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Analysis:  Heavy Rain 's Storytelling Gaps
Analysis: Heavy Rain's Storytelling Gaps Exclusive
April 14, 2010 | By Emily Short

[Writer and designer Emily Short looks at where Quantic Dream's PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain's story and characters just don't measure up -- with significant story spoilers included as part of the analysis.]

Plenty has already been written about Heavy Rain's defects as a game: the tiresomeness of the Quick Time Events, the fact that characters often walk back and forth in front of their own refrigerators in confusion, the inconsistent controls. All too often I felt like I was handling a character with a degenerative nerve disorder, nobly struggling with the quotidian trials of brushing teeth and drinking orange juice.

Personally, though, I would have been happy to forgive Heavy Rain its defects as a game in deference to its strengths as story and interactive movie. The movie aspect does work brilliantly. The cinematic aspects are beautiful, the split screen moments much more effective than I would ever have expected, the graphics superb.

It's too bad, then, that the story just isn't very good.

Heavy Rain does daringly strike out from the range of genres that video games typically cover: instead of space warfare or car racing or fantasy heroism, we have a thriller about a serial killer. But there it draws on a large pool of existing cliches. The killer who cannot resist laying out puzzles for his victims' families. The heavily-foreshadowed car accident. The broken marriage.

They're stock bits, and the fact that they come from the vocabulary of movies rather than the vocabulary of games does not make them any less predictable. The plot that results, moreover, depends on many characters acting against their own self-interest. It's oddly paced and full of holes.

Predictable genre elements do not have to be a killer in games. I've seen the argument -- made fairly persuasively by several of the articles in Second Person, for instance -- that having a familiar genre to work with helps players of story-oriented games form a clear understanding of their range of action.

But if the plot itself is not going to carry the work, it helps if there is something else going on to form the core of interest instead. In "Heavy Rain", that something else cannot be the gameplay; and, unfortunately, both theme and characterization fall short.

To get into why, the rest of the discussion will have significant spoilers. I recommend not reading on unless you've already played through Heavy Rain.

Problems of theme. At the core of this story there is supposed to be a thematic question. "How far," the game asks, "would you go to save someone you love?"

It's a valid question, an interesting one. Other games have explored it occasionally. The ending of Fable II touches on it, though in a timid and ineffective way. Victor Gijsbers' Fate deals with it much more extensively. It is, moreover, the kind of question that can fruitfully be posed in an interactive context, because after each choice the player can be challenged with a new decision that refines on the previous one, pushed to refine the terms of his own morality.

The problem is, the interactive aspects of Heavy Rain aren't mostly about this question at all. Norman and Madison are motivated more by curiosity and professional obligation than by love; Shelby bumbles through trying to find the right touchstones to get people to share their secrets with him.

Where we do explore the question of love and sacrifice, the results are mixed. Yes, there are a handful of relevant trials set out for Ethan Mars to experience: the risky drive the wrong way down the freeway, the interminable suffering of getting through the broken-glass-and-electricity maze, the choice of whether to shoot the drug dealer. But these choices are desperately contrived. In real life, our choices are never so melodramatic, so ridiculous. Consequently, it's hard to take them seriously, even though they are supposedly contrived by a killer who has reason to be interested in the problem of paternal love.

Moreover, though these sequences are narratively about choice, interactively they are framed as challenges. While story-Ethan may want to stick with the electricity maze and suffer through to the end, game-Ethan will quit if the player screws up the finger-Twister of Quick Time Events. What the protagonist would do is mapped against what the player can do, often to distancing effect.

That's not to say that a gameplay challenge can never represent the protagonist's choice. I've written before about how challenge in some games is an effective way to measure the protagonist's devotion to a cause. Arguably the electricity-maze sequence, at least, is an appropriate place to use this kind of challenge. The problem is that challenge-as-measure-of-determination works best if the player is willing (and encouraged) to replay a scene over and over until it comes out right. Heavy Rain spends most of its time discouraging the player from approaching it in that mode. So while I did restart the electricity maze a couple of times in order to win, I felt like that was a jarring break from the way the game otherwise worked, rather than an effective use of interactivity to merge the protagonist's experience with the player's.

In other places the disparity between player's challenge and protagonist's choice is even more problematic. I felt that story-Ethan would not be willing to shoot someone in cold blood -- that that was a bridge too far for him -- but the framing of the game forced me into a scene of visiting his potential victim's apartment and getting into an altercation with him. My failure at the QTE of the fight scene was then understood by the game as a decision not to take the man's life, but I would preferred to have expressed that decision earlier on, without ever going to the apartment at all.

Problems of characterization. I took Heavy Rain at its word that even failures should be played through and should produce meaningful stories. So while I did start a few scenes over when I had made the wrong choice because I simply misunderstood the controls (e.g., Jayden shooting the crucifix-obsessed man in the face), I did not go back and replay the more challenge-oriented action sequences. Both Jayden and Madison were dead by the time I got to the final stages of the game, and Shaun never got rescued.

When Madison and Jayden died, though, I didn't mind too much. I felt the strongest interest in Scott Shelby, who from the outset conveyed more personality than the others. Ethan, Madison, and Jayden all struck me as more or less blank slates. We get very little information about any of them other than their weaknesses, at the outset: we learn about Madison's insomnia and fear, Norman's addiction, Ethan's family tragedy, but little about their strengths, their likes, their social networks. (Possessing a magic evidence-finding glove does not count as a personality note.) Shelby alone gives much evidence of having pre-existing friends.

Then there was the acting and visualization. Shelby's body language and face expressed a patient world-weariness, and his willingness to keep fighting in the face of his own handicaps -- asthma, weight, age, world-weariness -- made me sympathize with the guy.

The interactivity supports that view. Shelby gets a more nuanced range of choices than the other characters. Where Ethan faces purely contrived serial-killer challenges and Madison has to puzzle over such doozies as "should I administer first aid to this severely wounded man?", Shelby gets to negotiate his way through a tense hold-up situation, empathize with grieving parents, patch up a suicidal woman and look after her baby.

Though a few of his options are a bit plot-contrived (do you give the life-saving pills to the man who suddenly has a convenient heart attack?), for the most part they seem plausible. I replayed the sinking-car scene until he succeeded in rescuing Lauren (a wrong guess about the controls had me save only Shelby the first time around) because it seemed inconceivable to me that this character, the character I'd developed in tandem with the game's authors, would ever leave a woman to drown.

He even gets the most expressive range of body-language actions, with scenes in which he can lean indifferently against a wall or sit sympathetically next to his interlocutor. Those options are sometimes open to other characters as well, but are most systematically implemented for Shelby.

Shelby, in other words, is the most humane of the protagonists, and the one for whom I felt my choices were the most genuinely defining. I was okay with the other characters being killed off -- even arbitrarily, even senselessly -- if my favorite hero remained alive.

If you've played the game, you know where this is going. The twist ending, the discovery that Shelby is the Origami Killer -- that felt like a betrayal.

Not because it was unexpected, not because I'd been successfully gulled into caring about Shelby -- I could live with that, and movies play those tricks all the time -- but because that twist negated the meaning of every truly interesting choice I'd made in the game up to that point. All that time I thought I was at least getting to craft one character, I was being played.

There are ways to make that work. I've played games before where it turned out that the protagonist was not the hero, or where the player's agency was much less than it originally appeared. But it doesn't work in Heavy Rain, where so much of the story and gameplay are built around the concept that choices do matter.

I strongly agree with all the articles and reviews that call Heavy Rain a must-play for people interested in narrative games. I'm delighted it was made, and I'd happily play more games that attempted some of the same things. While I didn't always have fun, I was almost always interested, and the times when I was bored were the spots, such as that horrendous electrified maze, when it was most gamelike. I would like to play more works where every moment of the game was in some way contributing to the narrative, and while Heavy Rain occasionally falls short of that (especially during the dull, draggy prologue), it does a better job than the vast majority of commercial games out there.

But I also feel that the real deficiency of Heavy Rain lies not in the limitations of its gameplay but in the nature of its story -- the cliches, the weak characterization, and, most of all, the makers' failure to recognize what would be interesting about making this particular story interactive.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that was purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.)

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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Anthony Colon
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There are a couple of points that I want to say, although no matter what realize I am very delighted to see you write this article and am going to share with you what I saw from outside of the game. When you look at all the charecters they all were tied into the word love, not by the simple compassion for another but love in its entirety. Madison Page had the insomnia and frights because of the absense of love, Shelby even mentioned in one of the endings he is doing this because he did it for love, he held his brothers hand while he was drowning and did and would do anything to save his life. Love in a sense was his tormenter. Shelby was also so attracted to the prostitue for that reason, she did everything she could for her son, even if that meant she had to sell herself. Ethan was bound by love ofcourse and that was the simplistic love we all know. Then Jayden was bound to the love of truth and mercy to do what is righteous. You said that you felt betrayed by the story because you played as the killer. Isn't that how life is, isn't betrayl by all senses of the word normal. Did he seem like the killer no, but it was implied throughout he had to cover his tracks, he was working for his self gain. How he went and searched for the other man was the most interesting part. He felt what he was doing was by all means righteous when someone else doing it was wrong. You were still working for the greater good even if your persona itself was bad. But if you knew Shelby was the killer wouldn't that change what you would try to do with him wouldn't you try to lose and kill him, hiding it was meant to hinder you from making different choices rather than making bad ones. (Also it was essential to the story ofcourse) The most interesting factor was the fact that you went back. Misunderstanding the controls is life isn't it. The controller was a metaphor for something that isn't always understood. You may have wanted to make the better choice but the reason for the game was a test of yourself not so much of your gaming prowess.

Anthony Colon
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Also feel free to contact me about the game, the beginning wouldn't have been so foreshadowing if he had been able to do exactly what he wanted. He initially wanted to make it so much longer but they made him cut it down. There was a brief mention that the kid that got hit by the car went to school on Saturday therefore he was somewhat slow. He didn't know you were supposed to look both ways before crossing the street. Also my favorite is the one thing people believe to be a plothole, everythime Ethan blacks out he appears on North Canbury Corner with an Origami figure in his hand, the same place where Shelby grew up. He had scenes to explain why that happened but he chose not to put them out because he wanted people to discuss why it happened.

Yannick Boucher
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Well, that was a lot of hate on Heavy Rain, Emily...

Ironically a lot of the points you raised show that they kinda reached exactly the goal they wanted, even with you: do you really think you were supposed to care for ALL the characters, for example ? I think your whole "Problems of characterization" part is incredibly flawed. You felt played when you found out that Shelby was the killer ?? Really! What a surprise! You think it's a "coincidence" they made you care for him the most? "All that time I thought I was at least getting to craft one character, I was being played." Don't you think this might exactly be the point ??

I mean, this game should be analyzed through and through, if only because it does things so differently (and I happen to believe it does so with great success, considering how little has been threaded on that path so far), but your "analysis" basically just screams that you didn't understand the 2nd degree of intentions behind it all, you stopped at the first one.

That's what it read like to me. Others might wanna chime in... ?

Robert Marney
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Great analysis, and one that I think exposes the tension of quick-time events vs. story in Heavy Rain. I am very good at these button-pressing sequences, so I only restarted once (when, like you, I accidentally left Lauren to drown). As a result, everyone made it out alive and the story took on a much more positive tone. This would be an exciting opportunity to compare notes if the distinction were one of narrative choices, but tying them to a binary pass/fail test of PS3 controller acuity means it would be difficult for us to experience each other's playthroughs even if we wanted to.

Emily Short
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@Yannick: Re. "Don't you think this might be exactly the point ??"

Frankly, no.

It's possible to make characters who aren't pleasant or likable but who nonetheless feel rounded and human. These didn't.

It's also possible to have a twist ending in which your choices turn out not to matter as much as you hoped -- or not to mean what you thought -- and have that discovery be a valid expression of something about the game world. I didn't feel that's what happened here either; I just felt the effect was inconsistent.

In any case, as I say in the article, I'm glad Heavy Rain got made, and I hope more narrative-heavy games follow after.

Anthony Charles
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I hadn't realized it, but Yannick is right. Shelby's the star the other characters are support.

did you play on medium or easy? i feel maybe the controls were a bit much for alot of gamers. it may have been a poor design choice, as this game was supposed to have the potential to attract non-gamers. the controls probably excluded alot of these people.

also, the story is not great and there are plot holes, (ethan's black outs), but its still an evolution for games. like, go play metal gear solid 4. heavy rain seems like shawshank redemption in comparison. and also, the story is probably better than that of most of the SAW movies.

Austin Lane
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I agree with a lot of points you make, Emily. I also wanted to point out something brought up on Destructoid about the "twist". The game makes a large point of letting you in on what the characters are thinking while you play, and for the most part it works. The problem is that if you listen to Shelby's thoughts throughout the game, he's not thinking "This is the mother of one of my victims" or "Too bad I had to kill the old man", his thoughts are from the character that he is pretending to be. So not only is the twist a betrayal in the sense that he is suddenly not the character you were making him out to be, it is a betrayal in that the game breaks the 4th wall and intentionally lies to you in order to cover up what is going on until they decide it is time for you to find out. I think this is the biggest reason why I had trouble accepting Shelby as the Origami Killer, because up until the reveal there is no real way he could have been.

Emily Short
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@Jeffrey Parsons: "The basic problem with interactive fiction is that it must create the illusion of control. But if the fiction is to be meaningful there must be a story arc, and the interaction cannot seriously warp or alter that story arc. These are two competing goals."

This is a frustratingly common fallacy.

Here are some reasons why it's wrong:

-- The player doesn't need to have control over every aspect of the game; in fact, it wouldn't make sense or be meaningful if one did. The player does need a sense of agency, of ability to have some effect on the game; ideally, what he's able to do should line up with what he expects to be able to do, except where that disjunction makes an interesting point. (Facade has trouble with agency because it invites the player to imagine any possible social interaction, but naturally isn't able to follow through.)

-- The value of interactivity in fiction can be about a lot of different things: it can be about making choices on behalf of the protagonist, sure, but it can also be about

---- determining the protagonist's motives (see "The Baron" or "Choice of Broadsides" for two very different examples);

---- exploring certain themes or backstory elements of the fiction in preference to others;

---- investigating the differences between the player and the protagonist (what would the protagonist be willing to do that you're not, and vice versa);

---- coming to terms with difficult demands that the story makes on you (whether that means you have to do something very challenging game-wise, or you have to take [and accept responsibility for] an action that makes you uncomfortable in order to move the game forward.)

There are other possibilities as well, but the point here is that interactivity does not gut storytelling. It offers new avenues to make the story matter to the player -- but such effects require a combination of storytelling and game design savvy to pull that off, because the creator has to have in mind the unified interactive experience as a whole.

There are successes in this line in both mainstream and indie gaming -- some of the gameplay in Batman: Arkham Asylum, for instance, explores Batman's character struggles in a way that I have not seen before.

-- "if the fiction is to be meaningful there must be a story arc". I'd rather say that there needs to be some meaning that emerges from the selection of stories that *can* be generated by that game: that is, every story it produces should be individually effective, or the multiple pathways through the story should have some collective message. (See "Slouching Towards Bedlam"; I also agree with some of what Chris Crawford writes about story worlds in _Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling_.) There are some works of interactive fiction that are intended to be played multiple times, with the later endings taking greater meaning from the fact that the player has seen earlier ones.

"Even worse, though, the story itself really isn't that good."

Agreed -- which implies that the experience might be a lot better if the story *were* good. I'd also say that an interactive experience, as you put it, can be compelling and entertaining without being "fun" in the same way that (say) action games are fun; instead they move into some of the emotional territory of dramas.

Jesus Alonso Abad
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Loved this article and will definitely following as much like this as I can :) Thanks a lot!

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bowie owens
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An interesting read Emily. I too am very glad Heavy Rain was made and that people have supported it. I think that, as a gamer, it would be wonderful if more games like it are made. Hopefully, thoughtful analysis of Heavy Rain's strengths and weaknesses will lead to the games that follow being even better.

Ben Kenobi
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Good discussion.

@Bill Boggess:

Do you think maybe you could just edit your post so there's a "SPOILER ALERT" just before you reveal the ending of Shadow of the Colossuss to other people like me? I have a keen interest in the relationsip of narratives and game systems and seing as you rated it so much I would have preferred you had mentioned it's strengths before/without ruining the ending (sorry I couldn't do this in private but I couldn't see how). Good comments though. Keep it up.

@Jeffrey Parsons and Emily Short:

"The basic problem with interactive fiction is that it must create the illusion of control. But if the fiction is to be meaningful there must be a story arc, and the interaction cannot seriously warp or alter that story arc. These are two competing goals."

Ignoring, for argument's sake, that the "ILLUSION of control" does not in any way equate to agency in an entirely open ended chaotic system, there are two very important points that I think Jeffrey's post raises.

Firstly: I know this has already been covered (and I'm sure Emily has more to say on the topic than she has posted) but there is also an important point that Jeffrey, inadvertently, raises here when he asks why a game that seemingly "fails" was worth making. Well there is obviously a process of evolution that involves failures and, as we are doing right now, reflection UPON those failures. But as the narrative/game-system relationship is such a tense one, I feel that it is absolutely necessary to test the waters with new story-telling techniques. Forming hyoptheses and testing them practically is a perfectly valid approach to design.

Secondly: I'm not sure if Emily will agree with me on this one, but there is, surely, still a lot we have to learn about the way meaningful narrative experiences arise during game-play. So in short: Perhaps Jeffrey is right, but then, perhaps he is also wrong in ways that neither I, nor Emily, even know yet (I say this only because you tackle the question with some very definitive answers).

Keep up the discussion. It can only be a good thing (unless we TALK too much and DO too little... which I often do, so back to work).

Christopher Wragg
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I have to agree, there is a dramatic and glaring inconsistency in the way the Origami killer acts. I also found it absurd the way he attempts to kill the parent he's been looking for for so long. In fact the methodology and psychosis would make some sort of sense (effectively recreating his childhood scenario), if it weren't for that one part. Additionally it becomes apparent towards the end that he was merely gathering evidence so that it might be destroyed, which, for a serial killer, is a sensible thing to do.

Additionally there's another scene that frustrates me a huge amount. The scene in the typewriter store where you lose control of Scott, it focuses on Lauren, and then you find Manfred was killed. Later you flash back to discover Scott did it. That that was dissonant for me simply because during the scene I WAS Scott, and I didn't do that. Additionally it seems to not fit with the rest of the character's profile, this is an instance where he's killed a friend, surely there was a better way for him to deal with the situation, the man who's been calm and collected throughout the game.

Apostolos Zacharopoulos
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I have to say that Emily Short was quite gentle in her critic. In a game that professes to be trully cinematic and story driven, where the focus are the characters and the plot and is closer to a movie then anything else, I trully believe that it failed miserably (and no, sales have nothing to do with quality so lets not go there).

The plot is not only cliched, its downright ridiculous. The killer's motives are totally illogical, the twist ending is nothing but a big cheat (and a predictable one at that), the characters are two-dimensiona and behaving totally unconvincing/inconsistantly. And lets not forget that the fight scenes are totally scripted and you can miss most of the QTEs without any penalty whatsoever, which negates the players sense of achievement. Moreover, all the useless actions of the player, like drinking juice or sitting down, do not reinforce any sense of immersion in the character's life. It just annoys and bores the player who is desperately trying to get them over with so that he can see what the situation is.

"Heavy Rain" is not a game but an assortment of "cool" scenes that someone has glued together and hammered into place (what was the point of the whole fight scene with the burglars in the journalist's house?/ why did the FBI agent had to have the magic glove and the AR system?). It basically feels like someone wanted to make a movie but had to compromise with making a video game. It is not an achievement and certainly not any sort of "evolution" for games at large. What it really is, is a brilliantly marketed and overhyped point-and-click adventure without the puzzles. I have played through it and I would recommend everyone who is interested in games to see it as a prime example of a collection of things to avoid.

Personally, I do believe that there is a place for narrative based games, especially ones with a branching path, something akin with the choose-your-adventure books. They do not have to be action packed or over the top (see the ridiculous trials that the father must go through to prove his love or the drawn-out, pointless fight scenes) to be deep and enjoyable in their story and message. What they should have though is a seriously thought-out plot, good dialogue and convincing character, things that Heavy Rain sorely misses.

Lets hope the next game of Quantic Dream does not repeat the same mistakes, although to be fair, with the sales going this well, I seriously doubt it.

Chad Wagner
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Speaking of learning new techniques of storytelling in games, I call out Bladerunner and Briad.

Braid was very clever in promoting player agency -- and then recontextualizing those actions in a surprising way. I suppose it would be equivalent to having you player as the murderer, and performing actions that resulted in the deaths of the victims -- but without knowing that until the very end!

Bladerunner was very much like a choose-your-own-adventure book. It allowed you complete agency in your choice of actions; what you investigated, how you interpreted things. Then contorted the games reality to make your investigations fruitful, and guarentee an interesting story. This seems an obvious method to give the player freedom, but make sure the story turns out interesting. However, the public as a whole was violently opposed to this mechanic. They felt cheated that they were, in effect, making reality by their choices, instead of discovering it. Maybe it was the detective/investigation element that confused expectations there.

I would be very interested in seeing this explored more in a plot oriented way.