Persuasive Games: The Picnic Spoils the Rain
May 6, 2010 Page 3 of 3
Another, equally intense sequence follows soon after. Upon being tucked into bed, Shaun realizes that his favorite teddy bear is missing, and reminds his father than he can't sleep without it. Once more, the game extends rather than compresses the hunt for the plush toy, as Ethan pads gloomily through the dark house in search of it.
Once the teddy bear is retrieved from atop the washing machine, another extended moment of reflection is possible, as the player is invited to consider the origin of the toy, and what secret meaning it bears for Shaun, Ethan, and perhaps even Jason. Was it a gift received during better times? An old toy of Jason's that Shaun uses as a tiny memory palace? By refusing to cut the scene short, the game effectively floods the player with possible implementations of this plush symbol.
In cinema theory, editing is sometimes contrasted with mise-en-scène, the establishment of a scene through sets, props, blocking, and other non-dialogic means. Mise-en-scène can communicate emotional intangibles through the repleteness of a setting.
For example, a shot of a refrigerator emptied of all contents save beer and pickles or of a large room of a loft with a cold concrete floor both might convey a sense of loneliness or isolation.
It's clear that Heavy Rain uses mise-en-scène extensively: the visual situation of the mall (crowded) and the house (in disarray) help orient the player toward the important actions of each respective chapter.
But cinematic mise-en-scène still must be communicated through editing. In film, it usually offers abstract, often contrived characterization through single shots or a concrete, if backgrounded, focus on space through long takes.
But it is not mise-en-scène that makes the chapter Father and Son emotionally evocative. Rather, it is the necessary absence of any such attention-directing devices thanks to a lack of editing in the interactive game world.
Cinematic shots of or through a scene are replaced by the weird, arbitrary movements that characterize 3D videogames. In the context of Counter-Strike or Gears of War, this movement becomes one of orientation toward objectives. But in a dramatic title like Heavy Rain, editing's absence invites players to discover, reveal, or create a few lingering, pregnant moments. These moments carry the game's dominant payload.
A final moment of prolonging punctuates the chapter, cementing the technique's potential as a first-order principle of game design. After tucking Shaun into bed, Ethan leaves, deploying the slow-rotated thumbstick QTE to close the door softly. In a film, this is where a good editor would cut to the next scene, allowing the door's latch to signal a fade to black and then a transition to the next chapter, Scott Shelby's encounter with Lauren White.
But in Heavy Rain, another option prevails. Faced with the bittersweetness of the situation, the player might turn back toward the door and simply look upon it, allowing the mixture of hope and despair inside of Ethan to dance with one another uncomfortably.
Heavy Rain's creators and critics have discussed its accomplishments in bringing video games closer to cinema, primarily by adding low-level interactivity and mild branching decisions to the thematic and narrative structure of traditional filmmaking. Such ideas have been around for 25 years, at least, from laserdisc coin-op to CDi and beyond, and they have enjoyed peaks and valleys of critical and commercial success during that time.
But perhaps there is something far more interesting at work in Heavy Rain: its successful rejection of the primary operation of cinema. The game doesn't fully succeed in exploiting this power, but it does demonstrate it in a far more synthetic way than do other games with similar goals. If "edit" is the verb that makes cinema what it is, then perhaps videogames ought to focus on the opposite: extension, addition, prolonging. Heavy Rain does not embrace filmmaking, but rebuffs it by inviting the player to do what Hollywood cinema can never offer: to linger on the mundane instead of cutting to the consequential.
It's something to let Ethan ponder as he leans against the railing of his motel balcony, watching the rain fall endlessly.
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