Nov 21, 2011

Heavy Rain: a heap of broken images

Game mechanics are evil...Mechanics are a limitation...Forget video game rules. Mechanics, levels, bosses, ramping, points, inventory, ammo, platforms, missions, game over, cutscenes ARE THINGS FROM THE PAST.
                                                                -Heavy Rain writer/director
 David Cage's GDC 2011 talk

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, 
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
-W.H. Auden, "Epitaph on a Tyrant"

I. 
                                                             
Hate's a strong word. But after careful consideration, I realize that I hate writer/director David Cage--but only in the same proportion that he hates the medium he works in. Cage pedals in cheap misery (for his characters) and hate (of his “audience,” the players.) His most recent game "interactive cinema," Heavy Rain, bears more in common with sleaze porn Night Trap than it does Fincher's Zodiac. 

Heavy Rain's chief problem? Not the plot or the holes in it, although God-as-author Cage should not go without some criticism for that since he focuses so much on it, but in its aesthetic presentation. Namely, that its visual and mechanical design are muddled. 
The game does not know what it wants, or how to want it. The game is not sincere. 

II.
 
"Rain" begins with the first of thousands of QTE (Quick Time Event) button-mashers, as player character Ethan Mars wakes up in what I can best describe as not so much a Frank Lloyd Wright house but an IKEA House. It is as if the entire dwelling is constructed from furniture, from retail store sensibility; we can almost see the clerks, shuffling just out of view. 
All images courtesy of IGN.com.
This is meant to show Ethan's perfect life, which we all must know will come crashing down before or not long after those opening credits, but it's...too perfect. The house design ends up distancing us from Ethan, not getting us closer to him.

He's an elite. The Best Architect, the Best Dad, with the Best House. Forcing him to live in the IKEA House engenders a sort of hate for him. Who would live in such a place?
But put that aside. How many people first reacted to the house with some version of "Shit! Look at this place!"? Already, our focus is off of Ethan, the character that Cage wants us to meld to, and instead on the distraction of the house.  

It is the first of many aesthetic blunders.

A notable one occurs after one of Ethan's sons dies and his wife has divorced him. He has moved to a poorer part of town, so giving him a rundown little house full of dull, muted colors is a solid (if easy) way to show Ethan's mental landscape...but then we go into the living room and see that all poor Ethan has to amuse himself is a 40 inch flatscreen HDTV. If your whole point in making a game is to portray the despair of your protagonist so that players feel his sadness, that TV is a misstep. We are briefly reminded of Ethan's elitist house, and here Ethan is in a ghetto but still more privileged than anyone else around him could be. 

In the dreary grays of the townhouse den, it just doesn't fit. Worse, it interrupts the genuine emotion in the performance by Pascal Langdale, Ethan's voice actor, like a scratched record. I'm sure we can come up with reasons in real life for a man living in these conditions to own that TV, but in fiction we are not and should not be wholly "realistic." We only give impressions of life.

Another mistake. Late in the game, one of the other player characters, FBI agent Norman Jayden, visits a night club where he confronts what he rightly assumes is a serial killer he's been hunting. Since this is a mystery and Cage is not yet ready to reveal the identity of his killer, he appears in a fine coat, wearing a fedora, with a huge scarf covering everything but his eyes. A fight between Jayden and the killer follows, where they swing katanas, throw each other over desks and into glass, and pummel each other with endless punches. It's all very stylistic, like a Hong Kong film circa 1980, but....

Heavy Rain attempts to be down-to-earth in everything from emotion to art design to gameplay, but it's moments like these that jar the player, even if they do not notice it on a conscious level.

One particularly surreal aesthetic blunder in the game's art design is when Ethan visits his psychologist, voiced by David Cage himself, to spill his guts. The psychologist's office is a sci-fi cathedral straight out of Neon Genesis Evangelion, where religious symbolism informs every facet. I can't explain why it's presented like this--there's no satire of psychology or the State going on, and this is not Terry Gilliam's Brazil--and as a design it sticks out from the rest of the world's post-industrial decay.


Speaking of surreal, in the oddest art/gameplay design decision I've seen in years Cage has Norman Jayden utilize a futuristic holo-computer/sunglasses named ARI to instantaneously detect evidence in the far-flung future of August 2011. Heavy Rain came out in February 2010, so this is hardly equivalent to 1982's Escape from New York being set in a dystopic 1999 and becoming "outdated" 20 years later.

The bright blue hues of the world seen through ARI and the fantastical head-spaces Jayden conjures out of them to work through his case in (Mars with a desk on it, the edge of a cliff) do not contrast with the game's normal world, and they certainly don't compliment it. Instead, they clash against it. These images would be better suited to Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Cyberpunk chic rather than Heavy Rain's Detroit vogue. Even if Cage is trying to emphasize the difference of his world from our own it would be smarter to set it in the near future, like 2015 or, easier yet, not mention the specific year at all.

But above all else, the glasses leave me with questions that Cage does not answer.

What do these glasses mean? Why didn't Cage play Condemned and realize that using standard detective tools in a gamey manner could be fun and tense? (In other words, there are in fact emotions that Cage cannot see in "mechanics...a thing of the past.") Why didn't Cage play Batman: Arkham Asylum and realize that super tech can work if it's portrayed against an overly-exaggerated art style? What does Norman Jayden himself really do that other characters could not? Why does crime exist as it does in a world where ARI also exists?

What does ARI have to do with anything?

III.

If the aesthetics of Heavy Rain are disturbingly off-kilter for a game dedicated to setting an example in that area, then Cage has committed the far worse sin of backing those flawed images with flawed game mechanics. And unfortunately for Cage, mechanics do exist and are inseparable from gaming itself. To strip them out fully would leave us with a CGI film.

They are what keep games being games. They are what draw players in or alienate them. Heavy Rain has one.

When Cage talks about mechanics, he really means gameplay. Games without gameplay are the way of the future and end goal of the art, he tells us ("these are all things of the past"), and it should be no surprise that a man who does not understand the importance of mechanics cannot understand game aesthetics. In games, the mechanics under the hood and the paint job graphics and art design are often conjoined; Okami would be a much different game in 2D, or in a photo-realistic style; comparing it to Super Mario World, the gameplay of Super Mario 64 is altered by its being 3D presentation and was clearly designed around 3D gamplay; on the other hand, Sonic failed at 3D when it tried to do the same 2D designs in 3D.

The visual and audio component of a video game feeds the player the information they need on everything from how to approach obstacles to emotional cues more than the dialogue of plays or the prose of novels. A good game mechanic can aid narrative and feeling, like how the camera of Fatal Frame forces the player closer to the ghosts and thus (theoretically) scares them more, or the sense of alienation present in every dice roll of Morrowind's archaic combat.

But Heavy Rain does not have good mechanics. More importantly, Heavy Rain doesn't have varied mechanics. It has exactly one thing to engage the player: the Quick Time Event, and only the Quick Time Event. Without a doubt, it is the Quick Time Events that cheapens the game.


Cage's previous effort, Indigo Prophecy, had a similar “Simon Says” gameplay system, but it remained only part of the game, used more for situations where in-game control wouldn't work, such as Matrix-esque fights with the player running up buildings, etc. It was also a more earnest title, overall. Whereas in Heavy Rain, a button prompts every action your character performs, from chugging orange juice to opening your wallet. I almost expected the game to ask me to jam X to keep my posture up while walking. But wait! Doing these everyday tasks serve to push us into the character, right? By drinking the orange juice for Ethan, we become Ethan?

No.

We are often drinking the orange juice because it is there—because it is something to interact with that might give us a laugh, or maybe the player expects a bonus out of it. Or because Cage makes us do it.

The absence of other gameplay, and more importantly gameplay as meaningful to Heavy Rain as jumping is meaningful to Mario, cheapens the narrative. Imagine if the gameplay fed the narrative instead of being subservient to it. Heavy Rain barely seems to know it is a video game, and so it doesn't take full advantage of the medium's strengths.


The aforementioned Condemned (more specifically, the sequel) would be a better approach to the Norman Jayden puzzle sections, especially if they held the player's hand less and let him deduct or be punished for not gathering enough evidence. Have evidence collection tie into the multiple endings. Make the endings feel different beyond one character living or dying, or the player not learning the full story. With a video game mystery, what both David Cage and L.A. Noire do not realize is that they almost require multiple solutions and outcomes to keep that sense of mystery from being derailed by plot pushiness. 

What Cage also doesn't seem to realize is that the lack of mystery in the game is due in part to its reliance on Quick Time Events as gameplay. We know exactly what to push to do what, so there is no learning the controls. No uncertainty in the gameplay means less uncertainty in the game, leaving the plot to do all the hard lifting. No chance for a new mechanic to be introduced and keep us guessing as much as the plot should; playing becomes routine, which is deadly to any sense of mystery.

Gone too is the chance that we players might experience doubt and confusion in the gameplay, say pushing the wrong button or doing the wrong thing in a fight, or that crucial newness of taking time to consider the controls.

Without that, how can we ever err? How can we ever do anything but exactly what happens on-screen? How does gameplay like the QTE emphasize mystery, tension, confusion?

Fantasy title Demon's Souls probably presents a bigger mystery, where we are detectives who (can) figure out who murdered the kingdom of Bolteria through visual details, not raw plot information. In that game, there are no easy answers because we are not force fed information, but rather issued clues from art design, dialogue snippets, and item descriptions that our minds can piece together into varying solutions.

Relying on Quick Time Events is worse than being repetitive. It ignores and marginalizes the player into a minor role, one where a mechanic stands between you and the game instead of communicating with you for the game. You are certainly not a “director” like Cage contends Heavy Rain will make you.

Yet the omniscient presence of the Quick Time Event has another effect on gameplay. Every increase of “realism” increasingly decreases it. Renders it absurd. Makes it more of what we think of when we say “game,” and less of what a game actually is. Drinking orange juice, picking up everything in Ethan's house--it is idle busy work that rarely even gives us poignant extra information, but rather screams "click me! click me!" and distracts the player.

Worse: we have to think about the button cues for a Quick Time Event, and our attention strays from what is on-screen, distracting us from narrative; on the other hand, the reason people grew so attached to Deadly Premonition is that it flaunts its gameness, openly asks you to grapple with different mechanics, not all of which even work. That seems more truthful, somehow.

IV.

All that I have discussed is just the offspring of David Cage's core problem in this title: he lacks sincerity, and so his game does. In every promotional material, interview, and presentation for Heavy Rain he opines on how he wanted to make it the most emotional experience ever, how it should change the industry, how it is successful art. The game does not exist for itself. The story or emotions within it do not exist to entertain or move the player due to natural writing. They are forced out instead of springing from character or situation. Their primary purpose is to be Like Really Deep, Man.

Peter Molyneux might pile on sentimentality by killing the player's dog in Fable 2, but at least he's being earnest about it. Better, he allows the player and his character time to react after the event happens. Considering Cage's stated intention of moving the player as much as possible, I think the fact that we immediately skip from Ethan seeing his son die to a later period where he has settled into saddened complacency is very telling. A better writer/director would show us his extreme emotions. Imagine if the next scene we played was a mirror of the opening, with Ethan waking up in his perfect house, but it is the morning after his son died? It's a missed opportunity.

Like with the Quick Time Events and the gameplay itself, Heavy Rain openly railroads us into what emotions it wants instead of letting us experience them with ourselves.

But the game, for all its flaws, and Cage, for all his egotistical talks, might not be a problem if it was not so unanimously successful. Decent numbers moved. An 87 on Metacritic (99/107 positive, 5/107 mixed, 3/107 negative), although with a very telling 6.8 user score. Non-game publications like The Guardian praising it. If Heavy Rain came out to only a niche of fans who enjoyed it, that would be fine, but when we claim
I have never played anything so momentous or revolutionary as Heavy Rain. In the coming years I expect the game's influence to be felt throughout the industry in terms of gameplay, storytelling and interactivity. This is a game that deserves all the plaudits it can get. (Boomtown.)
or that
Heavy Rain transcends the current definition of a video game and blazes a beautiful, artistic trail with a psychological thriller that features shades of Hitchcock. (Kombo.)
we are making statements potentially dangerous to our future. Perhaps this turns me into a culture warrior for saying it, but if Heavy Rain really does what Boomtown portends, then we are in a spot where gaming could be replaced by glitzy, no-input, didactic "interactive cinema" that does no service to either of the two mediums it attempts fuses. In other words, complete cultural replacement and cultural death.

This is why I hate David Cage.

V.

The only question left to answer, for me, is why does David Cage, a supposed game developer, want to remove gameplay and all the active freedom of play, experience, and emotion that the best games have? Why not turn it a film? 

Cage wants you passive while leaving you unaware of that same passivity. Cage wants to shove his hammy dialogue and moron plot and twisted themes down your throat right when you can't activate your gag reflexes. Cage wants anti-art.


*Try as I might, I could not find a good source, video or text, for the entirety of Cage's talk. This quotation comes courtesy of Brainy Gamer's "Rollercoaster Bias."

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