Sit down with some gamers and in short order they will begin to repeat verbatim the dubious wisdom of electronic entertainment lobbies. They may inform you that the average gamer is 35 years old, or more often, that the videogame industry is bigger than the film industry.
True perhaps in monetary terms but certainly not in scope of audience or with regard to their social impact – regardless of what alarmist politicians and impressionable parties everywhere might choose to believe.
In truth videogames are a young form of entertainment, both demographically and industrially. In the years to come, and as a generation aptly named the digital natives come to supersede their predecessors, we’ll begin to understand the full cultural relevance of videogames. In the meantime, hegemonic digital colonists may well continue to categorise this newer medium as a variously childish and dangerous form of entertainment for the under-18 set.
To address that misconception, it’s within the industry’s interest – gaming press included – to champion groundbreaking and maturing concepts wherever we find them. As a result, Heavy Rain presents us with a difficult conundrum.
A hybrid of both film and videogame, developer Quantic Dream’s PlayStation 3 exclusive explores an emerging genre, interactive movies. There are no 1UPs, jump pads or score tallies in Heavy Rain. Instead, the game simultaneously casts the player as four distinct and flawed characters in a technologically-advanced dystopian present. A psychological thriller, its stage is a perennially wet and run-down city plagued by the mysterious Origami Killer.
No mistaking it then, Heavy Rain is a groundbreaking concept – and one with a highly commendable development manifesto. Director David Cage has set out to achieve what he believes interactive drama is uniquely positioned to do. With Heavy Rain, Cage hopes to elicit a variety of emotions beyond what he considers to be the usual range experienced by a person playing a videogame, namely, anger and frustration.
Elicit them it does. Players first assume the role of Ethan Mars, a divorced architect struggling with depression in the wake of his son’s tragic accidental death. His surviving son, Shaun, is visiting for the weekend. Shaun is a crafted character battling with the disillusion of paternal omnipotence – that his father could not prevent his brother’s death.
To that end, you cannot help yourself from letting Shaun stay up late watching cartoons as you try to “win back” his increasingly estranged affections, in spite of what a regimental timetable – probably provided by his mother – says. Or perhaps it’s because of the timetable.
Such are the small and engaging tasks that compose Heavy Rain as the thriller narrative unfolds. Each of the interactive movie’s four characters is battling with their own demons and stations. You’re sequentially introduced to Scott Shelby, a heavy-set private detective past his prime, Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler and addict, and Madison Paige, an anxious and isolated soul.
The game is played through fixed camera angles, each carefully selected and lit in finest film school tradition: We see Ethan slouching at the end of a long dark corridor, metaphorically depicting his ongoing depression, PI Shelby makes an arduous ascent up the stairs of a decrepit boarding house, both alluding to and demonstrating his own diminished physicality.
And so on. But the difficulty with Heavy Rain is not the net effect as much as the process. And questioning the process begs larger questions of the interactive movie format. At every set-camera angle awkward turn, your efforts to compel the narrative forward are frustrated by the necessary completion of quick-time events representing often mundane or menial tasks that would be left on the floor of a film editor’s suite. You must wave the controller around to cut your son’s pizza, press a random succession of buttons within a certain time frame to climb a muddy bank, same again to avoid having your nose broken by a thug.
If you’re not sure what actions to take next, consult your character’s inner monologue by pressing ‘square’ and prompting a series of thoughts that spin around the avatar. The effect is properly indicative of the swirling thoughts that surround us every day, perhaps, but trying to read small moving print is functionally frustrating.
The issue here may be as fundamental as difference between film and videogames. To borrow from the tropes of others, film is a “lean back” form of entertainment, one where we expect to passively receive the vision of others. Videogames on the other hand, compel us to “lean forward”, to engage and direct. Heavy Rain traps us between two mindsets, it’s neither and it’s both.
If anything, Heavy Rain reminds us that videogames are very much in their adolescence, sometimes awkward, sometimes violent, always testing the boundaries. There’s equal parts promise and potential here, but for now, this interactive movie will be measured against both its parents: The videogame elements confound narrative pacing and the intense narrative focus makes for uninspired gameplay. What’s more important is the precedent that the game sets: Heavy Rain today maybe, but there are blue skies ahead.