Monday, November 18, 2013

Thoughts on Heavy Rain

It is very easy to talk bad about Heavy Rain. One can say it is just an interactive movie where you press buttons at certain key moments, in rare cases changing the outcome of the story. One can talk about the hole and cliche filled story and the weakly developed characters*. One can talk about this and other negative aspects of the game and I would fully agree. But if one only focuses on these areas, there is plenty of really interesting aspects that are missed.

Despite all these flaws I really enjoyed playing Heavy Rain. Sure, the quick-time-events (QTE:s) really got me worked up on more than one occasion and a lot of other issues bugged me, but on the whole it was quite an engaging experience. There are some truly tense and disturbing moments in the game that work great. For example the scene at the mall, while lame in many ways, managed to capture the protagonists sense of panic and that in an environment and setup I have never seen in a game before. The game also features great graphics, nice music and not too shabby acting (for most of the time anyway, and once you get used to the uncanny valley feel). The game also lets you be in situations that I have never seen outside of Interactive Fiction.

What really made the game interesting though was not the things that I liked, but the things that are slightly broke. Because of the way that QTE:s work, being a quite fragile system in terms of immersion, it sort of exposes your own usually hidden thought processes as you play the game. Also, the game's filmic nature and focus on a branching narrative makes it a virtual smorgasbord of game design theory to try out. This is what truly makes Heavy Rain worth playing.

Immersion as an essence
By far, the most important realization I got when playing Heavy Rain is how interaction is not mainly about giving the player interesting choices. When playing the game I never felt the need to make choices on the basis of seeing what would happen, instead I simply wanted the characters to act in certain ways in order to confirm to my expectations of how I thought they would (and should) be acting. What I think happens is that as we interact in a videogame, there is feedback loop between us sending input to the game and us getting information back from the game (in the form of visuals, audio, etc), which builds the basis of us feeling present inside the game's virtual world. The better this loop works, the more we feel as a part of the experience.

Heavy Rain is an excellent example of this process at work. When there is flow in the controls (which is usually in the scenes giving you direct character control, such as the early mall sequence), there is a very satisfying feeling of being one with the character. Then suddenly some weird QTE pops up and you either fail at completing it, or it simply does not give the result you expected, and once again you are pulled out of your sense of presence. The game is littered with moments like this, pulling you in and the throwing you back out. When Heavy Rain manages to sustain the belief of you having agency over the character, that is when the game is at it best. These are the occasions when there is a very strong loop of interaction going on and you are the most present inside the game's world. When this loop is broken, it does not matter what kind of interesting choices you might have at your disposal. The game immediately becomes less engaging the moment the loop of interaction breaks down.

In this light of thinking, QTE events make perfect sense. It is simply a rudimentary system for trying and sustain a feedback loop during various types of scenes. It is not about setting up a competition for the player, it is just a very blunt and unreliable system to sustain a sense of presence. I really doubt that QTE:s is the way to do narrative art in videogames, but it does gives us invaluable information on how to proceed.

What all this seem to indicate is that a videogame that wants to tell a story, should not use interaction to deliver a multitude of choice, but instead to reinforce the feedback loop of immersion. This might entail having choice, but the choices in themselves are not what is of the most importance, giving a very sharp focus on how to design the mechanics. It may actually be that the very future of making artful games with focus on narrative is to focus on this interactive loop of immersion. There is a lot more to discuss on this subjects and there are other things that also points in this direction. I am hoping to devout an entire post on that subject soon, so consider this a taste of things to come.

A final note: This "interaction as a means to create immersion" does not imply that the future of videogames are incredibly linear interactive cinema -far from it. In many cases a non-linear and open game world is essential in order to support the feedback loop.

The importance of determinism
In most games you have a pretty strong sense of what the protagonist will do when a button is pressed. Not so in Heavy Rain. Apart from direct movement and a few repeatable actions (like be able to shout your son's name in the mall scene), most of the time icons just pop up with vague hints on what the input will achieve. Sometimes you will learn what action might happen (such as that an up-arrow at a railing will mean that you will lean against it), but this takes a bit time and requires that a similar action has already been carried out.

In many cases this has a drastic reduction on the sense of presence. For one, it makes you unable for you to form plans. Simply by surveying an environment you cannot determine a course of actions (even if you know all trigger spots), and during action sequences it gets even worse as QTE:s may up at any moment in pretty much unguessable form. Making up plans is one of the basic corner stones of human intelligence, and possible the reason we developed a conscioussness, so not having the option of doing this is a hard blow against the sense of agency. Another reason it reduces immersion is that your character might not act in the way you intended. Before picking an action you almost always makes some kind of assessment of what will happen, but it is quite likely that this will be dead wrong. Thus the character your are supposed to feel a connection to, ends up performing an action that you did not intend. Of course, it is very hard to feel as a part oft he game's world when this happen.

This system stands in stark contrast with how Limbo works, where you are pretty much always certain of exactly what will happen. I think this is very much connection in the level of immersion Limbo manages to have throughout (unless you get stuck in trial and error of course), and how Heavy Rain stumbles through the entire experience. One should not be too hard on Heavy Rain though as the space of interactions that are possible to perform throughout the game by far outnumber those in Limbo. The real challenge for the future is to coming closer to multitude of actions in Heavy Rain, but still having the determinism of Limbo.

The understanding between Player and Videogame
Another big problem in Heavy Rain, which is related to the point above, is that the game sometime seem to work against you. It might seem obvious that this is a dealbreaker in terms of immersion and I have already discussed the problem of camera control in Dead Space Extraction. The issue can be a bit more subtle though and Heavy Rain serves as great example of this. For instance, in one scene I had made a plan of actions: to first bandage an unconscious person and then to poke around in his stuff. There really was nothing hindering me from doing so but instead the game removed my ability to interact directly after caring for the person. The game interpreted me wanting to help the guy as I also did not want to poke around, thinking that they two were mutually exclusive actions. Of course I thought otherwise and considered it no problem at all to do some poking afterward.

There are plenty of situations like this and it makes it quite clear that you should never move ahead on a bigger outcome from a choice without being certain that this is also what the player expects. I also see this as a problem of having major choices the player in a game that lack a high level simulation (like Fallout for example). Just the simple action of walking out a door can have many different meanings to a player, and one needs to be careful and make sure that most players have same idea of what it means. Once you throw branching paths into the pot, it gets a lot more complicated and clashes between player and game is much more likely to happen.

Emotional Simulation
An interesting aspect of Heavy Rain that I have not seen (at least not this directly) in any other game using QTE:s (or normal mechanics for that matter) is to trick the player into feeling certain emotions. The way it works in the game is that the player is forced to hold down a lot of buttons at the same time, while often also moving the stick around. This creates an uncomfortable and demanding way to hold the controller in, which is meant to simulate the way the onscreen character feels. While it might sound a little dodgy, it works quite well in many cases, especially in a scene containing self-mutilation.

The research behind this kind of response is actually very well established and designer Chris Pruett has hypothesized that the effect is probably a reason why many unforgiving horror games turn out to be extra scary (a design decision that comes with other problems though). The way it works is that we humans often do not know why we are feeling a certain way and unconsciously project it onto something else. For instance one experiment had people thinking that arousal due to their fear of heights was due physical attraction instead.

All is not good with this design in Heavy Rain though. Because the inputs you perform are not fluent (as it is prompted on a situational basis) and non-deterministic (as explained above) you are mostly very conscious of what you are doing with the controller. If the controls where more transparent (like in Limbo) you would be less conscious of your input, and any uncomfortable placement of the hand is much more likely to be projected into whatever the protagonist is doing. I think this can be very potent stuff if handled properly and let the player get immersed in experiences that would be hard to simulate in any other way.

Trial and error
Heavy Rain boasts that it does not have any game over screen, but it still manages to have is massive amounts of trial-and-error. This time the forceful repetition of events does not only occur in death threatening situations though. In Heavy Rain it often happens during extremely mundane actions like brushing your teeth and taking a shower. It is an extremely good example why this sort of design is so immersion destroying. From believing that you are playing an actual living character, the sudden requirement to repeat an event pulls you out from the experience directly. It is so obvious that you go from trying to become present in a virtual world to just trying and overcome a very mechanical task.

I think the biggest problem is that Heavy Rain is very sensitive in how you complete the QTE sequences. Let go of a button for a micro seconds and it results in an instant failure. When the game gets rid of so many other stigmas of old game design, it is sad to see it stuck in this one. I think the way it should have done it is to become a little bit more relaxed and to allow some more failures. Instead being competitive-like and very strict in the actions, it should instead check if the player tried enough to do something. As long as the players are playing along, I see no reason for punishing them. The game should have tried to keep the illusion of an interactive-feedback loop alive for as long as possible, instead of simply breaking it at the slightest incorrect input.

Some misc points
Now for some shorter stuff that I found interesting:
  • When done right, the direct and free control method is by far the more immersive. However it also puts a lot of pressure on the character reacting in a proper way. Quite often, the character I was controlling ended up acting like a moron, walking into walls and the like, even if I really tried hard to control him properly. The constrained events do not suffer this problem, and have the characters act much more lifelike, but at the same time they do not have the same level of interaction required for deep sense of presence.
  • Heavy Rain is at its best when simulating tightly space and time-wise bounded scenes. At these points it was much easier to give me a sense of having agency and to let me become one with the moment. The scenes self-mutilation, pushing through a crowd, escape from bench in cellar, etc are all great examples of this. Judging from what seemed to have worked best in Amnesia, I think a lot can be gained by taking this design further.
  • The game is a great test bed for a game that has decisions with big ramifications, such as the death of main characters. My own conclusion from Heavy Rain is that all of these choices are probably unneeded and did not gain me much except the sense of missing out on the story. Interestingly, Heavy Rain feels quite different in this regard from a game like Fallout (with the, as mentioned, more higher level narrative simulation).
  • Achievements (trophies on the ps3) really suck in story-centric game. Having gone through a scene and then getting a sort of grade, really removes the ability to make up your own mind of what just took place. It is quite similar to the "understanding between player and game" problem, as achievements has a high risk of going against the player's intentions (and does not really help gain anything).

End notes
As I think this post shows there are many reasons why Heavy Rain is a really interesting game to play. It does a lot of things that other videogames do not even dare to consider, and while it kind of fails on a lot of it, just attempting it is an important step on the way. If only more mainstream games were like this.

Also, after playing through Heavy Rain I have come to wish that there were more games like it. By that I do not mean more games with QTE:s (which I really hated much of the time) but games that allows the player to always progress and focus on a rich narrative experience. In most other games I either have to endure annoying puzzles or have to become an accomplish in a genocide. Given the high scores the game has gotten (from press and the public) I do not think I am alone in this. Please do not see this as an urge for people to copy Heavy Rain though, but instead to use the game it as a step towards something that truly makes use of the medium.

*Emily short has a really good essay on the story of Heavy Rain. Check it here.

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