In the first episode of our podcast, Jeremy, Joab Gilroy and myself discussed the nature of games as a unique medium. During this discussion, the game Heavy Rain, and it’s predecessor, Fahrenheit were mentioned.
These are fairly unique games, for two reasons:
Firstly, they have truly adaptive plot structures – precisely the thing that makes people like Roger Ebert state that makes video games incapable of qualifying as ‘art’. (A subject for another article) This should make me hugely happy to play it (and doubtlessly, also play the second one) over and over.
And yet I haven’t, and after playing the demo of Heavy Rain, suspect I probably won’t for that, either. Why? For this, second reason:
Despite their brilliant use of the medium’s ability to adapt its narrative based on the player’s actions, the actual ‘gameplay’ alternates between extremely simple gestures and a frustrating Alone in the Dark-esque movement system… and quicktime events.
I played the demo with my partner sitting on the couch beside me, sipping some wine. The lights were off, the sound was up, and appropriately enough, there was a torrential downpour outside. Add a large, expensive HDTV and you have pretty much the perfect environment to get truly immersed in anything – video game or film.
Now, There is a sequence in the Heavy Rain demo that has the player character involved in a spectacularly well-choreographed fight sequence. Two men are hurling objects, crashing through things and desperately trying anything to subdue their opponent.
Once it began, the quicktime events came on-screen in earnest. Tap Circle. Tape Square. Make the following gesture with your right-stick. Now hit triangle.
After an epic struggle with my controller, the fight was over – my character victorious.
“Wow,” was the comment from my partner.
But from me? Well, don’t ask me what just happened – I was paying too much attention to the little Playstation symbols appearing on-screen to actually appreciate the visuals, the choreography, or the intensity of the scene in general.
Which is where these games fall down.
In almost another action game, be it Modern Warfare 2, Grand Theft Auto IV or Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball, you learn the controls quickly and then are simply able to play the game – all the while absorbing the visuals and the world that the designers have created.
You are controlling the world using a system which, after a while, becomes intuitive. It is second nature to duck behind cover, enter a vehicle, or perform a high pass with the ball. The gameplay adds to the immersion.
But with these games – Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain – even ignoring for a moment that the “gameplay” is a largely arbitrary collection of button-presses and gestures – you are forced to look out for the little symbols that keep floating frustratingly and obtrusively on-screen. You cannot simply learn the interface and ‘play’. Instead of adding to your immersion into the world, the gameplay helps destroy and detach you from the experience that these games might otherwise be able to provide you.
As a result, it becomes difficult to fully appreciate the impressive amount of effort that’s got into everything else in the game – from the animations & characterisations to the background detail of each scene.
These are fascinating games. Spectacular exercises in just what gaming might become in the future – truly interactive stories, not just rollercoaster rides where they give you a fake steering wheel to make you think you’re in control.
But as long as they are pinned down by “gameplay” that’s actually less complex (and much less intuitive) than Space Invaders, they will simply be exercises – curiosities.
I’m sure I’ll play the game once it’s released, and if I can get past the “gameplay” I might even enjoy it enough to finish it – maybe even more than once. But I’ll tell you one thing about Heavy Rain: it’s the first time in gaming history that I’ve actually wished my girlfriend was the gamer, and that I could be the spectator – one sitting on the couch with a glass of wine actually enjoying the game.
Because around half the entire length of the game I sure as fuck won’t be.