Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Heavy Rain: doing more with less?

I've not long finished Heavy Rain - steady play at the start followed by a mad rush to get it finished as I found it more and more engrossing - and it's got me thinking.

Obviously, it's a pretty unique proposition in 2010's gaming landscape, even if its design does hark back to to mostly dreadful interactive movie games that flourished when CD-ROMs began to shine.

That obvious parallel, though, isn't what interests me. Instead, it's the relationship between control and design; specifically, the amount of control offered to a player and the impact this has on the type of game that can be designed around this necessary restriction.

Take Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's a great game, one of the best superhero titles around, but it's as straight as third-person action adventure gets, and that means that design decisions have been taken that simultaneously give the player more control but somewhat neuter the game's narrative.

Take a typical scene: Batman dispatches a group of enemies to save some poor sap from certain doom, and he expresses his gratitude. The ensuring conversation is either presented as the player runs around the world, at the same volume even if the caped crusader is running away, or through obvious, cliched camera angles that wouldn't even find a home in the shoddiest of crime dramas.

Red Dead Redemption often suffers from the same problem. As an experience, it's excellent, and affords the player huge levels of control, but this has a detrimental affect on the way its plot is relayed: I've lost count of the number of times that I've listened to important details from the back of my horse as I've followed Marshall Johnson or as I've driven West Dickens's wagon across some pretty, but featureless, terrain, idly flicking the right-hand stick to move the camera myself. Rockstar is a fantastic production house that, on numerous occasions, has demonstrated a flair for the cinematic, but this often seems hamstrung by the free-form nature of its games.

Contrast this with Heavy Rain which, by comparison, is a hugely restrictive experience. The player's options are limited to perhaps a dozen in each scene and, more often than not, you can't leave the room before you've completed a set number of tasks.
Each of these options is unlocked by a pre-determined set of conditions and results in a pre-programmed outcome. While I've no doubt that Quantic Dreams' design documents are frighteningly complex, the finite number of scenes and options in its game surely means that more time can be spent getting these scenes right. It shows.

Whereas most games have to trade off player control for artistic, stylish exposition, Heavy Rain takes the opposite approach. By robbing the player of a certain degree of control, David Cage can ensure that every scene is littered with the kinds of cinematic touches that became his game's trademark without being hamstrung by worrying about what the player could, potentially, do with his characters.

The result? Constant cuts to inventive, surprising camera angles, writing that's sharper than almost every other game out there, motion-capped actors who move and talk that's only matched by the likes of Uncharted 2, and one of the most intriguing and absorbing experiences of 2010.

The player doesn't have constant contact with the DualShock 3's array of buttons, either; instead movements are sparse, relatively rare, and normally relate to what's happening on screen. Few other games make you frantically lunge your pad in one direction to avoid a fight, or slowly press buttons are you build up the courage to use the hot branding iron, saw or cleaver on your finger.

When Heavy Rain asks you to choose which medication to pick from the cupboard with upward and downward sweeps, or directs you to look around your car with the analogue stick, it somehow feels more significant than an arbitrary blast on the right trigger to accelerate or fire.

Heavy Rain, then, simultaneously grants the player more meaningful control while removing most of what would be considered traditional video game interaction. This means that David Cage has been able to spend more time on directing his virtual actors and less time worrying about permutations for every possible scenario and, in the process, created a game that's less "game-like" than most rival titles but all the better for it.

While I'm not advocating this approach for every time of game, it's certainly interesting - and I can't wait for what Quantic Dream does next. As long as it doesn't involve PlayStation Move, anyway. I think that's a control revolution I could do without.

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