Challenging Conventions 9: Heavy Rain Fails to Understand what Interactive Drama Means

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.

Climbing the muddy slope at the crime scene proved frustrating.

The conceit of a drama unfolding from various vantage points where the player has control had a lot of potential. At E3 2009, Cage showed off a scene in which female lead, Madison Paige, was at a club looking for clues as to the identity of a serial killer. She needed to get some face time with her lead and the sleazy club owner, Paco, but he wasn’t interested. Thus, she had to go to the restroom and follow a series of button prompts as she applied her makeup and made her clothes more revealing before attempting to catch his attention again. This time he brought her up to his private quarters, where she began to panic. Paco then pulled a gun on her and forced her to strip. She does to various degrees until she inevitably grabs a lamp and a struggle ensues, with her victorious. The reward is her tying him to a chair to interrogate him and get the necessary information.

Afterwards, Cage said that not all players will even see this scene. It sounded promising at the time, and I couldn’t help but wonder had the player chosen a different path if they’d follow a different lead with a completely different scene. In actuality, the only way not to get this scene is to have Madison die earlier in the story, so I imagine most players will see this scene at least once. The problem is that this sequence lasts approximately 10 minutes, yet the only time the player can influence the story at all is in the struggle near the end. So why bother making the first nine minutes interactive at all? They could have easily accomplished telling the same story via a non-interactive cut scene in only a couple minutes.

Even simple interactions like walking are an unneccessary time drain in Heavy Rain. Usually games allow you to move so you can explore the environment at your own pace. However, since the game leaves little room to explore and forces you to perform scripted tasks, what’s the point in having to walk to them? If viewed as a movie (what Heavy Rain aspires to be), it would be horribly boring to watch the characters spend half the time laboriously walking between scenes. When telling a story in images, brevity is key. Heavy Rain does the exact opposite of keeping things brief.

I’d argue a more enthralling way to tell this story would be to have it play out on its own and only allow the player to interact during key points that actually matter. A good example of this can be found in Mass Effect 2. That game introduced the brilliant (if underutilized) concept of optional button prompts that would pop up during cut scenes. In one particularly tense scene, Shepard and his crew mate Thane must interrogate a thug. The player is given the choice if they want to play good cop or bad cop – I picked bad cop. The interrogation plays out in real-time and during key moments Shepard is given the option of assaulting the prisoner. In my playthrough, since the prisoner wasn’t giving me the information I needed, I hit him. He still wasn’t spilling the beans, so I hit him again. Thane then warned me I was being too rough and if I kept this up the prisoner would never talk. I was then given the option again and had to try real hard to resist. This whole scene is directed like a movie, cutting out all the stiff animations and mindless wandering that comes when a player is given full control. And unlike a quick time event, hitting the on-screen prompts isn’t necessarily encouraged, but requires quick thinking. This is diametrically opposed to Heavy Rain’s QTEs that only require quick reflexes (unless you’re going out of your way to break the game and by not hitting anything during them). This particular scene in Mass Effect 2 understands that less is more when it comes to player control in an interactive drama.

I understand that it may be asking a lot to make every action have an effect, but it would be nice if more of them influenced the long-term outcome even a little. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories handled tailoring a story based on player behavior excellently. It told the same overall story no matter what, but used choices you didn’t even know your were making (like looking at a woman’s chest) to craft a very personal experience where no two playthroughs were exactly alike. The changes based on choice may be subtle in that game, but they’re still changes, and not without meaning.

The changes and choices in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories have true impact.

Another example of a game succeeding where Heavy Rain failed is Chivalry is Not Dead. It’s much shorter (taking no more than a half hour to complete), but every action matters. How great would it be to have a story that takes roughly two hours, but is filled with multiple dimensions and choices instead of one that’s ten hours long, but offers little variation and is comprised of mostly fluff?

Heavy Rain fails to understand what “interactive drama” means. It’s more like non-interactive drama with interactive padding. There are occasional moments where the player has to make an actual choice under pressure and it’s here that Heavy Rain comes into its own. The rest of the time, however, it’s every bit as archaic as old point-and-click adventures, minus the puzzles. Clicking through a movie to make it play doesn’t make it a game. It just makes it a very long, boring movie that requires constant maintenance to watch.

Author: Jeffrey Matulef