Game Maps Out A Storytelling Future
To start off, let’s review my contention on the situation: Video games have the potential to be the ultimate medium for storytelling.
There, I’ve said it. No take backs; the words are out and free, and now that I have a playable example that backs up this statement, I’m ready to spread the word about the future.
In 2006, when Quantic Dream started showing their demos and concepts for Heavy Rain, the idea that the face of gaming would be forever changed had begun to be whispered. If the cards were played correctly, games would be taking another jump in becoming a legitimate form of storytelling. What Quantic Dream showed the world back then was impressive enough to get everyone’s attention, but also sophisticated enough so that those looking closely at the industry could see its full potential. And it all came down to a woman, a gun, and a kitchen.
"The Casting" was a non-playable video demo that showed just what we could expect visually from Quantic Dream, but it also proved how well characterization could be communicated with even the simplest twitches of motion in body language and facial movement.
[Note: It’s true that QD tried to break this same ground of higher-level storytelling back in 2005 with Fahrenheit, but only with the discovery of facial pattern simulation were they able to show their full might at such a task.]
Returning to the original idea of video games being the best storytelling devices, the theory of this holds true because video games are very interactive. While books and motion pictures provide audiences with a story, video games have the unique ability to add in variables in both choice and happenstance.
In Heavy Rain, David Cage (director/writer) uses this function to its full advantage by not only providing players with choices that effect the cut scene endings, but also what consequences the following scene will provide. This isn’t a Fable "choose to be good or be bad" scenario we’re dealing with. There’s a reason the Heavy Rain’s tag line reads: Make Choices. Face the consequences.
If a main character dies in the opening stage of the game, there is no retry screen. Instead, the plot progresses without the contributions of that particular character, thus affecting the outcome and the course of the different people in the game. However, it’s the player’s knowledge of these many possible paths that engaged them during gameplay, and also motivates gamers to care about the characters being controlled.
The control schemes for the game can be boiled down to button cues that have gamers interacting with the story through a series of prompts. Aside from that, there’s a lot of walking around, the guidance for which was somewhat difficult to master, but nothing to get up in arms about.
There are also two types of scene sequences within the game, or at least two main types. The first type is heavy on the investigation angle. Normally you are looking for clues, either using the FBI agent’s special super computer virtual reality sunglasses, or more traditional methods with the other characters. These scenes are generally not overtly dangerous to the characters, though choices made in them can affect the danger level later on. And you never know when one of these investigation type scenes will quickly and unexpectedly turn into one of the fight scenes. In them, you have to hit buttons like X and Circle at the right time. Doing so will block a knife or counterpunch an assailant. These can be pretty difficult at higher levels, though thankfully there are three levels you can set on the fly. At the lowest level, even a novice can get through them. There are other types of scenes to play as the story bounces back and forth between the four main characters, but those are the ones you will run into most, or experience variations upon.
Of course, not everything about Heavy Rain can be rainbows and sunshine. Despite the breakthroughs in graphics and storytelling, there are a few setbacks keeping the title from being a perfect game (not that there could ever be such a thing), but only a few of them are technical.
Voice acting is the first noticeable flaw and comes and goes with different characters. Certain actors do well with providing emotion and emphasis to the Heavy Rain script, the PI is absolutely perfect, while others don’t seem to have the knack for pulling off certain scenes effectively. There have also been reports of recurring visual glitches in the game, reports which I can attest to be true. And there’s nothing worse than playing a game that revolves completely around choices and then discovering that the power of movement has been suddenly stolen away, leaving you with no choice but to be caught by police in the subway lobby (personal experience).
Next on the scale isn’t so much a flaw as it is just plain creepy. As our readers may or may not know, Heavy Rain is a mature game-which means there is a good amount of drug use, violence, and sexuality-and having the control to either make a fully believable character take drugs, strip and/or make love (and to have consequences that come from each of those actions) is really disturbing, and fascinating at the same time. If you thought the sex in Mass Effect was over the top, just wait till you are unhooking a bra, removing pants and deciding where on your partner’s body to kiss. It’s all done in a very adult and mature way, but just a warning that some folks will be turned away by this.
With that thought in play, an idea makes itself known: Apparently, we were fine when playable characters were shooting and killing each other or smashing each other senseless, but toss in some realism and watch as some gamers cringe while others neglect to bat an eyelash.
Despite these issues, Heavy Rain itself remains an important evolution in gaming, and will rank as one of the most important titles in the history of the genre. Maybe some would say that’s a bit too heavy handed, but I say we’re nearing the time when game developers start proposing in-depth scripts to A-list stars and getting major funding.
Yes, it is possible that the best stories to ever be told are right around the corner, and Heavy Rain shows us the way.