I’m currently in the middle of my second playthrough of Heavy Rain.
This game was the driving force behind my decision to get a PS3, ever since the day they announced it was going to be a PS3 exclusive only.
(Annoyingly, Sony tends to stick to its guns about exclusivity. The console comes in handy for playing other PS3 exclusive games, though I’m primarily a PC game player.)
Spoilers follow, so look away if you don’t want to be spoiled at all.
Why the insane fanaticism? Mainly because the game’s developer David Cage is aiming his company Quantic Dream at a path very few other game companies bother to walk. His games aim to explore more mature adult themes (no, not THAT kind of adult) and evoke some sort of emotional reaction.
I have to plug his latest tech video Kara here, because of its sheer awesome. The Casting is the older tech demo for Heavy Rain, but still worth a watch if you haven’t seen it – more than a little uncanny valley on the model these days, but the emotion is still there.
Granted, he aims for ‘mature’ and he tends to miss, especially in terms of how sensible the plot of his games turn out, but nitpicking aside, at least he’s trying.
The precursor game to Heavy Rain was Indigo Prophecy or Fahrenheit, depending on which part of the world you come from. Steam had it on sale a while back, but for some reason, it’s mysteriously disappeared from the store and never returned. Thankfully, it’s still in my games list when I bought it at the time it’s available, or me and Steam Support would be having -words-.
Indigo Prophecy was generally roundly thrashed for the later half of its plotline, which devolves into wildly fantastical wishful thinking and Matrix-ripping off. It was panned in some quarters for not having much “gameplay” since it mostly consisted of button-pushing Quick Time Events (QTEs).
Despite the criticism, I would still recommend anyone to give it a try because its opening sequence and beginning scenes are some of the best emotionally riveting, atmospheric experiences to be found in any game. The soundtrack, the cinematic cuts, the split-screen dual perspectives that ratchet up the tension as the protagonist, ie. you, try to hide any evidence away and get out as quickly as you can, while subsequently playing another protagonist, also you, who revisits the same setting and tries to find any place where you screwed up previously in order to obtain clues.
Heavy Rain continues along in this vein, with slightly better plotting. Not completely good plotting, because I just paused the game in disgust to try and figure out how Madison Paige (the token girl protagonist) knew where Ethan Mars (the main protagonist) had run off for his third trial challenge. A wiki reference says it’s never explained. Gah. But enough nitpicking about the plot holes, plenty of other people have bitched about them already.
I’m bringing up Heavy Rain to point out its strengths. The individual scenes. (Don’t try too hard to figure out how all the scenes stick together, it’s like David Cage came up with a big list of scenarios and conflict situations he wanted to put into this game to make a point, and then tried to conjure up a story to fit it all in.) But the scenes themselves, wow.
Holly Lisle said it best. Scenes, individual story units, are about change. Something moves. Something happens. Something goes from point A to point B.
Heavy Rain’s better scenes are full of this emotional movement. The very first scene in the game is a prolonged mundane day-in-the-life-of-a-family-man that takes an ominous turn when the kid’s bird dies. (Little nitpick: Don’t ask why the bird just upped and died then though. It would have been stronger if the kid or Ethan had inadvertently killed the bird in some fashion.)
The next is the one that transitions Ethan from bright ordinary life to grey depression when a tragic accident shatters his idyll.
Other memorable scenes? Scott Shelby’s confrontation with a store robber. Norman Jayden’s encounter with Nathaniel – to shoot or not to shoot. Ethan Mar’s third trial – can he sacrifice a part of himself to save his son? (fairly high squick factor the first time I encountered it). Ethan Mar’s fourth trial – can he kill another human being to save his son?
The really good scenes like above have no “right” answers. It’s hard emotional choices made within short spans of time. They define the character’s personality as you play through them, and also subtly reflect back what you value (if you aren’t roleplaying and react instead from gut instinct.)
(Of course, some of the effect is lost when one realizes that the eventual final storyline may still be the same regardless of what you did, but the game does have enough ‘critical’ points of no return, where you’re never really sure if this QTE is the one that’ll send the story somewhere you didn’t really intend.)
So what does Heavy Rain have to do with MMOs?
On the surface of it, not much. Cutscene-like QTEs are always better off as single player games. I don’t want to watch someone else talk for me in a cutscene, I want the story to centre around me and my choices, thank you, other people would just get in the way and knock me right out of the suspension of disbelief.
On the other hand, we have a City of Heroes forum thread right here that discusses plot vs storytelling.
Heavy Rain, like some of City of Heroes’ Signature Story Arcs, occasionally suffer from a surfeit of too much ham-fisted plotting. Someone has a PLAN that requires such-and-such characters to be here and there at these places at these times. Now think up some ways to get them there, I don’t care how awkward you have to twist their personalities or their arms, kthxbai. The characters become little cardboard props to be moved around as required for the grand plan to function. They’re interchangeable.
Then there’s times where you get stories (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) – meaningful scenes that have a firm foundation because a Character anchors them. Capitalization intended.
O Wretched Man – one of the generally acclaimed story arcs in City of Heroes – is firmly anchored by Ghost Widow, Wretch, Pia Marino and their backstories. The arc would not exist without the characters, and their motivations, for doing what they do because they’re them. There is emotional resonance every time the arc shifts.
All of Ethan Mars’ scenes in Heavy Rain are rooted by his feelings for his son(s). Emotional resonance again.
These stories stick with me, even when I’m done playing the game. But I can barely remember the plots of most MMO quests. Mostly I just remember how irritating the grind was.
In contrast, I can remember Guild Wars: Nightfall’s storyline, thanks to the heroes and certain NPCs who give it some character (pun intended.) I can absolutely remember Vekk and his relationship with Gadd through GW:EN, and of course, there is no way to forget the eponymous Gwen.
So after all that meandering, what’s the common thread in making game stories memorable? For me, it appears to be character.
It’s probably asking too much to expect every quest to hit it out of the park like Wretched Man did, but it would help to have, not plots that are a lame excuse for me to kill ten wilderness critters, but stories, anchored by unique characters, motivated by some kind of need for changes to happen.
(There’s one more topic with which I can link Heavy Rain and MMOs together, and that’s choices and consequences. We’ll save that for another post. Maybe when I get over my plot hole allergic reaction and finish my second playthrough.)