Saturday, 13 March 2010

Heavy Rain (PS3)

It's been longer than I thought since I last wrote but since then I bought myself a PS3 and have been playing lots of games :-) One of which is Heavy Rain.

I really enjoyed this game. Actually, enjoyed might be the wrong word, as I'm not sure I've played anything that's made me feel the way Heavy Rain has, especially in terms of experiencing guilt. I should probably post the obligatory SPOILER ALERT here as I will be discussing what happened when I played the game, though I won't reveal the identity of the Origami Killer. I don't want to spend half this post telling you about the game itself though, as this is less of a review and more a way to document my own response to it. For those who know little about the game though and don't plan on playing it go here for a synopsis.

So first off, it's probably worth knowing that I didn't play the game on my own. My friend Paul came round and we took turns playing (on three seperate session). I'm not sure how I would of felt playing it on my own, but we both came away from it feeling like Heavy Rain could be the start of something very exciting, with Paul suggesting it might even be the start of a new genre. From the start, when we were given instructions on how to make an origami figure from the paper that came with box, we knew it was going to be an immersive experience. Yes it did feel a lot like a movie, in fact it felt like one of those books from when we were kids that asked you to make a decision and then turn to the appropriate page once you had - just a lot more effective! And ok, there is definitely room for improvement - the controls could get annoying, there were some plot holes, a pretty gratuitous sex scene (and a little unconvincing given how beat up Ethan was, and how little time him and Madison had spent together) while I think we were mostly deliberately lead astray about the identity of the origami killer - but overall, I would thoroughly recommend playing it.

The reason I do is because of how I felt when I played it. I felt helpless when Jason (Ethan's oldest) died as there was little I could do. I felt pleased with myself as Agent Jayden when I managed to calm a suspect down and get him to lower his weapon only to feel incredibly guilty when the suspect spun round during his arrest and I shot him, only realising too late he was holding a crucifix and not another weapon... I liked playing the hard-drinking private investigator who also seemed soft-hearted because though you fought people, you also had to change a baby's diaper and rock it to sleep after rescuing it's mother from a suicide attempt. I felt relief when I was Madison and I went to visit a creepy doctor to get some more clues and then left before he came back in the room (after having found the clue I needed and refusing to drink the drink he gave me - I'm not sure what would have happened if I did but I know it wouldn't have been good!).

But the guilt came back when I was playing the investigator again and I ended up in a car at the bottom of the river with Lauren, a prostitute whoose son had been murdered by the Origami Killer and was helping me with my investigation. A lot of the tension in the game involves having to react to quick time events, and this was a particularly tense situation as I had no idea how much time I had. Though I managed to cut my own ropes and free myself, in my panic to escape the car I ended up kicking my way out without rescuing Lauren... I felt terrible, and the only thing I could think to say to Paul afterwards was that we really need to save Shaun now! As if somehow it would makes Lauren's death worthwhile...

I think the fact that we played the game together made it even more interesting though. Depending on what we were doing and how connected we felt to the character we were playing at the time, we would refer to the character by name, as "I" or even "we". The Origami Killer sends Ethan a series of tasks to complete (each more dangerous than the last) and in one of them you are supposed to go to someone's house and kill them. After going to the house, there is a struggle and you end up pointing a gun at the guy in his daughter's room. Paul just turned round to me and said, I don't want to do it. So I said ok, even though we had failed the previous task (and so were now going to miss out on two clues), because that's not who we wanted Ethan to be. After almost every scene we would discuss what had just happened, reflecting and wanting to make sure we had done the right thing. Interestingly there were also a couple of moments where we didn't actually want the responsibility of having the controller - knowing that our decisions and ability to react could influence the outcome, meant there an awful lot of pressure on who was playing not to mess up. And that was the feeling I had during the final task Ethan had to carry out, which asked him to drink a poison that would give him enough time to rescue his son, but would then kill him. I actually paused the game at this point so we could discuss what we should do (and I think it was the only time that we stopped mid-gameplay to do so). After a lengthy discussion we decided that we weren't going to do it, because it would really suck if after everything that happened, Shuan survives to lose his Dad as well.

You can replay bits of the game but we wanted to play it all the way through first. After we finished, we did go back and try different things out to see what would happen - turns out the poison dilemma wasn't as serious as we thought, and that Madison being able to get to Ethan before the end is what you'd really want to not mess up. I'd like to see some of the different endings but I'm not sure I really want to replay the whole game from start to finish again. While it's an interesting "what if" exercise, I think it could become a little tedious, and won't ever compare to playing it first time around.

There is probably loads more I could say about how this game affected me but this has already turned into an essay. I think I just want to say that though Heavy Rain didn't do everything perfectly I was fascinated by the ethical discussions we had about it, and thoroughly engrossed while both playing and watching it. Maybe the game gave us the illusion that we had more control than we did (despite a large number of possible endings there is still a limited number) but maybe that illusion is more important than actually having a completely open ended experience. Maybe it is more like a movie than a game, but so what? It still felt more engrossing than watching a film about the Origami Killer would. And maybe I would have felt less positive about the game if we hadn't saved Shaun and got one of the "better" endings but I still think I would have enjoyed the process.

I think this is the first time I've been able to experience the way games can provide us with such powerful emotional experiences and it's something I'd like to see a lot more of, both in commercial games as well as educational. This is something that games can do in a way other media can't and I for one would really like to see how these sorts of games develop.


Costas said...

Could not agree more Jo. Heavy Rain does have issues (controls, plot holes, voice acting, the fact that it's only QTEs and more) but somehow it manages to rise above them.

I am not a father but there was nothing i wanted more than to save that child. It was not because i thought "it's what the game wants me to do in order to succeed" but because i really wanted to save him resulting in questioning my own morality as a person.

We can go on and on about about the game's failings and the game does have a lot.

But it brings so many new things to the table that i can forgive it. It raises so many questions. What is a videogame? Does the fact that basically the game is not about success or failure make it not a game? Does the fact that sometimes you want to fail a QTE sequence change how we view games? Can videogames finally tackle a wider variety of stories? Is the interaction of this game enough to really have the meaning of gameplay?

It was one of the most unique experiences (not just in videogames) i have had in a long time. For all it's issues Heavy Rain has made me question the medium, how i view it and what i want to get from the medium in ways that only very few games have done.

Jo Iacovides said...

Hi Costa!

Thanks again for the insightful comments :-) I'm glad you had a similar response to the game as I agree that Heavy Rain can lead to an awful lot of questions about what games are, and what they can be.

I'm not sure I understand though when you say that the game wasn't about success or failure? I mean I know it's not about "winning" in the more traditional gaming sesne but I think you could still assess how you played it in terms of success and failure. And I don't mean the trophies (which seemed a bit odd actually) but I would say saving Shaun and keeping as many of the characters alive as possible is better than not being able to do so (for me at least). Or do you mean that it's more up to the player to decide what success or failure is?

Costas said...

One example very early on is the swordfight between Ethan and his son. I know a lot of people who let their son win on purpose. Especially father gamers. Did they fail in the game because they missed the QTE?

Also having a character die before the final chapter may end up improving the experience and story. At least that's how i felt about mine. I have seen scenes that others who kept characters alive as much as possible have not seen. In my mind the story not in spite of this but because of it.

Finally, although i wanted to save the child i know that i was not Ethan. Nor Scott, nor Madison nor Jayden. I was just the storyteller so saving Shaun was not the real ending. It was just an ending. The story could have resulted in the Origami killer escaping. That's the beauty of this game. There is not 1 absolute story.

tbh i played it once and never returned to it although i read some of the stories other people had. I had my story and it was enough for me.

Dunno if i am making sense....

Costas said...


"In my mind the story was better not in spite of this but because of it."

Jo Iacovides said...

Yup you make sense :-) I don't think we're disagreeing with each other either but I do think that most players will end up imposing their own goals - like wanting Ethan to be a good father and so letting the son win in the sword fight.

When we finished the game, Paul and I did realise there were must be lots of scenes we hadn't seen - I think we thought it would be a bit longer. So in some ways our "success" did mean we didn't experience all the game had to offer. That said, I think we were quite pleased that we had done well, by our own standards.

But like you said, part of the beauty of the game is that it's up to the player to decide what they want to do - whether their main mission is to save Shaun, experience as much of the game as possible, or whatever else may come to mind.

Costas said...

One of the criticisms i have with the game is that I would have preferred the game to be more about decisions rather than the outcome determined by QTEs.

For example the guy with the crosses once he turned towards Blake with the cross, i tried to shoot him but failed. It ended up being a "good" decision but was due to my failure on the QTE than an actual choice.

Also the game does try to shy away from difficult ethical decisions. In the trial where u have to shoot that drug dealer it should have been just an innocent guy/woman. That would have made it much more difficult for most people. I know u did not shoot him but i did because saving Shaun was the most important thing to him thus sacrificing himself and his morals in the process.

Also another criticism of the game is why would Scott continue to give clues when Ethan keeps failing his trials (from what i understand you "failed" 3 trials). I mean Ethan is clearly a not worthy father in Scott's eyes. The game tries to tell the story no matter what the outcome of our actions it is leading to basically the same conclusion. It's something that definitely needs to be refined.

Jo Iacovides said...

Yeah, that's why I made the comment about the illusion of being more in control than you might actually be in the game. I think me and Paul just decided that everything could potentially change the course of the game, but you're right a lot of it was about quick time events.

For instance, we replayed the last part of the game and drank the poison. This time, we got enough clues for Ethan to find out where Shaun was. The killer seems to praise Ethan (despite him having failed two of the tasks) for being a good father but we decided Ethan should shoot him anyway (I mean seriously!). Turns out the poison doesn't kill Ethan, but the cops do because Madison missed the QTE and wasn't there to leave the building with Ethan and Shaun... I guess being able to fail some of the tasks means that you can keep playing anyway but also I wonder if part of it was to throw you off the trail of the real killer by suspecting Ethan had somehow set himself up?

So yes, it would have been cooler if more of the decisions had an impact than the QTEs. And of course it needs refinement but having that many (mostly coherant) stroylines in one game is still pretty impressive and I'm sure we'd both likes to see how this sort of game improves in the future.

Costas said...

I understand how heartbreaking Ethan's death must have been for you.

Here's some of the things i experienced with regards to characters.

1. Lauren - she was drowned because i did not realise that breaking her side window of the car meant that Scott would abandon her.

2. Jayden died while using his glasses. I found out about the ex-cop/cop watch but never did a geoanalysis on it. He started bleeding and i was about to exit the VR world when it said (a) give up? (b) continue searching for clues. I knew i missed something so i went back. He died in the process. Blake used his glasses in the epilogue and met with Jayden in the VR world....

3. Madison - escaped the flat explosion but called Jayden (although he was dead plus and had never met him anw) because she knew that Ethan would not answer the phone after their fight. She got no answer so she went to the warehouse and fought with Scott. She was about to get killed when Ethan shot Scott. Later on she is signing the book when her next adversary shows up.

3. Scott accepted Ethan as a worthy father but the fact that Madison had found out about him meant that he needed to kill them both. He fights with Madison but is shot by Ethan in the end.

4. Ethan. He saves his son. They find a flat together but Madison is not with them. Ethan never forgave her for lying about using him to get her story.

Jo Iacovides said...

I think Ethan dying would have been heartbreaking if it had happened the first time we played it. I'm quite pleased it didn't! So our original ending went like this:

1. Lauren drowned as I explained in the main post. And I felt bad...

2. Ethan doesn't have enough clues to find Shaun but Madison calls him in time (we forgave her as this guy really didn't seem to have any joy in his life - so we figured what else did he have left to lose!)

3. Jayden also figures out who the killer is and ends up fighting with him at the warehouse after Ethan finds Shaun (I guess there was a time limit on this). Jayden wins and survives the fight but because we used so much triptocain he ends up seeing little blue tanks everywhere...

4. Madison dodges the cops at the warehouse and so Ethan, Shaun and her leave together and Ethan survives. They all end up happy in a sunny apartment together. We counted this as a win :)

Lol, I think that while we both agree there are flaws with the game, the fact we've had so much to say about it and want to share our own journeys through it means it's done a pretty good job ;)

Costas said...

Exactly how i feel about it too.

mqtran said...

Hey Jo,

Cool description. It's an interesting point about moral dilemnas. I finished Dragon Age Origins over christmas and I still remember a scene where I killed a mage by accident. She attacked me, I beat her to a pulp and then the game cut to scene where she begged for her life. I pressed the wrong option and killed her. I actually meant to save her, but the options was ambiguous, so it was more about me not understanding the decision tree. Well, long story stort, the game forced 'me' to do something that I didn't want and I feel bad even now for killing her. Which brings me to my point; I really don't like games like this. Yes, it's nice how interactive technology has become so immersive, but seriously, I just want to blow things up without thinking about what the 'thing' represents.

Jo Iacovides said...

Interesting point Minh - I guess it depends on what you're looking for in a game? Sometimes it is fun to blow stuff up without to much thought but I guess I went into Heavy Rain knowing that the consequences of what I did were going to be important. Do I like that I felt guilty about some of my actions? Of course not, but I do like the fact that a game was able to make me experience that in a meaningful way. And from an academic perspective, I'm also very curious about the ways in which that could be used as learning tool. I also think there's room for all types of games - in the same way I like to watch films that are purely entertaining but sometimes I like ones that make me think :-)

Costas said...

In order for games to mature as a medium even more, they need to be able to provide a wider variety of experiences.

We are more than spoiled for choice when it comes to blowing s..t up (which i love btw) but we need more than that. Ico was the first game that convinced me that it's possible. Also Siren, a horror game on the PS3, was not an enjoyable game in the usual sense. It was not fun. It made me feel tense all the time i was playing it. Now HR is doing it's own thing.

I am all for more variety and new interactive experiences in games.