Monday, March 22, 2010

The Origami Collection: Mundane Magic

[There are mild spoilers in this post]

As I mentioned briefly in my Heavy Hitter post, the description of what you do in Heavy Rain sounds boring. Just how can the act of shaving or picking up some mail be fun in a videogame?

As I also mentioned in that post, Heavy Rain isn’t fun. When said like that, it sounds like a negative criticism that suggests that no one should play it, as it doesn’t entertain and is boring. Well, let me clarify right now: Heavy Rain isn’t fun, but it isn’t supposed to be either. Instead, it’s supposed to be a dramatic experience that is interactive, allowing us to experiment with four playable characters and the situations they find themselves in, which, by virtue of the fact that they are human, also includes the mundane.

A good portion of the moments in Heavy Rain are slow, relaxed affairs where the character you are controlling isn’t doing anything of particular importance. An example of such a scene is what Ethan Mars -- the father character I’ve already spoken about -- does after picking his son Shaun up from school and goes back home. In this particular moment, it’s possible to sit and watch TV with Shaun, go upstairs and listen to music, get Shaun a snack or dinner, or go out into the backyard to shoot some hoops. There’s a vague goal of looking after Shaun to follow, which can include feeding him as outlined above, ensuring he does his homework, and getting him to bed at a reasonable hour. None of these tasks are mandatory, they are merely suggestions to help make the scene flow at a reasonably decent pace -- it’s still up to the player to decide whether he does those things, or ignores them entirely. Whatever happens, Shaun will eventually fall asleep and putting him to bed is where the scene ends.

There are many more small but intriguing tasks you can do within that scene and all of them are optional at the player’s discretion, but they are there to alter the aforementioned scene in neat little ways to ensure that each player’s experience is slightly different. When you think about it, they don’t mean anything and, arguably, neither does the scene, but then they don’t need to mean anything and they aren’t supposed to. The only important things to be observed from this particular scene is the distant relationship that has developed between Ethan and his son, and the fact that Ethan and his wife have seemingly separated – both as a result of the unfortunate death of Jason, Shaun’s older brother. Ultimately, all this scene represents for Heavy Rain’s experience is some small but key character development.

Every single menial task within this scene that the player chooses to do, develops our understanding and connection to these characters. Trying to talk to Shaun shows us just how distant he really is, while trying to inspire him to work on his homework is met with reluctance as he would much rather watch TV. Heading upstairs as Ethan, we can put some music on to play in the background and then go into his office. In here, it’s possible for Ethan to turn on a TV and watch a family home video featuring Shaun, Jason and Ethan’s wife. Watching this video reminds Ethan of what happened to Jason, and we’re able to watch as he reflects on this and gets upset – as a father should and would. Heading outside to shoot some basketball hoops has nothing to do with character development (for this particular scene -- I’ll explain why it does in fact aid character development further on), but it’s arguably effective anyway due to the constantly falling rain and the muddy terrain that it causes. Just the aesthetic value of this particular task highlights the depressing mood and atmosphere that is already gained from Shaun’s distance, and the quiet, upsetting moment of reflection that Ethan goes through from watching the video.

What I’ve described above is just one scene in Heavy Rain. There are plenty of others, some relatively quiet like I’ve already described, and some that contain a little more action or at the very least, intensity. Regardless of their pace, the way in which the player interacts with them is what defines them, and is definitely where Heavy Rain’s magic lies.

While going to the toilet might not mean anything for the development of the story, or a particular character’s role within that, it does still mean something for the player’s development in Heavy Rain. The tasks they choose to perform within any given scene define their reaction to it, and in turn the overall experience they will have. As far as my own experience is concerned, I approached the mundane tasks in the game based on what I thought was right within the context of the scene at the time. Using the scene I’ve described above as my example again, I chose to loosely follow the schedule that Ethan had written down on a whiteboard in the kitchen so that I could also spend time doing other tasks. For example, since Ethan had just arrived home I thought it was necessary to check his mail to see what might be there. I also thought it was necessary to get Ethan a drink, and also go to the toilet. These tasks felt natural within the scene as well as the environment -- Ethan’s home -- and thus I was compelled to perform these tasks despite the fact I didn’t have to. That’s the beauty of these mundane tasks; they are completely optional but may compel us to do them anyway, either because our curiosity has been piqued or because they feel right within the context of both the scene and, indeed, the game. I don’t choose to go to the toilet because it’s there or because I can, I do it because I want to and it feels like the right thing to do. More so if the scenes prior were filled with action and it wasn’t possible to do such a simple yet necessary act of nature.

Ultimately, the effectiveness and therefore strength of these scenes depends on what the player chooses to do within them, and as such their enjoyment will depend on how they interpret a scene’s intended experience and then how they react to it. The various menial tasks that can be performed may sound boring when they are described, but when you actually play the game, you realize why they exist and what they can potentially mean for both the development of the game’s story, and the player’s. And besides, shooting hoops isn’t so boring after all.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Hey Steve. Awesome articles on Heavy Rain. This game will be talked about and played for years to come. It's one of my current favorites. I have to agree with you on the game being not fun, having mundane actions. That's what David Cage wanted. Mind you his statements have always been cloaked to readers, until they actually play the game. Then the dagger comes out. Heavy Rain is an involving suspenseful thriller. I have never seen so many scary moral choices in a game. I think the closest for me was Silent Hill 3 and 5. Those decisions made me think for about 1/2 hour as well. It's almost like mirror looking into yourself, these situations might happen in real life. In the end what would you do for love? David Cage, sir, I salute you. You have revealed one of the greatest key component in making a great game.