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.)

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