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You Could Be in Cinema

New narrative video games play like movies, and want to make you feel

By David King

ĎVirtual DramaĒóitís the new catchphrase in video games, coined by director David Cage for his creation Heavy Rain. Yes, thatís right; video games have directors. In the case of Heavy Rain, this fact is far more appropriate than for other games because Heavy Rain fancies itself a bit more cinema than game. And it takes itself fairly seriously. It wants to make you feel. It wants to make you cry.

Fashioned in the noir style, Heavy Rain allows gamers to take part in a virtual movie. Through the eyes of a number of characters, the player helps unravel the mystery of the Origami Killer, some nutjob with a daddy complex who is drowning kids around the city.

This isnít just cops and robbers. Ethan Mars, the main character, begins the game as a happily married father of two. The player helps Mars act out his daily routine, take a shower, get the house ready for his sonís birthday party, etc. When Marsí son Shaun goes missing at the mall, his world turns upside down, his marriage falls apart, and the player is left trying to navigate the routine of a single father: trying to balance his remaining sonís TV time with homework, making sure he feeds him a nutritious meal he will actually like, and getting him to bed on time so that his mom wonít yell. The player also inhabits the roles of Scott Shelby (a retired detective working as a private eye), Norman Jayden (an FBI agent) and Madison Paige (a photojournalist), who are all somehow involved in the Origami murders.

The story changes depending on how the player accomplishes certain sequences: rocking a baby to sleep, driving at high speed down the wrong side of the highway, interrogating witnesses and trying to prevent a holdup at a convenience store. The simple tasks actually become the most intriguing. As the gamer/viewer, you yearn to know what a mistake will mean to the characters around you. How will you be punished for keeping the baby awake, not making your son do his homework, or failing to stop the robbery?

Main characters can die in Heavy Rain; those are consequences you can see. As Mars goes to great, sometimes self-destructive lengths to save his son, you see his mental state collapse and the wounds and bruises he accumulates. That is where the game succeeds in making you care. Watching a parent suffer is a cheap way to pull at heartstrings. Killing puppies would have perhaps been a more direct way. Itís when the drama really hits the fan that the game fails miserably. As the twisted story develops, it becomes less L.A. Confidential or Seven and more a Lifetime drama, or the kind of direct-to-DVD crap Mickey Rourke was making before his career resurgence. Absurd twists and turns abound and, at one point, the game even veers into loathsome, misogynistic Skinemax territory when the player controls character Madison Paige. There is the obligatory shower scene the player controls, a scene where Paige, looking for information from a gang boss, ends up stripping to get out of a tight spot, and even a very clumsy sex scene.

During all this, the player is directed to make fairly simple actions on the controller to further the scene. Screw up and sometimes you get to try again; other times the slightest mistake lands you in deep water. My girlfriend said the game play looked boring. She hates games, but she was right.

But the biggest failure of Heavy Rain is the part that matters the most: the acting. Game producer Quantic Dream is based in France, and the actors are cursed with odd accents and terrible line delivery. When the cinematography works and the scene makes sense, there is always a man with a Swedish accent doing his best Guido from Brooklyn impression, and it just doesnít work.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of Cageís vision is that he has said in interviews that he hopes players will play the game only once. If Cage had succeeded and the player felt the consequence of all of their actions, saw them unfold before their eyes, there would be no need for a second round of play to see how different actions change the story. But Cage selectively delivers consequences to allow the game to progress, and it feels cheap and hollow. Interactive drama may be the future of games, but it isnít Cage who is getting gaming there.

Recent Rock Star Games release Red Dead Redemption, which does not take itself nearly as seriously as Heavy Rain and retains far more video-game traits than the former, lets players explore and interact with their own spaghetti western in the role of John Marston, a former outlaw tasked by the government to capture or kill his former gangmates.

Through satire, drama, impeccable settings and unbelievably great acting, Red Dead Redemption tells the story of American development and the love affair with greed that helped shape the country. The game deals with reliance on technology, capitalism, racism and the destruction of the environment. The new trains running through the West are menacing. The animals are plentiful, so why not kill as many as you can for their fur and leave the corpses to rot? And why not scare a man off his property to encourage development?

Marston, in true video-game and American tradition, can blow everything away: rabbits, birds, coyotes, bandits, outlaws, everyday citizens; and he can take whatever he wants. But his mission is ever-present in the knowledge that his wife and child are captive and waiting for him to succeed. Itís up to the player to decide how important it is to accomplish the mission while retaining a piece of Marstonís soul.

The story at times is chilling: Riding around at night with the birds chirping and my horse neighing, a chugging, rattling train in the distance and the sound of hollering patrons at a nearby house of ill repute, I realized that, had the game been an installation at RPI (similar to Wafaa Bilalís infamous Virtual Jihadi), the administration probably would have kicked it off campus, and the city of Troy might have shut down the Sanctuary for Independent Media for some bullshit codes violations just to make sure it didnít corrupt anyone there. It is that damn subversive, and probably the closest a game will come to properly mimicking cinema for quite some time.

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