Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Origami Collection: Maturing The Medium

[Note: This post contains mild spoilers]

I think it’s fair to say that, regardless of personal opinion, Heavy Rain had to happen. Its attempt to move the medium of videogames forward is notable, and regardless of whether its lofty ambitions were successful or not are irrelevant. By attempting to tell a mature tale featuring characters grounded in reality and whom were easy to relate with, Heavy Rain proves that videogames don’t always have to be about fun, escapism or fantasy.

Focusing so heavily on mature themes, however, presents a conundrum: these themes are still relatively new to videogames and as such, implementing them effectively is difficult. The medium’s inexperience with such subjects means that mistakes will be made, and you only need to look at the mixed reception Heavy Rain is receiving to find an example of that.

It’s fairly obvious by now that I’m a massive fan of the game, but even so I found some of its focus on maturity daunting. Before I elaborate, here’s a list of just some of the themes the game tries to explore;
  • Fatherhood
  • Marriage, and then separation
  • Loss of a loved one (Jason)
  • Introversion -- Through the loss above and the distance Shaun creates with father Ethan
  • Prostitution
  • Female abuse and sexual assault
  • Asthma attacks
  • Over-dosing on drugs (Triptocaine)
  • Insomnia
  • Kidnapping
  • Murder
  • Police evasion
  • Possible Schizophrenia
  • Crowd Phobia
  • Religion
  • Attempted suicide
  • Aiding and abetting
  • The effects of alcohol (abusive father)
  • Amnesia (Ann Sheppard)
  • Sexism and the objectification of women
That’s a pretty extensive list of themes to explore in a very short time frame. Most games would struggle to deal with just three of these issues, let alone the twenty I listed there. The fact that Quantic Dream tried to explore such morally ambiguous and generally unfortunate themes is commendable, and I have no doubt that what they’ve achieved with Heavy Rain will do as intended and move the medium forward -- if not through their own efforts than through inspiration for other developers to follow suit -- but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what Heavy Rain presents thematically was a success. In fact, a lot of what they tried ended up rather cheesy.

Take for example, the awkward (and it has to be said, implied) sex scene. Not only is it terribly animated (the kissing in particular), it happens at an inopportune time and doesn’t make sense within the context of the events that have transpired. Yes, Ethan and Madison are getting closer through turmoil, but the scene seems to be more of an excuse to show off a largely unnecessary sexual encounter that barely shows anything anyway -- a step back from how intercourse was presented in Quantic Dream’s previous game Fahrenheit. It’s nice that they tried to feature sex in a relatively mature way, allowing for a relationship to follow if the outcome of your story went that way, but the approach to this little distraction was at best hasty and at worst a waste of time, as it didn’t really add anything to the overall experience. Call it character development if you want, but in my opinion it could have been better, and has been done better in other games.*

Another example could be the scene where Scott Shelby, the playable private detective character, has to deal with a crying baby. The baby’s unstable mother has just attempted suicide as a reaction to the unbearable loss of her son to the Origami Killer, and as such when Scott arrives on the scene she is in no condition to look after her infant child. During this scene the baby needs to be fed and have its diaper changed, eventually leading to gentle rocking to help it fall asleep. Now don’t get me wrong here, I actually think it’s neat that such a scene has been included in a videogame because it’s not one we’d usually associate with our medium -- and the mundane nature of such a normal, daily affair really hammers home the realism that such a situation would convey in reality -- but even so the way it’s presented and the animations and sound that goes with it comes across as cheesy, as if Quantic Dream were trying too hard, and that’s a common issue that occurs throughout Heavy Rain.

Whether it’s playing with your kids out in the backyard, dancing erotically to attract someone’s attention or playing the moral high ground when it comes to interrogating someone, there are too many moments in Heavy Rain where I appreciated what they were trying to do but found myself baulking at the moment, my immersion breaking as I realise that this is indeed a videogame. I understand why they chose to have this scene or that, and I respect the fact that they tried, but unfortunately not all of their intentions for Heavy Rain’s mature themes was successful, and that’s disappointing.

When a game is trying to be mature or trying to present a morally ambiguous situation that has no clear outcome -- such as Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian mission, or the binary good or evil conundrum found in most games that deal with morality -- then they open themselves up to failure by trying too hard. When games don’t distract themselves with trying to be something and just are what they are, the potential for mature themes and moral situations to succeed is greater, meaning that the medium we know and love moves forward, as well as delivers us an experience that resonates (a nice example for this could be the moment in The Darkness where main character Jackie can sit and watch a movie with his girlfriend). Getting to that point will be difficult, and the fact that we are trying means that there will be successes and failures along the way, but if Heavy Rain and other recent games are anything to go by, we will get there eventually. And when we do? Well, won’t all the hard work have been worth it?

*I’ll have more thoughts on each character and how they’re developed throughout the game in an upcoming post.


Scott Juster said...

Well said. Like you, I found the game's approach to non-traditional game subject matter commendable, if not entirely effective.

I've heard people say Fahrenheit was a "test run" for Heavy Rain, but I came away feeling like Heavy Rain was a "test run" for some future project. However, I'm not sure what that hypothetical game will look like.

I think there is a lot of work to be done to make the game mechanics and the narrative themes more cohesive, but I applaud the attempt to do something different.

Steven O'Dell said...

Scott -- Fahrenheit was a test run for Heavy Rain in the sense that it showed that menial tasks performed in a reasonably similar way can work in games, and work effectively to convey a mood and atmosphere that benefits what the narrative is trying to portray. I'm sure you are well aware of Fahrenheit's flaws (and if not, I'll have posts on the game up on here soon) but when it was on form, it was great and definitely paved the way for the more successful (at this style) Heavy Rain.

But you're right, HR is paving the way for the future, though perhaps not in the way we might expect. At the very least taking the mechanics, narrative, and all of the bells and whistles away from the game, the mere fact that Heavy Rain was more popular and successful than its predecessor means that other developers can view it as a viable approach for their own games, and that has a lot of potential. But you know all this since you discussed it in the podcast, but yeah, forget about what Heavy Rain is, that's not important anymore. What is important, is the future that it may bring, and I definitely look forward to seeing what happens when we get there.