Friday, April 16, 2010

Mad About Madison

This post contains spoilers for Heavy Rain.

David Cage hoped Heavy Rain would show that video games could provide "adult experiences based on emotions; that it's possible to make games that are not based on shooting, on driving, on jumping, on solving puzzles, or whatever." In attempting to accomplish this, Heavy Rain relies on an unusual mixture of nontraditional gameplay and a heavy emphasis on its characters.

Because the game's mechanics are contextual, the characters must be sufficiently nuanced in order to convey believable experiences. However, it is extremely difficult to create characters that can inspire empathy without simply using them as tools to manufacture emotion. Unfortunately, in the case of Madison Paige, story and gameplay techniques mix with long-standing gender tropes to transform her from a person into a prop.

Our friend Denis Farr wrote a comprehensive piece over at The Borderhouse about the many thematic problems with Madison Paige, and I highly recommend reading it. As Denis states, "While violence visits all the characters in the game, there is a sense that all the scenes involving Madison have a tinge of sexual assault threatened on top of everything else." The perpetual threat of sexual violence is established in Madison's first scene, in which a group of attackers enter her apartment. At this point, most players will have completed a shower scene that contains several lingering shots of Madison's nude body, including a few focused directly on her breasts. David Cage explains this scene by saying:
"I think it really helps to build a relationship with the character. You saw her really fragile and vulnerable and naked, and this is out of the way now, and then you can really start to like her as a character. I think that the perception of Madison would have been very different without this first scene where you share intimacy."
While it is true that this scene shows her vulnerability and fragility, it does little explain her "as a character." Besides being an insomniac and having an inexplicable crush on Ethan, the only thing the player learns about Madison is that she is a constant target for sex, violence, and the combination thereof. The game never goes into her background, her motivations, her skills as a reporter, or the toll of all the harrowing situations in which she finds herself. Furthermore, the gameplay continually suggests that Madison can only react to the problems that befall her, instead of assuming control and agency over a potential situation, both before and as it develops.

Madison's thematic portrayal is continually defined in narrow, gendered terms: in addition to the nude/rapist scene, an insane doctor tries (and for some players, succeeds) to drug her, tie her up, and threaten to penetrate her with a power drill. In another scene, she goes to a nightclub looking for clues, and finds herself herself stripping for the club's sleazy owner at gunpoint. Madison is able to escape both of these situations, but in doing so does nothing to transcend her role as the game's avenue to explore sex and violence: she can kill the doctor with his own formal phallic symbol and she gets the best of the club owner by threatening to crush his testicles. As Denis notes: "To engage him on any level, she still had to threaten his sexuality."

The Heavy Rain DLC continues to define Madison in terms of sexuality and violence. In Giant Bomb's playthrough of The Taxidermist, she is threatened by the prospect of being turned into a literal sex object:

If she avoids being butchered and stuffed, the scene's climax sees her wield another large, deadly phallic symbol between her own thighs before she plunges it into her attacker's crotch. Again, Madison is defined as an object of sexual violence whose only means of engagement is reciprocal sexual violence.

David Cage describes the DLC as: "just a short story of something that happened to Madison." In doing so, he eloquently summarizes the main problem with Madison, as well as Heavy Rain in general: things "just happen," both in terms of the plot and ludic narrative. Madison seems to be unable to control what kinds of situations she finds herself in and is continually in a reactive state of existence. At the same time, the game's mechanics reinforce this lack of agency for both the player and the character.

Heavy Rain's gameplay is an inherently reactive: since the action takes place in quicktime events, there is little the player can do except wait and react to the prompts on screen. The player's main source of agency is deciding whether to activate these events. Disappointingly, yet not surprisingly, the three male playable characters (and the player who controls them) all have far more agency in terms of choosing their actions than Madison: Ethan can give up or fail the origami challenges. Jayden can decide whether to use lethal force, take drugs, or work on the investigation. Shelby can choose whether to help Lauren on multiple occasions and whether to have mercy on a sick, yet reprehensible old man.

As Madison, the player has no choice but to deal with things "that [just] happen" to her instead of making active decisions about what paths to take. Madison is strangely eager to act as Ethan's nurse and personal investigator, and the player cannot deviate from these roles. The nightclub and strip scene forces Madison into a sexually violent situation while simultaneously forcing the player to participate in it, as any attempt to deviate from tightly-scripted event stops the game's progress. To initiate the sex scene between Ethan and Madison, the player makes the decision as Ethan. It is both a thematic and ludic impossibility for Madison to control her sexuality: either the plot is foisting unwanted sex on her or the decision is being made by the player while they are controlling a male character.

The vast majority of actions the player and Madison take together are either in service of a male character or part of a narrative attempt to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and sexual violence. Be it mundane tasks like carrying groceries or harrowing action sequences, Ethan, Jayden, and Shelby have a variety of motivations and experiences that define multiple aspects of their characters. By contrast, even Madison' smallest actions, like putting on makeup or cleaning Ethan's wounds, serve to supporting male agency or traditional, vapid images of femininity. Heavy Rain confines its female lead to a supporting role, and in doing so fails the Bechdel test in both a narrative and gameplay sense.

Trying to create "adult experiences" in games is a noble goal, but Heavy Rain shows that it is not so much the genre, but the execution that matters. Even the "shooters" that Cage dismisses can convey complex stories and emotions. A game like Portal demonstrates how a character's vulnerability can be explored and utilized for dramatic effect while still allowing the character (and the player) to retain her agency. Chell is in constant danger, but the game and its story is structured to create a proactive experience: Chell and the player are empowered to take control of a situation; to face challenges on their own terms rather than just reacting to them. The result is not simply a story of female empowerment, but player empowerment.

Madison, David Cage, as well as the rest of us, could probably learn a thing or two from Chell.


  1. I still find it deeply disappointing that "maturity" somehow translates to "adult experiences" like sexual assault, cruel and sick violence and vapid gender roles. To me, that's just more sick, brainless, immature trash.

    If these guys want to make games for adults, they need to grow up.

  2. Hey Tesh,

    I'm conflicted about it. In one sense, I completely agree with you. So often "adult" conflated with "lurid."

    On the other hand, stereotypes and violence are legitimate subjects to address, subjects that games rarely even attempt to consider.

    It's just too bad that a high-profile game that tries to incorporate these themes falls into the same traps we've seen other media fall into over the years. I want developers to take chances, but I also want them to be thoughtful about it. I hope the missteps are ultimately seen as a challenge to overcome rather than a deterrent against trying.

    But seriously though, how amazing is Portal? ;-)

  3. Aye, these things are worth addressing, but nobody is doing it. They are just using and reinforcing the same old tropes, not really addressing the real problems that lie more with the fact that these things exist at all, and how to deal with the consequences.

    Then again, a game about psychological rehab or turning the other cheek probably would't sell all that well.

    .... Mmm... Portal. :)

  4. Well said... I feel us ladies are so commonly used in video games and movies to portray helplessness and fear. Think about Silent Hill (1) - when they changed it into a movie I got deeply offended that they needed to change Harry into a woman for the film. What were they saying? That a female character would feel more weak and helpless in that position? That a mother character would love her child more than a father?

    Also, this reminds me of this:

  5. Hey Auilix!

    I didn't know that about the Silent Hill movie character-swap; how annoying! Seems to play into a long, shallow history of female characters in the movies.

    By the way, that Hulu clip is hilarious, true, and sad all at the same time. Those web shorts are singlehandedly keeping SNL relevant!