Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Thoughts on Heavy Rain

Introduction
It is very easy to talk bad about Heavy Rain. One can say it is just an interactive movie where you press buttons at certain key moments, in rare cases changing the outcome of the story. One can talk about the hole and cliche filled story and the weakly developed characters*. One can talk about this and other negative aspects of the game and I would fully agree. But if one only focuses on these areas, there is plenty of really interesting aspects that are missed.

Despite all these flaws I really enjoyed playing Heavy Rain. Sure, the quick-time-events (QTE:s) really got me worked up on more than one occasion and a lot of other issues bugged me, but on the whole it was quite an engaging experience. There are some truly tense and disturbing moments in the game that work great. For example the scene at the mall, while lame in many ways, managed to capture the protagonists sense of panic and that in an environment and setup I have never seen in a game before. The game also features great graphics, nice music and not too shabby acting (for most of the time anyway, and once you get used to the uncanny valley feel). The game also lets you be in situations that I have never seen outside of Interactive Fiction.

What really made the game interesting though was not the things that I liked, but the things that are slightly broke. Because of the way that QTE:s work, being a quite fragile system in terms of immersion, it sort of exposes your own usually hidden thought processes as you play the game. Also, the game's filmic nature and focus on a branching narrative makes it a virtual smorgasbord of game design theory to try out. This is what truly makes Heavy Rain worth playing.


Immersion as an essence
By far, the most important realization I got when playing Heavy Rain is how interaction is not mainly about giving the player interesting choices. When playing the game I never felt the need to make choices on the basis of seeing what would happen, instead I simply wanted the characters to act in certain ways in order to confirm to my expectations of how I thought they would (and should) be acting. What I think happens is that as we interact in a videogame, there is feedback loop between us sending input to the game and us getting information back from the game (in the form of visuals, audio, etc), which builds the basis of us feeling present inside the game's virtual world. The better this loop works, the more we feel as a part of the experience.

Heavy Rain is an excellent example of this process at work. When there is flow in the controls (which is usually in the scenes giving you direct character control, such as the early mall sequence), there is a very satisfying feeling of being one with the character. Then suddenly some weird QTE pops up and you either fail at completing it, or it simply does not give the result you expected, and once again you are pulled out of your sense of presence. The game is littered with moments like this, pulling you in and the throwing you back out. When Heavy Rain manages to sustain the belief of you having agency over the character, that is when the game is at it best. These are the occasions when there is a very strong loop of interaction going on and you are the most present inside the game's world. When this loop is broken, it does not matter what kind of interesting choices you might have at your disposal. The game immediately becomes less engaging the moment the loop of interaction breaks down.

In this light of thinking, QTE events make perfect sense. It is simply a rudimentary system for trying and sustain a feedback loop during various types of scenes. It is not about setting up a competition for the player, it is just a very blunt and unreliable system to sustain a sense of presence. I really doubt that QTE:s is the way to do narrative art in videogames, but it does gives us invaluable information on how to proceed.

What all this seem to indicate is that a videogame that wants to tell a story, should not use interaction to deliver a multitude of choice, but instead to reinforce the feedback loop of immersion. This might entail having choice, but the choices in themselves are not what is of the most importance, giving a very sharp focus on how to design the mechanics. It may actually be that the very future of making artful games with focus on narrative is to focus on this interactive loop of immersion. There is a lot more to discuss on this subjects and there are other things that also points in this direction. I am hoping to devout an entire post on that subject soon, so consider this a taste of things to come.

A final note: This "interaction as a means to create immersion" does not imply that the future of videogames are incredibly linear interactive cinema -far from it. In many cases a non-linear and open game world is essential in order to support the feedback loop.



The importance of determinism
In most games you have a pretty strong sense of what the protagonist will do when a button is pressed. Not so in Heavy Rain. Apart from direct movement and a few repeatable actions (like be able to shout your son's name in the mall scene), most of the time icons just pop up with vague hints on what the input will achieve. Sometimes you will learn what action might happen (such as that an up-arrow at a railing will mean that you will lean against it), but this takes a bit time and requires that a similar action has already been carried out.

In many cases this has a drastic reduction on the sense of presence. For one, it makes you unable for you to form plans. Simply by surveying an environment you cannot determine a course of actions (even if you know all trigger spots), and during action sequences it gets even worse as QTE:s may up at any moment in pretty much unguessable form. Making up plans is one of the basic corner stones of human intelligence, and possible the reason we developed a conscioussness, so not having the option of doing this is a hard blow against the sense of agency. Another reason it reduces immersion is that your character might not act in the way you intended. Before picking an action you almost always makes some kind of assessment of what will happen, but it is quite likely that this will be dead wrong. Thus the character your are supposed to feel a connection to, ends up performing an action that you did not intend. Of course, it is very hard to feel as a part oft he game's world when this happen.

This system stands in stark contrast with how Limbo works, where you are pretty much always certain of exactly what will happen. I think this is very much connection in the level of immersion Limbo manages to have throughout (unless you get stuck in trial and error of course), and how Heavy Rain stumbles through the entire experience. One should not be too hard on Heavy Rain though as the space of interactions that are possible to perform throughout the game by far outnumber those in Limbo. The real challenge for the future is to coming closer to multitude of actions in Heavy Rain, but still having the determinism of Limbo.


The understanding between Player and Videogame
Another big problem in Heavy Rain, which is related to the point above, is that the game sometime seem to work against you. It might seem obvious that this is a dealbreaker in terms of immersion and I have already discussed the problem of camera control in Dead Space Extraction. The issue can be a bit more subtle though and Heavy Rain serves as great example of this. For instance, in one scene I had made a plan of actions: to first bandage an unconscious person and then to poke around in his stuff. There really was nothing hindering me from doing so but instead the game removed my ability to interact directly after caring for the person. The game interpreted me wanting to help the guy as I also did not want to poke around, thinking that they two were mutually exclusive actions. Of course I thought otherwise and considered it no problem at all to do some poking afterward.

There are plenty of situations like this and it makes it quite clear that you should never move ahead on a bigger outcome from a choice without being certain that this is also what the player expects. I also see this as a problem of having major choices the player in a game that lack a high level simulation (like Fallout for example). Just the simple action of walking out a door can have many different meanings to a player, and one needs to be careful and make sure that most players have same idea of what it means. Once you throw branching paths into the pot, it gets a lot more complicated and clashes between player and game is much more likely to happen.



Emotional Simulation
An interesting aspect of Heavy Rain that I have not seen (at least not this directly) in any other game using QTE:s (or normal mechanics for that matter) is to trick the player into feeling certain emotions. The way it works in the game is that the player is forced to hold down a lot of buttons at the same time, while often also moving the stick around. This creates an uncomfortable and demanding way to hold the controller in, which is meant to simulate the way the onscreen character feels. While it might sound a little dodgy, it works quite well in many cases, especially in a scene containing self-mutilation.

The research behind this kind of response is actually very well established and designer Chris Pruett has hypothesized that the effect is probably a reason why many unforgiving horror games turn out to be extra scary (a design decision that comes with other problems though). The way it works is that we humans often do not know why we are feeling a certain way and unconsciously project it onto something else. For instance one experiment had people thinking that arousal due to their fear of heights was due physical attraction instead.

All is not good with this design in Heavy Rain though. Because the inputs you perform are not fluent (as it is prompted on a situational basis) and non-deterministic (as explained above) you are mostly very conscious of what you are doing with the controller. If the controls where more transparent (like in Limbo) you would be less conscious of your input, and any uncomfortable placement of the hand is much more likely to be projected into whatever the protagonist is doing. I think this can be very potent stuff if handled properly and let the player get immersed in experiences that would be hard to simulate in any other way.



Trial and error
Heavy Rain boasts that it does not have any game over screen, but it still manages to have is massive amounts of trial-and-error. This time the forceful repetition of events does not only occur in death threatening situations though. In Heavy Rain it often happens during extremely mundane actions like brushing your teeth and taking a shower. It is an extremely good example why this sort of design is so immersion destroying. From believing that you are playing an actual living character, the sudden requirement to repeat an event pulls you out from the experience directly. It is so obvious that you go from trying to become present in a virtual world to just trying and overcome a very mechanical task.

I think the biggest problem is that Heavy Rain is very sensitive in how you complete the QTE sequences. Let go of a button for a micro seconds and it results in an instant failure. When the game gets rid of so many other stigmas of old game design, it is sad to see it stuck in this one. I think the way it should have done it is to become a little bit more relaxed and to allow some more failures. Instead being competitive-like and very strict in the actions, it should instead check if the player tried enough to do something. As long as the players are playing along, I see no reason for punishing them. The game should have tried to keep the illusion of an interactive-feedback loop alive for as long as possible, instead of simply breaking it at the slightest incorrect input.



Some misc points
Now for some shorter stuff that I found interesting:
  • When done right, the direct and free control method is by far the more immersive. However it also puts a lot of pressure on the character reacting in a proper way. Quite often, the character I was controlling ended up acting like a moron, walking into walls and the like, even if I really tried hard to control him properly. The constrained events do not suffer this problem, and have the characters act much more lifelike, but at the same time they do not have the same level of interaction required for deep sense of presence.
  • Heavy Rain is at its best when simulating tightly space and time-wise bounded scenes. At these points it was much easier to give me a sense of having agency and to let me become one with the moment. The scenes self-mutilation, pushing through a crowd, escape from bench in cellar, etc are all great examples of this. Judging from what seemed to have worked best in Amnesia, I think a lot can be gained by taking this design further.
  • The game is a great test bed for a game that has decisions with big ramifications, such as the death of main characters. My own conclusion from Heavy Rain is that all of these choices are probably unneeded and did not gain me much except the sense of missing out on the story. Interestingly, Heavy Rain feels quite different in this regard from a game like Fallout (with the, as mentioned, more higher level narrative simulation).
  • Achievements (trophies on the ps3) really suck in story-centric game. Having gone through a scene and then getting a sort of grade, really removes the ability to make up your own mind of what just took place. It is quite similar to the "understanding between player and game" problem, as achievements has a high risk of going against the player's intentions (and does not really help gain anything).


End notes
As I think this post shows there are many reasons why Heavy Rain is a really interesting game to play. It does a lot of things that other videogames do not even dare to consider, and while it kind of fails on a lot of it, just attempting it is an important step on the way. If only more mainstream games were like this.

Also, after playing through Heavy Rain I have come to wish that there were more games like it. By that I do not mean more games with QTE:s (which I really hated much of the time) but games that allows the player to always progress and focus on a rich narrative experience. In most other games I either have to endure annoying puzzles or have to become an accomplish in a genocide. Given the high scores the game has gotten (from press and the public) I do not think I am alone in this. Please do not see this as an urge for people to copy Heavy Rain though, but instead to use the game it as a step towards something that truly makes use of the medium.



*Emily short has a really good essay on the story of Heavy Rain. Check it here.


20 comments:

  1. Interesting reading as usual. I'm a big supporter of Heavy Rain because it tries to go in an uncharted direction for videogames, as you pointed out.

    I would have also spent part of the article talking about one of the most important and interesting parts of the game on my opinion: the interaction with the kids at the beginning of the game. Even if it could seem to be a meaningless part for most of the videogamers, it really manages to enstablish a connection between the player and the main character, understanding his successful life and his love for the family followed by disgrace. Without that part, even the mall sequence would have lost a major part of its dramatic impact.

    Alex

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  2. Alex: What I found interesting about the sequence playing with the kids is that you could choose to fail in a very meaningful game. It simply felt better to let your kid win. That is also something I have not seen in a videogame before.

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  3. While I haven't played Heavy Rain, a point in this post reminded me of Mass Effect. There are times during conversation trees, when the player is given a choice of what to say - the "promised" response, and the response that the protagonist gives, should the "promised" response be selected, are completely different.

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  4. @Thomas: you got a really really good point. When you're playing with the swords, you can decide to let them win or to be the 'unbeatable father'. It brings to no consequences plot-wise but it really gives the player this sense of partecipation that is pretty unique.

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  5. Michael Elbert1 November 2011 17:11

    Very interesting take on Heavy Rain.
    There's something I want to add regarding the Achievements and their place in a game like this, though.

    On the one hand, yes, they force players to either replay the game, trying to see different endings or results to certain scenes, or to finish events in a specific way, like the scene where Shelby tries to cook, takes care for the baby, etc.
    This is a horrible idea, working against the idea of "play your own adventure" (which fails for several reasons you and others pointed out anyway).

    On the other hand, they allow to see how other players experienced the story quite quickly. Recently I compared achievements with a friend after talking about Heavy Rain. While I got "I'm a Killer...", my friend did not.
    Several achievements show whether the player selected option A or B in a scene. These small bits of information help interpret the story others experienced - at least in my opinion.

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  6. Also about the achievements, Cage showed his concern about trophies implementation, and he made an interesting choice: HR is the only game (I think) that gives you all the earned trophies at the end of each chapter, and not in the very moment you obtain them. This contributes to mantain the immersion of the player during the gameplay sequence without making her notice she made a key decision.

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  7. I always think it's bizarre how people talk about holes, assume there are holes, but never actually tell you what these plot holes are, and generally, when you push them, give you an unresolved plot-point, a loose end that doesn't get tied up. Certainly not a plot hole. Even then, arguably, the game does have one or two plot-holes, but it seems when people are talking about plot-holes, they mean loose ends.

    In exactly the same way that people say the story is bad, or the characters aren't developed and then utterly fail to explain how. The article linked to from the asterisk has both of these problems.

    The point is, yes, it's very easy to point out the bad in Heavy Rain - it seems very difficult to do so convincingly. For example, the people who incessantly complained about the think French accents in the game only to discover that the accents were mostly English thus demonstrating how good at telling accents apart they are. These criticisms don't appear to have much to do with Heavy Rain, and more to do with trying to justify a negative reaction to a game being just different enough to most games that it stands out. It's a trope, a bit like saying a game has tight controls, or comes together well.

    People seem afraid to just say that Heavy Rain was a good game without caveats that they would leave out of other game criticisms.

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  8. Dropping one of the major plot points of the game all of a sudden is just bad storytelling. I don't care if it's a "loose end" or a "plot hole", it's still bad.

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  9. @Anonymous: explain what are you referring to

    I mean, I heard people saying "HR is ridicolous: how was Shelby able to put the pieces of glass inside the venting duct?"
    I really find this critics ridicolous... which is actually well explained by 'haters gonna hate'.

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  10. There's only one real plot hole that comes to mind. The whole Ethan black out origami thing (though the extras do point out that this was cut game play, which is a shame, it looked interesting).

    I can't think of any other plot holes...There might be unexplained elements but that's not really the same thing. Some stories thrive on leaving out details. Do you need to be hit over the head with every last minutia of how things happened? No.

    But not having Ethan as a genuine suspect (which he is because of the black outs) would have made the story less interesting in my opinion. So, that...it would have been nice if they'd come up with a better way for it to stay in. I don't think that makes it a bad game though.

    One of the things I found when playing the game is occasionally it felt like I was fighting with the controller. But part of me thinks that's my fault! ^^ Anyway, I liked it, and hope they make another game that focus's on big grown up things like story and characterisation rather than how realistic your gun is or how many people you can play online with.

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  11. Yeah the whole Ethan blacking out business. It made absolutely no sense and the game didn't even try to explain it.

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  12. @Alex Camilleri - the glass in the venting is a perfectly valid point though given it was one of the things that immediately resulted in a 'whut?' reaction when I realised where they were going with the killer (the other being that whilst some of Shelby's gameplay thoughts are explicable albeit in a kind of daft way, others make flat out no sense if he's the killer). The even-ness of the glass kind of means it must have been carefully distributed, which with the vent's layout would be next to impossible without getting yourself stuck, and given it was a squeeze for Ethan, the idea of Shelby getting in there is just ridiculous.

    As Michaela said, the big loose end is Ethan's blackouts, if it's cut gameplay then that's an awful decision, leaving that kind of information out of a mystery is just going to upset those who enjoy the genre; a book or film that pulled something like that would be torn apart for it.

    Anyway, I'll stop rambling, if you really want an extensive reaction to the writing in HR there's a decent-if-snarky 4-page playthrough at http://www.gamecritics.com/daniel-weissenberger/heavy-rain-is-in-many-ways-not-well-written-part-1

    Personally I still found it plenty enjoyable as long as I switched my brain off, and the lizard trial was one of the most visceral things I've experienced in a game. I just really want Quantic Dream to live up to the potential they showed in the first scene of Fahrenheit. I think the way it just throws you in and the amount of interactivity in the bathroom and diner are the ultimate example of the kind of direct control immersion Thomas talks about; I constantly recommend the game to people just for that scene.

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  13. They cut it because it was a series of scenes where Ethan would transition into a dream-like state where water would completely flood where he was and would end in him finding the latest victim in the flood water (the water literally filling up the place he was in). He'd wake up with the origami figure after the scene because he was making the same figure in his sleep at the same time as the killer via a psychic link that was established because he lost consciousness after saving his son in the opening of the game when the killer was there.

    I can see why they cut it, this supernatural element and psychic link detract from the story.

    Of course, the point is that one plot hole (and I would call that a plot hole, on the other hand, who Shelby hired, or how he got the glass into the tunnel isn't much of a plot point, simply isn't explained) does not constitute the game "being full of holes".

    Honestly, I thought the fact that your wife didn't seem to like you much even though you saved her first-born was tougher to swallow than it not covering Ethan's unconscious ability to make origami figures.

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  14. Illessa:
    Glancing through that gamecritics text a lil it is interesting how many of these I remember thinking about (like Shelby being the first to get the much of the important evidence) but then not thinking about anymore because I later became pretty engrossed in the game. I do not think the same would be true if Heavy Rain was a film or book.

    I like to think that this shows how irrelevant the plot is in a videogame, at least beyond general premise and themes. What really matters is the situations that you as a player take part in, not has a view but as an active participant, where strong sense of presence is felt.

    The same thing is true for Amnesia too. I know many people who did not like the story very much (even disliked it!), but still were able to enjoy the game very much. John at Rock Paper Shotgun is an excellent example of this.

    I know the "story is unimportant, gameplay is what matters" is pretty old. But still, Amnesia is a pretty narrative driven game. And Heavy Rain is VERY much a narrative driven game. Still what matter is the events that we imagine ourselves to be present in.

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  15. @Illesa:

    My point is that i don't think you said "How the fux was he supposed to pass into the venting?" after finishing the game. I really think it's something you can think of just if you really want to look for plot holes and discrepances.

    On my opinion, it doesn't matter if there are relevant and irrelevant plot holes as long as you were able to enjoy the ride.

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  16. Good article, thanks!

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  17. @Peter yeah I figured the only explanation some kind of psychic/ghost/reincarnation element, which would have been super-incongruous if they'd left it in, just a shame they didn't find another way to pull off implicating Ethan without leaving such a weird and blatant loose end.

    @Alex Camilleri *shrug* I did, I mean sure it wasn't at the forfront of my mind, but it was one of several nagging annoyances that mounted up for me and kind of spoiled my enjoyment a little. I certainly wasn't looking to nitpick the game, I have a real soft spot for QD, guess I just have that kind of brain.

    @Thomas I totally agree that it's the sense of participation that makes a game. When I think about it all most of my favourite things in other mediums are well put together, on the other hand the games that I love to lend to people are really flawed. Anachronox, Vampire: Bloodlines, Second Sight, Fahrenheit. Hell I used to lend out Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth just for the investigation and chase scene before Amnesia came along (and if there's ever a poster child for the mood killing power of trial and error it's DCoTE). A game can have all the flaws in the world, but if it also has those moments when you're utterly emotionally invested in the weird world you're exploring or a character's fate then it doesn't matter in the slightest. And HR totally pulls that off when it's at its best.

    One thing I did find with HR is that it was one of the cooler games to compare notes with friends on. I was in a shared house when it came out, and it was just kind of fun to watch each other play (makes you feel so much worse about beating your kid at swordfighting when someone else is watching). Things like the way I was apparently the only one whose instincts were screaming at them to get Madison out of the doctor's house, or comparing my housemate's trying to do the lizard trial with one hand whilst watching through splayed fingers vs my boyfriend's disbelieving laughter and deliberate choice of the worst possible implement (maybe I should be worried) was just kind of cool.

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  18. Thomas, take a look at these, I think they could be interesting to you as similar subjects on interactive storytelling.

    1. http://comic.naver.com/webtoon/detail.nhn?titleId=350217&no=31&wee%A0%A0%A0%A0D

    2. http://www.interactivestory.net/

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  19. Check out this 48 hour Ludum Dare Challenge game:
    http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/ludum-dare-20/?uid=2982

    Pure awesomeness, beautiful art style, beautifully dark, explores some surprisingly heavy themes, and it doesn't have a happy ending. Kind of a horror game as it turns out. XD

    But it sure doesn't look like one at the very beginning. Brilliant.

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  20. @Cosinus:
    Wow, the first link is sooo interesting - mostly because of the fact how it was done: when it does "its thing" (being careful not to spoil it for anyone here), it makes you feel out-of-control, which makes it far more effective than if it was just a regular jump scare.

    Other that that, it's a bit funny: "She [...] looked as if all her joints in her body had been twisted. Worse, her hair was a mess, and sticking out to everywhere."

    How can that possibly be worse?
    XD

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