Thought Bubble: The Self-Hating Game Designer

Heavy Rain from Quantic Dreams

The Playstation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain hits store shelves tomorrow. Much to-do has been made over the game from developer Quantic Dreams. Since its debut at E3 2006, Heavy Rain has been lauded for its revolutionary graphics, and with good reason. To say that the game looks gorgeous would be an understatement. But the appeal of Heavy Rain has not been purely graphical. Part of the reason the game has been receiving so much attention is due to Quantic Dreams’ own hype. The developers have emphasized the game’s characters and their realistic performances. After seeing the game in action a few months ago and having played the recent demo, I can see some of what they’ve been talking about. The characters are disturbingly realistic (though not always convincing) with eerily familiar facial expressions, which can cause the characters to lean into the uncanny valley at times. Visually, Heavy Rain is without question one of the best looking games of this console generation.

My own issue with Heavy Rain has more to do with the pedigree of Quantic Dreams. Their first game, Omikron: The Nomad Soul was released in 2000. It was an interesting cyberpunk adventure that many now consider ahead of its time, The game let you travel freely around a bustling futuristic cityscape, plus it combined the adventure and first person shooter genres in a way that really had not been tried before, Another intresting element of Omikron was its soundtrack; the music was composed by David Bowie, who also made a cameo appearance in the game. Omikron was a very promising start for Quantic Dreams. It was the company’s follow up to Omikron, Indigo Prophecy (known as Fahrenheit in Europe) that would start the developer on the path to Heavy Rain.

Developed under the direction of David Cage (who proudly describes himself as director and screenwriter), Indigo Prophecy was more of an interactive film than video game, something that its developers were quick to use as a selling point. Coining the phrase “interactive drama,” Quantic Dreams tried to create a cinematic gameplay experience in Indigo Prophecy. The narrative featured standard conventions and clichés one would expect from an average Hollywood thriller: a protagonist on the run, gruff narration, a femme fatale, and a complex conspiracy. On paper it sounded good, but unfortunately the resulting game took the worst elements of both film and video games and combined them into what can only be described as an abomination that ended up being neither.

Indigo Prophecy also known as Farhenheit
Indigo Prophecy also known as Fahrenheit

It is almost a crime how bad Indigo Prophecy is. The game starts off well enough, the main character Lucas Kane (awesome name!) wakes up in the washroom of a diner covered in blood, with a knife in his hands and a body on the floor. Your first task as the player is to clean up the crime scene and hide the body—or not—you can just as easily flee the restaurant if you so choose, leaving clues for the other main characters: Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles, the two detectives that come to investigate the murder Lucas just committed. As Lucas, you’ll spend a portion of the game trying to figure out what happened in the diner, and as the two detectives you try to discover the identity of Lucas. It’s an excellent premise with a lot of potential, but after a few hours of that the game descends into mediocrity. One stupefying plot-twist after another is capped off by a totally laughable love story and one of the most unbelievably stupid villains in the history of… well, anything.

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The real crime committed by Indigo Prophecy was that it took itself so damn seriously. The game wasn’t even bad in a good way; Cage’s writing is utterly humourless throughout. If Indigo Prophecy had been a film it would have been b-movie fare at best, derided by critics and audiences for its convoluted narrative and horrible acting. As a game, it did face criticism for these things, but many critics and gamers let this slide simply because Indigo Prophecy was a video game. In any other medium this would be unforgivable, but for some reason video games can still get away with this from time to time, if the gameplay is superior to the storytelling.

But Indigo Prophecy also had awful game mechanics. Instead of pre-assigned buttons being used to control your character, every action you were required to perform had an on-screen prompt. Cage argued that this was done to increase the player’s immersion in the game, when in reality it did just the opposite. Pressing a button to interact with an object makes sense, but when the next object you wish to interact with requires that you press a completely different button the results are completely counter-intuitive. Conversing and interacting with the world could become infuriatingly confusing, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as how combat was handled in the game. Remember the game Simon? You know the game with the red, green, yellow and blue buttons that you had to press in a certain order to win. Combat in Indigo Prophecy featured a “Simon-like” interface that would appear in the middle of the screen. To succeed you needed to complete the same sequence of colours/directions displayed on screen. Every fight was essentially just one long quick time event, those dreaded moments in games that force you to rapidly press a series of buttons in order to progress.

If you never had the pleasure of playing Indigo Prophecy, before you pick up Heavy Rain you need to ask yourself one question: “Do I like quick time events?” Indigo Prophecy was rife with these moments. It was the animated arcade classic Dragon’s Lair that was the first to use them, though it was essentially just a movie that would occasionally use quick time events to determine the outcome of a scenario. It wasn’t until the Dreamcast classic Shenmue was released that the mechanic took on the form we’re more familiar with today. More recently, many game developers have come to rely on quick time events, at times turning otherwise very playable action games like God of War and Heavenly Sword into “holy-shit-what-button-do-I-press?” fests. Executing one of these events successfully is often thrilling, but any potential satisfaction the player could have enjoyed can dissolve after multiple failures; quick time events have a tendency to become extremely frustrating. For me, the fact that this mechanic is increasingly becoming the norm in video games is even more frustrating.

Madison Paige in Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain, like its predecessor, relies heavily on the quick time mechanic. Every action performed by the player in game has some kind of on-screen button prompt. Sure you’ll be investigating a serial killer and doing all manner of interesting things, but you’ll also be doing things that quite frankly you shouldn’t have to be doing in a game. Never before has performing the mundanities of everyday life been such a thrilling enterprise. Shake the controller to brush your teeth. Furiously alternate the circle and square buttons to brew coffee; Rotate the controller to remove female character’s shirt. Heavy Rain is the only game I know where desperately fiddling for an object in your pocket actually becomes a frequent occurrence! Don’t press the button in the correct way and you’ll fail the pocket fiddling event, leaving your character confused, dejected, or worse, asthmatic! If you’re unable to turn the controller stick in a certain way, your character will not be able to turn a knob and get through that pesky door blocking his progress. Minutia like this are never focused on in other games; making the player struggle to open a door or retrieve something from their pocket isn’t immersive, it’s just annoying!

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Aside from obvious challenges and obstacles that pockets and doors pose to your character, the degree to which you succeed or fail at these quick time events seems to have little bearing on the way the game plays out, save for key moments scattered here and there. In the demo I played through, there was a fight between Scott Shelby and a John (as in a prostitute’s client). I had to go through it three different times: once I tried to hit every quick time event, once I hit them about half of the time, and the last time I pressed maybe two of the prompts. And what were the results? Each playthrough lead me to a nearly identical outcome. In the first two instances, I successfully beat the hell out of the John, taking a few hits in the process, and was thanked by Mary the prostitute. In the third instance, where I pressed almost nothing, I got my ass kicked. I was essentially watching Heavy Rain at this point, and Shelby actually managed to pull off some of the moves I had so desperately tapped the x button to achieve on an earlier play through without me. After beating up Shelby the John ran off; at which point Mary the prostitute thanked me for intervening like she did in the two previous instances, the only difference being that Shelby now had a slightly bloody nose. The outcome of this instance was predetermined by the designer, which made the interaction was superficial at best. The only time in the demo where my actions felt that they might have any real bearing on the game was when I chose not to participate in the fight at all, leaving the apartment building to the screams of Mary being beaten by the John. This was not the obvious option, nor the one the designers probably want the player to make if the “Are you sure you want to leave?” prompt was any indication.

David Cage: Self-hating game designer
David Cage: Behold the self-hating game designer

But this isn’t just about bad gameplay: in a game that aspires (oh, how hard Heavy Rain aspires!) to be like a film, story and acting are everything. Now I’m not a developer, but if I were trying to make such a filmic game I would make damned sure that I cast decent actors! The only performance that impressed me in the demos I’ve seen and played was that of the private investigator Shelby; most others were utterly phoned in or laughable at best. Similarly, if Indigo Prophecy was any indication of David Cage’s screenwriting ability, Heavy Rain is in for a rough road ahead. I recently read that Cage is a fan of director M. Night Shymalan, a filmmaker famous for his twist endings. He certainly took a cue from Shymalan for the ending of Indigo Prophecy; the last thirty minutes of that game were truly mind-boggling. Remember that guy that Lucas killed in the diner? Yeah, it was a Mayan death cult that made you do that. Them and the Illuminati… and the internet! Well, actually artificial intelligence from the internet. Also, Lucas can fly. Thanks for playing! Wow. I can’t wait for your next game Mr. Cage!

Heavy Rain will probably get a free pass from many reviewers and gamers simply because it is a video game. They will praise the game for being ambitious, and if there is one thing to be said about Heavy Rain it’s that it is ambitious. But should we reward David Cage’s ambition when he doesn’t deliver? While the game will probably manage to be compelling and cinematic in some ways, it ultimately won’t bring much new to the table.  Based on Cage’s previous work and what I have seen and heard so far, I don’t expect very much from Heavy Rain. What I do expect is bad writing, poor acting, unbelievable plot twists and mechanics that very rarely work well. When he sets his mind to making  a traditional game like Omikron the results are interesting.  David Cage claims that Heavy Rain is a bold new vision, a new medium never before seen by the masses. These strange “interactive dramas” Cage insists on making are not games or movies; Heavy Rain tries to be a hybrid of the two mediums. Narrative and control issues aside, I don’t think the game will succeed for one simple reason: cinema is not about choice, while games are about nothing but choice. The viewer has no say in how a film will play out, whereas a player more often than not determines the outcome of a game. Film and video games are distinct mediums, whatever Heavy Rain is, it can’t be both, try as it might. Playing Cage’s games, you get the impression that the guy fancies himself God’s gift to video games… or is it filmmaking? I’m still not sure. Cage himself doesn’t quite seem sure.  When you decide Mr. Cage, please let me know.

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