With the recent release of Heavy Rain, I’ve had interactive storytelling on my mind again. I was excited about the game, and for months it was one of the justifications I had for buying a PS3 in the first place (second place to The Last Guardian). But after playing the demo and hearing many detailed reports from friends I trust, I’m left a little stumped with David Cage’s latest attempt at making storytelling a truly interactive experience. After all, David Cage’s personal blog makes the following goals central to the player’s experience of Heavy Rain:
- An evolving thriller in which you shape the story
- Mature content, reflecting a realistic world setting that explores powerful themes
- Stunning graphics, animation and technology support an emotionally driven experience
- Accessible gameplay via intuitive, contextual controls and interface
In this article I don’t want to harp on David Cage or Quantic Dream. The kinds of goals he has for his games are right up my alley, and if the games fails to satisfy those goals, it would be rather asinine of me to point fingers at him or his studio. Instead, I’d like to think about what we mean by an “interactive narrative” and why we are being led further and further away from a truly interactive storytelling experience, especially in games that attempt to simulate one. So let me be clear: this isn’t a review or a critique of Heavy Rain, but of the general kind of problems we face today in making interactive stories.
As a foil to Heavy Rain, I take a very simple and effective “edutainment” title from my back-catalogue of 1990s edutainment titles, and show that Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections: Stowaway! (whew) manages to produce a far more immersive and interactive narrative experience using a gameplay approach that is simpler and totally straightforward. (And I’ll make it spoiler-free if that matters for you, I hope.)
The Response to Heavy Rain So Far
Michael Abbott’s initial response to Heavy Rain captured almost every aspect of the game that made me cringe: dramatic tension fails to build, it confuses game-directed “input prompts” with player agency, marionetting the protagonist ultimately destroys one’s affective connection to him, and an inconsistent/arbitrary control system that serves only to breed learned helplessness and frustration.
I think Michael puts it best when he writes, “The game is at odds with itself from beginning to end. It persistently reminds me that neither I nor my avatar possess consequential autonomy. In Heavy Rain, the game itself controls the game, and that doesn’t feel much like interactive drama to me.” (my emphasis)
The question of “realism” in games is something we’ve been contending with for years. A couple of years ago the discussion was all about photorealism in Mass Effect and the new Star Wars films, and if it adds any value to a narrative or is just downright creepy and distracting (note: I snobbily avoid using the “uncanny” valley nonsense, just because most of the people who use that term have never read or understood Freud – and Heidegger’s – powerful notion of ‘the uncanny’). I argued that photorealistic games fail to “grab” us precisely because they try to systematically represent a character’s face or bodily movements… and no amount of technological advancement will yield a believable computer-generated character. Instead, I motioned for a return to the heavy artistic stylization of characters by artists like Jim Hensen, who made “Kermit the Frog” and “Oscar the Grouch” far more believable than a digitized Jabba the Hutt.
In Heavy Rain we’re facing the same problem. Although few people have pointed it out (as most of us are now desensitized to photorealism), the visual metaphor for the game is the same as all other 3D FPS games today: attempt to represent human physiognomy and movement as “realistically” as possible using highly technological means. Because David Cage wants us to believe that we’re directing a film with “live” actors, the characters appear to move like people, appear to frown like people, and appear to cry like people.
Appear to. Ay, there’s the rub. The attempt to make each character appear real is at odds with the complex storytelling goals of the game. When a game attempts to “simulate” rather than “express” an experience, it loses its ability to artistically exaggerate or highlight some aspects of the experience over others. Let me clear that up with an example…
If I’m trying to tell you a story about something that happened in my psychology class last week (ie. a student who disrupted a lecture by talking loudly), I should only relate details about the situation that are relevant to expressing the kind of experience it was. Maybe I was already having a bad day before I got to class – I stubbed my toe on my way to the bathroom, and one of the cats shit in my shoes, and during the lecture I kept tripping over words. All of a sudden it becomes believable that I lost my temper with a student who was talking in class, and royally embarrassed both of us.
But what if I started the story by introducing extraneous (yet true and representative!) details about the color and cut of the pants I was wearing, the way I did my hair that morning, and the temperature of the classroom that day, you’ll likely say to me: Yeah, yeah, I get it! – but what does that have to do with the story? In other words, you can’t simulate an experience – you can only express one through a story.
That’s what games like Heavy Rain end up getting tripped up with. All of the extraneous details of the scene – the perfectly rendered eyelashes, the flaring irises, the reflection of tears on cheeks – all become the focus of every scene and distract the player from understanding the aspects of the story that really matter.
Not only that – but Heavy Rain tries to go one step further – it does not only want realistic visuals, but realistic kinesthetics. Instead of having the player direct the character at emotionally important moments crucial to the development of the story, the player is required to puppeteer every banal minutiae of everyday life, from pulling out a wallet to checking a watch. None of these micro-actions express anything important about the character’s personality or her/his plight. As a result, I cannot distinguish between what’s important and what’s window-dressing.
The total experience, for me (and perhaps others?) is a game that resists itself at every turn: it wants me to participate in the unfolding of a story, only by forcing upon me irrelevant details and banalities that do little to express a coherent vision of a world. Heavy Rain is something like a schizophrenic-neurotic mom – she wants me to tell all my friends her jumbled paranoid fantasies. She hovers over me the whole time, and when I get some seemingly meaningless detail wrong she threatens to strangle me. Love you too, mom.
I had originally intended to write a love story to the numerous edutainment titles of the 1990s that simultaneously bored and impressed my 13 year old mind. Instead, I realized that many educational games succeeded at the one thing that Heavy Rain does not: letting me help direct the action on the screen, as if I’m a participant in the story.
Most games today only concern themselves with entertaining or immersing the player in a fantasy world, and that’s a difficult enough job. But think about the tremendously difficult task the average edutainment title has – it has to both entertain and educate five to ten year old kids about some infinitely boring subject that only adults care about. Like 19th-Century Man’o'War ships, for instance!
Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections: Stowaway! takes Biesty’s incredibly well-illustrated book and turn it into an interactive experience. The ship is cut into cross-sections that can be navigated using an UP/DOWN/FORE/AFT control scheme. Each cross-section has meticulously detailed illustrations that draw my eye toward the “story” being told in each pane; if I click on hotspots in the scene a little narrative plays out. It’s as close as a game has ever come to an interactive pop-up book. Like Heavy Rain, you’re on the hunt for someone – instead of a psycho killer, you’re looking for a grungy little stowaway that is hiding in several places on the ship.
The difference in the control mechanism between Heavy Rain and Stowaway is night and day. Where the former tries to simulate motion by forcing the player into complex marionetting, the latter takes a traditional up-down-left-right scheme and works wonders.
In Stowaway!, I get the sense that when I click “down”, I really am moving up to a lower section of the ship, even though I am not visually shown the transition between decks. How can a game that does not physically show me moving throughout the ship give me a sense of movement? Stephen Biesty accomplishes a feat of artistic consistency that any comic book artist could hope for: when I’m standing on the orlop deck watching the deckmates go about their business, I look at the mast and think, “Hey, that mast goes way down into the ship!” My imagination makes the transition between each deck of the ship for me; Biesty completes the image by showing me the next section of the mast, just as my imagination hoped. Stowaway! gives me a sense of agency by allowing me to help imagine parts of the scene for myself. Sure, there are plenty of illustrated details on each deck, but none of those details are extraneous to the kind of story being told about the brutality of an 18th century English Man-of-War.
Biesty accomplishes this by exaggerating all the right things: all of his characters and scenes are carefully illustrated to express a sense of humor and the deep gravity of war. The surgeon’s assistant carelessly tosses a limb into a bloody bucket, and I simultaneously cringe and laugh at the sillyness/seriousness of amputation. The surgeon’s amputation feels more real to me than any murder scene in Heavy Rain, because Stowaway! boils the experience down to its essential elements.
Imagining Makes it Real
That’s all to say – Stowaway succeeds where Heavy Rain fails because it makes some space for the player’s imagination to complete the experience. Representational realism – whether it is an attempt at puppeteering the character through the controls, or an attempt at photorealism – cannot itself make a game worth playing or a story worth following. What we experience as real in a game has much more to do with the aesthetic exaggerations the developer makes in order to give a scene a certain flavor. The Uncharted series is a perfect example of how talented voice acting can turn a boring and hackneyed character into a lovable rogue. Without stylization that highlights certain features of the character/scene over others, and allows the player to complete the rest of the image, your game will be profoundly tedious at best – and totally unbelievable at worst.