Sustainable Fiction

Between Interactive Drama and Videogames

Heavy Rain exists in the amorphous folds of generic labeling brought about by the blurred boundaries of digital media. What do I mean by this? Simply, that with increasing frequency artifacts are being created which do not fit neatly into already established categories. Heavy Rain  (Quantic Dream, 2010) is one such artifact. In one sense, it’s clearly a videogame, right? It’s played on the Playstation 3 system, I hold a controller in my hand, and my input controls the action on the screen. Upon completing the game, however, Heavy Rain presents the user with a trophy that contains the text, “Thank you for supporting interactive drama.” This small addition speaks volumes to the developers’ desire to change the perceptions of what videogames can accomplish.

In “Can There Be a Form between a Game and a Story?” Ken Perlin discusses the issue of agency in videogames and literature, and its relationship with the ‘believability’ of a fictional world:

When I am reading one of the Harry Potter books, and I put the book aside for a while, I can easily sustain the pleasant fiction that there is an actual Harry Potter, with a continued set of feelings and goals, living “offstage” somewhere. This is because to read Harry Potter is to experience his agency, as he navigates the various difficult challenges that life   presents him. In contrast, when I walk away from my computer screen, I cannot sustain the fiction that an actual Lara Croft continues to exist offstage, because I have not actually experienced her agency. All I have really experienced is my agency. (14-15)

So for Perlin, it is difficult to fully believe in the characters presented in videogames because he is the one who controls their actions, and in doing so he becomes more than a passive observer simply watching events unfold in a universe not dependent upon his actions. Videogames, therefore, find themselves in a tenuous position: they want to present a believable world, already there, which players can “lose” themselves in, while at the same time presenting a means for exploring that world in a way that maintains this believability. Perlin believes that the player’s agency in fact restrains believability in the game world, since the player (and not an authoritative author) is the main propellant behind the action.

However, this dichotomy between games and literature is not as clear-cut as Perlin would like to believe. In fact, it is problematic to suggest that literary worlds necessarily “live on” in our minds more so than videogame worlds. We may not assert our agency by controlling Harry Potter––or, by extension, “being” Harry Potter––but our agency determines the pace at which he explores his world, for example. Therefore, it is no more rational to think that the world of Harry Potter is easier to conceive of as one that “exists” outside of our minds than the world of a videogame. Both worlds will only progress when the user chooses to interact with the medium. Moreover, the worlds presented in MMORPGs take user-controlled agency to the next level: these worlds exist in a continuously online state, with different users from all over the planet choosing to log in and out as convenience dictates. Thus, to use Perlin’s terms, the fiction of the game world does exist “offstage” and independently of an individual player’s agency.

Heavy Rain, then, inhabits this void between game and story sought after by Perlin. As such, Heavy Rain can be seen as occupying the same territory as electronic literature. Beginning with the hypertext novellas of the 1980s (vis-a-vis Shelley Jackson and Michael Joyce), electronic literature began as a field exploring written textuality on a computer screen. With the rapid acceleration of sophisticated graphics, however, current works of electronic literature are more experimental, heavily relying upon visual and auditory elements as well as user input. Much like Heavy Rain, many of these works occupy a space between game and story, between playful interaction and narrative delivery.

Of course, the idea that games can make good stories has not always been well-received in game theory. Many critics have argued that a videogame cannot portray a tightly scripted, dramatically engaging story due to the demands of interactivity. Greg Costikyan provides one of the best summations of this argument in his article “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String,” published in the anthology Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media:

To get a good story out of a game, you have to constrain gameplay in a way that ensures   that story is told through play. There are direct conflicts between the demands of story and the demands of gameplay, because constraints that benefit the story aspect of the game may sometimes make the game aspect less interesting; yet any game is a system of constraints. Players have free action only within those constraints; there are always limitations on behavior, and indeed, gameplay often emerges precisely because of those limitations. (6)

Costikyan touches on some very fine points here, most notably the idea of limiting gameplay in order to encourage the success of storytelling in videogames. Heavy Rain limits its gameplay by presenting challenging scenarios through the use of quicktime events (QTEs). QTEs are not a new technique by any means, as they have been around since the early days of the medium, but they play an especially prominent role in Heavy Rain. QTEs are generally found in cutscenes, which are scripted in-game “movies” usually used for developing the game’s narrative. In conventional cutscenes, the user simply watches events unfold; however, a QTE incorporates user agency into the scene, and usually requires the player to perform a task, such as pressing a button before a timer runs out. Unfortunately, this opens up the possibility of not reacting quickly enough to one of the events, possibly causing the player to die; this would mean the player would then have to watch the same cutscene again, hoping this time to not fail as before.

Interestingly enough, Heavy Rain bases its core mechanics of gameplay on the QTE. “Playing” Heavy Rain consists of reacting to a series of onscreen prompts, and whether or not you hit the associated buttons on the screen with the respective buttons on the controller dictates how your character reacts to a particular situation. Players can fail at these challenges, thus creating a variety of different outcomes based on the proficiency of the button tapping. These onscreen cues are fast, dynamic, and force the player to perform a number of different actions with the controller: from tilting the controller in different directions (utilizing the Playstation Sixaxis Controller), to swirling the dual analog sticks in counter-clockwise circles, to violently tapping on a number of different buttons. Heavy Rain also illustrates a point made by game theorist J. Yellowlees Douglas in her response to Markku Eskelinen’s “Towards Computer Game Studies.” Douglas discusses Shenmue and its use of QTE, which translates perfectly to Heavy Rain: “your ability to remain within the other-world of the interactive depends mostly on your continued willing suspension of disbelief and not on your ability to out-maneuver, out-serve, out-gun, or out-run your opponents” (37). The success of Heavy Rain, as both a game and a narrative, relies on the user’s suspension of disbelief and the technological-prowess and innovative use of QTE. The game is structured enough to create an engaging storyline, and the QTE offers an intense and exhilarating gameplay experience.

Calling Heavy Rain an interactive drama associates the work with other forms of drama such as theatre or film. So what makes interactive drama any different from previous forms of drama? In “The Pleasures of Immersion and Interaction: Schemas, Scripts, and the Fifth Business,” J. Yellowlees Douglas and Andrew Hargadon discuss how interactive games can find success:

“Interactive games fulfill their promise as immersive when they offer us an obvious schema for narrative structure and interface, and when they offer us a predictable, tightly scripted interactions enabling us to enjoy virtual experiences either unattractively risky or denied to us in everyday life” (199).

Heavy Rain fulfills many of these criteria. As noted earlier, Heavy Rain does provide a tightly-controlled interface. Moreover, Heavy Rain does allow the user to experience certain situations that would not be desirable in real life, such as having to choose to kill a stranger in order to save your kidnapped son. Above and beyond this idea of interactive drama, Heavy Rain presents a story that is dynamic and can change from play-through to play-through, and according to David Cage contains over 20 different, unique endings to the story. Again, this is akin to hypertext fiction in which there are multiple pathways through the story and which often feature multiple, diverging endings.

The question that I have, then, is whether or not this generic labeling plays any factor in the reception of the artifact by players (or users)? Does conceptualizing Heavy Rain as an “interactive drama” instead of a “videogame” influence the player’s experience of the artifact? Or is the experience the experience, regardless of generic classification? We might also ask ourselves how Heavy Rain relates to other games: does this style of storytelling/fictional world building undermine the effectiveness of other approaches? Since the release of Heavy Rain, it would seem that other developers did not take much away from the game. There are of course exceptions, such as Telltale Games’ popular Walking Dead series, but the general landscape of storytelling in games remains largely unchanged. Should we expect games post-Heavy Rain to take into account the narrative techniques put forth in that title, or might it perhaps be seen as a game guilty of ‘cinema envy?’ Over the next few months, our contributors will return to this commentary and reflect on Heavy Rain’s narrative tendencies while discussing newer games. Stay tuned.

Works Cited

Costikyan, Greg. “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String.” Second Person: Role-Playing  and Story in Games and Playable Media. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin & Pat Harrigan.  Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007. 5-15.

Perlin, Ken. “Can There Be a Form between a Game and a Story?” First Person: New Media as  Story, Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin & Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. 12-19.

Yellowlees, Douglas J. “Response to Markku Eskelinen.” First Person: New Media as Story,  Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin & Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. 36-37.

Sony Computer Entertainment. Heavy Rain. Quantic Dream, 2010. (PS3)

One Comment

  1. The distinction between forms of media is blurring all the time–I’ve often remarked just how cinematic many games feel, and how video-gamey many modern movies are. I do see a trend towards interactivity in all things, including cinema. Occasionally we want to join a fictional world, or have some connectivity with it, instead of being passive observers. We all “join” with cinema when we become immersed in it through our imagination (and indeed as an extension of our central nervous system directly) but games can provide a more tactile experience, when choices we make have direct consequences on the world we view.

    Good article with good questions. Incidentally, Kent, I went to school with you in Alberta (grade school, Muriel Clayton….) Thought your name sounded familiar. :0

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