Wednesday, March 6, 2013

EXP Podcast #214: Heavy Rain and Unreliably Narrators

Oh David Cage, will you always be a source of contention and fascinating design discussions? If my tea leaves tell me anything, it's that the creative mind behind Heavy Rain and the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls will always be stirring the pot, trying to craft something for the games industry we have never seen before. It might taste terrible, but at least it fuels some interesting conversations.

This week on the EXP Podcast, inspired by an excellent article by Gavin Craig, Scott and I revisit Heavy Rain and explore the idea of the unreliable narrator. We touch upon several games in our chat, including our podcast favorite (can you guess what it is?). If you have examples of unreliable narrators in games, share them with us in the comments below and let us know how you felt they pulled off the difficult feat. Also, be sure to check out Craig's original article in the show notes as well as the "scene in question" below.

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Show notes:

- Runtime: 36 min 48 sec
-  "(Not) Seeing Is (Not) Believing", by Gavin Craig via Bit Creature (Note: Due to some website hijinks at Bit Creature, we falsely attributed the piece in the podcast. Our apologies. Just imagine you heard "Gavin Craig" instead of "James Hawkins".)
- Music by: Brad Sucks


  1. Great show as always, guys. I wish you had mentioned The Stanley Parable, though. I think it's the most obvious example of an unreliable narrator. In fact, the whole game is centered around the premise of an unreliable narrator. What's interesting about TSP is how it works as an exploration of the much vaunted freedom of a video game player. It's a bit heavy handed, but a very funny exploration of your topic. (If you haven't played, go for it. It's short and definitely worth your time. Or you can wait for the HD version to come out in Steam.)

    This also reminds me of Antichamber, the new first person puzzler that plays around with the environment around you. As you mentioned during the show, the narration in this case would be represented by the changing rules in the virtual world surrounding you. I personally don't find this annoying if there is a reason behind it, even if that reason is simply to encourage lateral thinking. I find flawed realistic worlds to be much more immersion breaking, such as when Revengeance lets me cut everything _but_ the flimsy stairway in front of me.

    Never played Heavy Rain. I can't help but feel that if a game is going to make you perform good deeds while controlling a serial killer, there had better be some serious Twin Peaks-like multiple personality disorder involved.

  2. Great call on the Stanley Parable. I remember liking that game quite a bit, as both the narrator and the systems themselves proved to be unreliable.

    I'm also glad that someone else besides me tried to cut every single thing in Revengeance. :)

  3. I think that's a normal obsession. If there's one thing I'll remember about that game, it's chopping enemies into a million tiny pieces and them watching them fall to the ground. It makes explosions seem almost anticlimactic - I'd rather watch the chunks of enemies scatter around.

    I wonder if that makes me a bad person... :)


    I liked Heavy Rain very much for its ambition, and some of the minigames, including this destroy-the-evidence one, were quite well done. Sure, Shelby's teleporting murderer act didn't make much sense, but nothing he does in the entire game makes sense after the reveal. Why did he even go to the typewriter shop in the first place?! Why was he investigating himself? Why did he storm the mansion and kill all those people who he knew weren't involved? It's baffling. Another odd bit of the game lying to you: Shelby said he was there when Shaun died, but if you go back to the intro, he wasn't. Game engine-as-unreliable-narrator is an interesting idea, but this was just cheating so they could give you an unguessable twist ending.

    I know it won't happen, but I would love to see David Cage license that game engine to Telltale. Just imagine what they could do with it!

  5. Yup. That's the thing that with David Cage; it seems like he either thinks technology is a band aid for sloppy storytelling or (even more worrisome) he thinks that his games' stories already make sense and that it's the tech holding them back. I'd be legitimately interested to hear him address the gaping plot holes in Heavy Rain just to learn whether he views them that way.

    Maybe it's a good thing Telltale doesn't have the money and tech that Quantic Dream gets, as it forces them to have great stories and writing?

  6. Good podcast.

    Going by Cage's recent presentation on the games industry, it's obvious that he's not interested in making narrative for games. He talks of learning, mastery, and challenge as things that developers need to get away from, yet these are the foundations of gameplay. He should be actively seeking ways to tie narrative with gameplay, not to replace gameplay with occasional interaction. I agree with what was said in the podcast, though: it sure is interesting having him around.