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Games Are Growing Up – Case: Heavy Rain

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I’ve been a gamer since 1983 when I got my Commodore 64, and since 2000 I’ve been amongst other things a professional gaming journalist. There is one thing about games that has started to irritate me more and more as the time has passed: although the gamers, the game industry and everybody in between is clamoring that the gaming is not just a hobby for kids anymore, story-wise almost every game seems to be written for kids or fratboys, or at the best case for “the average consumer”.

Stop the press - there are tasteful sex scenes in games!

Hold on, you say, there’s plenty of games with an 18+ age limit, so there’s plenty of games for adults, right? Well, yes – if you define “adult content” to mean boobs and blood, and even on that front games are horribly handicapped on the boobs side of the issue. Go on, list all the games that handle sex and relationships in a non-dramatic, non-comical and mature way, I dare you. True, Mass Effect had a tasteful super soft-core sex scene, Dragon Age: Origins handled hetero and gay romances in a very nifty way and several games, such as the first Still Life, Hitman: Blood Money, Gears of War 2 (the scene) and The Darkness have some sequences that makes violence feel downright nasty and horrible. The depiction of violence as a bad thing hasn’t got that much press, but holy hell, mention sex in a video game and both the mainstream and gaming media are on fire. Surprisingly the moral panic of mainstream press over for example Mass Effect was often far less embarrassing to read than gaming press, which was far to often on the level of “OMG GAMEZ HAZ BOOBZ”. Way to go, branding gaming as a hobby for adults.

Now, compare and contrast with, say, movies or books. “This movie is very progressive, the main character has sex with another character in it!” “Well, this book is even more mature and progressive, since the character has gay sex!”

Yeah.

An important point to note is that I’m not actually ragging on the makers of these games. I’ve enjoyed them a lot and I’ve been very happy that the guys in Bioware have included such controversial (for a game) stuff in their writing. I just finished Mass Effect 2 and I was blown away by the excellent space opera storyline and how well certain characters were written. Nevertheless, it makes me sad to realize that we are still in a point where the epitome of progressiveness in mainstream A-list games is a bisexual elf assassin.

I could rag about the most common game characters being cardboard cutouts of stereotypical and juvenile B-movie characters, the lack of real everyday heros (playing a construction worker who turns into a super soldier after the tutorial doesn’t count), and the fantastic settings and the need for traditional gameplay detracting from the moments of good writing, but maybe I’ll start heading towards the point.

The thing is, most story driven games can be compared to summer blockbuster movies. Lots of effects, superficial insights, lots of explosions and a producer being worried that if there’s more than three minutes of dialogue or an iota of insight or actual fucking sense, the viewer will get bored. Most games that fall outside of this can be compared to run of the mill Hollywood crazy comedies or splatter. It’s extremely easy to find and play games that are equivalents to great scifi action like Aliens, pulp action like Indiana Jones, horror like Evil Dead, shootouts like Die Hard movies, and so forth. This is of course great, since I enjoy both those kinds of movies and those kinds of games.

BUT.

So, where is the Requiem for a Dream of gaming?

Occasionally, I’d like to play Eyes Wide Shut, Requiem for a Dream, Pi, Shawshank Redemption, Gran Torino, Once We Were Warriors, Mulholland Drive, Joyluck Club or the motherfucking Citizen Kane. By this I don’t mean I’d like to play a licensed game from any of those movies. I mean games that do the same thing on their own merits; games that give the same emotional impact, tell a good story, and do the same thing in a game context that those movies did on their own medium. In addition to action, adventure and horror I want to play historical drama, romantic comedy, black and white art games and all those other genres that drive an average Halo 3 fanboy right out of the room.

The game industry has tried, but apparently they just don’t trust their medium. They license movies like Godfather and try to make games of them, which feels like watching a cargo cult take form: there’s this grand phenomenon of movies and books with great storytelling above us, so if we’ll try and emulate it with character names and polygons, we can steal a fragment of their glory. At the best what pops out is a good game that happens to have a same name and some characters from the movie, but mostly playing them is like watching a demented serial killer with no social graces trying to attend a cocktail party wearing a celebrity’s skin as a leotard.

DOING THINGS RIGHT(ISH)

There have been some games that have managed to give me the vibe that I’m playing something that falls outside of the Hollywood cow cud comfort zone. I already mentioned Still Life, which was a positive surprise for me on the level of dialogue, how it made violence feel very nasty and the general vibe of the game. The Darkness managed to have some surprisingly disturbing and adult moments in it, considering the fact that the main character is a Mafia hitman with four heart devouring tentacles. The earliest game that gave me the adult vibe was the ages old adventure game Dreamweb, which skipped several adventure game conventions of the time and even had a graphic sex scene in it.

There’s also plenty of good and smart writing in games, something that will be unfortunately glossed over because it’s wrapped in a lacklustre shooter. A very good example of this is Bioshock 1 & 2, which as games are run-of-the-mill pipeline shooters, but where the concept and the writing are truly great. I simply love the idea of a rabid libertarian founding his idea of an utopia in an art deco 50’s city under the sea, and seeing it fall down because of base human nature – not to mention the counter effect of a psychologist who very much disagrees with the self-centered ideas of libertarianism. Another game I really enjoyed was Bully, which behind all the moral panic is a very atmospheric and even warm dark comedy about a very eventful school year of a problem youth.

Then, there was Fahrenheit, which got me hooked from the minute one. The game started with the main character in a diner bathroom with a body of a man he had apparently killed, with no memory what had happened. The game utilized art movie style split screens, where the player could see a police officer come into the diner and it was clear he had to clean up the body before the police decided to use the loo – and so on. The game managed to create a feel of a weird and arty mystery movie for quite a long time – and then went completely to hell, when the creators obviously lost the belief that they can do a serious game and started dropping in silly fantasy elements. I was lucky: I was halfway through the game when I lost my game saves, and before I could start playing it again, I heard about the ending being horribly stupid and never actually played it all the way through. Nevertheless, the beginning of Fahrenheit was a very impressive experience for me, and when I heard they are making another game called Heavy Rain, it definitely caught my attention.

THE HEAVY RAIN EXPERIENCE

(No spoilers here)

Heavy Rain is a serial killer mystery, which draws heavily on noir and drama. There are four main characters, none of whom are exactly the ordinary videogame stereotype. The first character is a family father and the first half an hour or more of the game is about creating the setting and teaching the player the ropes of the game. This is done by having the character wake up, do his morning chores, wait for his wife and kids come home, playing with the kids and going to a mall. By this point an average gamer is disgusted and bored with the game, and good riddance to him. What this does is it sets a stage for the rest of the story, which manages to be dark, cynical, cruel but also very compassionate.

In gaming terms Heavy Rain is an adventure game driven by quick time events. For the non gamers, the latter is a term for a mechanic where the game flashes you a name of a controller button and you’ll have to press it within a time limit. It’s a bit more complicated than that with Heavy Rain, since you get to use the sticks and tilt the motion sensing controller, but that’s the basic gist of the thing.

Let it be known that I fucking hate QTE:s, because mostly they are on the lines of “press X not to die”, as Yatzhee so well puts it. In Heavy Rain it doesn’t work like that, though. For example in a fight hitting or missing the cues steers the fight into a certain direction and one miss doesn’t mean you’ll lose the whole thing. You can miss quite a many of them and still come out on top, although battered and mangled. Then again, the playable characters CAN die, and if that happens, that’s it for that character for the rest of the story. It doesn’t end the game, it just alters the plotline – as do many of the player’s other choices, successes and failures.

It's nice to see a real everyday hero, who doesn't turn into a super soldier after the tutorial.

And what is the story about? It’s about the father’s love for his children, a search for a peace of mind, a story of another character’s love for his sibling and yet another’s fight against his addiction, all wrapped up in tasteful and well written and directed plot about a serial killer – who, for a change, isn’t an overly elaborate Saw-like clown, but a real person. I started playing Heavy Rain on Saturday morning and in the morning hours of Sunday finished it with one of the most unhappy endings you can get in the game. The experience left me stunned, melancholy and needing a hug. In the morning I was still feeling a bit blue, in good way – like when you see a really touching movie the last thing in the evening and stay tuned to the mood even in the morning.

The term “interactive movie” is a swear word with gamers, and for a very good reason, since most products tagged like that are horrid crap. Heavy Rain is the first game I would say is truly an interactive movie, and makes the term look good. What made it a better experience for me than a movie is the fact that instead of a couple of hours the experience stretched to cover a whole day, and moreover I can play it again with a different outcome – and hopefully reach a happier ending where more of the characters stay alive and sane. I practically never play games again after I’ve finished them once, and as a rule I don’t watch movies twice either. This is the first media experience where I really can’t wait to get back to it, to see it again twice or thrice.

Press X not to die.

There’s a whole lot of hype in the previous, but no, the game doesn’t walk on water. Mikki wrote a nice rundown about the game’s technical and gameplay fumbles. There were certainly some immersion breaking problems, such as a horrible difficulty navigating through crowds, the characters sliding around in a stupid way, some of the control symbols being obstructed by the characters, and so on. They were a bit irritating, but in the end they were just technical problems. There was one sequence of the game that felt just silly and… well, GAMEY in a sense that stuck out of the rest of the experience like five minutes of Pac Man in middle of Casablanca – and it didn’t help the controls weren’t very helpful there either. Also, some of the voice talent could have done a better job, and especially the inner monologue of the characters was far to often the inner monotone, and very soulless writing at that.

Nevertheless, by and large Heavy Rain was just the kind of stuff I’ve been looking for in the games. Strong storytelling with no fantastic elements, no dumbed down characters, delightfully few attempts to make the game “interesting for the average gamer” (there are some unnecessary fight scenes and boob shots, but not so many that they become irritating), characters who felt like people and not characters, and adult subject matter, such as everyday people who don’t turn into super soldiers to fit the game, dealing with family life, and small and banal problems and troubles.

Quantic Dream and David Cage: you have the engine, you have the tools and the experience. Now – there’s a big bunch of us who want MOAR.

DISCLAIMER

I have to underline, I really do love playing most of the modern games, as much as I love watching trashy action, horror, scifi and fantasy, and I think gaming is going to a better direction. I also understand that a whole lot of the games being the michaelbay-jerrybruckheimer action fests they are is out of the actual game designers’ hands, because the publisher doesn’t want to take a risk with niche games. I can only imagine the fight Quantic had when they were pitching a game like this to Sony, a game that didn’t have a single point that’s appealing to the average gamer. I’m also delighted to see that more and more game studios are paying more attention to the storylines and the mood for the game.

Now I’m just waiting for the industry to take the next hurdle and learn to be low key. You don’t have to make stories like all the gamers were sixteen year old ADHD patients who get bored if there’s no firefight or boobies in the game every three minutes. Blood and gore is not the only way to be disturbing, and it’s not even very effective anymore. Relationship plot lines don’t have to be high school drama to be interesting, and sex scenes don’t have to pander to the teenagers or be tee-hee funny. Everyday people can be interesting without turning into dual pistol wielding action heros because the bad corporation/military leader killed their wife/brother.

I guess that if I had to boil this rant down to one sentence, it would be this: dear game industry, please skip the action/adventure and horror shelves of the video rental store for a while and go browse the drama section for a change.


Elsewhere

How Heavy Rain Delivers and Fails in the Process – SiliconANGLE

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