Disclaimer/Warning: If you haven’t and want to play the game, do not read this until you finish. Go in like I did – with zero expectations, only hope and a ghost of knowledge. I swear it will be worth it.
I’m going to start with my initial experience of the game during the first ‘chapter’, analyze how Heavy Rain created enchantment in three main ways: narrative, sensual, and interactive, and then discuss the issues of agency and emotion in such a narrative driven experience. Enjoy!
Meeting Ethan Mars
At seven thirty last night I fought Heavy Rain out of its plastic suit, turned off the lights in my apartment, and settled in. The very first thing the game asks is that you find the square paper that came inside the game box. Fourth wall play, but very cool. I found a textured, raggedy looking square of paper with blood-dipped corners and scrawled handwriting. As the installation progress bar ticked away, the game gave me instructions to fold, pull, and crease my own Heavy Rain crow. One of the keys to enchantment (whenever I mention this I’m basing it on McCarthy et al’s 2004 research and my thesis paper) is the particular sensuousness of each item, its appeal to touch, sight, scent, sound and taste. In its first five minutes Heavy Rain already moved beyond most games’ reach: vibration, unpredictable TV screen, sound system. I could physically feel the paper, get the immediate full sensory feedback that only reality can offer. Before the game even began I was already caught, hook line and sinker.
The game starts with Ethan Mars waking up and starting his day, introducing you to the controls as you go about your morning routine and explore your home. You can control the animation speed of actions and gestures with the left stick, or trigger simple actions with a quick flick or quarter turn.These “mini-gestures” correspond surprisingly well to what you’re doing in game. Pulling on your pants? Slide the stick up. Opening the medicine cabinet? Push the stick up and rotate it to the left. Grabbing your toothbrush? Just X. Perhaps the most curious was “Hold R2 to walk” – completely different from any other control schematic I’ve seen. And it worked. Not perfectly 100% of the time, but it worked.
In the same way that a square with a triangle on top is a perfectly acceptable icon of a home, the controller actions were individually chosen to represent what would happen in the game. The body’s perception of its own placement (proprioception) is incredibly easy to trick: sight always takes precedence. In this case, even though my physical actions with the controller were very small, the correlation made it feel like I was performing the actions on the screen. My tiny gestures were icons representing the real actions on screen – but unlike most games (A to jump, anyone?), every action had a custom gesture. They all made inherent, instinctive sense. Interactive enchantment.
The other element that struck me right off the bat was the closeness of character. In most games, you don’t see your character’s personal life. You see the big things. You fight battles with them. You hear their conversations. But by and large it’s public and impersonal. I was introduced to Ethan when he was sleeping. I watched him wander his house in his briefs, brush his teeth (brushed them even, with the help of the accelerometer). I saw him undress, shower. I watched his private, shameless nudity. I unzipped his fly and had him go to the bathroom. This is self or spousal level intimacy. This is a side of characters you just don’t see. Can you imagine dressing Commander Shepard in the morning? If you met him in nothing but his underwear? It was personal, vulnerable, and real. It made me feel close to Ethan in ways I’d never experienced before. Not in a game.
After some time alone, the kids and your wife return home. When Jason and Shaun ran up to me and threw their arms around my neck, I felt a twinge in my chest. What was that? I tousled their hair, went outside to play with them. My god, did I want to make them happy. They said ‘play with us!’ ‘show us how strong you are!’ and I wanted nothing more than to give those kids everything they wanted. It was a far deeper yearning than any boss fight had ever stirred. I’d never wanted to kill anything as much as I wanted to impress my children. I play fought with them, purposefully failing a few actions and gestures to let them win. I pounded on the X key to lift them up over my head, and delighted in their chortling enjoyment – ‘you’re so strong dad!’. We went inside and had dinner as a family – that twinge came back, that pang that made my chest ache and my heart heavy.
I loved them.
Not twenty minutes into the game, and I loved them. They were my family. They were everything.
You mentioned enchantment?
Here’s how the Heavy Rain experience broke down for me, with the rest of the game following the precedent set by the prologue:
1. Narrative Enchantment: Engaged and invested in characters based on closeness/emotional intimacy cultivated by:
= physical appearance (Ethan in his briefs, Jayden with his trypto)
= scenario (spoiler, spoiler, and spoiler)
= what actions you can take (swinging your children around, holding your wife, shaving)
2. Sensual Enchantment: Immersed in a dimensional, emotionally riveting world cultivated by:
= almost photo-realistic visuals
= motion captured animations
= well crafted sound design
= professional score + real orchestration
= visually detailed and unique settings and plot elements
3. Interactive Enchantment: Physically engaged and connected to in-game actions cultivated by:
= single + multi-button presses, holds, and mashes, gradual motion, joystick gestures, and tri-axis accelerometer all seamlessly incorporated
= sight-enhanced proprioception (the mental gap between pressing button + causing action is significantly decreased)
= dynamic UI that mimicked the emotional state of the characters (shaking choices => harder to read, panic)
= ie: how you took actions (as opposed to narrative “what actions”)
Agency in an Adult Game
If headlines are any guide, one huge issue people had with Heavy Rain was the lack of control or agency – you didn’t feel like what you did actually mattered. I didn’t experience this at all, but it is one reason I don’t know if I’ll play Heavy Rain again. If I play it again, I might be exposed to how little my choices and performance the first time through mattered. I’ll start to understand how they calculate the endings – the enchantment will be broken (Part of enchantment is a sense of mystery and wonder – an ‘unknowing’). Even if I actually didn’t have much impact on the storyline, the illusion was there, and that’s all that mattered.
While I can see how people would cry ‘no agency’ I wonder how much of the game they played, because I never felt railroaded except for once, and that one time was poignant and vivid explicitly because I had no control. Finding myself unable to do anything but exactly what I didn’t want to do was powerful and moving. I had to act completely contrary to my goals, or stop playing, and the latter wasn’t an option. Regardless, I never felt truly railroaded. Despite how hard I tried to perform the right actions at the right time, I still missed several of them – I even botched a few scenes (burn ointment on cuts does not get you very far). The music and action sequences made me so harried I couldn’t think straight, and the resulting UI jitters (one of my favorite little details) didn’t help. Several times I assumed the game was over, that I had irrevocably failed, but it never ended. It kept going, taking all of my mistakes into account, just like real life. To me, that is more open ended and gives me more agency than any other game I played. Everywhere else, if I fail the game restarts – you must win, succeed, etc to continue. Heavy Rain didn’t hold me to that. You failed? We all do. Here is the consequence, and let’s continue.
Which brings me to another joy: normally in games I am a 100% completionist – I like to know every corner of my location, explore every niche, find everything I can possibly do. Heavy Rain wasn’t like that, and while the game did turn me around twice when I went beyond the borders, I never felt the need to ceaselessly explore and never felt trapped. There was no desire to collect or hoard – just to experience. I flowed through. Maybe I missed out on a multitude of locations and actions- but I didn’t care. This was a game about life – and in life you can’t explore every niche of the map. You’re going to miss out on things. That’s just how it is.
Most children and teenagers I think have a hard time dealing with that. It’s a loss of control, and normally the joy of games comes from control. But this was very pointedly not a game for children or teeangers. The subject matter, the emotional depth, the character you play and the problems you face are all focused for a mature audience. This wasn’t a game about killing, shooting, saving the world. This was a game about a father who lost his family and the stretches he was willing to go to get his child back. This was a human story. This was a life game, an interactive drama, a moving, emotional piece of art. There are decisions you have to make and actions you have to take that just hurt. Physically jerk the controller down and you’re slicing off your finger, choose which life you need to take, and whether you’re willing to give up your own.
At the end of Six Inches
Heavy Rain was everything I had been waiting for. It is a game for adults, tackling real emotional issues, and it does so with a finesse of UI and deep understanding of the tactile and proprioceptive properties of human perception. It introduces a level of player/character intimacy never seen before with a fully orchestrated score and graphics so strikingly realistic there were several moments I sat back in shock thinking ‘that could have been real’. Heavy Rain is a leap forward for interactive media – it is not something every game should aspire to, not by a long shot – but it is proof that games can be every bit as evocative, inspirational, and beautiful as the other classic arts. I played through the entire game in one sitting, nine hours start to finish that felt completely timeless, and I doubt I’ll ever forget the spectrum of emotions Heavy Rain evoked in me.