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Persuasive Games: The Picnic Spoils the Rain

May 6, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Consider the game's first scene. The player not only must dress Ethan Mars piece by piece, but first he must get out of bed and take a shower. Stairs must be mounted and descended, one by one, with a deliberateness second only to that of Shenmue. Things only get more detailed from there: the player must help Ethan, an architect, do work by drawing portions of a building sketch in his home office. He must set the table. He must make coffee and move groceries.

Now, one might argue that the slow pace of the game's prologue is meant to teach the player how to control the character and execute QTEs. But later in the game, the unedited nature of these actions becomes completely central to a scene's meaning.

Consider the game's second chapter, in which Ethan loses track of his son Jason in a crowded mall, a mistake that proves dire. After buying Jason a red balloon, the boy wanders off and the player (as Ethan) must find him.

In this, the first of several excellent crowd sequences in the game, the confusion and crush of people gives the player a real sense of panic as Ethan moves from upper to lower level in the mall, then across its packed floor and out the front door, following both incorrect and correct clues in the form of floating red balloons.

Narratively speaking, the scene is abysmal. It is forced and obvious and unbelievable, and questions abound.

What ten year old begs for a balloon? How can such a slow-moving car fatally injure a child? Is Jason really so stupid as not to know how to cross the street? Why does Jason feel so compelled to leave his father in the first place?

But we don't really need narrative success to appreciate how truly frenzied the scene feels. In a film, that frenzy would be best carried out through a series of quick cuts: Ethan looking in different directions; a fast pan of the crowd, left and right; Ethan's movement through the mall concourse; a handheld first-person view down the escalators; more visually confused panning; a glimpse of a balloon; and then a cut to a different boy grasping it.

But as anyone knows who has actually lost a child in a public place, even if only briefly, the central sensations of that experience are not rapidness but slowness. The slow panic of confusion and disorientation, the feeling of extended uncertainty as moments give way to minutes -- the sound of each footfall and the neurosis of each head turn.

While its narrative fails to set up a credible reason for the chase, the chase itself captures this panic far more than a sequence of cinematic edits might do. If the edit is cinema's core feature, then Heavy Rain does the opposite: it lengthens rather than abridges.

But the mall scene is but a warm-up for one of the game's most successful experiments in retention: Chapter 3, Father and Son. It takes place two years after the previous chapter, and it's clear that Jason's death has all but undone Ethan. In his shoes, the player must pick up and drive Ethan's surviving son Shaun home from school. Home is revealed to be a run-down shack, its box-strewn living room implying that the aftermath of Jason's death has also involved the destruction of Ethan's marriage.

The game would clearly like the player to believe that this chapter will allow the player to alter the game's narrative based on decisions made on behalf of Ethan. A schedule is posted on the wall, detailing when Ethan should study, eat, and go to bed. If the player follows these, the "Good Father" PSN trophy is awarded, offering some undeniable textual evidence to place player choice at the apparent center of the sequence.

But once again, far more powerful ideas emerge from the scene's lack of cinematic editing rather than its abundance of cinematic plot.

In one sequence, the player makes dinner for Shaun. Ethan sits as Shaun eats, his pallid face staring at nothing. Time seems to pass, but the player must end the task by pressing up on the controller to raise Ethan from his chair. The silent time between sitting and standing offers one of the only emotionally powerful moments in the entire game.

Ethan says nothing. What is he thinking about? Is he mulling over what he might have done differently two years earlier? Is he fantasizing about his estranged wife? Is he lamenting the detachment he had exhibited moments ago toward Shaun? Is he plotting his return to professional success?

The game gives us no answers, but it invites the player to consider all these and many more by refusing to edit the scene down into a few moments of silence save the pregnant sounds of plate scraping and chair dragging. The mental effort the player exerts in this scene alone is orders of magnitude more meaningful than all the L1s and R2s Xs and Os in the rest of the game.

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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.