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.

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