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!

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