For all the game-developers’ talk about making a cinematic experience and creating breathing/living worlds, I think Heavy Rain looks most like a true-to-life *interactive* game experience.
It really makes me realize that huge, procedurally-generated worlds are a lot of fun to explore but they don’t necessarily mesh well with story. And while a lot of games create a more linear experience to stress the story, it can come across as detached; people skip through the cutscenes and button-mash through the dialogue to get to the next combat or exploration section. But with something Heavy Rain, you’re creating those cutscenes and dialogues, they’re based on your interactions. You’re driving them. You’re living them.
And all I can think right now is that for as much potential as their engine and game has, this could be the just the beginning. Fahrenheit, for example, sold less than a million copies. Heavy Rain, with a big push from Sony, could quadruple that. And that might be just enough to get other developers looking their way, to establish a new genre and imitators.
Last night while I was drifting to sleep my mind imagined a Heavy Rain-like experience translated to other games (I love video games; shut up!). That’s when I realized it just might be the perfect medium for the game that’s long been stuck in my head.
You see, Quantic Dream is all about the scene (just like movies, they focus on the parts that push the story). For example, I believe it was David Cage (the CEO @ Quantic) who said that he imagined a scene where the character would wake up, look at his girlfriend still in bed, hop in the shower, and then, as he prepared to leave for work, walk into the kitchen to find his girlfriend ready with a fresh pot of coffee. He said he loved the scene but he couldn’t imagine how to put that into a game, let alone make it work. But if you’ve played Fahrenheit, you know he did that and that it did work. And it drew you into the world and made you appreciate and care about the characters.
One of the scenes that’s always played in my head is for a medieval/fantasy heroic adventure game. I imagine a character trudging through the mountains during a winter snow storm. He hears a noise through the biting wind and looks up into the hazy hills and spots the silhouette of some beast perched on an outcrop. The beast leaps down and attacks our hero.
If we’re talking most role-playing games, the hero either squishes it in three seconds – or we just witnessed the opening cutscene leading into a boss fight. The boss fight plays out exactly like the non-boss fight except it lasts much longer because the beast has more health. And the player, depending on how well he min/maxed his character’s build, suffers more damage.
In other words, no matter how cinematic of an experience we create leading into the encounter, most RPGs don’t handle an emotional story experience during game play. How can you fear a monster when you know its stats and your stats and that yours are off-the-charts better, and there’s no fun way for a developer to cheat that into a more fun moment? And besides, most people will have skipped the cutscene or ignored it, only barely aware that a combat is coming – because they’re focused on the upcoming loot.
I’m not trying to argue against those kinds of games. I play them. I love them. And what I’ve seen out of BioWare in regard to Dragon Age: Origins (boss monsters picking you up and throwing you in the midst of a seemingly-turn-based, strategic combat), though maybe just higher levels of polish on that strategic battlefield, makes me really want to play the game repeatedly. But there should be other kinds of games, too.
Sure, the combats in Heavy Rain are all contextual QTE (quick-time events), but they’re way more gripping and exciting, personal moments of immersion. It’s akin to going from a PS2 controller to a Wii controller. The line between immersion and playing a game is diminished. Instead of spamming X, you’re shaking the controller with both hands to match your character’s efforts to use both hands to shake off a choke hold.
Imagine my aforementioned winter scenario. As you travel to the next town through the snowy night, a few thoughts spin around your avatar. Hit the right button and you notice the beast stalking you. You force yourself to settle down and prepare for the coming fight. Or you miss the button and you don’t notice anything different, or you get misleading information which sets you more on edge and makes future actions more difficult. And even hitting the button at the right time is difficult because the cold wears on you, the night is long, you haven’t eaten, and the wind has numbed your soul (unless you ate recently, got good sleep, etc. – i.e. even mundane actions can have rewarding/damaging effects).
The monster drops down and you see a few arrows pop-up on the screen, giving you the option to dodge left or right – leading in to whether you’re stunned and pinned beneath the beast, or rolling to the side, sword drawn. Or maybe, if you’re especially skilled and prepared, you thrust your sword up to catch the beast and enter into the fight with a huge advantage. And that’s just the beginning because this rock-’em-sock-’em fight is going to last for a few minutes and have several breaks in the fighting, too, to build tension.
I’m telling you, you’ll never get a scene like that in Fable or Dragon Age or the Elder Scrolls or Alpha Protocol or even the Age of Decadence (all games I love or will soon love). But watch the walkthrough clips of Heavy Rain and you’ll see a movie-like, dramatic fight scene that you control. Tell me all that stuff with the choke holds, and the gun dropping to the ground and getting kicked just out of reach, and hitting the guy with the tools isn’t cool.
People balk at QTEs, but contextual QTEs, I think, are hands-down better than (or at least an awesome diversion/alternative to) an action RPG where you’re pressing X repeatedly and semi-snoozing through the experience. I’ll give you that they’re not for everyone but to think we have *one* game on the horizon (next two to three years minimum) that is employing them? Criminal. We need a few games out there copying off Quantic Dream and trying similar stuff. It will work. It will sell. It will be good.
I’m often lamenting that numbers ruin good adventure games. And I’ve mentioned that back in high school, in the D&D days, we did away with numbers entirely in order to focus in on a more compelling story. Knowing an orc is no challenge is no fun. But an orc that grabs you by the throat and squeezes is a lot more exciting. Modern RPGs dwell on the numbers obsessively, because they’re simulators, but the graphical fidelity is so high and the options so unlimited that we could hide the numbers in the background and make a real cinematic experience.
There’s so much more to Heavy Rain that I think would translate so well to other games, including the one in my head. I’ve already posted once before on how I’d steal a lot of their ideas to make my own Dexter game. So come on. Great games are literally waiting. The blue print has been laid out. Someone out there, make it happen! Or, as usual, hire me. I’ll do it! 🙂