Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Responsibility of the Player

Over at Experience Points, Scott Juster has two very interesting articles that work with the analogy of the player's role in a game as sharing properties with those of both the actor and director of a theatre. The first article, "Self-directed Play" sets up this analogy, and the second article, "Walk, Don't Run" discusses how a game's rules can be seen as the stage directions and how contradictions within these directions undermine the player's trust. Juster uses Uncharted 2's Tibetan Village scene and its mandatory walking as an example of this contradiction.

A sentence in the opening paragraph of this later article caught my attention as it concerned something I have often mused over, but have had trouble finding words for: the player's responsibility:
"[...] game players are responsible for both a performance's original vision and its subsequent reinterpretations."
The discussion in the comments focuses on when it is suitable for a game designer to force the player into a certain situation or to force the player to conform to unique rules in a certain scene. Without intending to simplify the entire arguments of the commenters (all of whom are totally worth reading, except for mine!): people seemed to agree it is acceptable for the game designer to intervene when the logic and coherency of the narrative is at stake. These comments (again I stress, generally) generally supported game designer decisions such as forcing Drake to walk in the Tibetan Village because if the player decided to run around in circles, the narrative would be rendered nonsensical. However, I think this overlooks the issue of player responsibility

With choice comes responsibility, as some movie character once said (well, I think they actually said 'power', but you get the idea). Just as the actor on stage has a responsibility to the play's overall performance, If a player has an active role in the performance of a game's narrative, he or she has a responsibility to act out the narrative in a coherent way.
Thus, as it is the player's responsibility, it is not something the game designer should force, but something the play should choose. Consequently, if the narrative jars in an inconsistent, illogical way in reaction to how the player acts, the player has only his or herself to blame. For example, it is the player's responsibility to the narrative of Uncharted 2 to walk Drake through the Tibetan Village; it is not the game designer's place to constrain the player by contradicting previous game rules (however, as Juster suggests, forcing Drake to limp as he is recently wounded would allow the game designer to alter the rules without contradicting pre-existing rules).

A disclaimer is now required! I do not mean to imply that the player should ensure the narrative is coherent. Even the most story-driven games are entirely capable of being experienced and (arguably) enjoyed independent of the plot. Rather, if the player wishes to enjoy the game's plot as a coherent narrative, they shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that their own role is acted out in a logical way. If a player wishes to run around the Tibetan Village like a lunatic, they should be able to within the same rules that define the rest of the game; however, that same player can not complain two minutes later that the story makes no sense because of Drake's frivolity. The actor in a theatre cannot complain that the role they just performed was unconvincing without accepting a fair amount of the blame.

A comment on "Walk, Don't Run" brought up Half Life 2:

"Gordon, if he were a character at all and not just a floating gun, would be a complete psychopath and nobody notices. He's busy trying to break the teleporter prototype while Alyx is pouring her heart out. He never looks the actual characters in the eye, he's too busy hopping around impatiently at the exit he knows they're eventually going to lead him to. Valve, in their stubborn but admirable devotion to a particular mode of gamemaking ignore the importance of social rules and it destroys the illusion of believability for both Gordon and the characters in the game."
Valve, I think, do not ignore the importance of social rules; the player does. The player, as an actor in the role of Gordon Freeman, also has the option to stand with the other scientists and listen to the discussion. If the player wishes to enjoy the narrative of Half Life 2, it is his or her responsibility to act in a way that maintains its coherence.

As an aside, years ago, without considering it at all in these terms, I played through Half Life in a way where I pretended I 'was' Gordon Freeman. I acted out my role as a scientist who had no idea what was going to happen. I walked from the train to the test lab (forgetting my HEV suit and being turned around by the security guard on the way); I made eye-contact with people who spoke to me; I ran down the stairs utterly convinced the army was here to help. It was a really interesting way to re-experience the story of a game I had already completed many times before. In hignsight, I was performing as Gordon Freeman.

Back to player responsibility. Another example of player responsibility being ignored that bus me is Clint Hocking's attack on story-driven games in Edge's "Death of the Author" article:
"I'm supposed to feel sad about the death of this character and yet I ran over 17 old ladies to get there. It's really jarring."
It wouldn't be jarring if Hocking, as the player, didn't run over 17 old ladies in the first place. It is not Rockstar's responsibility to make it impossible to hit the old ladies (which, I should note, is not what Hocking was arguing); it is the player's responsibility, if they wish for the narrative to not jar, to not run over 17 old ladies. That said, the player certainly should feel free to drive however they desire if they have no concern for the narrative and only wish to experience the mechanics of the game.

Although I have made clear arguments in this piece, I acknowledge what a tricky thing it is to pin down. Just how much responsibility does the player have? The game designer must surely still have some responsibility towards the narrative, but how much? If not being allowed to run jars in Uncharted 2, is it still acceptable in Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" mission?

Before these questions can be answered, it must be acknowledge that the play does have responsibilities that a passive audience has never needed to be concerned with. The actor in the theatre cannot sit before the stage to watch the show; neither can they blame the script they refuse to read. Similarly, the player cannot sit back and watch the game unfold without acting in it; neither can they feel mistreated when their own actions shatter the narrative's immersion.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Research Argument

[The following is an email that I wrote to the course convener of the research topic I am writing at uni this semester. I explain what I plan on looking at, why I plan on looking at it, and what texts I plan on engaging with. It is a fairly narrow topic as I only have 4000 words and a single semester to write it. If you have any interest at all in what I am planning on writing this semester, read on.

EDIT: I should also note that the essay must in some way tie in to the concept of 'dark play' as described in some random article the convener sent us. I guess the key elements of dark play can be described as a blurring of the frame of play, and a masking of the audience so that they can take part in forms of play that are not socially acceptable without having to fear social repercussions. This isn't too important to this article, though, but when you see the weird reference to dark play, that is why.]

I have been doing quite a bit of reading this week and have found a few texts that I think will be seminal to my essay. As such, I have been able to narrow down my interests into a specific topic… hopefully one specific enough! Now, the tricky part will be describing that topic in this email, which I already suspect may come across quite rambling.

In a sentence, I am going to look at how the real-world player and virtual character share the responsibility of protagonist in Fallout 3.

Over the last two days I have read several chapters of Jesper Juul’s half-real (2005), which is largely focused on, as the name suggests, how video games are 'half-real' in the sense they are played in the real world while simutaneously imagined in a fictional world. The relationship of a video game's ‘rules’ and ‘fiction’ (Juul intentionally avoids using the term ‘narrative’ as much as possible as he believes it has too many definitions and can only be applied to games if you pick and choose which definitions you use) are pivotal to the book. Juul’s defines the two as:

“[…] the fiction of the game cues [the player] into understanding the rules of the game, and, again, the rules can cue the player to imagine the fictional world of the game.” (p163)

This quote in particular made me think about the frame-blurring aspect of dark play. The player must play by the rules of the game, while the character that the player must use to interact with the game’s fictional world must abide by the world’s fictional laws (how gravity works, how non-playable characters to relate to your character, whether or not aliens exist, for example).

The following two quotes about the player and the character in relation to rules and fiction appeal to me as explicitly related to what I hope to look at, as well as clearly linking the topic to dark play’s concepts of masking and hiding the state of play respectively:

“A game is a play with identities, where the player at one moment performs an action considered morally sound, and the next moment tries something he or she considers indefensible. The player chooses one mission or another, tries to complete the mission in one way or another, tries to do “good” or “evil”. Games are playgrounds where players can experiment with doing things they would or would not normally do.” (p193)


“If we assume that the fictional world of the game is a world, it would make sense to assume that the characters in that world are therefore generally unaware of their being fictional characters or being part of a game at all.” (p183) [Not sure why this quote is formatting so weirdly, sorry.]

I understand I can’t base my entire research topic on one book, and I have been reading chapters of other books and articles (including one specifically titled “Moral Decision Making in Fallout”), but I think these quotes sum up quite nicely what I am interested in.

My one problem with Juul’s book is his presumption that the playable character is the protagonist of the game’s story. A game’s narrative revolves around both choices the player makes in relation to the game’s rules, and attributes of the playable character (physical, mental, and moral) within the game’s fiction. Both the player and the character share the role of protagonist.

Fallout 3 will be a good game to exhibit this as the player has much freedom over creating the playable character’s attributes—gender, ethnicity, physical abilities, charm (or lack thereof), morality (based on a quantified measure of ‘karma’ on a sliding scale of -1000 to 1000), etc., and those attributes in turn affects what quests the player is able to attempt, which non-playable characters are friends or enemies, among many other variables. Essentially, the fact that the player may enact either a ‘good’, ‘evil’, or ‘neutral’ character, or even one that swings between the three based on the immediate circumstances, means that Fallout 3 will be a good example to highlight the shared role of player and protagonist, and also to tie that shared role to dark play.

As the essay is so short, I know I will have to apply strict limitations, such as the type of video games this applies to (specifically, coherent-world, adventure games) and so forth. However, and counter-intuitively to the rambling length of this email, I feel this is a topic that I will be able to cover in this essay.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Meaningful Death

(I have tried my best to keep this article free of spoilers. Reading it will not reveal the identity of the Origami Killer, nor will it reveal the consequences of any particular course of action through the game. What it will spoil, however, is the existence of certain scenes in the game. You may find these scenes more rewarding if you read nothing of them before you play them yourself.)

I have only read a fraction of all the Heavy Rain writing out there, but I am surprised that none of the blogs I have read have touched on Heavy Rain's treatment of death. Heavy Rain treats death in a way that I found so much more emotive, so much more immersive, so much more meaningful than near any other game I have ever played, and then it completely stuffs it all up in one scene towards the end of the story. Death in Heavy Rain and its affect on the player has left me simultaneously more impressed and more frustrated than any other aspect of the game, more immersed in and more shut-off from the characters and plot than any game I have recently played.

Narrative-driven games are, more often than not, violent. I am not qualified to justify why this is the case, nor am I well enough read on the matter to link you to someone who is. A story requires conflict of some kind, and a game requires inputs and reactions; violence is a natural solution to this and has been used since one space ship blew up the other in Spacewar. I have no qualms with narratives being violent as long as that violence is used to present a meaningful story, to intentionally evoke a certain emotion from the audience. I want to feel like every death within a story I experience is presented to me like a real person, and that their death is important. I want to be affected by it.

Novels and films arguably have an easier time achieving this than games. The easiest way to make death matter is, simply, to have less deaths. The death of a single character that has been well-rounded over a two hour film is always going to evoke more emotion from the audience than two hours of hundreds of generic mercenaries being thrown from an exploding building.

This is not to say games have not tried to evoke a meaningful, emotive response to death from the player. Call of Duty games highlight that the player is merely "just another soldier" by showing the war from multiple points of view, even killing a few of them to emphasise that you are no more important than any other soldier on the battlefield, and conversely, that every other soldier on the battlefield is just as important as you. Grand Theft Auto 4 forces the player to decide if certain characters are executed or allowed to go free. A friend may easily be injured coming to the player's rescue in Far Cry 2, and the player must make a split-second decision to help their friend in return or to run and save themselves.

However, these attempts at making death meaningful are often diluted by other actions performed in the game.
Games require constant action in order for the player to remain a participant in the narrative's forming. Thus, a typical gaming narrative will often require more constant violence, more constant deaths, and thus, each individual death will carry considerably less meaning. Enemy soldiers in Call of Duty are still treated as hordes of cloned 'bad guys' (though, this criticism could be levelled just as easily at any war film or novel). The play can splatter a dozen old women against the footpath as Nico discusses why he did/did not execute Drako Brevic. Saving your friend in Far Cry 2 will require you to slaughter ten other mercenaries, five of whom look exactly the same, and all of whom look the same as mercenaries at other camps throughout the map. Any attempt to make a single death more meaningful in a game is usually diluted by the two dozen flat characters that died beforehand.

It is worth noting that in each of these games, a large percentage of the basic toolset of actions that the play has available to interact with the gameworld are violent: shoot, hit, throw grenade, reload (to an extent), etc. Consequently, in order to interact with the gameworld, the player must engage in violence for a considerable percentage of the game.

The actions a player may use to interact with Heavy Rain's gameworld, though, are far more numerous and broad than an average action-orientated game. Pick up cup, open fridge, look in glove compartment, lean on balcony, turn on the lights, think, etc. By allowing the player to participate with the gameworld through non-violent actions, Heavy Rain is able to space out violent acts while still remaining sufficiently interactive for the player to progress the narrative. Thus, there are less deaths in the game. Additionally, as the ratio of possible violent actions versus possible non violent actions widens, the impact of a single violent action (pulling a gun, for example) intensifies, and each death is able to have more meaningful consequences for the plot and for the player's overall experience.

I am going to look at three specific types of death in Heavy Rain: two that are more emotive and impactful than nearly any death I have experienced in video games, if not any narrative. The third, towards the end of the game, disappointed me greatly and essentially made a mockery of any meaning the player took out of earlier deaths in the plot and thus destroyed my immersion for the length of the scene, my conviction in the character involved, and almost destroyed my entire game experience.

Type One: Meaningful Murder

In my playthrough, there were two times I was faced with the choice of pulling the trigger of a gun aimed at someones head. If I press R1, the person on the other side of the barrel dies. Their life would continue or end based on the choice I made.

The first was the scene where a suspect pulls a gun on Lieutenant Blake and I, playing as Jayden, in turn pull my gun at the suspect. This scene shook me up quite a lot. I did not want to shoot this character; it was Blake, that pig-headed dolt, who provoked the suspect in the first place. I tried to negotiate; I tried to convince the suspect we could all walk away (an empty gesture after we illegally broke into his apartment, I thought); no one has to be killed here today.

But he grew more edgy. In the end, I panicked and pulled the trigger. My feelings mirrored the dumbfounded look on Jayden's face: I killed him. I was not thinking this coherently at the time, but in the end, it came down to the choice of killing a paranoid man whose house we had entered unlawfully, or allowing a cop to die. I was forced to decide who should live and who should die. I am still unsure if the suspect truly would have pulled the trigger, if I could have talked him out of it. The decision I made stuck with me for days.

The second scene, similar to the first, is when the Origami Killer orders Ethan to murder a man in order to obtain a clue of Sean's whereabouts. When the man opens his door, I understand he is a drug dealer and feel relived that this may make my decision easier. Sure, I am not one to judge a man's life by his drug habits, but it will make it easier to justify it to myself later. However, as one thing leads to another and I am chased through his house, I see his belongings; I see where he lives; I see the artifacts that make this non-playable character into a human being. In the end, standing in his child's bedroom, I simply can't do it. I cannot justify exchanging this man's life for Sean's. I walk away and do not obtain the clue.

In both these situations, the player has to choose (or feel they have to choose, at least) between who lives and who dies: Blake or the suspect, Sean or the drug dealer. Because your character has not just gunned down fifty goons, bandits, gangsters, or aliens, and because both the suspect and drug dealer are fleshed out as living humans by the presence of their homes and belongings, neither choice is easy. These characters are not just faceless non-playable characters that you are fragging. This is murder and your choice will have consequences.

Type Two: Meaningful Suicide

In most games, the most meaningless death of all is that of the player/protagonist. Or, rather, the player/protagonist's life is so meaningful, so utterly integral to the narrative, that the game cannot go on without them and can only continue in a coherent fashion by resetting to a checkpoint situated previously in time and/or space in relation to the point of the player/protagonist's death. In essence, the plot pretends the player never made the choices/actions that lead to their demise.

Having to repeat a section of the game is usually the most meaningful consequence of self-death a player will ever have to face. The in-game protagonist tends to face even less of a consequence as their timeline simply resets and they have no memory or ever actually dying, or they just lose a small amount of money or skill points. (Note: I know I have brought it up several times before, but it is worth noting here again the various perma-death experiments that I am sure you are already familiar with, especially Ben Abraham's Far Cry 2 experiment.)

Heavy Rain has been criticised by some for presenting multiple points-of-view instead of focusing on a single protagonist. Shoinan argues that it made him feel more like a director than a player. This is a fair call. Multiple protagonists do weaken the player's attachment to any one character (namely, Ethan) while not allowing others the time to be properly fleshed out (namely, Madison). However, multiple points-of-view allow Heavy Rain to be one of the first games I have ever played to deal with the consequences of permanent player death, to weave it into the narrative, and to move on. Sure, Mass Effect and Final Fantasy VI may kill off a party member or two, but in Heavy Rain, YOUR decision and/or actions may get YOU killed and the plot will suffer very real consequences because of it, but it will not reset for you.

This knowledge that your death is permanent overshadows every choice and action the player makes through the game
(I distinguish between the two as a missed QTE can just as likely get you killed as a meditated decision). It adds gravitas when determining a path through the power station; it makes what are essentially QTE-scripted fight scenes more tense than any QTE scene formerly had any right to be. Most acutely, the awareness of your own mortality is painfully present in the last task the Origami Killer sets for Ethan: sacrifice your own life to save your son.

In any other game, this choice would have been easy. Obviously you would not die as if you did die, the game would end; it simply isn't possible in the mechanics of most games. In Heavy Rain, however, Ethan's death is very possible, and the water level won't stop rising if it happens before he can free Sean. The fact that Ethan's death would be meaningful, and not just cause me to respawn, made the choice of whether or not to drink the poison a lot harder. I sat Ethan in the chair in the corner for full minutes before I built up the courage to drink it.

Unlike nearly any other game, your death is not only possible in Heavy Rain, is is meaningful and it will have a meaningful effect on the plot.

Type Three: Meaningless Massacre

Only a scene or two after Ethan is faced with the heart-wrenching choice of murdering a man to hopefully save his son, Heavy Rain negates the meaning of this and every death-related choice the player has previously made and, essentially, cheats and betrays the player out of a meaningful experience.

The scene is the one where Shelby barges into a mansion of a millionaire and begins blasting away at faceless goon squads of cloned baddies who, ironically, look like they were taken right out of the original Virtua Cop. I honestly wondered at first if the scene was intended to be some kind of Virtua Cop homage or parody.

This scene is horrible. Horrible! Not twenty minutes after the player sweats over whether or not they should murder a drug dealer in his child's bedroom, they are trapped in an on-rails, QTE, lightgun event and slaughtering dozens of characters. These deaths are worse than meaningless; they are detrimental to the player's entire experience up to this point. The entire gameworld, previously only inhabited with detailed, actualised human beings, is now full of generic-action-game cloned goons needing to be slaughtered. This works in games that have set up cloned goons as consistent with the gameworld. In Heavy Rain, this is inconsistent with the gameworld presented up to this point and completely destroys any immersive zone the player has been able to build up for themselves.

The scene could have been better by, well, being anything other than what it was. Instead of Narnia closets full of guards (a la Virtua Cop), perhaps just two guards at the door could have been overpowered in a quick struggle and ten beg for their lives as Shelby overpowers them. Then the player can decide if he shoots them or not. Perhaps force the player to attempt to sneak in first. Anything but this meaningless QTE trash. I know I keep making the Virtua Cop analogy, but this scene was truly about as enjoyable as trying to play Virtua Cop on my playstation's d-pad before I bought a lightgun. I understand Shelby was pissed at this guy, but this scene was entirely out of character.

Worst of all, and the ultimate insult to the player, after the shootout, the player is forced to decide between letting an old man die of a heart attack or save him. This scene lost all significance for me (and, indeed, I did not mention it under Type One above) because of the events leading up to it. This is no better than Nico running over four pedestrians as he tells Kate he is a new man and is done with crime. In fact, this is worse, as the Grand Theft Auto 4 player can only blame themselves for running over the pedestrians, but the Heavy Rain player has no choice but to play through this ridiculous shootout. (Note: I mean no choice once the scene begins. I do not know if the entire scene is avoidable, but I doubt it is.)


Heavy Rain's characters (both playable and non-playable) are rounder and more fleshed-out prior to any input from the player than the characters of most games--they have more meaningful lives. Because we are able to see Heavy Rain's characters less as flat, empty models and more as fleshed-out people, causing the end of a character's life has a greater impact on the player.

Meaningful lives lead to meaningful deaths which, ultimately, lead to meaningful choices and interactions from the player. Heavy Rain is sometimes predictable, often clumsy, more often awkward, and even more often cliche. However, the player is able to be more emotively immersed in the plot of the game due to the meaningful consequences attached to their choices and actions, and the meaningful lives that those choices and actions may end.

(Final notes:

1. I did not even touch on the fact that the entire game's narrative is framed by deaths. Ie, it both begins and ends with deaths that the characters' every actions are motivated by in some way

2. There is a lot wrong with Heavy Rain that I did not touch on in this article. For a good run down on articles looking at Heavy Rain, I would start at Critical Distance's blogroll for last week. And this great article at the Borderhouse Blog.

3. Disagreements and challenges are more that welcomed to this article, they are encouraged. Also, I have spent the better part of this afternoon and evening typing and retyping this and it is surely full of typos that I missed in my half-dazed proof read.. By all means point them out to me.)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thought For The Day

If a game requires players and a story requires characters, then the narrative-space of a video game can only be navigated by a hybrid of the two: a player/character with shared, symbiotic agency.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Interactive Tropes

So I started playing Heavy Rain last week and am enjoying it quite a lot more than I expected to. Perhaps it is simply the novelty of playing a game that is more than Just Another Shooter or Just Another Platformer that I find so alluring about it; I'm not sure. It is not without its flaws, but a post addressing those can wait until I complete the game, and that will have to wait until this so called apocalyPS3 passes. For now, I want to look at something which has previously played through my head but which Heavy Rain has caused me to consider from a different perspective: the relationship, or perhaps dichotomy, of interactive-ness and round-ness.

Narrative in linear mediums are more convincing, more believable, if the protagonist is more round. By 'more round' I mean more detailed, more fleshed out. The more we know about the protagonist, the more 'real' they feel, the more likely we are to suspend our disbelief of whatever fantastical plot they find themselves in.

On the other hand, by consequence of being interactive, video game protagonists are generally flatter. That is, they enter the story with very few personal characteristics pre-authored into them. This makes sense as the more attributes pre-ordained unto a character, the less attributes the player is able to endow through interacting with the game. A protagonist of a Grand Theft Auto-like game who has a deep-seeded belief in non-violence would render the crime-ridden story of murder and action illogical and impossible to believe, let alone be an immersive experience.

Interactivity and round-ness are opposite ends of a sliding scale. The more a player is able to interact with and have control over a character, the less round that character is capable of being. Conversely, the player will have more issues interacting with and directing a more rounded, more characterised character.

At the more round/less interactive end of the spectrum are strongly grounded characters like Cloud Strife and Nathan Drake. Characters who are round enough to be convincing in their own right, yet are only interactive in very basic ways (though completely different ways if we were to compare Cloud and Drake) that don't allow much room for the player to add their own attributes to the character. Both Cloud Strife and Nathan Drake are the same characters for nearly every player that plays through their stories.

At the other end of the spectrum, where characters are less round/more interactive, are characters like Gordon Freeman or the Vault Dweller. Characters whose nigh every move can be controlled from picking up a bottle, pulling a trigger, to climbing onto a rooftop, yet are not able to be convincing characters independent of the player's input. Instead, their personalities and moralities are expressed in the player's decision in how an obstruction is confronted, how an objective is obtained.

Somewhere in the middle, in my opinion, would be Commander Shepard and Nico Belic: characters with a relatively strong sense of self but not one that is unmovable by the decisions the player makes throughout the story.

This is why the vast majority of gaming protagonists are tropes, ranging from generic male space marines to generic male mercenaries: to allow the player to paint their own experiences and choices onto an avatar. That, and because many video games are horrible cliche, but that is a different discussion.

Heavy Rain's plot is relatively unique to video games, but is nothing that hasn't been seen before in film or literature. However, its somewhat archetypal (perhaps even stereotypical at times) crime/thriller plotline has me no less immersed than the leaking halls of Rapture or the oppressed streets of City 17. Is it simply that the interactivity of being able to bump the right analog stick to the left to avoid a head-on collision on a freeway makes the scene that much more gripping than watching it passively in a movie?

Well, simply: yes. As Ethan speeds down that freeway, he could die if my reflexes are off by a millisecond. Just as his Shaun's life is in Ethan's hands as he plays the Origami Killer's games, Ethan's life is in my hands as I play Heavy Rain. If I screw up, he is dead.

And that is an experience unique for me in Heavy Rain. I don't die; Ethan does. In Fallout 3, Half-life2, even Grand Theft Auto 4, it's not Qwae, Gordon Freeman, or Nico Belic that dies (at least, not exclusively) but I who dies. Typically, the symbiotic agency between player and protagonist within the gameworld (a symbiosis that strengthens at the less round/more interactive end of the scale) means that the failings of one of us kills us both. But in Heavy Rain, my failings may kill someone else. How far am I willing to go to save someone I love, indeed.

Heavy Rain's characters are about as far across on the less interactive/more round end of thesliding scale as it is possible to go and still be considered interactive. You cannot jump onto the bed; you cannot break and do a u-turn as you drive down the street; you cannot pistol-whip your partner in the police for being a complete douche (which he really, really is). Ethan can sit on the bed, or he can not; Ethan drives down the street whether you adjust the review mirror to look at Shaun on the backseat or not; Norman can futilely shout at the cop to stop beating a suspect, or he can not. Quantic Dream seems to be aware of this in the way Heavy Rain never seems to be referred to as a 'game' and instead as an 'interactive drama'.

By allowing the player less agency over the characters, the characters of Heavy Rain are able to be far better rounded, meaning they are able to be far more convincing characters in their own right before the player makes any form of input.

The environment, though, is another matter entirely. While the characters are less interactive and better rounded than in a typical game, the environment is arguably far flatter and interactive. As many reviews have observed, Ethan's house looks as lifeless and stale as the pages of an Ikea catalogue. The grocery store looks like every grocery store in every city in every country I have visited. The shopping mall looks like... well... okay, shopping malls are pretty lifeless already.

Note that this generic-ness of environment isn't a bad thing. The same scale of round-ness/interactive-ness that applies to characters also applies to environment. While all of Heavy Rain's environments are generic tropes, they are still believable and convincing by being so interactive. Ethan's house feels real; the grocery store feels real; the shopping mall feels as close to real as any shopping mall could hope to feel because the player is able to interact with them so coherently.

Dozens of objects in your house, in the grocer, in the police headquarters can be interacted with and manipulated to potentially affect the direction the narrative takes. It is the player's physical interactions with the environment that are more likely to affect the narrative outcome of Heavy Rai-n-either intentionally by opting to hide the origami shoebox under the motel bed, or accidentally by missing a QTE on the freeway--than the character-motivated conversation interactions like in, say, any BioWare or Bethesda title.

If Gordon Freeman, the Vault Dweller, and The Master Chief are blank canvases on which the player is meant to paint their own choices, the characters of Heavy Rain are portraits as detailed as the close ups of its loading screens--the player just adds chance scars (both physical and mental) haphazardly as they stumble through the story. However, if City 17, The Capital Wasteland, and the Halo Rings are portraits of complex, well rounded worlds within which the game occurs, then the settings of Heavy Rain are blank, minimalist walls and the player can paint on them with whatever damn item they find in the room.

There. Unmix those metaphors!