Earlier this year I played a video game that comes as close to successful interactive storytelling that’s ever been done. The game is called Heavy Rain, a PlayStation 3 exclusive, which was in development for five years before being released to the masses.
I first became aware of the game in 2006 when a non-playable tech demo, a three-minute scene called “The Casting,” premiered at E3 of that year. The demo absolutely floored me, and still does, with it’s realistic use of camera work, high quality voice acting and detailed animation that brought a magnetic quality to the performance of a virtual actor. If you haven’t seen it—stop reading right now and watch it below:
Heavy Rain is described by it’s French director and writer David Cage as “a very dark film noir thriller with mature themes” about how far you’re willing to go to save someone you love. In the game you play four different characters whose lives are affected by the serial murders of the Origami Killer. It’s this intersection of four lives, four storylines, that makes the narrative gameplay such a dense and rewarding experience. Each time you play one of the characters something subtly, on a psychological level, happens that makes you think like them and influences the way you play.
What makes Heavy Rain such a successful interactive narrative is a combination of it’s semi-explorable world and innovative game controls. If the game was a free-roaming experience like Grand Theft Auto then the narrative set forth by the creators becomes unfocused and if the world is too closed in it becomes something akin to a reaction game like Dragon’s Lair. It’s the unique control scheme which is able to balance the two. Besides the typical character movements using the dual joysticks on the PS3 controller you can also bring up a selection of the character’s current thoughts by holding the L2 button which opens up a whole new level of interaction. Sometimes these thoughts will blur, and selecting them at the wrong time will affect the character’s reaction, causing them to say or do something in the wrong way thus affecting where the narrative will go.
The New Genre
The most interesting idea that Heavy Rain raises in regards to interactive storytelling is the idea of character vs. player narrative. When you watch a film you’re experiencing the story through the character’s eyes. You feel sympathy, anger, joy through the onscreen portrayal of these emotions by the character. When you’re playing a game like Heavy Rain it’s you, the player, who is having the experience. Your experience with the story will differ from everyone else, not just because of the story branches that are baked into the game, but because of your unique thought process as you traverse the narrative. If anything it makes the story even more memorable because of this first-hand real-time participation.
The review by Eurogamer France said it best in that the game symbolizes “the culmination of a genre halfway between cinema and video game that has always seemed interesting in its intentions but rarely conclusive.” I can say that the makers of Heavy Rain have made it conclusive and now it will be interesting to see what filmmakers and video game designers will do with this new genre.