Saturday, 6 March 2010

To Be Or Not To Be?

Have you ever read those low budget fantasy fiction novels that allow the reader to make decisions surrounding the fate of the protagonist by choosing to wilfully skip to certain pre-determined pages? Well once, during a family holiday to Croatia, I did. Don't worry about your ability to comprehend what I am about to pontificate if you haven't though, they are shit, and I have already given them more phonemes than they deserve.

The problem with these novels is that they are woefully out of place in the context of their medium. A novels greatest attribute is its ability to engross the reader into a set narrative, with all the highs and lows that come with such a thing, not to have the reader turn to page 64 only to be eaten by a Goblin. These novels should never have been printed, instead they should have been videogames.

And in 2010, we finally have one. It's called Heavy Rain.

Upon inserting your disk into the PS3 you are prompted to remove the piece of paper contained within the games packaging and lead via onscreen instructions into a short tutorial on origami. From this point it is fairly transparent that Heavy Rain isn't like most games you have ever played. A risky move from Sony in the age of cookie cutter corridor shooters and cover systems.

Heavy Rain is an interactive narrative. Major events are pre-set, with the player free to manipulate scenes within it, controlling multiple protagonists in order to affect its progression, and ultimately conclusion. To do so the player must utilise a quirky and often befuddling control scheme, a challenge within itself at times.

Here is a handy example of one of the games scenes:

The player is controlling a journalist named Madison Paige in an attempt to gain evidence surrounding a notorious yet illusive child murderer known as the "Origami Killer".

I knock on the door of a man known to be linked with a property connected to the Origami Killer who also happens to deal in illegal medicinal substances. I am prompted on screen with a number of choices which will help me gain entry to his home in order to search for evidence. I pick the option showing interest in purchasing some medicine from the man, which is greeted with success as he invites me inside.

The creepy looking man offers me a glass of wine, I refuse, he insists, I suspiciously take the glass but decide not to drink it. The man notices my stubborn attitude towards not drinking his beverage and reluctantly slides off to fetch the medicine I claimed I required. This is my chance, I am free to snoop around his home. Tense, fast paced music begins to play, i know I don't have long before he returns.

His bathroom reveals nothing, apart from a lack of personal hygiene. The music is going at a faster tempo now and I know I am running out of time to find a lead, I even toy with going back to the living room where he left me in fear of him discovering my real intentions, and the consequences that would arise from that. But I plough on like the investigative journalist I am controlling and enter the mans bedroom. Big mistake. I twist the analogue stick to open his cupboard which reveals an abundance of surgical gowns. Fuck, this guy is a creep, the atmosphere and context has me freaked out. I want to leave. I exit the room but the camera teases me with one last door at the end of the corridor. I know I shouldn't, he will be back any moment, but I can't resist. As I enter this last mysterious room I am hit on the back of the head by the man. The screen cuts to black as I fall unconscious.

I won't spoil any more for you but I imagine you get the idea. What is interesting is everything here was a cognitive choice by me, the player. One problem the old fantasy novels faced was that it would take the player to a situation and then give them the false veneer of choice, "George took the sword and ran at the group of Goblins, turn to page 46 to fight the one on the left, turn to page 32 to fight the one on the right". Heavy Rain lets you steer clear of the conflict altogether.

Heavy Rain isn't free from its own identity crisis however. The opening 30 minutes task the player with brushing their teeth, having a shave and taking a shower. This may be well suited to some forms of entertainment, but perhaps not one with a 12 - 24 average target audience. It had me wondering why I was dedicating my time to something I could well accomplish in real life, without having to wrestle the worlds shittiest control scheme.

After all, is that not the point of entertainment itself? Do you think drug dealers in Baltimore get home and stick The Wire on? Do you think, technology permitted, that between beachhead assaults and evading machine gun fire, soldiers in World War 2 would have played some Call of Duty to pass the time?

Heavy Rain is not perfect. It is a promising template for a more mature experience than one currently existing within videogames today, and a welcome change from the shooter saturated market currently dominating the industry. Let's hope the audience can mature alongside it.

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