Heavy Rain – a dissection of the prologue

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A little portrait tutorial

Alright, so I’m currently re-painting some character portraits for the Steam badges. I thought I could show you the steps I take to make the refined versions.

This particular portrait isn’t ideal, but I didn’t think of saving in-progress shots before, so here goes. I’m taking the opportunity here to make Signe slightly younger and less worn, because it’s stated in the game that she’s just above 60 (which makes her Alzheimer’s diagnose all the more tragic).

signe1

#1. This is the original picture up-scaled to the target size of 186×204. Obviously, simply enlarging it won’t do; we have tons of restoration to do.

signe2

#2. In this step, I’ve started refining lines and cleaning up the scaling artifacts. I’m still painting the face mostly in one hue, and the lighting is still straight on.

signe3

#3.  I’ve refined the picture further and added more details. I’ve worked with the hair, which is still a mess but I have no real idea of how old women do their hair. Just bear with me here…

signe4

#4. I’ve decided to go for a light source above and to the right of the head, adding shadows to the left side of her face. Lighting a face straight on seldom works unless the light is soft and subtle (think light box); strong light will create rather generic pillow-shading effects that are quite ugly.

Remember that the contrasts are lower on the side that isn’t hit by direct light; you can’t just add more darkness on top of the already existing shadows.

signedone

#5. Alright, lots of stuff happening here, but I didn’t save the picture enough times to properly illustrate the progress. Basically I’ve added more hues now, to break the monotony from before. I’ve added warmer orange hues to the highlights, to simulate sun light. I’ve also made her dark side more bluish, although that’s hardly discernible here.

Using a large, very soft brush I’ve added red make up to her cheeks, to make her more alive. I’ve also made her lips more red.

The hair was too gray before, so it’s got a shade of brown.

I’ve added small, very bright highlights on her lower lip and pupil – this is a bit stereotypical, but I’m not exactly making fine art, I’m making trading card assets here 🙂

Added a bright blue second light illuminating parts of her left side. Again, this is highly cliched, but it’s rather effective and quickly adds drama to the picture. Take any portrait in a game illustration and you’ll find this generic type of dual lighting.

I’ve made a small rearrangement of her eyes here, and also made her nose more narrow. Can’t think of what else. It’s not my prettiest portrait, but I used some common painting techniques here that might be useful for beginners.

signelarge

Here’s a zoomed in version for better vision. I struggled pretty hard to give her the conflicted, troubled look of a demented person. Mentally ill people tend to often strain facial muscles; pursing their lips, furrowing their brows, making neck tendons appear more clearly (although the latter is of course connected to losing weight, which goes hand in hand with dementia).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Concept graphics for sci-fi game

I’ve already revealed in other media that I’ve started discussing a new project with maker of game-in-progress Kathy Rain, Joel Staaf Hästö. I’m very excited about this, even though we won’t get down to business properly until KR is out, obviously.

Being the resident artist, I’ve begun working on the graphical style of the game. We do have a rudimentary plot and some random thoughts written down somewhere, but without pictures it’s hard to have a clear vision.

Mostly, we have lots of things we don’t want the game to feature, such as

  • The stereotypical dark, gritty dystopian scenery. (Seriously, I’m extremely fed up with science fiction that’s always shot in the night, when it’s raining.)

Well, that’s basically it. A short bullet point list, I admit. But if I find myself painting a vast, gritty, neon-light-illuminated generic cityscape, by night, and with rain coming down, I promise I’ll vomit on myself.

So. We’re trying to go for a unique, or at least fairly original setting. There will be anachronic elements involved, such as remnants of a lost way of living, another type of technology, one which flourished in a time when energy was abundant, but that doesn’t mean that the world has become a giant twilight scrapyard, populated by zombies and the odd lone survivor.

We’ll just have to picture a different kind place. I’m toying with the thought of setting in it Sweden (yes, again, hehe), only in some remote future. There will be an advanced and unpredictable cyberspace that people can wander off in, but there’ll also be floppy disks and children playing in the fields. forest2

This quick sketch is meant to illustrate what a small community might look like – rather provisional houses around the base of some old, giant tower, whose purpose nobody remembers now, all set in a typcial nordic fjäll landscape.

Mankind will have spread over several worlds, but there’s no longer fuel or money enough to allow physical transportation.

Other technology has developed rapidly and rather uncontrolled, though…

STAY TUNED!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

TSP portraits

Have done some digital painting lately, to provide art assets for the Steam trading cards. Yes, sorry for the delay, everyone, but I’ve been away a lot this summer, and painting portraits take time, even though it’s still not exactly high res per see – but still lots more pixels than the original in-game talking portraits…

anna2stig2jorgen3   jonatan freja ord2 sara2

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Chtulu in captivity

This is based on a recurring dream of mine – I walk around in some kind of aqua world environment and in the tanks are huge sea monsters.

chtulu

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Edge of Tomorrow – my analysis and suggestions for improvements

Note: This text is only for those who have already seen the movie and are interested in an overly thorough dissection of it.

I’m away on vacation and have had plenty of time to write something for my blog, which I guess doesn’t need to be exclusively about game design, now that I’m not really working on a game. So, enjoy.

Edge of Tomorrow – my analysis and suggestions for improvements
There’s plenty to love about Edge of Tomorrow – I wouldn’t write a long text about it if there wasn’t. But this recent sci-fi blockbuster also has some weak points, and a few aspects that could definitely be improved, and I want to discuss those points here, as well as analyze some of the plot elements and especially the ending. 

The basic premise of EoT is very easy to like and become immersed in – it’s basically a computer game made into a movie, and it’s furthermore extremely well paced and comes with stunning visuals. It’s not metaphorical or psychological – although at a few occasions it shows potential to be – but simply fascinating and exciting. 

Let’s start with some general plot weakness before we go through the most glaring plot holes – because they do exist. 

Controlling time
The ability to reset time is of course not easy to provide a credible explanation to, but I think the mechanism provided here (and, I suppose, originally in the novella by Sakurazaka) is overly contrived. I was personally much more enthusiastic about the concept before the infectious-blood explanation was presented – I just assumed that this was the real secret weapon of the human army; that a few individuals were given this unique power, either because the powers that be see some kind of potential in them, or as a chance of redemption (similar to Groundhog day, which is the obvious comparison). 

In hindsight, this seems to me a cleaner model. The humans could bestow on certain select individuals the ability to replay events, but because of some circumstance, maybe a technical glitch or alien sabotage, there’s only a number of replays permitted, and they become prematurely mortal again. 

Not only is the infectious-blood-idea hard to digest – the whole idea of special powers being passed on through blood contact seems more like fantasy or perhaps superhero material rather than hi-tech science fiction – and it leads to many practical questions. How much blood is necessary to transfer the power? We learn that bleeding out and getting new blood will make the ability go away, but again this makes you wonder how much blood you can afford to lose, and let’s not forget that our blood is constantly refreshed through the regeneration of red blood cells. Et cetera,

Not only is the blood-transfer mechanism not a very elegant solution, but it leads to some major logical plot holes, namely:

Why would Omega (the brain of the alien hive mind) let his Alpha Mimics (the blue ones) even be on the battlefield? Remember that Cage killed his Alpha on his very first day, when he wasn’t even trained. All it took was for the creature to spill some blood on him, and Omega and the entire alien race lost its most valuable, strategic asset – time control. We know that this happened once before (that time to Rita Vratinski), but it’s amazing that it hasn’t happened many more times. In the extreme chaos of a battlefield, a Mimic has only marginally better odds of survival than a human, and the chance of nearby human soldiers accidentally getting some blood on themselves is hardly negligible. 

The lack of caution on the aliens’ part is perhaps the most glaring plot hole within the narrative of the movie. 

How smart is Omega really?

It’s also a bit strange that Omega can’t devise a better plan to regain the precious blood from the new alpha individual (now Cage) directly after losing it. For every day that passes, Cage’s – and mankind’s – odds are gradually improving, as they can start communicating and work out a strategy. For many weeks, even months, Cage is rather clueless about Omega’s intentions, or that it even exists. Wouldn’t it have been very easy for Omega to simply have another Alpha – or any other minion – simply abduct Cage, hold him down for a few seconds and extract his blood? 

Vrataski’s somehow knowing she’s mortal again
Perhaps not connected with the major thread of this treatise, but isn’t it very unlikely that Vrataski – not tutored by a full metal bitch of her own – came to the conclusion that she had suddenly lost the power, and stopped sacrificing herself just in time? Consider the extreme time scope of both hers and Cage’s trials, as perfecting their respective ”gameplay” must have taken hundreds of iterations for every second of progress. By the time they lose the power, they must have grown accustomed to killing themselves as effortlessly and routinely as another person brushes their teeth in the morning. We learn from Vrataski that it was the lack of visions that led her to assume she no longer possessed the power, and in turn suspect it was the blood transfusion that caused it. But she can’t really know she’s lost the power – the only way to be certain is to die and not wake up, by which time it’s obviously too late.

Cage manages to avoid being hospitalized
Guess where a considerable portion of war casualties end up instead of straight to a shallow grave? They become a vegetable in some palliative care ward, slowly fading away without any chance to affect their situation. Over the course of thousands of deaths in the battlefield, not even once is Cage injured just enough to simply lose consciousness, much less become paraplegic, braindead or left a drooling cripple in a remote hospice. His only non-lethal injuries conveniently occur in the presence of Vratinski, who can handily euthanize him. 

The ending, recap
Alright. When it comes to the ending, EoT definitely invites the viewers to make their own analysis. Not only is the underlying mechanism unexplained, but several events that we know must have taken place are not depicted.

In case you have forgotten the events that form the conclusion of the movie: Cage learns he’s no longer the alpha individual (having received a blood transfusion) and that he’s no longer immortal. He localizes Omega, manages not to kill the blue Alpha mimic (which would have reset the day again, this time with Omega in control), and kills Omega using grenades. Before Cage dies, he absorbs some of Omega’s blood, and thus becomes the alpha individual again.

Two minor issues here
Why did the blue alpha alien not kill Cage properly? Why not use all of his speed and force to just tear him apart? Also, it’s extremely unlikely that the explosion that destroys Omega, a blast powerful enough to make the entire surface area shake as if by an earthquake, doesn’t instantly kill Cage, who’s just some dozen yards away and in water (which transports shockwaves much more efficiently than air). However, this probably falls in the category of common action movie physics, so let’s move on.

The ending – what happened?
Suddenly, we see Cage wake up again, this time at a point prior to his usual reseting point.  He’s now back to when the movie started; the day he arrives in London to check in with general Brigham. This time, we learn that the aliens have been defeated, and humans forces are regaining control of Europe. 

Obviously, there are some unanswered questions here. What happened between the scene where Cage almost dies, and the scene where he wakes up in the helicopter, and the humans have won? There are two alternatives here.

  1. Killing Omega just once is enough to eliminate it from every time line, no matter how it is reset or who is in control. This means that even if we rewind the events to the day before the human coalition attempts to liberate France, Omega has mysteriously disappeared, leaving the entire alien race incapacitated. Since Cage hasn’t been accused of being a deserter in this timeline, there’s no waking up in the military camp instead of the helicopter bound for London, which is the previous wake-up point.  
  2. Absorbing Omega blood instead of just alpha mimic blood grants Cage extended powers, and he is now free to rewind time to any desired point in the past. Cage goes back to a point much earlier, even before the helicopter scene, and can now start working out a proper plan to fight the invasion. This time he knows the real location of Omega (under the Louvre) and he’s not branded a deserter, and is consequently in a much better position to coordinate an attack. After an unknown number of attempts, he bombs the Louvre, then proceeds to arrive in London in the same manner as in the opening sequence of the movie. 

The first model implies rules of physics that aren’t explicitly presented anywhere, not even in Dr. Carter’s scientific expositions, namely that some events, such as Omega’s existence, lie parallel to the live-die-repeat-cycle. This is something we can only theorize about, although we know for a fact that once the first Alpha Mimic died (back on the beach in France) he didn’t return in subsequent cycles, so maybe Omega suffers the same fate as Alpha Mimics – if they die and their blood is absorbed by someone else, they die ”permanently”. 

The second model requires us to accept that a lot of events weren’t shown in the movie, but in return doesn’t need the rather complex parallel-timeline model. 

Plot holes aside…
All in all, there’s plenty to love about EoT. It sets up many interesting scenarios that especially computer game players can relate to (”I’ve never come this far before!”) and in the sequences where Cage knows he’s no longer immortal, the excitement really peaks (comparable to playing a game with no more extra lives). 

There are instances when the psychological aspects of their relationship could be explored much further. In the cabin scene, e.g, there’s suddenly an interesting tension, as Vratinski starts wondering how far Cage has gone in his attempts to romance her, and how much he knows about her. I thought for a second that the movie would take a new direction here, veering into a psychological thriller where Vratinski needs to ask herself how much she can trust Cage. Who knows all the tricks he’s tried so far to score? 

Time for my suggestions!
Here’s how I would have made this movie.

  1. Skip the blood part. It’s too contrived and not at all elegant. Let the power to rewind time be a groundbreaking human invention. Have an alien agent sabotage the technology so that the human super soldiers suddenly run out of attempts.
  2. Put more emphasis on Cage’s character. How does he develop as a person during this ordeal? This is what makes Groundhog day interesting.
  3. Let the moment where Cage reaches a dead end be the climax. He already reaches a point where he can’t possibly make both him and Vratinski survive (this is also in the cabin scene) – let this be the pivotal moment. He will realize that no matter what he tries, he can’t progress and keep her alive at the same time. The solution is to not contact Vratinski at all, but to go on by himself. I think it would make for an interesting sentimental twist; she will have been his mentor for months, maybe years (again, imagine the amount of iterations necessary to achieve the level of perfection seen in the movie), but ends up not knowing him at all. This will save her life. And we can even insert a romantic ending if needed – remember how she reveals her middle name at one point? Cage can approach her after the war has ended and tell her about their time together, using her middle name as some kind of token.

Thanks for reading.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Walkthrough

I happen to know that some people find the puzzles in TSP a bit difficult. There’s a couple of Youtube walkthroughs available, but for those of you who prefer to read old fashioned god darn text, here’s a nice guide by user Traveltissues on Steam:

http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=258144509

Of course, as a true adventure gamer myself, I would never stoop to consult a walkthrough. But if I did, I’d pick that one. It’s good.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized