Monthly Archives: January 2013

Heavy Rain & Player Agency

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I’ll be posting various thoughts and writings here. The following is an excerpt from something I recently wrote for a game narrative course.

The primary difference between Heavy Rain and an overtly choice-driven game like The Walking Dead is the nature of the bulk of interactivity. In Heavy Rain, interactions are generally carried out in the form of viscerally appealing movements that directly correspond to character actions, as opposed to cerebral moral decisions that by their nature branch the story. For example, during the prologue, players are tasked with moving the joystick to the side at a certain rate in order to set down plates without breaking them. There is zero apparent story implication for whether this is done correctly, nor is this necessarily compelling gameplay in the classical sense. The plate moving sequence is not a ludic puzzle, and it is not a branch point for the story; it can be read as one of two things. The first is as an attempt to create a sense of embodiment on the part of the player, and to increase the player’s investment in the controlled character by having them emulate mundane actions using a natural interface. The second is to give players a chance to subtly influence the tenor and details of a given scene. It is as if the player is given access to a set of different takes, and gets to mix and match them realtime in order to produce the one they prefer. This can be contrasted with The Walking Dead, which generally pares down interaction to either gameplay that is compelling on its own (i.e. shooting zombies, hunting for puzzle pieces, etc.), or moral decisions that influence the storyline. In Heavy Rain casts the player almost like the director, as opposed to a particular character. As the player, one possible goal is to experience the pre-crafted story in the most cinematic way possible- as interactor, your goal is often to make sure nothing ridiculous and immersion-breaking happens (for example, walking into a wall during a dramatic moment), so that the story can play out as if it were a well- directed film. The multi-character approach of Heavy Rain also leads to a reading of the player as director- you are able to engage yourself primarily at a physical level that provides neither satisfying gameplay nor narrative consequence in order to change the outward appearance of a given scene. By contrast, in The Walking Dead the player follows a single character closely, but without the literal interaction details. Essentially, this means that the player experience is closer to that of an adventure game; the player inhabits or role-plays the main character, and their main goal is to provide moral and ethically consistent behavior for the character. This is the task of a screenwriter or original author- answering the question: ‘would this character do that?’
In addition to this difference in core gameplay, the way Heavy Rain is presented- camera angles, splitscreen segments, and other filmic qualities- leads to the sensation that one is controlling how a film takes place. This outward focus on ‘cinematography’ both lends the game credibility as an interactive film and limits its potential as a new kind of narrative-driven game. That is to say, there is a concept that the proceedings are being filmed in some way, which at times can be read as an extra-diegetic element. In contrast, The Walking Dead casts on the player partially as story author and partially as protagonist, allowing the player to focus on important character moments without worrying about whether the nuances of the stage direction (animation speed, timing, ordering of some dialogue) are appropriate. Heavy Rain actually allows control over its characters at a more granular level- the interactor can have a character get dressed, turn the television on and off, brush their teeth, juggle, etc. The game hopes that, when all of these small interactions are taken in aggregate, the effect will be feelings of immersion, embodiment, and visceral agency. In short, The Walking Dead tries to be partially a game and partially a story- authorship tool in which the goal is to navigate difficult situations while maintaining a consistent character, while Heavy Rain can be read as a guided film, with the player taking the role of stage director as opposed to script author.