This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.
Warning: Very minor spoilers ahead!
In a recent GDC interview with G4, Quantic Dream's David Cage revealed that describing the experience of Heavy Rain to people over the last two years has been his personal nightmare. Each button on the PS3 controller corresponds to different actions at different times, so it is difficult to assess what is "done" with any consistency. Yet the game does explicitly seek to evoke a wide range of emotions from players with these controls. What players "do" or "should do" is have an emotional connection to the story through interactivity. My goal with this post is to explore this attempt at evocative player inputs.
I should start with a few caveats. There has been some debate about how suitable it is to call Heavy Rain a "game" at all. David Cage himself calls it an "interactive drama." The distinction, as I see it, is utterly pointless. If you thirst for more debate, I cede the floor to Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer who recently posted an excellent piece on the subject. I am also steering clear of plot criticisms, including the affect player death has on the experience. That being said, story elements will arise whose effectiveness you question. In which case, consider my arguments on controls indicative of what QD would have achieved with better storytelling.
In response to those who criticize Heavy Rain as a glorified collection of quick-time events, I side with Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting on this when he says "This is factually true, and experientially insignificant." Like all game interfaces, the input options are abstract symbols for what appears on screen. I take as my assumption the legitimacy of Heavy Rain's input design choices and go from there.
To begin with, there are a few important differences between the types of player interactions. A vast sum of the game is spent maneuvering characters about their day to day lives, participating leisurely in the mundane. Actions are contextual. Opening a door might require moving the thumb stick right. Alternatively, swiveling the thumb stick might turn a car's key in the ignition for example. Gentler tasks require slower actions, and sustained effort might require tapping on a button repeatedly. More difficult tasks, such as climbing a muddy hill, might require the player to hold down buttons in a particular order. Lastly, during particularly fast-paced scenes, quick button presses play out quick-time events.
There have been some criticisms levied at Heavy Rain for its interactive tedium, particularly the game's slow start. It does seem a bit ludicrous to brush someone's teeth with the thumb stick. Some of these early scenes, however, can be quite emotionally affecting. During the game's early moments, Ethan has a mock sword fight with one of his children. The battle prompts the player to parry and strike to win. You might, however, resist all your gaming knowledge and intentionally lose, ignoring the on screen instructions, to be a better father. As such, Heavy Rain conveys "failure" as a legitimate narrative outcome. More importantly for this scene, player input defines the emotional weight of the on-screen father-son relationship.
Additionally, the game's basic interactions are designed to contrast with the game's high tension moments. Theoretically, partaking in Ethan's daily routine of caring for his son emphasizes his normality. Fixing your son something to eat before bed time is a far cry from the heroics of champions traditionally found in videogames. Therefor, we should empathize with him more easily. To some extent, this interactive banality also maps the human body across situations. We are reminded that the same limbs, or controller inputs in this case, we use to kick a ball might, in the right situation, save a life. The realism this conveys stresses the emotional level non-normative scenarios evoke.
When tied to narrative outcomes, implementing the now normalized controller movements correctly suddenly becomes very important. In one dramatic scene, Ethan is giving CPR to his son Shaun. There were numerous moments when I, and Ethan by extension, had messed up basic everyday things, like carrying groceries. So, when a life depended on success, the possibility of failure was almost palpable. My only thought was "not now. Don't mess up now." The sense of tension and worry was far more powerful because my input mirrored routine interactions practiced earlier in the game.
This same relationship plays out on many occasions. When FBI agent Jaden is reeling under the effects of Triptocaine (or ARI?) withdrawal, button options vibrate violently and blur. Players are met with the same disorientation Jaden is feeling, making success that much more difficult. Complex actions require complex button sequences as well, mimicking the concentration and contortion required to pull something off. At one point, I was holding down the left trigger with my lip.
Similarly, when Madison is being assaulted with a bat, the appropriate button to dodge is actually attached to the object. Interpreting and acting upon this button display requires quick thinking. By contextualizing interface placement and adjusting its appearance based on character emotions, Heavy Rain creates stronger sensations of anxiety and tension. Our interactions with the game become colored by the emotions of the players, the actions on screen, and our own building distress.
Some have criticized the game for this behavior, suggesting this design choice breaks immersion, requiring the player to think only of the controller. I do concede there is some preparatory controller memorization during some scenes. However, I equate such behavior to a goalkeeper mentally concentrating on their body, muscles, and inevitable movement seconds before a penalty kick. It is unfortunate, in this case, we concentrate so heavily on a controller, but the reason is the same. We mentally prepare ourselves to act correctly and efficiently during moments of high anxiety, which Heavy Rain successfully creates.
There is one scene that is particularly evocative, which also collects input options successfully. One of Ethan's trials to save his son involves chopping off his own finger. Ethan may collect various items to prepare himself for the amputation. If they so choose, players follow Ethan, moving the six-axis controller to pull a knife out of the wall, rotating the thumb stick to heat up an improvised cauterizing iron, or slowly moving the stick up and down to regulate breathing and slow Ethan's heart rate.
If players do this, they partake in a ritual of sorts. While it calms Ethan, it actually builds up tension for the player, asking them to imagine themselves in the same scenario. Each mundane task carries greater weight because each step brings players closer to the horrendous act. The scene creates a sense of determination, resolve, and disgust.
Even if the only interaction the player indulges in is sawing through finger bone, the controller movement approximates and emphasizes the actual act. Players are encouraged to ponder the dilemma, stew within the emotions it creates, and face the grotesque challenge. Despite its digital nature, the sequence of events is incredibly cringe worthy. This scene epitomizes Heavy Rain's attempt at developing emotions with their game mechanics.
For many people, Heavy Rain fails to evoke anything but frustration and disappointment. The way players interact with the game is partially to blame. It is not always clear why certain actions are mapped to certain inputs, or why that mapping changes during a scene. Undoubtedly, the interactive tedium also confounds the emotions players are supposed to feel during high tension situations. While the game is not perfect, it does tread an innovative path with its controls. David Cage intended to make an emotionally dramatic interactive experience. Regardless of its success, the attempt is an intriguing and commendable addition to emotional and sensational gaming.