Wednesday, March 3, 2010

At the Heart of the Storm, Video Games Find Their Soul

This week brings my double-length post on the groundbreaking Playstation 3 game, Heavy Rain. Mr. Keeley will return next week with two posts of his own.

Heavy Rain is not a perfect game. It is an important game.

In fact, it is probably one of the most important games ever made. Not everything this audacious effort attempts is successful, but one very significant part is: It proves that video games are bursting with a potential to convey emotion like no other medium can.

I have wondered if I would ever live to experience a game so profoundly affecting that it could bring me to tears. Heavy Rain comes shockingly close. The game's early chapters are such a potent representation of a life steeped in despair that even the most mundane tasks gain astonishing weight; playing Ethan Mars (Pascal Langdale) in the wake of his son's death is heart rending. He has divorced his wife and lives in a rundown house with his surviving son. Initially, tasks like making dinner for the child may not seem like a compelling prospect – indeed, he will drag a chair to the cabinets and reach in for a bag of chips if you do not – but, the result makes it worthwhile: Ethan stares across the dimly lit kitchen and watches as the child silently eats his frozen dinner. The magnitude of Ethan's loss is suddenly apparent; the life has gone from his existence.

Video game storytelling has improved considerably over the past few years, but few games have truly made story their priority. With Heavy Rain, it is not debatable – the story is everything. Every action the player takes has some sort of impact on the narrative, however big or small it may be. It could cause the death of a main character or it could simply irritate the person with whom you are speaking.

It is essentially a crime thriller – all main characters ultimately find themselves on the trail of the sadistic Origami Killer – but it is decidedly character-driven. Writer/director, David Cage rarely passes up an opportunity to illuminate a character's inner life: A prostitute rebuffs your questioning about her late son, "You may be able to buy my body... but you cannot buy my son," and a detective stops to coddle a baby girl, "Take care of your mommy for me." Even the Origami Killer himself has a tragic backstory. There are a few incidental characters that are far too shallow and one main character's motivations are foggy but, considering the sheer volume of writing necessary here, Cage does good work.

Ethan is not the only playable character, either. There is Scott Shelby (Sam Douglas), the weary but amiable private investigator, Norman Jayden (Leon Ockenden), a drug-addicted FBI agent who is freshly assigned to the case, and Madison Paige (Judi Beecher/Jaqui Ainsley), an insomniac journalist.

The characters are manipulated by a largely contextual control scheme. Walking is the only exception. It is always done by holding down R2 to begin walking and moving the left analog stick to change direction. The mechanic is unwieldy, so it certainly takes an adjustment on the player's part, and it occasionally leads the character to spin around in place, compromising the player's immersion. Nevertheless, the game does not allow the player to move the camera freely, so the design of the walking mechanic makes sense, even if it does not always work well.

Most of the game's controls, however, are a stroke of genius. Apart from the walking, everything is contextual, meaning that players must react to onscreen commands. Dialogue options spin around a characters head and physical actions appear on the object to which they relate. It may sound tedious (indeed, countless games have made similar schemes just that), but Heavy Rain's developers have elevated the "quick-time event" to an incredible means of immersion. If someone is about to slam a door in your face, you stop them by swiping the right stick upward; if you have to climb a muddy hill, you must contort you hand to hold down a series of buttons, just as the character struggles to maintain a foothold; if you are rocking a baby to sleep, you must slide the right stick back and forth, delicately.

Precisely because there are no predetermined controls, the fight scenes in this game are far more intense than those in other games. In a scuffle, the player must scramble to react just as he or she would in real life. In fact, the controls constantly put the player into the thick of a scene's emotions. In stressful situations, even dialogue choices become complicated. The words spinning around a character's head shake and can become illegible as the tension reaches a breaking point. Also, make no mistake: The game will proceed if the player fails to make a choice, and indecision is often dangerous.

No moment is more stressful than those when a life is in the player's hands. Options frantically flash on the screen, characters start to yell, the music swells and, the whole time, the player is desperately struggling to weigh the consequences – consequences that will follow the player through to the end of the game. Even worse, none of these moments have a "right" answer. Heavy Rain goes to great lengths to ensure that moral choices are never black and white; at no time are this game's weightiest choices anything less than excruciating.

Consequently, Heavy Rain is arguably the first game that has ever paid proper respect to human life. It is nearly impossible to think of another game that imbues the act of pulling a trigger with so much gravity; if Modern Warfare were this powerful, most players would be suffering from PTSD after one online match. This achievement in and of itself renders Heavy Rain a landmark. Its creators clearly saw an appalling lapse in the morals of most modern games – one that every gamer knows, but upon which few gamers dare to dwell. Within the game's story, this has considerable significance. Every main character in the game can die and, once dead, he or she will stay dead.

The branching storyline is undoubtedly a draw, but it does result in some issues late in the game. One or two scenes will seemingly reference events that never took place in your story, other scenes will appear to be stitched together, so as to accommodate your customized plotline, and certain subplots will go nowhere, presumably because they were meant for players who made different choices. Also, there are a few situations where the game forces the player to do something that should probably have been optional. Technical glitches arise in the later chapters, as well – musical cues misfire, textures pop in and lip synch occasionally flounders. It is all enough to make the game's ending its weakest part.

Depending on the choices you make, the denouement may do little to rectify things. It consists of a series of short, non-interactive scenes that wrap up each plotline. Some are hugely contrived, pointlessly breaching the game's tone. Other possibilities are considerably more satisfying, even if the experience still feels pieced together.

Still, Heavy Rain is largely a consistent experience. The atmosphere that this unnamed Pennsylvania city provides is a huge achievement. Rain is, predictably, constant, but it is also extremely evocative. (Mind you, it has real significance in the plot.) Whether it is the hiss of a downpour on a deserted street or the tapping of individual drops on a dirty windowpane, the sound design keeps the player immersed in this grim, lonely world. All of that is in addition to the great musical score.

Much of the intrigue of Heavy Rain's environments stems from the fact that most of these locations have never before been rendered in a video game. Yet that is hardly where their appeal ends; the game's visuals are invariably blessed with excellent lighting and art design. The Mars home in the first chapter (prior to any of the tragic events) is a beautiful work of modern architecture that uses open spaces to bathe the entire house in warm sunlight – maximizing the contrast in a game where every other scene is dimmed by thick clouds. Ethan's second home is far more grungy, but no less interesting to behold. It perfectly captures the deep grey of the light on a stormy afternoon and, while it certainly reflects Ethan's depression, it is still a believable home – a chalkboard in the kitchen lists his son's daily schedule in a child's handwriting.

Even less pivotal sets are striking; an alcove full of lockers in a train station is a cave of brushed steel and fluorescent light, and a mansion playing host to a party has more passed out cokeheads in it than pieces of furniture, but the abundance of candlelight and pillows gives it an authentically trendy vibe.

The player's experience in these locations is heightened even further by great camera work. The locked camera positions, both while the player is moving freely and when he or she is not, show that David Cage has an eye for composition. Even taking a seat on a whim leads to a series of shots that are wonderful – a long shot past pieces of furniture emphasizes the character's loneliness, or a close-up reveals the distant look on her face. It makes exploring the environments an unexpectedly personal experience.

Action-oriented scenes are equally well-done, using dramatic camera angles to heighten the impact, but never making it harder to play the game. Even effects like the Hitchcock zoom in surreal drug-withdrawal sequences and 24-like split screens during tense standoffs are used quite well. Many have criticized Heavy Rain for being more movie than game, but with someone like Cage at the helm, this is hardly a flaw.

In such a game, the performances are equally important. Heavy Rain bears mixed results in this area. The developers made a strange choice for this game: They cast French and English actors for a story set in Pennsylvania. Some of the actors' performances suffer due to this more than others. Leon Ockenden, as the FBI agent, is affected the most; his voice seems to flounder between ten different accents throughout the game, rendering his performance quite distracting. He has considerable trouble even pronouncing his own character's name and, furthermore, never manages to connect with the emotion of a given scene.

Pascal Langdale's Ethan also has a heavy accent but is, nevertheless, far more successful. His accent is at least consistent (Hey, Pennsylvania surely has a few immigrants, right?) and he gives a decent performance. Only in the early chapters, when he must repeatedly yell his son's name, does he become a bit comical, but this is the director's fault for not getting a larger number of takes. The other two leads, voiced by Sam Douglas and Judi Beecher, manage perfect American accents and turn in good performances. Madison proves a bit flighty during the course of the game, but Beecher provides a dry humor that brings the character down to Earth. Douglas' performance as Shelby is good, as well, sidestepping clichés and giving the dic an earnest, almost paternal, disposition.

The other half of the performances is the extensive motion capture work. It is largely excellent, especially considering that most of it is rendered on-the-fly by the PS3. Characters move quite naturally and allow Cage's great blocking to come through. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fight scenes, which benefit greatly from having real humans' performances and not a set of canned animations.

Facial movements, on the other hand, still show the limitations of the technology. Most of it was captured straight from the actors' voice recording sections. As such, it is clear that a performance is constantly trying to come through on the characters' faces, but it is only occasionally successful; the technology often cannot convey the necessary nuance. Nevertheless, the character models are incredibly detailed and their faces are no exception. This game has far more close-up shots than most others, and suffers less for it than one might think.

This game has flaws, to be sure. Yet it is consistently successful enough to make its impact; there are moments of such raw emotion in Heavy Rain that they will stick in the player's memory for quite some time. This is not only due to their immediate power, but also because Heavy Rain opens up a wellspring of new potential for video games. (This, just months after we saw Uncharted 2 do the very same thing.)

It is natural to assume that "interactive drama" will quickly blossom into a new genre of video games, but I am far more excited to see how Heavy Rain's innovations impact the entire medium. This game overcomes countless challenges that other game developers have long been afraid to tackle – challenges that have been holding back the medium for far too long. In other words, every game that follows Heavy Rain will have little choice but to borrow from it and build upon it.

No comments: