Extra Lives, and comes to the conclusion that Resident Evil made it possible for videogames to be stupid. If Resident Evil paved the Roman road, this makes Gears of War a German autobahn. Yet in the same book, Bissell makes a long claim for Gears of War as something slightly more than what it appears to be on a superficial, surface level. Can this game serve as a case for critics to put their ludological money where their mouth is? What do we find if we look past the aesthetics of the game, to the purportedly more important mechanics?
Heavy Rain will no doubt feature in the case study section of my thesis, and potentially become a journal article as well, but in the meantime, I'll write up some of my initial thoughts on the game. I will follow up with some engagement with the conversation around the game that has sprung up in the blogosphere.
Firstly I have to applaud Quantic Dream for trying something different, and attempting it with a deep conviction that essentially translates to a big budget. No one has attacked a story that could so conceivably happen in 'real life' on a current-gen console, in a full length game. That said, the 'kind of game' this is remains remarkably similar to their previous title, Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit. If that is a real criticism, though, I'd have to take many other companies to task for much worse transgressions.
Secondly, I have to admit that I generally go into games with an optimistic outlook, despite my purported status as a 'critic.' I am not looking for failure, rather I tend to try to look for success, and only see failure when it gets in the way of that success. I also tend to extend my hand towards whatever the auteur is 'trying' to do, despite the modern academic tendency to ignore authorial intent altogether. As a creative person myself, I feel there is still room for accepting the expression of someone else, and reacting to that, rather than insisting that everything is (only) what you make it.
With Heavy Rain, I feel like we did make a significant step in the journey of videogames. I don't know where we are headed, but that's just the point: the journey's the thing. There is no end in sight, so I won't focus on how much closer or farther away we are from it due to Heavy Rain. I've had a new experience, having played this game, than I had before. That is enough for me to call it worth playing. I can see what Cage is attempting to do here, by drawing us into this small web of characters. He invites us into the shoes of these four people, to experience a slice of life from their perspective. Not from our own perspective, mind you, from theirs. We are not transporting ourselves into this fictional world, but occupying a role already defined. In this way the auteur is demanding more cooperation from us than we might normally expect from the (largely theoretical/hypothetical) interactive drama form.
We have to accept that in this game, we are not ourselves, nor are we the Space Marine. We are four different, flawed, limited and biased people in turn. These people can only do so much, ie. we have only so many options to choose from. The fact that some are not what 'you' would do is not surprising, since you are not Ethan Mars. This is really no more a limiting experience than something like Fable 2 that trades on the openness and freedom of the game world that limits your ability to interact to either a simple binary of dialog options, or violence.
The general conversation surrounding Heavy Rain is fairly well signposted over at The Brainy Gamer. Some of the issues sparked responses in my mind, so here in no particular order, is some of that response.
The game has the power to make you feel afraid/nervous/tearful/anxious/guilty. Dismissing Heavy Rain as a glorified point-and-click adventure grossly understates its impact on an open-minded player. Get on board and take the ride the game wants to give you.
This is probably the one that identifies my general view most accurately. Combined with the real-time feel of the game, you are forced to actually engage with the world on the world's terms, not on your own, which is an experience much more like real life, where we cannot stop and deliberate nor can we replay the bit we just stuffed up.
There are a number of complaints about the 'game-ness' of Heavy Rain, how its not a fair game, or its too much of a game (with the input cues appearing on screen), or whatever... and I ask, what is a videogame? Are we so sure we know what a videogame is meant to be at this point that we can point at anything and say, Yae or Nay? I rather think not. This is more an observation of the players of games and subsequently a study of games themselves, is the notion that Heavy Rain sucks because its not 'fair.' Does this draw a line between games, which arguably by definition are supposed to be fair and a 'simulation' of someone's life--life being utterly unfair. That said, I think of games such as Civilization IV which are made decidedly unfair by increasing the difficulty level. We like unfairness when we come out on top, because it shows that we are so talented... or whatever. But why shouldn't you be frustrated by being the main character in a frustrating, emasculating situation? Gamers seem to be outraged by the difficulty of Heavy Rain, which if you read it as pure game, is fair enough considering the weird spikes and the sometimes difficult-to-read interface icons. But, in terms of 'story' or 'narrative' perspectives, its totally appropriate.
There is an imbalance, at the moment, in the assignation of meaning, or importance. Right now, gamers are much more caught up in the rules of the game than the content. Heavy Rain takes the opposite approach, and weights the content more than the game. So we end up with a deeper story than usual, and less robust gameplay. I tried to experience it as such, where the satisfaction would come from the resolution of the dramatic conflict, rather than me 'beating' the final boss. Dramatic closure is a different kind of satisfaction than victorious triumph, but not an inherently inferior one. The fact is that Heavy Rain is not a competition, even if it has elements of a game in it.
Finally, a note on the control scheme, and how odd it was. Yes, it was odd, but that is not a bad thing in this case. The game does not allow you to memorize combos or even single functions, ie. the control scheme is entirely contextual rather than robust/portable. So you have to pay attention! You are going to be surprised and caught off-guard rather than charging into some situation being totally prepared. That's the point.