Last weekend I came down with a stubborn cold that my body has not yet successfully battled, and furthermore my better half is away in Stockholm this week, and all this has prompted me to indulge in some heavy video gaming. I’m terrible at playing games, which is sad because as a part-time (or at least sporadic) game designer I should do it much more. Imagine writing without reading books – it’s a ludicrous thought! Anyhow.
I’ve borrowed a PS3 from a friend (I borrowed an Xbox from another friend last year, but broke it by doing absolutely nothing (I was told that happens to Xbox), so I hope this time around I’ll be more lucky) and was recommended Heavy Rain. I was also recommended Dark Souls, but since I don’t enjoy dying all the time, Dark Souls wasn’t quite up my alley. I totally get the thing with Dark Souls, but I don’t have the skills or the time necessary, So Heavy Rain it is.
Gender roles in the Mars mansion
I do like the extremely meticulous way of controlling this game, and I also like the slow pace, and the way they make it feel like every little decision – like how quickly you shave your cheeks – matters. But I need to begin properly by discussing the plot. I haven’t still figured out if the opening chapter is meant to be ironic or something, because in terms of dramaturgy and symbolism, it strikes me as something my pupils would write up, oblivious as they are to over-explicit symbolism and today’s gender discourse.
For those of you who haven’t played it, the first chapter of Heavy Rain features useless husband/father Ethan Mars messing up being a husband/father to the point that his elder son gets run over by a car, due to pure parental neglect.
Maybe this family is simply intended to be portrayed as extremely stereotypical, but as a modern westerner I feel like a travesty of a man when I play Ethan. The parody is enhanced by me not being used to the controls, of course, but even accounting for that the plot and the dialogue are so shallow and clichéd it made me giggle.
So. Ethan’s wife arrives with the kids in the morning, and she has to prepare for a birthday party, because obviously she is in charge of making everything function at home, while Ethan is reduced to some kind of fumbling assistant, who spends most of his time struggling to navigate his own kitchen. Ethan can ask questions like ”can I help?” (although he can also decide not to give a damn and continue to aimlessly pick up random objects and inspect them) upon which she requests that he produce the china from a cupboard and try to avoid breaking it, as if he has cerebral palsy compounded by some kind of rare initiative-reducing disorder, and even this little pseudo-chore is hard to carry out without the wife shouting “careful, I told you not to break it!” because he puts them down too hard on the table. I feel less like a fully functioning adult and more like a beneficiary of some day activity centre, where the intellectually challenged are given rudimentary tasks in order to feel useful.
While his wife is busy preparing everything for the party, and the kids are playing nearby, Ethan can take the opportunity to feel her up from behind, resulting in her saying “I know what you’re thinking (sex, we have to assume), Ethan, but now is not the time”, because apparently Ethan couldn’t figure this out on his own. I don’t know what Ethan’s plans were here – to welcome the birthday party guests mid-intercourse? Either way, placing four plates on the table was enough of a task for Ethan, because he’s now free to very awkwardly play with the kids until food is ready.
Cut to the following day at a big shopping mall, and Ethan is again given a simple enough task – keep track of the oldest son, Jason, while his wife checks out a store. Even before we resume control of Ethan, he has disappeared in thoughts, and Jason has disappeared out of sight. Ethan walks around calling the boy’s name, only to find him standing in front of a clown, admiring the balloons. The father agrees to buy him one, but for some inexplicable reason he can’t handle producing the necessary cash without again losing sight of his – presumably autistic – son. It’s strange that Jason has survived this far in life, or that the parents haven’t invested in a proper leash, because I’ve never seen a child more determined to vanish without a trace. It’s like the father and the son are both equipped with same-pole magnets, physically unable to keep together.
This time Ethan is visible stressed; he runs when we steer him around the mall, and shouts desperately. He spots the same red balloon in the middle of a crowd, and as a spectator I know instantly that it’s a red herring, but Ethan doesn’t, so he wastes precious seconds on approaching and touching the wrong child.
For some reason, his son has run out of the mall, and is now standing across a busy street. When Ethan shows up, the boy – whom we have now concluded has no desire to live – runs straight out into the street and gets hit by a car.
The prologue ends, and now the idyllic garden scenery, formerly drenched in sunshine, is replaced with a grey street, with rain pouring down. Ah, the symbolism. See, it rains because they’re all sad now. Get it?
Being an interactive movie is hard
It’s fashionable for games these days to be like movies; heavy on drama, dialogue, and cutscenes, to the point that the game-playing aspects appear secondary to cinematic effects and story telling. I don’t mind this. The problem is that it’s hard enough to make a movie believable, and they have real actors. With 3D models, expressing strong feelings, dramatic interactions, conflicts – all of that is still super difficult and awkward. I don’t know if Ethan’s kids are thrilled or terrified when they meet their father, because their starring yet vacant eyes could reflect both. I don’t know why Ethan’s stiff face and immobile lips suddenly start rubbing against his wife’s equally expressionless facial parts, but from the dialogue and circumstances I can deduce they’re kissing.
There’s a famous concept in robotics referred to as “the uncanny valley”. It basically means that we have no problems relating to things if they’re either a) clearly not human, or 2) clearly human. It’s easy for us to accept that pure symbols, avatars or toys can express emotions and interact with each other, because we’ve all played pretend family with Lego figures in our childhood. The problem occurs when the characters have been made so lifelike they’re nearly human. Modern 3D graphics have reached a point where characters look almost real, but we’re still sure they’re not, because we have huge chunks of brains dedicated to recognising human faces, and our brains still know darn well when we’re looking at a real face or not.
I’m super sensitive to this myself, so I’d still much rather watch the pixelated characters in Police Quest engage in emotional dialogue than Ethan or any of his family members, because in Police Quest my imagination constructs all the facial expressions, all the body language and all the myriads subtle signs and signals that make up human communication, whereas in Heavy Rain the game aspires to do this for me, but fails.
Revisiting the controls, and wanting answers
While I said that I don’t mind the controls in the game, I still think something’s missing. Just to reiterate, if you haven’t played the game: In Heavy Rain, you control everything, even the most mundane, insignificant action, by moving around the game pad or pushing buttons. This is rather innovative and kind of fascinating, and establishes a rare intimacy between the player and the protagonists. But there’s still a question I need an answer to: Why?
The thing is that everything you do in Heavy Rain, you do clumsily, at least at first. You shave really slowly and inaccurately, you flush the toilet as if you just found out how it works, and you prepare the table as if you have no hand-eye coordination whatsoever. While the concept is revolutionary, I don’t understand the underlying reason. Are we supposed to feel like Ethan is a Parkinson patient undergoing rehabilitation? Is the purpose of the game to experience what it’s like to be motorically impaired?
In most computer games, we don’t reflect on this because the activities are usually new to us, like sword fighting. Most of us don’t know much about sword fighting apart from how difficult it must be to kill huge monsters with a sword. That’s why trial and error doesn’t bother us. Fighting monsters is hard. Shaving isn’t.
Well, I’ve only tried the prologue yet, so maybe I’ll get my answers. But so far, Heavy Rain has not impressed on me.