Challenging Conventions is a biweekly column by Jeffrey Matulef that discusses the conventions of games design, whether regards the games that subscribe to these conventions or those that try to overcome them. In this piece, Jeffrey talks about Heavy Rain and BioShock 2. Be warned, there are major spoilers for both those games.
What do Heavy Rain and BioShock 2 have in common? Aside from lots of water, they’re both about the same thing: fatherhood. Though the two games go about it in very different ways.
Heavy Rain makes this connection most literally. You play (primarily) as a father trying to rescue his kidnapped son from a serial killer. The tagline “how far would you go for love” manifests itself as a series of trials the killer sets up for Ethan to prove his worth as a father.
While it’s an intriguing idea, Ethan’s relationship with his son, Shaun, is underdeveloped. After getting kidnapped, his son ceases to be a character, instead simply becomeing an object that needs saving.
This is a shame as the earlier sequences dealing with the relationship between Ethan and his children are among the game’s best moments. Very early on, Ethan can engage in a mock swordfight with his sons. Whether he plays for keeps or lets them win is the kind of simple choice I want to see influence their relationship.
Should the opening sequences involving Shaun hold more consequence on Ethan’s relationship with his son? How would that work out?
Soon after that, Ethan loses custody over his son. As such, the relationship between them gets strained, so Ethan attempts to reconnect with his son through various activities. One of my favorite sequences includes Ethan trying to stick to his ex-wife’s schedule for when Shaun should watch TV, do his homework, eat dinner, and go to bed. When Shaun begs to watch TV “just a little longer” I must admit, I let him. I’m a pushover, what can I say?
I love that these choices are more complex than good or evil, but requires toeing the fine line between discipline and caring. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I realize these choices have no bearing on the rest of the game.
I want Shaun to love Ethan at the end because he is an awesome dad, not because he crawled over glass and possibly killed a guy. These virtual father episodes are a compelling foundation, but without consequence they feel incomplete.
This is in stark contrast to another recent game that deals with fatherhood, that game beingBioShock 2. For a majority of BioShock 2 you play as a Big Daddy called Subject Delta who is searching for his Little Sister in distress, Eleanor. While Delta is not technically her father, Eleanor thinks of him as such. Delta thinks of her as his daughter as well, making finding her his sole objective. At this point Eleanor is no different than Shaun is in Heavy Rain. But in BioShock 2, the plot thickens.
Late on in the game, Delta reunites with Eleanor and what kind of person she proves to be is actually based on your interactions throughout the game. She’s been watching you all along, learning from your example. If you’ve mostly been saving Little Sisters, she’ll do the same. If you’ve been harvesting them, she’ll do that instead. Whether you’ve taken revenge or bestowed mercy has effected what kind of person she’s grown into.
Who Eleanor is depends on who you prove yourself to be during your time in Rapture.
For example, when I encounter the man who kidnapped Eleanor and sold her off as a lab rat, I can choose to take his life or let him live. I want to be a good guy, but Eleanor is the only thing I care about and he put her in danger. After pausing a moment, I decide to end his life. I think I’m father-of-the-year at this point, so it proves crushing to realize that Eleanor had seen that and my mercilessness had been passed on. The discovery that I’d messed up my daughter’s moral compass is when I feel less like a game hero and more like a father with responsibilities beyond mere rescuing.
BioShock 2 also addresses that there’s more to family than blood. The antagonist, Sofia Lamb, uses this notion of family towards her own twisted ends. In order to unite people towards her extreme collectivist ideals, she calls it “the Rapture family”. Ironic, then, that her only flesh-and-blood relative turns on her. It’s not surprising given the way she treats her daughter, yet Sofia’s mental abuse towards Eleanor proves that simply being a parent isn’t enough. She lacks the kindness and respect necessary for her daughter to reciprocate. Instead, Eleanor would rather turn to the arms of a Frankenstien-like beast in a scuba suit than deal with her actual mother (wouldn’t we all? – Ed).
It’s scenarios like these that attach us to stories, not what the game’s genre is. Heavy Rain starts with compelling possibilities, yet quickly turns into a formulaic affair about a hero trying to rescue his child. Bioshock 2 starts with that tired premise but builds upo nit. Despite arguably being little more than a shooter in a fantastic setting, the game deals with the very real issue of parenthood in a mature way. It understands that being a parent is about more than rescuing children. It’s about raising them.