Cathode Tan - Games, Media and Geek Stuff
logo design by man bytes blog

Monday, March 01, 2010

How Heavy Rain Shows Ebert Is Wrong

I'm leaning at this point to write a couple of Heavy Rain reviews, ranging in their spoiler-ness - but this isn't one of them. This is a response to the Destructiod column Why Heavy Rain proves Ebert right There won't be much in the way of spoilers (no more so than the original article), but probably some. Well, one.

To get to the crux of it, let's quote the Ebert man himself:

Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
-- Roger Ebert's answer man

There are lots and lots and lots of issues with Ebert's stance, not the least of which that art is less meaningful is it is participatory. More specifically, though, I'm taking issue with the examples the Desctructoid column uses to give strength to the stance. I will agree - Heavy Rain speaks to the heart of Ebert's argument. The player, as intruder to the narrative, as the potential to derail the storytelling intended by the original storyteller (in this case, the makers of the game and more specifically, David Cage).

I just don't think player derails the story in the way Anthony portrays. This is his evidence (here be spoilers):

Even ignoring the fact that Ethan specifically tells Madison nothing matters apart from saving Shaun -- he doesn't say "nothing, apart from me getting my freak on" -- this is a guy who has gone through immeasurable mental and physical trauma to save his son (unless you made Ethan refuse to complete any of the trials, in which case I'd have to ask why you're even playing the game). This is a guy who knows that every wasted second brings his son closer and closer to death. Under no circumstances would it make any sense for this guy to have sex with Madison.

But if you're curious about how the sex scene will play out, or if you have some personal interest in getting these two characters to screw regardless of their motivations, you can force Ethan to have sex with her. Congrats: you get to watch a sex scene and a murder at the same time, as Ethan's true character is obliterated before your eyes. Ebert proves himself right: your ability to control the story has resulted in a bad story.

And I disagree because I, in playing the game, arrived at the exact opposite conclusion in this scene. Ethan, having been rather brutalized at this point and presented with an attractive woman in his hotel room who has been helping and now clearly willing ... what straight man wouldn't get his freak on, as Anthony puts it. The Girl and I were on the couch while this was unfolding and it was pretty clear to both of us that Ethan would go for it.

So the ensuing scene for us didn't seem jarring or narrative breaking in the least. Now - here's the counterpoint I'm trying to make ... Anthony has his opinion on Ethan's character, I have mine. If Anthony chooses to have Ethan get it on, even if he feels it would make for a bad story - well, that would be because Anthony is choosing a sex scene over story. Heavy Rain provides the tools, Anthony has simply made his bed and then proceeded to complain about it.

But if we go back towards the days of gaming and media originally colliding, when DVD's were king and a notion like Tender Loving Care seemed like a good idea, this sort of "player as director" notion was exactly the goal. Maybe a senseless sex scene, to that player-director's opinion, doesn't make the most sense ... but it's there because that is the story the player-director wanted to have.

Which seem to put gaming in pretty even keel with movies. If the director feels a sex scene will increase the entertainment value, story be damned ... there is a good chance there will be one. And how many movies have sex scenes in them?

Anthony's version of the story was bad to Anthony, but because of the choices Anthony made. His premise is founded on the concept that the sex scene makes for a bad story under any circumstances and hence the lack of an authorial dictatorship makes for art which is less than what a movie might provide. And yet in my viewing of the same scene, I could see Ethan being too weary for the old beast with two backs, but for the most part I just assumed he wasn't gay.

Long time readers of Cathode Tan will know this next section of the article got my ire:

"But," you might say, "what about a game like Half-Life 2? That's a linear story, but you still have the freedom to dramatically sabotage it. You can spend the entire prologue throwing milk cartons at the residents of City 17, if you really want to. How is that any different?"

You can definitely sabotage Half-Life 2 if you wish, but the alternative to "sabotage the story" is not "get bored and feel useless." While you don't have any input over the direction of HL2's story, you still have a personal reason to keep playing: the action sections that comprise the majority of the game are fun enough that even if you don't give two shits about Alyx Vance, your input still feels relevant.

If you wanna sabotage HL2's story, you can, but you'll still have some fun with the shooty-shooty stuff. If you don't sabotage HL2's story, then the shooty-shooty stuff just feels more meaningful. It's an imperfect combination of story and gameplay, but the failure of one part doesn't destroy the entire experience. As Heavy Rain consists of nothing beyond some QTEs and a boatload of story decisions, it's got nothing to fall back on if the player decides to ruin the story by screwing with the characters.

Ah, yes. Let's recap Half-Life 2's story one more time. Gordon Freeman is transported to the future where the guy responsible for ruining the Earth is running it, and he runs around a lot, meets a few people, blows up a few more, then decides to trap himself to watch a few cut scenes and then blow the whole thing up.

The story sucked. And Gordon was a horrible protoganist. In fact, he isn't really a protaganist as much as he is a reader surrogate. Alyx is far more of a central protagonist to even the paper thin HL2 plot than Gordon, who is mostly a voyeur with a gun.

Anthony has it backwards, I think. You can't screw with HL2's story, partially because there isn't much of a story to begin with and also partially because you have no real control over the story. You can play (shooty-shooty stuff) or not play (throwing milk cartons), but can't shoot Alyx or side with the Combine or make any real impactful decisions. Heck, you can't even speak.

Heavy Rain's "boatload of story decisions" offers the player control, but largely it still the story the player decides on. And while the end result may or may not be a story the player likes will differ from player to player, at least Heavy Rain had the bravery to try and tell a story with real characters in real conflict that have real interactions. Ethan alone goes through more of a development arc than probably nearly every character in every game produced last year combined.

Now, I did have my own issues with Rain's storytelling - but I think blaming it because the player wanted to see some nookie is a pretty weak addition to Ebert's notion. And don't even begin to use Half-Life 2 as a counter-example, unless you really want to frame what storytelling is in the first place.


sterno said...

To suggest that video games are not an art form is simply ludicrous. Sure it may be different than a movie or a book in that it's more overtly interactive, but that doesn't make it any less a form of art.

Having said that it is an incredibly difficult thing to do a high quality narrative for a video game. The problem is that there's always going to be a tension between what the player wants to do and what the author intends for them to do. Some games give very limited power to the player to control the out come while others are basically loosely constructed open worlds where the player can do what they wish.

One of the big difficulties that related to this is the development of the player's own character. You are given a great deal of power over the character's actions but at the same time their emotions, and reactions to situations are frequently driven by the game creator, not you. The result is that many game creators simply avoid this entirely by creating paper thin archetypes rather trying to seriously develop a character.

The problem, of course is that the more choices you give to the player in character development, the more complex the game becomes to develop. A common simplification in game development is to create a morality system where you can make a series of boolean choices. These choices do affect the outcome but in relatively limited ways that make it easy to code for. If you let them deal with more moral grey areas you'd have to write hundreds or thousands of permutations on the story to accommodate the different outcomes.

Josh said...

Yeah, the real problem with Ebert's logic is that he is taking a very valid point, that user interaction can invalidate the artist's vision, and generalizing that across an entire genre.

And, well, artists. Isn't part of the beauty of the Mona Lisa the enigmatic nature of the portrait itself?

Heavy Rain frames this better than most. In fact, if anything I'm a little disappointed you don't have more control over the characters. Cage gives you some narrowly defined avenues to walk down ... it's really the sum of several events that alter the story.

That one character is invalid and hence the story because of one sex scene ... well, the story just isn't that weak here.