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Persuasive Games: The Picnic Spoils the Rain
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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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