February 13, 2012 by jamtime
Heavy Rain Game Analysis
Narratology vs ludology—It is a division over which “the most intense paradigm clashes [within] the field” of video game studies occur (Simon Egenfeldt Nielsen 11). Another hotly contested issue within the field is how one defines a video game. Many models have been put forward, but none have been agreed upon. Although these are important issues within the field, outside of the realm of academia these issues go largely undiscussed. For instance, if you asked an average gamer whether or not they believe it’s valid to apply conventional theories of narrative to video games, they’d probably look at you funny, shrug their shoulders and go back to playing Call of Duty. Likewise, the average gamer doesn’t spend time wandering around the electronics aisle trying to distinguish all the different forms of media from one another. If it’s in the game section, it’s a game. If it’s in the dvd section, it’s a movie. In 2010, however, a highly unusual game was released for the Playstation 3 which brought these exact issues the forefront of popular gaming culture. This game was Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream).
Heavy Rain is sort of a cross between adventure games in the style of Myst (Cyan) or The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucas Arts), and a choose your own adventure novel. It is also one of the most highly cinematic games ever created. The game is especially relevant to the discussion of Narratology vs. Ludology because the way in which Heavy Rain operates as a game is very different from the way most games operate. In most games, the primary game play is built around the objective of challenging the skill of the gamer, be it mechanical in terms of reaction time and skill with the controller, or mental in terms of figuring out puzzles. Heavy Rain, however, is a game which focuses on narrative immersion through unchallenging quick time events. Unlike most games which rely on quick time events, the actions you are supposed to perform within the cut scene in Heavy Rain aren’t meant to be challenging. A character will fry an egg, for instance, and you will have to complete a flipping motion with your control stick. The event has no plot relevance, and the controller movement required is not challenging in any way. Every once in a while you will run into a more traditional quick time event such as a fight scene, but for the most part the gameplay is merely a supplement to the story’s narrative.
Heavy Rain is a game which thumbs its nose at ludology, and because of this some critics were quite vocal in their opinion that Heavy Rain is not actually a game. Most notably, video game journalist and internet sensation Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame said in his review that “I’m a game critic, you see, and Heavy Rain is a game in the same way that Ian Thorpe is a salmon. Okay, they both splash about in water, but you’d be embarrassed if you tried to make mousse out of Ian Thorpe. I think we need a whole new kind of critic for Heavy Rain— critics of interactive storytelling experiences”
Despite his complaints, Heavy Rain fits within the model presented by Chis Crawford in his book “The Art of Computer Game Design.” Heavy Rain clearly functions as a subjective representation of reality (Simon Egenfeldt Nielsen 33) The game engages the gamer in solving a murder mystery, however all the boring aspects of police work, such as paperwork, are left out. The game has conflict. The protagonist’s son is kidnapped and you have to try and find him. The game provides safety from consequences (Simon Egenfeldt Nielsen 33). At one point in the game I had the main character cut off his own thumb in order to save his kidnapped son. My actual thumb remains intact. Finally, the game is interactive (Simon Egenfeldt Nielsen 33). Aside from the quick time events, the game is also filled with choices. One of Yahtzee’s big complaints with the game was that many of the choices revolve around mundane tasks and are completely inconsequential in nature. There is a moment in the very beginning of the game, for example, where the protagonist’s wife asks for him to bring her a set of dishes from the living room. You can bring them to her, or you can ignore her. I, for instance, decided to pretend like I didn’t hear her and made the protagonist go outside and play with his two sons, instead. First I played helicopter with one, and then I got into a foam sword fight with the other. I decided which kid to play with first, and had I so chosen to, I could have only played with one son and ignored the other. I also could have let one of the sons win the sword fight, but I didn’t. I beat him thoroughly. Now, did any of these choices matter? Well, yes and no. While these actions do effect the ways characters react to you in the scene (the wife was mad at me for ignoring her, but the kids were happy I played with them, for instance), in terms of overall plot these decisions were completely non-consequential. One of the sons, Jason, dies in the next scene, regardless of whether or not you let him win the sword fight or even play with him at all. This leads to a divorce with the wife, regardless of whether or not you brought her the dishes. Your surviving son, Shaun, will always get kidnapped.
Despite this, Yahtzee is wrong when he says that these choices don’t matter. I found that these early decisions about the protagonist slowly shaped my perception of what kind of a person he was, and this profoundly affected how I chose to act when faced with bigger decisions later in the game. There are several points in the game where your decisions have an effect on the outcome of the plot. On my second play through, I decided ahead of time I was going to make different choices from the first time I played so that the game would turn out differently. I made the mistake, however, of making a lot of the same decisions which have no plot importance, such as acting like a loving father towards the kids, as I made before. When it came time to make the bigger decisions later in the game such as whether or not to go through with the life threatening trials in order to save Shaun, I couldn’t bring myself to let the protagonist give up immediately. I felt I had a responsibility to him to play it true to his character. A character I shaped through those early decisions.
As I have said, Heavy Rain doesn’t operate like a normal game: Heavy Rain operates like an interactive film which lets the audience make decisions which affect the plot in addition to allowing for an extra level of immersion through mimicking the movements of the main character. I make this analogy because, like a film, the end goal is not to be challenging. The goal is to craft an emotionally gripping narrative experience. Heavy Rain is a game which completely challenges the notion of what a game is and how a game is supposed to operate, but the fact that both Gamespy and IGN named Heavy Rain the Playstation 3 game of the year in 2010, validates its status both within the culture and the industry. In terms of narratology vs. ludology, I think the take away is simple. In the same manner that early arcade games like Donkey Kong (Nintendo) proved that video games can exist on gameplay alone, with little to no narrative; Heavy Rain proves the same is true in reverse. As a medium, video games posses an enormous range in terms of artistic expression and it is foolish to limit the study of them to narrative or game play exclusively.
Simon Egenfeldt Nielsen, Jonas Heide Smith, Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games. New York City: Routledge , 2008.