By Marty Mulrooney
I was recently disappointed to realise that several media outlets/gamers are already finding fault with Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain on PS3 before it has even been released, mostly due to the parallels it draws with cinema. Of course, this is a result of the unbelievable hype surrounding the game. But rather than doing gaming a disservice, I actually think from what I have seen so far that it is doing video games rather proud…
Many gamers today won’t have ever played an adventure game, such as Monkey Island (1990) or Day Of The Tentacle (1993). But back in the early 90’s (take this with a pinch of salt, I am only young myself!) they were the outlet of choice to get your fix of interactive fiction. Pointing and clicking with the mouse to solve puzzles and talk to people (not shoot them!) was the order of the day, with a heavy focus on story. Of course, some people just wanted to jump on mushrooms and save the princess, which is a valid way to have fun too!
Now in comparison to the adventure genre, games such as Sonic The Hedgehog (1991) and Doom (1993) featured very little narrative drive. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that storytelling was limited to adventure games alone; other genres certainly spun their own tales very well. But adventure games (at least the good ones) always had time for a good story to be told, rather than focusing on button presses and the amount of health you had left.
Cut to today: a lot of people seem to be getting annoyed at Heavy Rain’s parallels with the film medium. But for what reason? That gaming should never aspire to a film-like level of storytelling? That they should be kept as separate entities? Ridiculous. I actually think this is what has kept so many games stagnant and unoriginal for so many years.
Films, like it or not, have often done a far better job at telling stories than games have done, for a long time. Sure, there are exceptions. I doubt the haunting beauty of Ico would have been the same without me feeling personally responsible for Yorda, holding her hand and leading her everywhere, terrified she would fall or be snatched away. And certainly, the silence and loneliness of the experience would be ruined if Hollywood went near it. Yet this game had cinematic written all over it, from the beautiful castle exploration to the way the natural sunlight almost blindingly played off the camera into the gamer’s eyes.
Arguably, the best films try to emulate life, to make you feel a part of what is unfolding whether you can relate to it or not. Not many games make me forget it is a game I am playing: it is usually blatantly obvious, whether via the HUD flashing, or the sub-par voice acting that doesn’t sell me on the characters at all. Likewise, I often start to think: who designed this place? Who put that lever there? Why does every enemy have a mask on so I can’t see their (hopefully) individual faces?
A certain death in Final Fantasy 7 (1997) was a pretty big sucker punch as a kid: looking back now, it still affects, but the way it is done is actually pretty OTT and melodramatic. The graphics were not yet well enough developed to fully depict the tragedy of a life taken. It was actually often the individual gamer’s imagination (and their experiences with the murdered character up until that point) that would determine the evoked emotional response. I cared: some of my friends didn’t.
The flip side of the coin is Killzone 2 (2009): loved the graphics, didn’t give a sh*t about the characters, the plot or the story. Final Fantasy 7 with its box-armed people will remain far more memorable because it actually tried to sell me something beyond the button-presses. Namely, characters and story.
So it Heavy Rain going to be just QTE’s intermingled with cutscenes? Maybe. But if it manages to sell a good story, to get me deeply involved with characters who can die and won’t come back with the hit of a button, safe and sound… I won’t even care. We have enough driving and shooting and sports games. Isn’t there room for a new kid on the block?
In my eyes it is actually quite natural for narrative gaming to gravitate towards the film style of storytelling anyway. After all, that is what a film is, a way to tell a story. A game isn’t that simple. A game can be many things. It can be becoming a rock star, or a football player. It can be jumping on mushrooms as a fat Italian plumber or rolling though jumping fish as a spiky blue hedgehog.
Take the QTEs out of Heavy Rain. Take away the beautiful graphics. Take away the Hollywood quality voice acting and score. What you have left is going to hopefully be a bloody good story. How would inserting endless bad guys to shoot, or the ability to drive a car around a city full of buildings with no access, or not worrying about the player character because they are only a continue away from safety, really service the story further? It wouldn’t.
Quantic Dream are obviously trying to offer players a specific type of experience. They are bringing back the classic adventure game without the hassles of item collection and obtuse puzzles, or being stuck for hours pixel hunting. They want a story that you live and breath. If this means they have emulated cinema, a medium that has been telling these type of emotional storylines for years, then so be it. Is this even such a bad thing?
I am not some bigwig video game reviewer (maybe one day, hopefully). I haven’t played the game yet either, although I have followed it attentively through the various trailers, images, and press coverage. It may even be a flop and a disaster, although I doubt it. I just hope people actually give it a chance for the ways it will try to surpass cinema (an non-interactive art form) rather than get hung up on the integral ingredients of a good visual story that it emulates from the silver screen.
If Heavy Rain successfully creates a new gaming genre with a focus on story, relationships and people (rather than them feeling tacked on as a necessity like 90% of other games)… perhaps game-haters will finally realise this is a valid medium for involvement and storytelling. For drama. Perhaps they will even remember standing in the cold rain outside a busy nightclub, music pounding, unsure if a killer is inside amidst the dancing masses…
If Heavy Rain manages this, it will have done something new for once. It will have done video games proud for both the person with the pad in their hand and the person across the room on the couch, observing with fascination and awe even though they apparently hate gaming.
Furthermore, if it manages this, it will be an experience wholly unique. It won’t need to have parallels drawn with other mediums. It will create its own memories and bonds with players that will outlast any childish attempts to force a square peg into a round hole. We will have been told a good story that sticks with us… and surely that is all that matters anyway, regardless of the medium. I for one cannot wait.