Tag Archives: heavy rain

Games as Art – Part 4 (David Cage GDC 2011)

3 Mar

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain, questioned the creation of games which are ostensibly for teenagers. (Source: CVG) The focus on killing as sole objective is an aspect of gaming that he disagrees with, in that it fails to engage and tell a story in an interactive manner. Cage makes some very interesting points, looking at the fact that adults are the biggest audience for games now, and that games can use their interactivity to tell a story. Unfortunately for Cage there are a few problems with what he said. Firstly, adults enjoy killing things as much as teens apparently, and in the same way that the most popular movies are simplistic, games are not looked to for their artistic merit by the majority.

For those of us who do look for more from our entertainment, secondly, Heavy Rain, which Cage points to as a more story focused interactive experience, is not all that well plotted in terms of interactivity. Cage deserves an awful lot of credit for attempting to create something so different, but ultimately Heavy Rain has too many flaws to be what he envisioned. The plot is its biggest downfall, more reminiscent of the throwaway thrill of ‘Criminal Minds’ or ‘CSI’ than an intelligent piece of entertainment. It doesn’t answer the question ‘How far would you go for someone you love?’ It is different, it was an exciting few hours and it’s certainly worth playing, but as an example of what gaming could be intellectually and artistically, it falls short.

Cage's Fahrenheit was a far superior game to Heavy Rain

There are, however, some examples of how interactivity and the game format can tell a story in a way a movie, book or any other form of media never could. While Heavy Rain fell back on movie clichés in its storytelling, games like ‘The Last Express’ and’ Facade’ follow a more unique path. These games are far more interesting for the would-be developer than Cage’s creation, and should be held in higher regard amongst gamers. Both games would fail to reach any level of mainstream popularity for different reasons, but one can only hope they become the ‘Velvet Underground’ of gaming. Not many people played them, but everyone who did went on to make a game themselves, to paraphrase.

The Last Express appeared as the adventure game fell from popularity. Created by Prince of Persia developer Jordan Mechner and Smoking Car Productions, it was a perfectly realised period piece. The setting is the Orient Express, the legendary train which travelled from Paris to Constantinople. With characters discussing revolution, and conflict on the lips of most passengers, the pre-Great War setting is stunningly evoked. What makes the game special though, aside from the richly detailed train, is the use of time. The player must travel around the four carriages of the Express, engaging in conversation, looking for clues and trying to piece together exactly why main character Robert Cath is a wanted man attempting to fulfil the revolutionary goals of his murdered friend, Tyler Whitney. The mystery takes a back seat to the characterisation rather quickly, as eavesdropping on conversations reveals more and more about each individual on the train.

The Last Express was an artistic triumph

In using the interactivity of being able to move about the train, Mechner realised a form of storytelling which creates a different experience for each player. In real time it is impossible to hear and see everything, and snippets of overheard discussions of politics shape the way the story pans out. While there is a linear thread holding everything together, there are so many incidental details that the game has far more mysteries than those which affect Cath. The ladies who may be in a relationship, though this is never explicitly stated, the young girl with her sick aristocratic grandfather who meets her childhood friend, now a callous revolutionary, aboard the train, these are the characters which remain with the player long after the game has reached one of its many conclusions. In a book or movie there would either be no time to explore such intricacy, or it would be explicitly available, rather than a wonderful discovery on the player’s part. It is entirely possible to miss all these elements and that is why The Last Express stands above most other games in terms of storytelling nuance, subtlety and interactivity. The reward is not in killing, nor reaching the ending, but discovering the wealth of detail Mechner and his team created.

Facade is similar to Last Express in that it plays out in real time, but this time there is only one room and two characters. The player is faceless and essentially voiceless, simply watching Trip and Grace, a couple the player character is friends with, as their evening descends into soul searching and genuinely affecting relationship breakdown. It’s more like a play than a game, but the player can interject with responses to questions and prodding to influence the flow of their conversation. Multiple endings exist, to the point that after more than ten plays later I have yet to see two the same. Trip and Grace have all the human complexity that is so rare in any form of entertainment, let alone games, slowly revealing truths to each other as they weave through their broken dreams and shattered lives. They can be pushed apart or pulled together, though the player’s input never quite influences things in an obvious manner – Telling them to make up causes them to argue more for example. This is a far cry from the simplicity of most conversation based games, such as Mass Effect.

Grace and Trip have remarkable emotional depth

In telling its story in a manner which allows the player to assume a role, yet in many ways not that which they intend, Facade offers perhaps the most human experience ever seen in an interactive medium. Trip and Grace are far too complex to fully understand after playing through the ten minute experience, and attempting to comprehend their motivations and personalities is compelling. They have more to say in a sigh than most videogame characters manage to grunt out over twenty-plus hours, and that is a tremendous achievement. Without the interactivity this would be a mere stage play, a fleeting glimpse into one part of their relationship, one facade. Giving the player an odd form of control over events allows that facade to be lifted and far more to be revealed than would be were this any other form of media.

Both of these games do something which developers desperately try to and fail in the attempt. All the graphical heft in the world can’t create an immersive world if the player doesn’t feel a part of it. Action games make the player the centre of the universe, a universe where enemies wait for them to arrive only to die in seconds. The problem with this approach is that it’s too formulaic. There is no element of unpredictability to most games. Any surprise is so obviously scripted that an ambush is exactly the same as every other enemy encounter. Immersion requires the player to play a role in the game, yet feel they are part of something bigger. They may be a major player, but there must be that element of a larger world, otherwise the game is just a series of linear levels with the occasional thing that goes ‘boo’. Bungie, for all their faults, knew this when creating Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s disappointing they seem to have forgotten along the way, but Halo was brilliant because Master Chief, overpowered as he was, merely acted as a cog in a greater machine.

Heavy Rain was occasionally rather immature

Last Express and Facade both made use of this element, that the player could influence the story yet it would play on without them, perfectly. Adding real time to this only made the premise more convincing. Gamers often discuss what is and is not ‘art’ in a game. For gaming to truly be considered art, the medium must create a method of storytelling truly distinct from others, and in Facade and Last Express it has. Through offering the player the chance to prod the story along, change its course or merely watch it play out, gaming can carve out a creative niche that cannot be filled by any other type of entertainment. The problem with this is, since adults seem to enjoy ‘teenage’ games, Cage stating that you can create games for adults is just a whisper in the ocean of noise that is the games industry, and money will always shout loudest.

It’s not that these games don’t exist, but Last Express bankrupted the developers and Facade saw more praise from the art community than from gamers. Cage may have done something somewhat different, but it ended up being a heavily marketed, dumbed down thriller which failed to truly innovate, falling into the same routines he criticised other games for. It was not the meaningful game he claims, truth be told and I can only imagine he had to compromise heavily to gain the kind of push Sony gave Heavy Rain. Any developer with a true artistic vision will be hampered by the same problems, the need to create a game with broader appeal. Those who want to break that mould only have to look at the failure of The Last Express to see where creativity, intelligence and vision lead. Even Cage’s own Fahrenheit, which was far superior to Heavy Rain, saw far less success. I agree with Cage completely, games need to be more mature, but they also need to draw the player into the world, rather than making them a casual spectator, as Heavy Rain ultimately did.


Games as Art – Part 3

3 Feb

Games are not movies. It’s obvious isn’t it, not a fact that escapes anyone? Well, not really, no. Developers, especially in the current generation of games, but going back to early titles like Dragon’s Lair, have sought to emulate the on-screen excitement of a big-budget blockbuster. Prime examples are some of the most successful current generation titles, and some of the most critically acclaimed. This is a worrying trend in some ways. While it creates a game that feels like an exciting rollercoaster ride, it also removes any hint of substance from proceedings. There is opportunity to explore storytelling possibilities, yes, but only through cut-scenes. This is redundant, it’s almost as if the developer and writer wanted to make a film and decided to throw in a few interactive sequences.

I’ve read many times that the sequence in Call of Duty 4, in which you crawl from a helicopter destroyed by a nuclear explosion, is pivotal, wonderful and dramatic. It’s not though, it’s a pointless attempt to use interactivity to add drama to the moment, but it amounts to pushing ‘up’ on the controller or keyboard. It looks great, genuinely like a movie, but it’s a game, and the vague reminder that we need to keep pressure on the controls is hardly using that to help tell any story. If Gradius had an overblown and complex plot, would anyone have cared? Of course not, it’s a shooting game. So is Call of Duty, but with the graphical power at developers fingertips they can make it more than that. But why bother? A poor version of a Tom Clancy adaptation is hardly going to keep me playing, the gameplay does, same as in the past, and enough of its audience are quite content with explosions as drama.

It makes sense that games turned to Hollywood for inspiration, to be fair. We do a lot of shooting, running and jumping, it’s like playing the action hero. Alongside Call of Duty; Uncharted, Gears of War and many others give the player the feeling that they are the hero of a Michael Bay movie. It’s fun, I won’t deny that, but again, that’s the gameplay. The stories are poorly acted (Lester Speight aside) and poorly written, merely tacked on as a sort of reward to the player, some vague sense of progress in lieu of a high-score. A phoned-in celebrity voice cast is usually enough to gain high praise though, and so we rarely see much better in that sense either. Big explosions, set-pieces which involve the player’s character, but are purely background are exciting, but at this point it’s easy to ignore them, games are over-saturated with these movie moments and ultimately, they add little to the overall experience unless used extremely sparingly.

I suppose though, for once, I should give Infinity Ward a little credit. They did attempt to use the interactivity of the medium to make a dramatic and powerful statement with ‘No Russian’ in Modern Warfare 2. It turned out to be one of the most pointless and heavy-handed pieces of storytelling since ‘P.S. I Love You’ was adapted for the screen, but they tried. The problem wasn’t the lack of choice, that would have made no sense in context, but the lack of development. Thrust into the body of character who the player is in no way familiar with, to then be told to shoot civilians in an airport, should have had a little more exposition than a loading screen debrief, but what followed was far worse. Immediately after the killing spree, your character is shot and killed. No warning, no plot advancement, just shot in the face. A character who should have spent the rest of the game agonising over the choice he was forced to make was simply removed. A few levels later and I’m breaking some sort of Sergeant Major from the Boer War out of a prison in Russia, with all the drama that entails. I had to google the character after the big identity reveal, and I’d finished CoD4. As I said, the story is pointless. But again, I’ll give IW some credit, it was an interesting experiment, and had they invested in some actual writers it may have been tremendously successful and a real statement about the power of games to speak to us.

2010 saw the release of Heavy Rain, which almost overnight became the poster child for the kind of interactive storytelling which could be unique to games. It had a lot of promise, but ultimately in its rigid structure, which sought too much to emulate movies, it failed to offer the kind of experience it’s creator, David Cage, was so sure it could. The controls were well implemented, and I don’t necessarily think that games need a challenge. The fact that some characters could die and the game would continue was a brilliant concept. The execution was let down in the lack of any real emotional depth. The plot was closer to Criminal Minds than a classic thriller and attempts to be ‘edgy’ came across as crude and somewhat ill-advised. Was it really necessary, for example, to have the female lead strip to escape her captors? Surely the option to simply refuse immediately, rather than drag it out would have made sense, and offered a far more empowered and interesting character. In following the plot and inevitable the cliches of the movies, Heavy Rain simply failed to deliver an interactive experience of any more depth than a choose your own adventure book. It was a compelling way to spend a few hours, but only in the same way it’s often enjoyable to sit down and watch a few episodes of a favourite TV series, or a movie franchise. In the end all the choices led to were varying over dramatic endings, we assume they’re meant to seem intelligent because they’re all depressing. A lost opportunity perhaps, but not the direction games should go in order to take advantage of what makes them unique.

The problem with games is that for the most part they fail to capitalise on their interactivity. Moral choices are nice, but never really live up to their hype, always falling into the trap of black and white decisions. Give the homeless man a bottle of water, or set him on fire and eat his charred remains. What games can do though, is use the fact that we have input to create something altogether different to a movie. As much as I say Bioshock had an over-rated story, and it does, the ending was something that no other medium could offer. That, for me, was an incredible triumph. Games can tell a story that even the greatest novel never could, and like all great art, makes us think about ourselves and the world, but more so how we engage with that world. Interactivity is a tool which is rarely used for anything other than allowing us to shoot the bad guys, there is no other choice. Games like infamous may ask whether we want to be naughty or nice, but ultimately, we still kill the bad guys. When a game asks us why we do this, the violence suddenly seems all too real, it’s not Bruce Willis or Arnie killing indiscriminately, it’s you. Even the greatest novel can never say ‘you’re a killer, but why?’ A game can.

Developers have very occasionally used this power to aid their storytelling, and it’s a disappointment. The few which have, as ‘No Russian’ has shown, are hit and miss. Shadow of the Colossus might be the best example of what a game can ask, because great art doesn’t just tell stories, it asks questions. Killing the Colossi, the enormous beasts which wander serenely through a barren land, makes the player feel evil, it’s almost depressing. You quickly start to question your motivation, and whether the entity which guides you to kill in order to save the girl is truly on your side. This hasn’t stopped players from adoring it, the bleak atmosphere is beautifully imagined, and the gameplay is wonderful. These things make it compelling to play, but the moment you see that awful black liquid streaming from what was once a peaceful giant is harrowing. It’s an incredible way to use a game, and it reveals to us as players the role we are playing in shaping the world we inhabit for that all too brief period. It should, by all accounts, put us off, but it’s almost complete silence begs so many questions. The answers are never the right ones, or the ones we want, but that’s not the point, it says so much more than shooting non-descript Middle Eastern and Russian people ever could, and that’s without sacrificing gameplay or graphics. Games have an incredible position, a wide audience, and a means of storytelling that’s as yet hardly been explored. They are primed to be the next great storytelling medium, as long as games like SOTC continue to be made, and continue to sell well enough to encourage others to go further with how they use that medium.