Alternatives to the Orderly World
Constructive criticism requires the presentation of suggestions to ameliorate some if not all of the shortcomings identified by an assessment as scathing as the one presented above. While it is beyond the scope of a theoretical thesis to actually implement and test these suggestions, the following are essentially design ideas that, theoretically at least, alleviate some of the limitations observed above. The first area to explore are alternative concepts for what the object we currently call ‘videogame’ could be. When relying on existing definitions of videogame, many of these suggestions will very likely seem like very bad design choices. What must first be addressed then, is the nature of a videogame experience, the goals of the medium, which can then allow for slightly or wildly different formal structures. These new concepts are fashioned in hopes of creating new gameworlds that provide experiences with a wider range than is possible with the very determined, game-like and predictable systems presently available. Perhaps some of these simulations will be more true-to-life in some ways, certainly in certain contexts, than is possible through the determinist model. Whether true-to-life or not, though, this wider palette will allow artists in interactive media to express a wider range of ideas than rigidly game-like concepts allow.
Escape the Tyranny of Game-Fun
Industry-focused game design texts advise budding game designers that not everyone likes the same thing you do, not all players will find the same games fun. They advise to pick a market, a genre, or some other identifiable goal and work towards that. This is obviously sensible, the kinds of players who like the Sims are often not the same as those who like Fallout 3 or FIFA 2010. If they do crossover, it is usually to satisfy very different desires at a given time. However, as much above assessment describes, the very high-level kind of fun that these same game design texts assume is a ‘game-fun’ involving mastery of rules. That game-fun constructs an end-point of power, then builds a ramp for the player to ascend towards it, until eventually, there is no challenge the player cannot overcome. The player-character has become the most powerful being within the game system. There is nothing the player has failed to do, he has ‘beaten’ the game. This does not correspond well with life experiences, nor does it allow for other archetypal narrative types, from comedy to tragedy. The question is, can a system be designed that abandons this strict, rule-focused and progress-based framework for experience, and what would we call it?
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.