Games are becoming more and more accepted as a mainstream form of storytelling. Had you said this not even 8 years ago, it would be a very different story. Although you did have games that were more enthralling than a number of films, it was still considered taboo to even consider video games as a form of story telling. However, times have changed. Through the power of modern day technology and an amazing bunch of writers, it’s not hard to create an amazing game with a truly original story. The next natural progression would be to make video games into one of the most immersive forms of entertainment on the market.
Remember Farenheit (or Indigo Prophecy to our overseas readers)? It was the story of a man who unwillingly kills a man in a diner and simultaneously followed the story of two detectives trying to uncover a string of murders across the city. It is, by far, one of my favourite games for the original Xbox, even if the last hour or so were a bit farfetched. It is one of my favourite games because of how original it was, how it was presented and the story itself. The main aim of Farenheit was to immerse you in the story. It did this by letting you control the lives of the characters. You controlled how they opened doors, you controlled when they sat, when they drank and when they went to slept. This, personally, lets me know the characters on more than just a surface level. Giving that much control over a character in an action adventure game was something very new at the time as well. It wasn’t as deep as The Sims, but it was a lot deeper than your typical game. It was probably the closest to the feeling of a film you are participating in, until now.
Heavy Rain is another game by Quantic Dream, who have pretty much improved tenfold on the formula they created for Farenheit, in which the narrative is unclear. The creator, David Cage, kept his mouth sealed about the story at this year’s Leipzig Games Convention, but a level was shown featuring a journalist by the name of Madison who was trying to enter a known serial killer’s house. You first need to get inside, find proof that he is the serial killer (which turns out to be a dead body in a bath. Big giveaway huh?) and then get out. Cage said that there will be more than one character and your actions throughout the game dictate when the new characters appear in the story, if at all.
The first thing to note about the game is that it is very atmospheric. The pallet of colour ranges from dark to creepy, without mixing in the overused brown found in games such as Gears of War. No, Heavy Rain looks like a well done thriller, possibly akin to David Fincher’s serial killer thriller Se7en. Rain splashing on the pavements, creaking floorboards and dim street lights makes Heavy Rain, not scary, but with a feeling that sinister things are taking place – which of course they are. This atmosphere is added to by the fact there are no cutscenes. Everything is performed by the player; from walking up stairs to trying to escape from a murderer’s house.
But with atmosphere, you need a character and a story. As I’ve said, the actual details of the characters and story are hazy at present, but the character of Madison in the GC demo shows us what to expect from the full game. It’s obvious that Quantic Dream are really going for the “film noir” feel, with the characters able to portray as much emotion and depth to them as a human actor. Of course, many have succeeded with facial expressions, but Quantic Dream have taken it one step further. The eyes! The eyes are possibly the single hardest part of a video game character to capture. It is essentially impossible to do well. In many games, you’ll notice a deadness in their eyes which makes it seem like they aren’t alive. Quantic Dream have found some way to utilise some special cameras to capture the movement of an actors eyes and put that information into their characters. This leads to an overall more human and believable character. This, coupled with the technology that was experimented with in Qunatic Dream’s PS3 tech demo in 2006, known as “The Casting”; which in itself is a pretty good video, but for a tech demo it shows you the possibilities future games could have in terms of emotions, shows that the characters in Heavy Rain will have less of an artificial quality to them, making them more real and “alive” than ever before.
The controls are another factor built to immerse the player. Farenheit had a similar concept when interacting with objects. In Heavy Rain it is known as “Motion Physical Action Reaction” which is designed to do as it says. You create a physical motion that, in some way, mimics the action needed to cause a reaction with the object. In the GC demo, this is demonstrated by the opening of a window into a house. To open the window, the player must mimic the sliding up of a window by moving the Sixaxis controller upwards. With the MPAR you have a lot of control over the objects. This was demonstrated with a dustbin lid, where the Sixaxis’ right thumbstick was push upwards slightly, so the lid was opened slightly, but then moved back down so the lid went down. It is more than just the stabbing of a button to open a door or slide a window open. It is more one fluid motion mimicing the actions on screen using MARP to engage the player on a physical level as well as an emotional level.
The dialogue system is also pretty unique. There aren’t many complex dialogue trees from what we saw, but instead there are four options, again similar to Farenheit, of what to say. You tilt the Sixaxis in the direction of what you want to say and the character says it. Not so original, huh? But wait, you can perform actions while talking. This was shown in the demo by Madison pressing the doorbell of the house and saying “Hello?” at the same time. Although it does sound very trivial and not too exciting, it really adds to the film effect of the game because both the action and the dialogue could be performed seperately, like in other games, but here it’s more true to life. Since there are no cutscenes, to be able to tell what your character is thinking you just pull a trigger and they say it out loud. You’ll also be able to hear their thoughts on a situation, what they think you should do next etc. Sort of like Navi from the Zelda games, except a lot less annoying, and you can use it when you want, not when the game does, again adding to the immersive experience.
The characters movement is also very strange. The camera is static, similar to games such as Resident Evil and, of course, Farenheit. Quantic Dream found static cameras a problem when moving through a level, because suddenly forwards would be backwards and left would be right, leaving you in an endless loop of walking into the same two rooms over and over. So, to combat this QD have made character movement like a racing game where you pull a trigger to move forwards, simple, but then it get’s confusing. Instead of games where the head stays static, you will be moving the head to turn etc. This also adds more new features. Instead of having to stand in front of an object like a sofa so an icon comes up saying “press … to sit,” all you have to do is move the head so it is looking at the object you want to interact with. No need to completely turn the whole body. It sounds and looks confusing, but no doubt in practice it will make a lot more sense.
As I said earlier, in terms of the story you, the player, decide on what to do and how to do it. In the demo, David Cage showed two different ways of approaching the level. Whilst Madison is sneaking around the murderer’s house that she is exploring for clues to prove he is a killer, the killer arrives home. The first thing to note here would be the use of “24-esque” splitscreens which show the action happening elsewhere as well as what you are doing. These too were used in Farenheit and added a lot of drama and tension to certain scenes. In David’s first play through, he decides to take things quietly and sneak out of the house without being noticed. The second time, however, Madison steps on a creaky floorboard and the killer comes to investigate. Madison is able to hide in different places with Cage stating that there are, “20 or 30 different hiding places [in the house]”. To hide, the player must press a combination of buttons and triggers designed to put strain on the player’s hands, which is meant to represent how hard it is for Madison to stay hidden. It sounds really interesting on paper, but whether it works in execution is another story. Madison, however, is discovered and a series of Quick Time Events occur. However, instead of a huge flashing button appearing on the screen, icons are subtely placed where the developers have figured the player’s eyes would be at the time; for instance, looking at the knife the killer is holding, an X would appear on the handle. These two methods of completing it are not the only way. Cage explains that the player could kill the man or hide and call the police who will come and rescue you. And how you go about it could affect the rest of the story. Cage likened it to a rubber band, where the player could expand or contract the story at their will.
Heavy Rain is all about immersion; putting the player in the character’s shoes. Controlling the character directly instead of feeling like you’re just the puppet master, you pretty much are the character. Quantic Dream have come up with yet another great idea and it looks to continue to get better, rivalling some of the best film noir thrillers created. Can they pull it off though? If Farenheit is anything to go by, they pretty much created a game that matched what they wanted, so it is entirely possible. Keep your eyes peeled for a review when the game is released on the PlayStation 3 next year.