and why it fails to be good as either game or movie.
I had such high hopes for Heavy Rain…
I love gaming, I love games that push gaming forward. I love cinema, I love the art of the moving image and the screen experience. Most of all I love Narrative, I love the structure, form, dynamism, power, history and elegance of Narrative.
Heavy Rain is a Cinematic Game Narrative Experience, So I should have loved Heavy Rain. I wanted to love Heavy Rain…
Alas, I fucking hated heavy rain.
Heavy Rain is a dire abomination that fails everything it attempts be by fundamentally failing to understanding any of the things its trying to emulate.
Heavy Rain fails as a game because I rarely actually knew what the objective was and when I did my actions were so dictated and prescribed that I may as well have put down the controller. In fact a good percentage of the game was spent exactly like that - not actually controlling anything.
Heavy Rain fails as a Narrative because I spent more time performing mindlessly tedious tasks (showering, changing a baby, walking through a crowd, shaking off a headache) with no bearing on, or significance to, the plot than actually engaging with the narrative.
Heavy Rain fails as an experience by failing to be competent as either game or movie. As a game it was passively tedious. As a movie it was long-winded, dull and full of mindlessly pointless scenes with no significance to the story.
The only refuge left for Heavy Rain once it had failed to be either Game, Movie or Experience was to function as a ‘World’ (a la second life, WoW et al) Second Life and WoW thrive on long periods of pointlessness and tedium (grinding) and they do so by embracing a melodrama like cycle of ‘everydayness’. Virtual worlds make this everydayness interesting by having a big open world to explore. Heavy Rain even fails as a ‘world’ as it has nothing to explore - the spaces are so overtly dictated, confined and pupeteered as to feel like pre-drawn comic books cells rather than ‘game levels’. Whilst playing many ‘scenes’ in Heavy Rain it became paramountly obvious that all I was doing was wondering around to find the ‘thing’ the game wanted and needed me to find before I could progress. This became a very self conscious playing mind-set that destroyed any sense of discovery and self-determination.
In suffering through Heavy Rain I was prompted to think of another narrative-focused, interactive story-experienced game - Dear Esther.
I dedicated Episode 7 of the Game Probe series to Dear Esther; the experimental game mod produced by The Chinese Room.
As the Game Probe episode implies, Dear Esther is a very effective and absorbing narrative experience. In many ways Dear Esther and Heavy Rain share much in common. Both discard many game conventions of run, shoot, chase, fight to explore a different kind of narrative experience through user-control.
Yet, to my mind, Heavy Rain fails abysmally and Dear Esther is a surprising and fascinating success. So why does Dear Esther work when Heavy Rain doesn’t?
In raw terms of its mechanics Dear Esther works because it makes the long drawn out walking and exploring the island of its setting an integral part of the narrative story experience. Heavy Rain by contrast has you spend enormous amounts of time on the parts of the story that simply don’t matter and are inconsequential.
In Heavy Rain the ‘story’ is subserviently what happens between banal pointless frustrating tedious interaction. Never in Heavy Rain does the interaction drive the story. Rather, its just mindless busy work that must be undertaken to ‘earn’ the next bit of the story. Heavy Rain fails to make the game play emotionally, narratively or conceptually ‘Matter’ in any way more than a test of thumb dexterity and tedium tolerance threshold.
Certainly the same argument may be levelled at many games. It might be said that many narrative based FPS games have their story elements occur between periods of game play. But at least shooting stuff, action and strategy is INTERESTING…! Cleaning teeth, having a shower, is NOT FUCKING INTERESTING. Its really fucking dull..! And why the fuck did I have spend 20mins trying ‘hold off a headache’ by absurd and deformed controller mashing? An action which simply allowed me to get to the next inevitable piece of the story. There was no ramifications for losing the ‘fend off the headache’ scene, so what the fuck was the point?
Dear Esther by contrast makes the long journey, the walk and exploration of the island, the discovery of the signs and pieces of the puzzle, a fundamental part of the story. Dear Esther makes the game-play important and interesting, the playing and controlling on the part of the user is not what happens between story elements, or to ‘earn’ story progression; rather the game-play is the story.
Here I think great thanks must be given to Half Life 2. Whilst this much celebrated game is lauded for its physics engine, HDR lighting and level design, its real gift to gaming was to deliver an experience where there was no tangible separation between what is ‘game’ and what is ‘story’. In Half Life 2 the game IS the story. HL2 did this through eliminating cut-scenes, remaining in first-person and player control at all times and quite brilliant use of radio and tv broadcasts to tell back and side story.
This is not to say that all games must do what HL2 did to make gameplay and narrative seamlessly integrated - HL2’s choices were one solution among infinite possible solutions.
But Heavy Rain failed this test - failed to seek any solution - and so when its is judged as a game it fails, and judged as a movie it fails. If the attempt was to create something new that was neither game nor movie then it failed here fundamentally as well as being tedious, monotonous and banal is hardly success.
I wanted to love Heavy Rain. I sincerely hope its dismal failure doesn’t dissuade developers from continuing to explore possibilities for game narrative. But certainly Gaming and Game Narrative deserves better than Heavy Rain’s offering.
Yahtzee’s take from Zero Punctuation is profound….