It’s probably worth sorting out some definitions up front. I’m going to talk about “game” and “story” and they are both big words. I am dealing with them in a narrow sense. When I talk about “story” I am talking about an umabiguous hero’s journey style story. When I talk about a “game” I am talking about a set of mechanics that can be fun without motivation or setting – a set of mechanics that you can enjoy in a greybox with a handful of shapes that represent you.
Recently I have been thinking about story in games and have found depressingly little discussion about what makes a good one. The occasional interesting article such as this seems to be the extent of thought on the subject.
Stories in games for me have been uniformly awful. Even ones held up as best of genre tend to be overwrought and at times hilarious. It seems that the industry is still struggling with how to deal with narrative in a gaming context; how to make a fun set of mechanics and support it through narrative. But if you look at it; essentially all the problems boil down to:
How do you reconcile a hero’s journey with a player’s autonomy?
The industry’s response is, more often than not, to take the modal approach and switch clumsily between the player’s avatar and the writer’s hero; you control your character through the gunfight, the writer takes control when the story happens. You don’t reconcile. You separate. The game works, the story works – so it works right?
I don’t think the interactions between the story and game can be dismissed so easily. I can get killed in the gunfight. I can spend ages in the puzzle. I can fail to pick up on the key piece of information that my character casually lets slip in the next cutscene. Generally games just sweep these concerns aside. We just get a game and get a story and we make do with it. They never feel particularly connected.
There are some notable exceptions to this. The mute protagonist of Half Life is often cited as a great way of telling a story without telling a story. I am a big fan of this approach but it doesn’t so much tackle the issue as sidestep it. The “story” of Half Life is pretty thin. The evocation of a world is brilliant but you could explain the plot in a couple of sentences.
Another popular approach is littering the environment with clues (audio logs, memories etc). The player has autonomy. They can dip in or dip out of the story as they see fit. The player then pieces together the story from what they find. They discover the story. Although I’m a big fan of this; again it somewhat sidesteps the issue. The hero’s journey is still through the game. The story is a historical document. It generally only has an effect on the hero right at the end.
Attempts to bridge the gap by giving the player simplistic choices (through dialogue, through YES/NO questions) are rarely successful. Player’s blunder their character forward blindly to one of a number of inevitable conclusions – eager to get back to the mechanics of the game.
Bioshock achieved some interesting things using this (and other techniques). It remains perhaps the closest I have come to feeling like I was on a hero’s journey. But because it was doing something so specific I don’t think it’s a good case for a general discussion.
In general I have become more and more disillusioned with game stories. I was increasingly seeing really terrible stories shoehorned into perfectly good games. Only a few people were even considering that a game-story might have to be approached in a different way to a movie story.
And then I encountered Heavy Rain.
I had played Quantic Dream’s previous effort Fahrenheit and hated it. As far as I was concerned it was terrible mechanics wrapped up in a terrible story. For the first few hours of Heavy Rain I was similarly unimpressed. I found myself asking questions like “Is shaking the controller to shake a carton of orange juice supposed to make the empathise more with this character?” and wondering whether there was any point in my holding the controller. “Is this not just an OK TV series set in the uncanny valley?”
And then something changed. I could see my decisions taking effect. And some of those decisions I hadn’t had much time to make! I found myself regretting decisions and failures long after I had made them. Not because I was concerned about whether I would get the “good” ending but because I regretted the decision as a descision. I was emotionally invested. This is not something I’ve experienced before in videogames.
Importantly I played through Heavy Rain without reloading. I didn’t even really understand how reloading worked.
I was more concerned with whether I had done the right thing morally than the right thing in a game sense. I was going through my story. Of course it was only my story in the sense that it was one of a fairly limited number of permutations – but while I was taking part I was fully engaged in the experience. I didn’t repeatedly get killed on level 4 and have to go back and hear the same dialogue again. I was always moving forward. This is perhaps the most important point. Heavy rain achieves narrative satisfaction by embracing mistakes. You make a mistake you move on and deal with the repercussions.
I messed it up. I really did. Under my control some extremely bad things happened. The ending that I was presented with was in no way the “good” ending. But Heavy Rain embraced this. It allowed me to choose badly. It allowed me to fail and still move forward.
The fact that I was blundering forward to one of a number of inevitable conclusions never entered my mind. I was never eager to get back to the game. This was the game. It had taken the element I was most critical of in games and made it the whole game. By focusing on it, Quantic Dream had created something new. This was the 21st century’s Choose Your Own Adventure book.
And the controller offered something that is not possible in book form. It gave a tactility that is simply not there in “Turn to Page 67”. Getting a character to perform a particularly tricky manoeuvre by clawing you hand uncomfortably around the controller is bizarrely satisfying.
It’s not without its faults. Sometimes the controller options presented on screen don’t represent clear options. Choosing one and having your character do something totally unexpected (or unwanted) does damage the immersion. Games like mass effect suffer much more from this though – possibly intentionally. You choose an option and the game reveals an outcome. In my view this should be minimised. When I choose an option I want to know what my character is going to do. If I don’t know what something does I don’t have autonomy. I become an observer as opposed to a protagonist.
Also the first part of the game seems to have different ambitions. Compared to the leanness of the later parts, the early chapters are littered with redundant interactions. On occasion you find yourself wandering around trying to find the interaction to progress the story. This forces you to wonder what’s “behind the curtain”. In doing so your attention is drawn to the curtain.
Heavy Rain is at best when it doesn’t try and be a world. When it realises it is an interactive story, when it gives you the options only to advance.
To advance all you have to do is press, hold or shake the controller. Sometimes this is timed. Sometimes a sequence is required, sometimes a pattern. If you fail or choose a different option you will head off down a different path.
But buttons don’t mean anything outside of the current context. R1 is often used to shoot but so are L1 and R2. Buttons are ways to choose where to go next. You are only given options that either keep you in the same situation or move you forward. There is some consistency to the moving and looking around but it is the exception rather than the rule. In general each interaction is tailored to the specific context.
In this light it is impossible to assess it as you would a traditional game. This is a different animal.
It hasn’t answered the questions for all games. It hasn’t reconciled the unreconcilable but it has provided a new (and successful) way of looking at game stories.
The most important thing I have learned in playing it is how critical the forward motion of narrative is. I find myself looking back on Prince of Persia. While I don’t think it was entirely successful from a narrative perspective the time mechanic and “That’s not how it happened” when you died had their hearts in the right place.
There are still questions to be answered. How do you reconcile replayability with narrative? How do you justify creating the content for a branching story – which most of your audience will never experience?
But I think I have learned more by experiencing Heavy Rain.