Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Origami Collection: Downpour

What do you think of when you consider the omnipresent weather of Heavy Rain? You probably think about how effective it was in conveying a particular atmosphere, one that enhanced the somber but not necessarily depressing mood that permeates each scene. Or maybe you dreaded it because it was so effective in setting the game’s tone. Perhaps you also consider the way it affects the game’s narrative, but if you do I wouldn’t be surprised if it was left as an after-thought: an interesting addition but not as integral to the experience as the game’s atmosphere. On the other hand, I could be completely wrong. What I do know is that personally, the narrative implications Heavy Rain’s weather had, resonated with me.

It is no secret that I enjoy rain and would like to see weather explored more in videogames, but never did I expect such an inclusion to feature as prominently as it did in Heavy Rain. The very idea of using weather as a narrative tool and focus seems odd to me: something that no one would bother to try in a videogame because of the unpredictability that comes from Mother Nature, and the limitations in using her force that seem to become apparent when thinking about it. Just how can rain, snow or even fire be used to communicate and control a given story? Aside from presenting a certain mood or tone, how can it affect the emotional impact of a story or exist as a motivational mechanism for the characters involved?

Heavy Rain answers those questions and does so superbly. More than just an extremely strong tool for the game’s atmosphere, the rain in Heavy Rain exists as one of the primary motivations for the game’s plot: The Origami Killer’s victims are stored in a storm water drain and failure to find the location of this -- by performing outrageous tasks set out by the killer in order to find clues -- results in the victim drowning from too much rain. This puts pressure on the tasks at hand, thereby enhancing the intensity of some of the game’s scenes and making you relate to Ethan’s plight as he does all that he can to find his son. This alone is enough to demonstrate a really interesting use of weather in a videogame, but more than that, the narrative implications the rain provides also affects the emotional response the player has to the story. The rain falling outside in each scene isn’t just there to provide a mood and atmosphere, it’s there to remind you, indirectly, that you don’t have much time to accomplish your goal of rescuing Ethan’s son. Periodically the characters will reference the rain as a more direct reminder, but most of the time it is the player recognizing its strong presence in each scene and reacting to it: by either feeling the pressure that is intended by the developers or by remembering its significance. It’s here that the game is breaking its boundaries and communicating to the player. Instead of just involving the characters and events of the game, the ubiquitous rain draws you into the experience and involves you in it, putting you on the same level of importance as both the plot and the characters that drive it. And it’s this last point that is most important: Heavy Rain is a character-driven story first and foremost -- much in the same way that Uncharted 2 is -- but it’s not always in the sense that most people associate with such a description. The game is about certain characters and what they find themselves dealing with, but it’s also about your character: how you react to them, their situations, motivations, and then what you think it all means. If done right, this should lead to an overall experience that doesn’t just provide a compelling adventure with characters whose journey seems important, but also an experience that gets under your skin, makes you think and ultimately changes you for the better. Whether Heavy Rain achieved this or not is subjective and entirely up to you. It’s pretty clear from the varying opinions out there that the game polarized a lot of people, but I think it would be fair to say that whether people enjoyed the experience or not, they believe that it had to happen. The weather in the game may have been overlooked when compared to the other, arguably more important, aspects of it (such as its maturity, or the mundane nature of its interactivity), but it too played a crucial role in delivering the game’s final experience and for that I thought I should give it some recognition.

The mere fact I can focus on a subject like the game’s rain demonstrates overall just how many different components and aspects make up an intended experience in modern videogames. It might not be a significant part of Heavy Rain when compared to some of the other subjects I’ve covered, and I’m confident that if other developers use Heavy Rain as inspiration for their own games the role the weather played will mostly go unnoticed, but even so I thought it was an effective part of the game and therefore worth covering. My only hope now is that weather in general continues to be experimented with as we move forward. Heavy Rain proves it doesn’t have to just be about atmosphere anymore, so let’s see what else can be done with Mother Nature’s beauty and force -- I have a feeling there’s a lot of untapped potential there.


Jorge Albor said...

Yea, the tangible reminder I was running out of time was a good aspect of the game. As was the connection it made between the present time and the big reveal in the past.

Weather isn't used too often as a mechanical tool as well. FFXIII has a few scenes where players can change the weather, but its not nearly as significant as it could be.

Steven O'Dell said...

Jorge -- Well generally when Mother Nature is used it's related to the elements -- fire, water, earth, etc. -- so I suppose I can't complain too much, but still I'd love it if developers experimented with it more. I mean, from a pure racing perspective alone seeing weather affect the way races pan out is exciting to me. Scripted or dynamic, it wouldn't matter.

But in other games, open-world or not, having things like fire or floods or a blizzard affect the way things happen would be amazing, particularly if it was dynamic and therefore unexpected. Imagine a game beginning in a city that you get used to, then by the end of the game you're dealing with the recovery from floods or a hurricane or something. It'd be a drastic change to the environment, pacing and emotional impact of a story, and that's just a brief example I thought of just then.

In fact, perhaps I'm not done with this subject...

Jorge Albor said...

Oh, I forgot to mention Left 4 Dead 2! Their use of rain in their aptly named, Hard Rain, level is superb. Players make their way through a town to a gas station as clouds form in the sky. Then players backtrack through the now flooded town in the rain. The weather changes the environment completely and it doesn't feel like backtracking at all.

Also, if the rain comes down heavy, players lose the blue glow around their character, making it much easier for a group to become separate - a very dangerous scenario in L4D.

If you haven't seen or played it, I highly recommend you check it out. (Oh, the new rain affect can also be generated by the AI on other levels).