Director, Character, Player: How Heavy Rain Asks Us To Reconsider How We Approach Playing A Game
When granted choice, I’ve never had a problem figuring out how to play my games. I play as the selfish white knight. I realize that may seem contradictory, but hear me out. Sure, I’ll save your orphan. But before I get to that, I’ll probably steal everything from you as soon as you turn around. Then, I’ll come back, and ask for a kiss as a reward. Y’see, I may be an asshole, but I’m a closet asshole. It’s important that you never know about the dastardly things I’ve done. It’s also important for me to create the most interesting situation possible. Which, in the end, may just mean I’m the worst type of dick–the kind that likes to have it both ways.
This playstyle has served me well: it ensures that I get the most out of a situation without it turning hostile. I end up getting the quest, the loot, and the girl. But when I got to Heavy Rain, everything changed.
What I was describing earlier is a balancing act between the different agencies manifesting themselves in a game. First, there’s the director/writer: what do they want me to see or take out of this situation? Then, there’s the character in question: what would they most likely do in a situation? Lastly, there’s me: how can I wring the most out of this situation? In most games, I don’t have to pay attention to the first two all that much–though they still exist! Most games that allow choice give you characters with blank slates, since anything you do would not be contradicted by an established personality. Still, even though these characters allow me to approach a situation however I like, I can never alter the overarching skeletal framework. Shepard will save Liara whether he chooses to be a dick or a good guy. The agency of the director is a bit clearer, then, because there are some elements of their vision which remain constant no matter what you choose to do. Finding the crux of that vision, I would say, is achieving the “win” state for that game. In winning, you see the intended culmination, as dictated by the director–the way the game was “supposed” to play out.
Those roles seem to go out the window for Heavy Rain.
You aren’t given a blank slate character. Ethan Mars, for example, has a clearly defined role as a loving father who is suffering over the loss of his first son–regardless of my ability to dictate how he approaches something. Ethan has a defined character, and this is something that I must take into account when I have to choose for him. The approach which was described at the beginning becomes difficult to pursue, because i do not have the luxury of a blank slate character to play as my white knight dick.
Normally, if I had been given the chance to sleep with Madison Paige, I would have taken it without thinking: this presents the most interesting situation possible, right? Let’s think about this for a minute, though. Would Ethan Mars, the guy that just cut off his finger, walked through glass and killed a man, really choose to sleep with Madison Paige? I don’t think he would: this would mean wasting precious time that I could be using to save my son. The game asks you how far you would go to save your son, and, so far, I had chosen for Ethan to go pretty damn far. This doesn’t mean I can’t choose to sleep with her anyway, of course–he has a defined character, but I’m still in control. In the end I chose not to sleep with Madison, not because Ethan wouldn’t do that, but because I had already seen what was under those clothes.
Isn’t having that choice a violation of the defined character, who would only ever choose not to sleep with Madison? Not exactly. The game asks you how far you’d go to save your son, and the only real defined characteristic is that you care for him…not neccesarily that you’d risk it all for him. It just so happens that I had chosen for my Ethan to prove his love. Your Ethan may care for his son, but the trials may be too taxing to bear. Both are equally valid given his characterization, I think.
Ethan isn’t the only character involved in the whole fiasco: you’ve got Madison, Scott and Jayden to worry about, too. Once they all start meeting each other, things start to get really complicated. Just who am I playing for, here? If I play how Ethan “would” act, then I may just be compromising elements of Jayden’s investigation, or getting in Shelby’s way, or pissing off Madison. Normally this wouldn’t be so difficult, but Heavy Rain makes me play as ALL these characters. Not knowing who to play for makes it difficult to give into my selfish white knight, because there’s no possible way for that approach to work for everyone–their actions have consequences which affect the other playable characters. Moreover, role playing as specific characters, should this be your approach of choice, also becomes difficult.
This, then, may force you to compromise how you think a character “should” be acting. Does that equal bad writing? I don’t think so. The real world asks me to make compromises every day, and I can’t always choose to act in the way I would normally act. What Heavy Rain does, then, is introduce accountability through compromise: Ethan can’t always get what he wants, how he wants, because his actions are affecting other people. We normally don’t care about that sort of thing, since we don’t have to live with the consequences of our actions in video games. Since Heavy Rain makes you play as most of the characters involved, you you’re not only compromising more than your normally would, but you’re actively considering how you affect other people. Actually caring in a medium that likes to make its consumers feel like an unstoppable god is an incredible feat.
To make things more complicated, the ‘director’ has taken into account any permutations possible in my choice, and he’s written in consequences and changes for each–meaning there are little, if any “constant elements” in everyone’s playthrough. I may have somehow managed to kill Ethan within an hour into the game. Maybe he chose to ignore the quests given to him by the Origami Killer. Maybe he braves it all and saves his son. Who knows? It really depends on what you’ve chosen, not necessarily on what David Cage wants you to see.
Thus I have no clue whether what David Cage “wants” me to see even exists. As I mentioned before, the crux of a director’s vision is the “win” state. Saving the princess, beating the final boss, whatever it is, if you overcome the final challenge put forth by the director, then you’ve reached it. Cutscenes, fin, you’ve won. Congratulations. What happens, then, if there is no defined “win” state? After all, there are dozens of different endings in Heavy Rain. Which one is the “right” one? Is it the one Ethan would enjoy? The one most interesting to me? Is there one that David Cage thinks the right one? A mix of all three?
You can make the argument that the win state, is, above all, saving Jason Mars. Some would go even further, and say that the “Win” state is not only saving Jason, but also making sure that each character lives. The worst ending, then, would be between having Ethan die, having Ethan fail at saving his son, or having everyone involved die somehow.
Making the distinction between these endings isn’t so easy for me, though. Both of the good endings aren’t the “definitive” ending as much as they are the most “agreeable” ones. This would mean that we would be defining the “win” state as happily ever after….and that seems limiting, if not juvenile for such a serious game. This definition seems less validated when we take into account that there are achievements/trophies tied to any possible ending that you achieve. Why would David Cage “reward” us, for, say, failing to save Jason, or killing Madison Paige…unless the ‘real’ win state wasn’t the point?
Taking everything I’ve said into consideration, I find it amazing that people have such difficulty classifying Heavy Rain as a “game.” It takes all the conventions we are used to in games–defined agency roles, win states, etc–and toys with them, asks us to reconsider how they are supposed to work. If anything, Heavy Rain takes advantage of its interactivity so uniquely, there’s no way you consider it anything but a game. What it does and how it does it is not possible on any other medium.