Friday, February 26, 2010

Games As Art: Heavy Rain and Choice

I've been excited about Heavy Rain for a while now. In and of itself that speaks to the nature of my interest in video games.

Interactive entertainment has always appealed to me as a medium for working out mental problems, both simple and complex, in a virtually tangible way. Video games like Super Mario World interest me in a similar way to math problems: both present variables to work with in order to find a predetermined solution. There can be different ways to achieve that end, and perhaps even multiple types of solutions, but regardless the goal is always clear and within reach. The pleasure you derive is from knowing and mastering the methods of success.

As I've grown older, however, I have begun to look for more from my games. Sure, I have enjoyed throwbacks like New Super Mario Bros. Wii as traditional and nostalgic forms of entertainment. But those types of games are not the reason that I finally invested in a Playstation 3.

Increasingly I am intrigued by games that explore new types of play mechanics and new ways of presenting narrative: I spent the better part of a year trying to play Braid in some form, and finally bought it the first day it was available on the Playstation Network; I played through all of Portal in one sitting while staying at a friend's house, and it remains one of the best experiences I have ever had with a video game; and the phenomenal Bioshock never once left my PS3 from start to finish and beyond. Each of these games sought to do something new with video games, whether to problematize and critique common gaming tropes, highlight new ways of considering and utilizing 3-D space, or explore complex philosophical questions through an interactive medium. In their own ways each could be considered art.

Despite my recent glorification of Roger Ebert I do not accept his stated belief that video games are not capable of being art. I think the medium is still in its infancy but that evidence is mounting that shows video games can be used to evoke complex questions about reality and humanity. More than that I think that video games could potentially explore these question more effectively than cinema specifically because of their interactivity: through this virtual entertainment our choices can influence outcomes, and then we can replay them and make different choices. With careful and mature design this method could be used to explore human concepts in a distinctly human way. I believe that the games listed above, along with countless others, show that we are working towards a time and context when this will become reality.

This week Heavy Rain finally hit store shelves, giving further credence to the idea that video games can offer insight on our existence.

Heavy Rain is a new PS3 exclusive from Quantic Dream. It's an interactive movie where you play as four different characters trying to catch a serial killer in an East coast American city. The gameplay consists of exploration and quick-time events (QTEs), or on-screen prompts that ask the player to press a specific button in a limited period of time. This type of interactive movie is one of the oldest genres in gaming, with roots going all the way back to arcade games like Dragon's Lair. What makes Heavy Rain different from all that has come before is in the way the story changes in accordance with your actions.

Dragon's Lair

Typically in a QTE based game you can either succeed or fail at any given event. In older games like the aforementioned Dragon's Lair a failure results in the end of the story, often as a result of your character's death. In more recent uses of the gaming mechanic a failure might simply complicate or delay one's progression through the game, as in the God of War series. Certain games like Shenmue have enabled players to noticeably alter the story through their success or failure at certain QTEs; these games are few and far between, however, and the changes to the overall story have always been fairly limited.

In Heavy Rain the player is able to dramatically alter the arc and outcome of the story through their performance in QTEs. There are numerous possible endings to the game, and the player's every action plays a role in determining their story arc. Any of the four playable characters can die in certain scenarios, but if this happens the game continues on regardless; the player simply loses that thread of the narrative and the story changes to incorporate the death. This not only gives greater weight to each action but also greater reason for multiple playthroughs, as each experience of the game has the potential to be dramatically different.

A QTE prompting the player to press the circle button

Quantic Dream's greatest achievement, however, is the way in which Heavy Rain incorporates choice as a gameplay element.

The game presents players with thousands of QTEs, many of which are passed or failed with diverging narrative consequences. There are also some instances in which the player is given the option to take an action but where the necessity or desirability of doing so is left ambiguous. Here the player is able to influence the direction of the story with their own choices as opposed to merely their competence at timed button prompts. 

There are already many great examples of video games that explore causality in human existence, but two stand out in particular: Bioshock and Mass Effect 2

Ken Levine's Bioshock explores the nature of choice in video games by addressing the fact that the medium doesn't typically offer much. Spoiler warning ahead. The game consists of a series of objectives that are given to you by a disembodied voice over you radio. They are all tied into the game diegetically through a well-structured narrative, but any regular player recognizes them as the prompts that typify video game structure. One completes specified actions in order to continue progress. The end of Bioshock, however, addresses this by revealing the player to be a mind-controlled goon: the objectives necessary to continue the game were all given to the player within the narrative, but it is revealed that the character was influenced in such a way as to make him incapable of acting differently. 


The video game structure that inhibits the player is suddenly exposed within the narrative as a way of critiquing the blind-faith that the player is guilty of. As one character dramatically insists, "A man chooses" (emphasis added), and evidently the player's character and thus the player do not. This exploration of choice in video games is simultaneously an excellent critique of the medium and a deeply resonant philosophical issue. Ironically it does not leave the player with much in the way of choice on the matter.

Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, allows players to import their character data from its predecessor in order to continue the character story they have already begun. More than that, though, the choices they made in Mass Effect are also imported to the sequel, completely reshaping the experience of the second game into a huge extension of the first. As Rus McLaughlin puts it in an article on IGN, "I wrote my Mass Effect 2 by playing Mass Effect 1. Similarly, I'm writing Mass Effect 3 right now [by playing Mass Effect 2]." 

Mass Effect

The story of the two games is huge, and will be built upon by the third entry in the series. The player's actions from the very beginning greatly influence the direction the story will take, but this is largely relegated to branching dialogue and allegiances. The player is tasked with deciding what to say in order to achieve the desired reaction, and their choices take the story down various branches towards endings that are yet to be determined. Mass Effect 3 will show how the grand space-opera concludes, and the player's actions will greatly determine the ending they receive. 

This concept of choice and consequence is explored quite differently in Heavy Rain. While the Mass Effect series allows gamers to experience the ever-proliferating effects of their branching choices on a massive scale (wonder where they got that name), Heavy Rain explores the concept in a more intimate and human way. Heavy Rain presents choices that are ambiguous in their necessity and effect, and none of them are wrong. While each decision in Mass Effect carries the story forward in a specific way, Heavy Rain tasks players with deciding not only which choices to make but also with which not to. Choosing to place one's hand on another's shoulder might feel at one moment like a show of support, but an instant later seem like a sexual advance. The key is in determining which moment is when, and choosing how to act accordingly. Heavy Rain presents players with the ability to make decisions that are not 'wrong' in a black versus white opposition, but may be undesirable or unnecessary or ill-timed. In this sense it captures an essential human element in the concept of choice.

When I played the Heavy Rain demo I had an admittedly lukewarm reaction to the core game mechanics. They simply aren't that fun. But this game is not about the playing in an input-effect sense, which is the best the demo can offer. It is rather about the idea and sentiment of playing through the story and making it your own through your choices. I read extensively about Heavy Rain and eagerly anticipated its release, and now that I own it I can acknowledge both its promise and its flaws. More than that I see what it is trying to do and how this is a unique moment in gaming.

In contrast to games like Mass Effect, which examine branching consequences, or Bioshock, which muse upon the objective-based nature of video games, Heavy Rain explores the nature of human choices. In every playthrough it forces the player to consider the reasoning behind their every action and the potential consequences. More than that it encourages them see them through to the diverging conclusions, and shows how the smallest choices can have dramatic effects. Cinema has shown us countless stories about human beings act in ways that speak to our everyday lives. Now Heavy Rain is enabling players to influence, consider, and explore those decisions to their full effect. Admittedly it's a programmed medium with predetermined constraints, but then so is film, and to a far greater degree. For the first time the human element of choice has been represented in such a way as to really speak to the characters and the viewer in the same instant.

Heavy Rain shows further evidence that video games can be art, but also does so in a way that we have never before experienced. I hope that people like Roger Ebert will give this game, and all others, the benefit of a doubt before they disqualify the entire medium from aspiring to artistic merit. We are in the twilight hours of video games' dawning as a site for real exploration of human issues and concerns. Even now there are companies willing to provide the financial support necessary for games like Heavy Rain to exist, a risky business move to be sure. For that we should be thankful, and hope that it gets played as much as it deserves.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Games As Art: The Auteur Theory and Video Games

The auteur theory, briefly, is an idea from film criticism which states that a director brings an identifiably unique quality to each of their films. Despite cinema's nature as a collaborative medium, the auteur theory posits that there is an indelible quality that the director brings to their output as the 'core' creator. For example, Steven Spielberg makes movies in a way that is identifiably distinct from the way that, say, James Cameron makes movies. It's a complex theory, and worth reading up on, but that's the basic gist of it.

The question is: is this theory of authorship applicable to video games?

Brian Ashcraft's article on Kotaku, "The Search for Video Game Auteurs," explores this concept, and makes some interesting observations. The names of successful developers often signify a consistent and identifiable style or level of quality. Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto, David Jaffe, Ken Levine. All are individual developers whose games have engendered consisten respect from the gaming community. On the other hand there are creators like Tim Schafer who have likewise earned reputations as (possibly eccentric) innovators. There are expectations that precede games based on the individuals behind them, whether of quality or style or raw uniqueness.

Some games are furthermore sold using the name of their "creator," similar to the way in which Hollywood uses directors' names to sell their films. This can engender positive results, as with Sid Meier's Civilization IV, or Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds; it can likewise backfire when low-quality products are sold on reputation alone, as with John Romero's Daikatana, or Transformers: A Michael Bay Film.

More interestingly, however, Ashcroft points out that development studios are sometimes identified in much the same way that the auteur theory treats directors. Fans of games by Blizzard, Maxis, Lucasarts, Quantic Dream all expect a specific type and quality of game from each of the studios. These are not individual creators but rather collaborative entities that have developed distinct identities in gamers' minds. This begs questions as to the reasoning behind the consistencies in their products: is the auteur-esque less a personality and more a set of basic principles? Can their commonalities be explained on a flowchart, and if so is this type of logic extendable to film? Probably on both counts, but what does that mean?

Torchlight, a Diablo rip off?

A game like Torchlight problematizes this identification. Many have noted its similarities to Blizzard's Diablo series, and the fact that former Blizzard staff founded the studio behind Torchlight, Runic Games. So is Torchlight a "Blizzard game" then? Or are the individuals behind the new game responsible at least in part for the Blizzard persona? How responsible? How many former Blizzard staff does it take to create a Blizzard game? Curiously, is Diablo 3 a Runic Games game?

The upcoming Diablo 3, a Torchlight rip off?

The application of the auteur theory to video games is problematic because of the collaborative nature of the medium, but it's actually more complicated than that. One also has to consider the business behind the industry, and more crucially the fact that it is a medium of literal codes. People come together to create something but they do so under a company that retains the overall rights to the intellectual property, likeness, and the code. With this they can give the assets to newcomers to produce something like Bioshock 2. Considering Ken Levine's absence from the development team it would seem difficult to argue that it is 'his' game, like System Shock 2 and Bioshock are. At the surface level, however, there seems little reason to avoid this designation: the game clearly evokes his style, and on a spreadsheet breakdown it hits all the right bullet points. Why not call it Ken Levine's Bioshock 2, both colloquially and commercially?

Because video games are built with strings of codes they can be replicated without any alteration. This could not be possible in film: even if a director consciously chose to replicate the style of another they would still make their own choices as to what that constituted, in both form and content. With video games there is simply the code.

Walter Benjamin spoke of the loss of an artistic work's aura in the age of mechanical reproduction, but the issue is multiplied in the age of digital reproduction. More than that the concept of authorship becomes central when one considers the question, "can video games be art?" But that's a subject or another day. For now I will just say that the auteur theory seems ill-suited to the medium, but then the medium is still young. Things are just getting started.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Roger Ebert in Esquire

Above is the face of Roger Ebert as he is now. An ongoing battle with throat cancer has cost him much of his lower jaw, and the ability to speak, eat, or drink. Chris Jones has written a moving piece in Esquire describing Ebert's living situation. The man is perhaps America's greatest living film critic, and as an admirer of Ebert's work it's both heartbreaking to read about his struggles, but also inspiring to then consider his output.

On his blog, Ebert is prolific with his prose. Without being able to say a word he continues to be one of the greatest critical voices in contemporary western cinema. He has taken the time to respond to the piece in Esquire, and his words only add to the poignancy of the already powerful article. It is his hope and optimism, however, that shine through most strongly. Whatever he is faced with, Ebert continues to live and write and love it all the more. As a note on page four shows, he does not despair his condition because it has facilitated his explosion of writing. More than ever he is a force to be reckoned with, proving that the pen is at the very least as powerful as the sword.

Rarely is the more and better proof of a person's true potential than in what Ebert has accomplished. Despite everything he continues to face in his personal life, the man is unrivalled in sheer influential power throughout North America. Everyone should take the time to read the piece in Esquire as it is a powerful and inspiring human story. Anyone interested in film and writing should both take note of his life and his work: he continues to set the bar high for those who dare to follow in his footsteps.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I've just returned from California and am in the midst of getting somewhat caught up on what happened while I was gone. At the risk of posting one too many video embeds, I feel that it's important I share this with you all: Live Avatar Role Playing. It's should not be missed:

"It's almost like what I've seen Japanese people do"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Meme Has Gone Meta

If you're unfamiliar with the Hitler video meme then this probably wont make much sense to you... If you are then give this a watch, and stick around for the ending. It's classic. I particularly loved the line, "I should have left you all in 4chan where i found you!"

Monday, February 15, 2010

From Around The Web - 2/15/10

An interesting and informative explanation of How 3-D Works. [Link Broken]

Another piece on Dollhouse. I need more time to think about this show before I do my own write up on it.

Norwegians are hilarious. Also, Google Street View truly is a worldwide phenomenon that is distinctly of our time.

I'm going to pick up Heavy Rain on my way home, based on these reviews, and you can be sure I'll be writing about it soon...

I'm thinking about moving away from Blogger based on recent reports of their... inflexibility... If any of you have thoughts on the matter then please let me know.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Thus ends the mayoral campaign of Adam Giambrone...

Damn that was fast.

Admittedly I haven't been Giambrone's biggest fan, but that's mostly because of the problems with the TTC. His arrogance made him an easy person to blame, and his desperate campaign to become the TTC's public face has made him the natural target. That said, the TTC is a gigantic and historic organization, and its problems are not his fault. He certainly hasn't helped matters, at least not in a public or tangible sense, but it's likely that he's been trying, albeit impotently thus far.

It's a shame that he's out of the race if only because it's one less voice in the mix. He's a young man, so maybe he'll be able to run again in the future, but he could have brought a new youthful perspective to this race. It's also a damn shame that his departure came as a result of his personal life, not his politics. I'm not defending what he's done, but do his actions discredit his potential as an elected official? I wouldn't recommend dating him, but there wasn't time to develop a strong opinion towards voting for him. Now he's out of the race because he lives in a way that the moral majority doesn't agree with, and his actual politics are secondary in a political election.

That's too bad.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

PSA: Kevin Smith is hilarious

Before I leave cold Toronto for sunny California, I want to share one last thing with you. The other night a friend and I were lucky enough to see Kevin Smith do a Q&A with his fans at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. He has been doing this type of show every year for the last five, always around mid-February. If you love his movies then this is dream come true: Smith speaks as though the audience is made up entirely of his close personal friends, and really gives you a window into his life and the entertainment industry.

In previous years he has done similar shows at college campuses all across the US. I can't say whether or not he is doing any more touring but if he does happen to come to your town then go see him. It will always be worth the money, that much is certain. If you can't see him live then go rent his DVD, An Evening With Kevin Smith, which is a collection of highlights from a tour he did back in 2001. It has received two follow-up DVDs, and is largely the reason why he still continues to do these types of talks. More than that it is absolutely hilarious. If you don't believe me then check out YouTube, where you can watch low-quality versions of the entire DVD, or short clips like the one I am including below. His story about being brought on to re-write the script for a Superman reboot in the mid 1990s has always stuck with me as one of the most absurd yet totally believable Hollywood stories. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have:

Monday, February 8, 2010

From Around The Web - 2/8/10

I've been somewhat lax with my posts recently, but hopefully I'll be able to show you why soon. I'm working on something that should compliment this site nicely... It might be a little while before you hear anything though, because tomorrow morning I'm heading to California for a week. I doubt I'll end up posting much/anything while I'm away. In the meantime, here are some links that I've found interesting:

The review of Away We Go that I never got around to writing

More thoughts on the dearly departed Dollhouse

Some discussions of the science behind Avatar's Pandora

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wes Anderson's 'The Amazing Spiderman'

This video is hilarious. Admittedly this is less a lampoon of Anderson's style and more just a mash-up of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but it's still really funny.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On this whole 'National Post' debacle...

For those who haven't heard, on January 26 the National Post put out an editorial decrying Women's Studies. The piece is a response to news of the 'death' of the program at institutions around the country. The NP editors discuss how the academic field is not disappearing from schools but is rather "being renamed to make [it] appear less controversial." The article then outlines the ways in which Women's Studies has purportedly damaged society since its inception in the late 1970s.