Published Mar 26, 2010Narrative has long been the least developed part of gaming. Oh, there've been plot points since day one, but mostly just to justify why you were shooting things, collecting loot and/or rescuing princesses. Story provided a framework ― but games were about play, not tell.
Over time, game narrative became increasingly important, but given the constraints of both technology and imagination, stories were primarily told within cut-scenes. Long, long cut-scenes. The Metal Gear Solid games infamously featured days of wait'n'watch CGI footage to tell Hideo Kojima's futuristic military tale. It was cool, sure, even "cinematic" ― but not so interactive.
The Grand Theft Auto games and open-world RPGs like Oblivion and Fallout pushed narrative further, except they inevitably made their expansive sandbox, side-quests and cyber-citizens more interesting than their central storyline. The BioShock and Mass Effect franchises added more momentum, but still left most of the actual storytelling to peripheral audio diaries, talking-head conversations and/or cut-scenes (though Mass Effect 2 raised stakes with its emotion-driven dialogue trees and decision-based plot threads).
For ambitious French developer David Cage ― writer-director of the PS3's hard-boiled detective story Heavy Rain ― plot is his be-all end-all, not just another game creation toolset like an inventory system or combat controls. Cage and his company Quantic Dreams want nothing less than to revolutionize videogame storytelling ― so much so some question whether Heavy Rain is a game at all.
It would be easy to dismiss it, given the unfamiliarity of its gameplay. But how recognizable is San Andreas from Mario's original Mushroom Kingdom? Gaming evolves ― and love or hate, Heavy Rain is an undeniably bold new direction.
Cage's first game, 1999's Dreamcast adventure Omikron: The Nomad Soul, earned a cult following (largely due to David Bowie's involvement) but it was 2005's Indigo Prophecy that provided his proper gaming bona fides. Though it fell apart at the end with a confusing two-week time-jump (allegedly necessitated by a looming corporate deadline) it broke new and controversial ground by having you essentially navigate an interactive movie via multiple playable characters and quick-time event controls (think God of War's button-prompted kill scenes).
Heavy Rain pushes Quantic's high-tech Choose Your Own Adventure further with a complex, gritty and melancholy tale of loss, ever-present precipitation and an origami-obsessed child killer. Cage's goal was to evoke emotion, not just adrenaline, and he succeeded admirably. Those who want to deny the game's gameness were likely turned off by the quotidian activities that mark Heavy Rains early hours. As architect Ethan Mars you shower, make dinner, work on architectural designs, and play with your kids in the yard. Even when the tension ramps up, it's because your son has gone missing in a shopping mall.
But this is all scene-setting prologue, as in a film or novel, and the game gets real dark, real fast. (Besides, it also functions as a tutorial for the innovative contextual control scheme, which combines point-and-click adventure prompts, quick-time events, reality-approximating analogue stick movements and motion-sensitive controls to deepen the immersion.)
Soon enough, you play more proactive characters, a trench coat-adorned private eye with asthma, a drug-addicted FBI profiler and a female journalist suffering from insomnia. Even then, the game makes you become them through the controls ― climbing a muddy hill at a crime scene is as challenging as a brothel brawl, playing on a see-saw or changing a diaper. You may sometimes feel like you're only nudging the story along, but you are always involved in where it goes.
Many games promise branching storylines, but Heavy Rain's script is over 2000 pages ― more than 15 times longer than the average movie screenplay ― to allow for narrative variations. (Admittedly, some of the dialogue, scenes and peripheral characters do tend toward cliche.) And though all four characters' stories intertwine to tell the David Fincher-esque tale of the Origami Killer, if any of them die, the game will continue without their section of the story. Talk about heightening suspense.
Each gameplay decision influences the overall story's direction and cumulatively impacts how it finishes, ranging from a bloody but "happy" ending to your character committing suicide. Cage has said the theme of the game is "how far are you willing to go for someone you love." But it could also be asked how far is Cage willing to go for a medium he loves.
Sure, another shooter would have been the easier choice. But there's a reason why good games are called cinematic and bad films are saddled with a videogame-movie tag. Or at least there was. Heavy Rain has been both critically acclaimed ― for narrative innovation and groundbreaking graphics, of course, but even for those controversial controls ― and more popular than anyone could have expected.
Heavy Rain is by no means perfect, but its creative success gives Cage the key to push the boundaries of interactive fiction even further in his next game noir.