designerzord

By Sam Rosenthal

Burning the Rule Book

 "We need to forget about video game rules — bosses, missions, game over, etc...are very old words of a very old language."

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David Cage’s talk at this year’s GDC garnered two types of reactions: thunderous applause and bellowing groans. The latter was the sound of seasoned game developers, fearful of the drastic changes that the creator of Heavy Rain suggested. The applause mostly came from a younger generation of game developers, sick of derivative game experiences and hungry for the interactive medium to live up to its full potential.

Heavy Rain is my Game of the Year for 2010.

There were games in 2010 that were more polished in Heavy Rain, there were games that were prettier, there were games that controlled better, and there were even games with a better story. However, Heavy Rain served a far more important purpose than its shortcomings might suggest. Heavy Rain was a wake up call.

Since its inception, the games industry has focused all of its attention on a single audience: adolescent males. While this audience has done a terrific job supporting the growth of video games, we cannot allow them to become the medium’s life support. Perhaps David Cage’s most uncomfortable claim in his GDC talk was that despite all of their success, video games are still a niche. While other forms of media are enjoyed and appreciated by virtually everyone, games continue to appeal to a specific type of people.

“Make games for adults. Seriously, it’s going to change your life.”

Heavy Rain is not a “gamer’s game.” It does not feature a single dragon or space marine, and rarely does the player hold a weapon. Instead of an epic adventure, David Cage and the folks at Quantic Dream crafted a far more personal experience.

The setup is simple. A serial killer known as “The Origami Killer” kidnaps the son of Ethan Mars. While Ethan searches for his missing son, the killer puts him through a series of trials to test his will. Three other characters, an investigative journalist, an FBI profiler, and a private detective, become entangled in the mystery. The game’s own tagline, “how far will you go to save someone you love,” reflects its tendency to present the player with increasingly pressing choices. The story is more or less authored by the player, as the choices that they make alter the events of the game, and there is an incredible amount of ways that the story can pan out. Even if one of the four main characters dies, the story adapts and continues without them. This form of interactive storytelling is undoubtedly unique, although player-authored experiences are becoming more commonplace.

"The journey is what matters, not the challenge. Challenge works well with teenagers...but it doesn't work with adults."

What sets Heavy Rain’s approach apart is how it merges storytelling and challenge. Nearly every definition of “game” will include some word synonymous with “obstacle,” yet because Heavy Rain has no failure state, traditional gamers may have a hard time discovering where the challenge lies. Quantic Dream converted the challenge from physical to mental. Sure, the game still prompts the player to perform quick button presses on occasion, but it never punishes the player for failure to do so. Instead, Heavy Rain provides a constant barrage of choices that require careful contemplation. If you must kill a man to save your son, but he is a father as well, what is the best course of action? The man I refer to is not a “boss,” and he can be killed with one button press. However, this moment proved to be more challenging for many players, including myself, than any physical challenge a traditional boss fight could possibly present.

The lack of a failure state also means that the only reward or punishment for an action is the consequence in the story. If a character dies they do not respawn, they are simply dead. This consequence is not punishment, but most players wish to avoid it because of their attachment to the characters. I personally felt a much deeper connection the characters in Heavy Rain than any other modern video game simply because I knew that my failure would lead to their deaths. I have played many exceptional story-driven video games, but Heavy Rain was the first to make feel responsible for the characters I controlled.

"I don't know how to tell a good story when your hero can only shoot and run."

One of David Cage’s strongest points in his GDC talk reflected on how difficult it is to tell a story using only ten verbs, yet game developers continue to limit the protagonist’s actions to the number of available buttons on the controller. All of the interactions in Heavy Rain are contextual, meaning that the functions of the controller’s buttons change based on what is happening in the game. The X button could at one moment be used to pick up a newspaper, and at another moment be used to fire a gun. The contextual controls feel liberating, and actions feel more meaningful because they make sense given the context and are not constantly repeated. This approach is by no means the only solution to interactive storytelling, but it is a gigantic leap forward in the right direction. When it comes down to it, Heavy Rain puts the “interactive” back in interactive storytelling.

“Is it a video game? Who cares?”

It is almost ironic to hear many critics of Heavy Rain dismiss it as an “interactive movie,” considering that unlike it the majority of its peers it does not rely on cinema techniques to tell its story. There are no cutscenes to break up the action and passively inform the player of what is going on. It also does not make use of any editing principles, instead allowing the player to role-play as much as they see fit. The game does not force the player to microwave a pizza, but it is an available action for those that want to create a more elaborate and believable play space.

Critics seem to have a hard time figuring out just what exactly Heavy Rain is. It does not follow a traditional video game formula, and therefore there is much debate on whether or not it is a video game at all. David Cage is not concerned on whether or not his game meets our definition of a video game, and we should not be either. Frankly I wish more “games” pushed the boundaries as much as Heavy Rain. Whatever Heavy Rain is categorized as, it is the start of something exciting and new for interactive media, and a call to action for fellow game developers. This medium will not survive unless changes are made and the audience is expanded.

Games need to be made for everyone. Time to wake up.

"We need to evolve to face competition, to expand our market, and to become a meaningful medium for all audiences.”

See below for commentary by Chris Baker, my supervisor at Marvel Studios