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Persuasive Games: The Picnic Spoils the Rain

May 6, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Ian Bogost looks at Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain in the context of film and cinematography's history -- including spoilers for the critically acclaimed PlayStation 3 game -- to explain why he feels the game, billed as an "interactive film," is not quite that.]

Heavy Rain is not an interactive film.

I know that's what its creators were after, and I know that's how it's been pitched to the market, and I know it's been critiqued as both a successful and an unsuccessful implementation of that goal.

To understand why the game is not a playable film, it's important to review what makes film unique as an art form. There are conflicting opinions, of course, but one stands out: film is editing.

Soviet filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov first suggested editing as film's primary quality.

His well-known "Kuleshov Effect" seemed to prove the point: in the experiment, Kuleshov cut between the expressionless shot of a famous Russian silent film actor (Ivan Mozzhukhin) and a variety of other shots: a young woman reposed on a chaise, a child in a coffin, a bowl of soup.

Even though the shot of Mozzhukhin's face remained identical with each cut, the audience made different assumptions about the meaning of his expression.

Kuleshov's influential pupil Sergei Eisenstein believed it too, arguing that editing techniques (particularly montage) made it uniquely possible for cinema to link seemingly unrelated images through juxtaposition.

The Soviets weren't alone in their reverence of editing. D.W. Griffith's early work made strong use of editing and cross-cutting, for example. And as the years and then the decades passed, editing only increased in importance. Stanley Kubrik adopted Kuleshov's position more or less directly. Francis Ford Coppola has said this about the practice:

"The essence of cinema is editing. It's the combination of what can be extraordinary images, images of people during emotional moments, or just images in a general sense, but put together in a kind of alchemy. A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually."

Indeed, editing has become an ever more important tool in filmmaking. The use of jump cuts (edits that disrupt the continuity of a sequence) and quick cuts (rapid edits that increase the pace of a sequence) have become ever more common and familiar as action films and television have increased creators' reliance on editing as a central cinematic aesthetic.

But generally, video games don't have cinematic editing. They can't, because continuity of action is essential to interactive media. In fact, that continuity is so important that most games (3D games, anyway) give the player direct control over the camera, allowing total manipulation of what is seen and from what vantage point.

Perhaps, if we're being particularly generous toward cinema, we could count shifts in fixed-camera views in games like Heavy Rain and Metal Gear Solid as a type of jump cut, since the action is disrupted rather than continuous. But in most of these cases, shifts in camera correspond only with changes in location, not changes in the way a video game mediates the player's relationship to space or action or theme.

Survival horror games offer the best specimen of film-like editing in games. By holding the camera hostage, games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill remove player control, a technique needed to create tension and fear. The best example of this effect through camera editing alone might be Fatal Frame 2, which creates an effective sense of simultaneous familiarity and dread as the player moves through rooms of the possessed homes in a village.

In modern cinema, edits move action forward. Films are short compared to games, for one thing, but more importantly, editing helps a filmmaker focus the viewer's attention on important plot elements through abstraction. For example, instead of showing a character get ready and leave for work, a few rapid quick cuts can communicate the same information more efficiently: closet door opens, fingers button shirt, hand grabs keys, car backs out of driveway.

Like many interactive narratives, Heavy Rain appears to adopt the practice filmic editing by allowing the player to control how sequences of narrative appear based on quick-time event (QTE) actions. In this respect, it follows in a long lineage of titles starting with Dragon's Lair.

But that similarity is a foil. Instead, the most important feature of Heavy Rain, the design choice that makes it more important than any other game in separating from rather than drawing games toward film, is its rejection of editing in favor of prolonging.

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Quinton Klabon
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The more melodramatic among us has, I think, already done this in other games. How many odes to Okami mention such exploratory moments? I'm sure I'm not the only one who lingered around Cid's body with Celes in Final Fantasy VI. I've organized in-battle storylines by dawdling and reconstituting in Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Heavy Rain hasn't planned for such moments so it doesn't reward/penalize players for them. Even special animations could be motivation in this example. Other graphic adventure games, especially Sierra ones, have done that with plot points and, depending on your standards, emotions. Virtual play-acting seems like a peculiar thing to praise for its own sake.

Joseph Cassano
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Very nice piece.

I've always embraced the ability to be mundane in games. Mundanity is a very powerful method of helping to make characters more relatable in any medium as everyone has mundane chores to go through every day. In film, you are merely viewing a world, so things can be shortened and edited. In a game, though, you are to be IN the world, and to truly feel like it IS a world, one needs to be able to be mundane at times; no true world is all excitement all the time.

That being said, from a design standpoint, mundanity should only be forced if it serves a direct purpose for what you are trying to convey. Otherwise, I think the mundane choices should be generally optional.

Lance Burkett
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"mundanity should only be forced if it serves a direct purpose for what you are trying to convey. Otherwise, I think the mundane choices should be generally optional."

If these mundane objects are only there to serve a particular purpose in narrative, then it is hardly mundane at all. Logical mechanics provide a more immersive experience than functional mechanics.

David Keyworth
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Having closely taken to heart the teachings of Half-Life 2's commentary features, I'd argue there ARE ways of successfully achieving the camera angles and "cuts" wanted through control of the player; the "guiding hand" if you will. There is an instance in Episode 1 in which you're running out of the citadel, and a dropship behind you attempts to take off, but crashes. In order to be sure players saw it, they had a combine soldier fire briefly at them from that direction, convincing players to turn around.

You have the same sentiments as I; that there are tricks up the game designer's sleeve very different from the director's bag of tricks. The key is in knowing when to use each, similar to how a director might do things.

That "mundanity" Joseph mentioned actually works well from a gameplay standpoint as well; in any game, action should always be punctuated by rest periods. One thing that always bugged me about the Call of Duty games...

Tom Newman
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Great article! I have always described Heavy Rain as a cross between Dragon's Lair and Simon, and don't recognize it as a game or interactive film.

Ian Bogost
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Oh, there are plenty of precedents, no doubt. And I agree that Heavy Rain doesn't exactly plan for these moments, which is all the more reason why it fascinates me that they appear to be the most interesting ones.


Certainly there is a risk that the mundane creeps into the realm of conceptual art. I'm certainly pushing the limits of this in some of my games (e.g. A Slow Year), but that's also a helpful process: we may need some extreme boredom and then self-correct. The issue with making them entirely optional is that players might not find them at all... a problem if (as I'm arguing here) a major chunk of meaning is bound up in them.


Hopefully we're getting better and better at thinking about the formal properties of different media and how to translate them into (and out of!) games.


A lovely shorthand :). Here's the question, then: how do the spaces created from oscillations between Dragon's Lair and Simon produce an experience different from either?


Joseph Cassano
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In regards to making some mundanities optional:

I think it satisfies those who want to actively experience the mundane and those that don't. If you think a specific mundanity is important, then make it forced (like showering Ethan in Heavy Rain; it can't be avoided). If a certain mundanity is not essential, but still interesting, make it optional (like Ethan doing his work in the opening scene of Heavy Rain; you can completely avoid his work if you choose, but doing it adds a dimension to the character).

I think it's an issue of what a designer needs/wants to convey versus player discovery. Sometimes, one choice is better than another.

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Heavy rain still miss some major concept not to be cinematic but to rival film language.

The first problem is character development: Choice is not about branching story but about revealing character, the game should have been build with choice that let the player inform the game more about his "variation" of the character he is controlling. If we see this like that it help have better coherence in the unfolding of the scene and understanding of the technic power. Because there is stake for the character choice would follow the handle of these stake and help nuance the character based on these choice and they would remain thematically coherent.

Second problem: Editing and framing are underused in video games surely, it's not well understood as a language, despite some very interesting use. In zelda 64 the first boss forced the player to go into 1st person view to trigger the encounter, the player is "editing" the sequence but the designer anticipate the mechanics and doubles it as an narrative technic. Warp are usually as ellipse, or Jrpg battle mode work like a more focused (framed) situation, they are basically close up. The level of granularity however is weak. Re4 for example is interesting because when caught by an enemy the camera change is point of view to better frame the situation without taking control out of the player, also the frame change when in shooter mode or in navigation mode and that convey some information.

3rd problem control as frame: This is the unique element of game, player exist in both side of the fourth wall. Cinema and photography distinguish themselves from theater and real world by their ability to frame things meaningfully. In video games "framing" can also be achieve into control. In the RE4 exemple, not only the frame change while the player is getting caught, highlighting a change in the narration (more danger) and in gameplay, the control also is altered a little, the attack button no longer shoot but evacuate the player from the threat. At the same time this attack button change his acion according to distance to enemy, long range and the player shoot, shorter range and he kick, if it was more narratively charged it would be the same as a closer or longer shoot (ie intimate or formal). Some people equate this to "mini games" and dismiss this as a valid technics, but it hold power as it can made the control more focused to what happen to a certain situation. In heavy rain, there is times where the prompt is a true narrative choice and not a challenge, for example when character loose temper, it serve both as a signal of his internal feelings (then a narrative information) and a choice to build character (punch the guy or calm yourself).

Narrative are, in terms of gameplay, puzzle it's about collecting clue and making inference. Choice bring a new level of narrative possibility in term of character building and playing with the thematic stake. But most game so far use these technics to show physical prowess or branching action flow. Because they do not highlight the narrative they are still fail to surpass cinematic technics, which they would fortunately in some future.

Quinton Klabon
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I see we agree, then. Check out Love-De-Lic's (and their spinoffs') games for those that DO reward "acted" behavior.

Adrian Forest
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This would seem to imply that games can *never* be interactive cinema as classically defined, due to the necessity of continuity of action.

Rik Spruitenburg
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I see Heavy Rain not so much as letting us edit the film as letting us act in it. Does Ethan drink the beer or the Orange Juice? The choice is up to me to try and interpret the role in the room the director has left me.

Pascal Langdale
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Good article, now tweeted...

I've noted the differences between film editing and the editing in Heavy Rain, as I come from a more formal acting background. What seems clear, though, is that film and game industries cannot assume they have all the answers yet when it comes to increasingly convergent games.

Convergence here should mean adaptation or novel invention of solutions to common challenges. Gaming and film/TV industries are proud industries, and convergence requires risk and a certain humility. I believe any such efforts should be applauded, and criticised on this level - much as your article does.

However, I also believe that "interactive movie" or "interactive drama" is a bit of misnomer, and doesn't aid this new genre in defining its own identity and therefore its own narrative language: your "extension" for example.

I'm proposing a new generic term: "Empathy Game". This could include any game that relies on empathy to underpin the immersive experience, and suggests a certain independence. (I go into greater depth on this on my blog at

Ian Bogost
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Thanks for reading. I'd tend to agree that adaptation is the way to think about shifting other media into (and out of) games. I've bookmarked your page to read more about your "empathy game" suggestion.

Richard MacDonald
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Great article. While I find myself agreeing with it for the most part, there is one thing stuck in my mind. Why can't a movie be about prolonging the experience? I find that Miyazaki movies are a great example of foregoing editing in favor of immersion, and perhaps nothing fits better than My Neighbor Totoro. The entire story is about a father and his two daughters who move to a new home, where the girls encounter and befriend some forest spirits. Upon learning that their mother, who is in the hospital, isn't well enough to come home for the weekend, the younger daughter runs away from home and the older daughter must find her with the help of the forest spirits. That's the entire movie. There's more going on in a 22-minute long episode of The Simpsons. This movie is about an hour and a half of nothing important happening.

It's one of my favorite movies, however, simply because it does such a great job of immersing the viewer into the quiet village in the Japanese countryside. The girls run through the fields, crawl through bushes and walk around in the rain. While I've never been to Japan, it is a nostalgic experience for me every time I watch it since my childhood was quite similar, minus the magical forest creatures. It communicates the beauty and serenity of simply being outside on a beautiful day unlike any other movie I've ever seen, and it does this by showing way more than is needed to simply understand what's happening (and also being brilliantly animated), similar to how Heavy Rain communicates the horror of a lost child or the emptiness felt once that child is gone.

I suppose, then, I don't actually agree. If Totoro is a movie, why can't Heavy Rain be whatever it is? Admittedly, though, "interactive movie" kind of bugs me. I really like "empathy game" even if some would argue that, technically, a game must have winning and losing conditions. That's why I propose a new term to replace "videogame." I propose "diddlywhatsits." Heavy Rain can be an "empathy diddlywhatsits." Finally people can stop worrying about the categorization of their thingies and dealies and get on with what's truly important. Sandwiches.

driver 01z
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"I'm sure I'm not the only one who lingered around Cid's body with Celes in Final Fantasy VI."

Indeed - I have done things like this in the past, though not as much now... I still walk slowly through game worlds rather than run if the scenery is pretty - not sure if that counts.

Emanuel Montero
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Great article and very interesting discussion. Still I think Heavy Rain is not trying to be interactive film but interactive storytelling. In my opinion, it does not achieve either of the two. Anyways it's good to see someone is trying.

Ian Bogost
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It's true that long takes are a kind of editing! Although the kind of films you're talking about (which I also very much enjoy) are one example, and so are the experimental films of, say, Warhol. But many of these aren't works that that the average person considers filmic, perhaps. "Interactive film" seems pointed squarely at traditional filmic storytelling, and perhaps that's part of the problem. Mmm, sandwiches.

Josh Larson
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Interesting post, Ian! So what about Tarkovsky? His films are known specifically for their long pauses. I do agree that part of the essence of film is in editing, though. But in order to find some sort of essence of any art form, you have to look at what makes it distinct.

In film, you use a movie camera to record images onto a roll of film that you have to cut into pieces and put together. Therefore the distinction lies in the use of a camera, a sequence of images, and the assembly of multiples of those sequences.

For videogames, it quickly becomes obvious that you actually have two different mediums going on - a game system (which can exist without a computer at all) and then an interactive system that is virtual (computer-based) and fictional (not functional). That second system is made distinct through the computer and interaction. Because you have the computer you have the possibility to create simulated worlds.

And it is THAT - the simulated worlds - that you are getting your concept of extension and prolonging. Therefore, in the same way that cinema can suggest meaning through editing because you have to glue the strips of images together, videogames - or more specifically that unnamed medium based on a virtual, fiction interactive system - can suggest meaning through extension and prolonging because you have a computer and computers are good at simulating things.

JB Vorderkunz
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Thoughts inspired by the OP:

The basic element of the film is the shot; the basic process of the film is the edit. The rules of composition inform the creation of the shot, and the juxtaposition of shots creates a complex of meaning greater than the simple sum of the meaning of each shot. The narrative structure of the film is simply the sequence of shots and sounds. While individual elements vary in meaning and relevance, every element is part of the narrative structure.

The basic element of the game is the action; and the basic process of the game is the trigger. The narrative structure of a game is determined by the specific sequence of action/trigger/action/trigger needed to reach the game's final state. Here we see the structural difference within the ontologies of Film and Game: when experiencing a film, every element is a 'necessary' piece within its narrative structure, whereas the experience of playing a game may contain 'irrelevant' or 'unnecessary' narrative elements.

In this sense, Ian's 'pauses' are the optional actions...

(prolly nonsense...)

Josh Larson
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That's a good way to put film, J. I just wrote a blog post inspired by this article here with a similar conclusion at

I actually just changed my mind and no longer consider games a medium, but a structure for meaning. I now consider videogames to be composed of two different things - the game structure and a medium for presenting that game structure. Similar to what I said before, but distinct enough to be important.

For those not interested in going there, this was my conclusion:

"However, I think a better way to put it might be that the use of editing is at the core of film, as opposed to the use of fast editing. In the same way, the use of simulations would be at the core of videogames, as opposed to the use of continuous simulations."

Richard MacDonald
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Makes sense to me.