Could Be in Cinema
narrative video games play like movies, and want to make you
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
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.