Our Role as Actor in ‘Heavy Rain’

Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer recently played Heavy Rain, and had some interesting criticisms of it:

Heavy Rain situates a system between the player and the game that heavily mediates the player’s experience…It wants to immerse me in a realistic, character-driven story with detailed environments and atmospherics; but it also wants me to remain outside that experience, ever-vigilant for the next quick-response button-press. (Heavy Rain, Brainy Gamer, 24 February 2010)

It’s a common criticism of the game and one that I couldn’t disagree with more.

I believe that when we play a game we usually take on multiple roles, usually that of the player, a writer, or an actor.

Most games are content to make us the player and nothing else. These are linear games or games with a very specific story to tell, games like Gears of War, God of War, Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty, Uncharted, etc. When we play as Nathan Drake, we’re never asked to think like Nathan Drake. It doesn’t matter if our morality system is different than his because he exists as a unique character apart from us, despite the fact that we have total control over his actions. Gamers joke that although Drake seems like a chill and charming everyman, he’s really a mass murderer when you think about it. But this dichotomy between the character’s personality and players’ actions doesn’t ruin the game because we’re never asked to act like Drake. We’re not an actor in Uncharted. Instead, within the game, there are these moments when we play the puppeteer, when we do nothing more than guide a character through obstacles. We’re just a player.

Recent examples of games that make us actor and writer are Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins, and Fallout 3. The characters that we create in these games are blank slates that we then imbue with our own desires and motivations. Even Commander Shepard, who has a default look and speaks, has no personality other than what we give to him. So unless you make a conscious decision to play a certain way, the choices and actions that you make as that character really do reflect who you are. Not in any major way, mind you, but the fact is that as virtual representations of us they do in some way reflect the person who made them. Therefore, the consequences of our actions and subsequent plot developments feel more personal because we make decisions based on our own internal logic: we do what we think is best, we do what we want, we act out fantasies through these characters, but we really only like ourselves. We don’t really take on the role of a character. Instead, we act the space marine or fantasy hero or vault dweller; we play a job class.

Heavy Rain also asks us to be an actor and writer but to very different degrees than those other games. In Heavy Rain we actually take on the role of another person, not just a job class. As noted, a character with his or her own desires and motivations. What we want to do is irrelevant. We’re now supposed to think like this character. Our interaction with the world is limited to only items with a prompt next to them, but this only seems like a limitation if we view the game from the perspective of a player. If we view the world though the eyes of the characters, these limitations seem reasonable. At any point in the game, the only actions available to us are actions that the character would take. For example, when Ethan finds a clue to the whereabouts of his missing son, he wouldn’t watch TV or make a meal so no prompt appears over the TV or refrigerator. However, he would go upstairs to take one last look at his son’s room before running off, so that action is allowed. Norman would do X or Y, so I can do either, but he wouldn’t do Z so that option isn’t even possible.

This lack of freedom of choice can make it feel like our role as writer is diminished. Since our actions are always limited in scope, the end result might not feel as personal as it would otherwise but that doesn’t necessarily mean the story itself is more linear, just that we, as players, have less freedom than a game like Grand Theft Auto IV, which takes a similar approach to character while giving players total freedom.

The game tries to instill Niko’s values onto us. We go out on dates, hang out with his friends, and all the while. his conversations with these people help us get to know him. We’re forced to do these mundane activities because that’s what Niko would do, but then, we’re given free rein to act however we want. He may talk about his reluctance to kill, but when we’re given absolute freedom that’s the first thing that many players do. When the game begins, Niko says that he doesn’t want to start trouble, but then we have to drive up the street and the fastest way to get there is to hijack a car. Our freedom of action creates a blatant disconnect between the player and Niko, a disconnect that Heavy Rain avoids.

The limited interaction may be off-putting to some, but I believe it’s a necessary trade-off between creating characters we’re that supposed to control and creating characters that we are supposed to emulate.