On Heavy Rain

Before I start talking about Heavy Rain, I want to talk about what other people have said about the game. I went to Metacritic and picked out four random reviews fr0m the respective categories of green, yellow, and red; the colors of good-itude, or something like it.

The first review is from Gamepro and it’s the kind of shit that you would expect. Vapid writing that sucks off the game in all ways possible. It also makes the claim that Heavy Rain transcends some kind of user-game barrier of emotion and physicality, which actually made me laugh. The second review is from IGN, which I read as the most “average gamer” website. I feel like whoever reviewed the game didn’t actually play it, though, because the assertion that “everything fuels the plot” is dead wrong. There are several episodes in the game that have little to do with the plot, and they simply function to make the 2D characters even more 2D, despite what IGN’s reviewer says. Those were the “green” reviews that I read.

I could probably stop writing as soon as I link to this review by Destructoid, because I agree with it nearly 100%. The game does some cool things well, but the plotting and gameplay suffers so much from the “vision” of the creators that it ends up being so much crap. This quote sums it up well:

Heavy Rain wishes to be compared to movies, but it is very lucky to be a videogame, a medium where a poor narrative is more readily forgiven. When compared to movies, Heavy Rain not only falls short, but is almost embarrassingly sub-par. Hell, compared to some of the leading narratives in videogames, Heavy Rain is below expectations. Less demanding players may be tricked into thinking the game is telling a brilliant story simply because it’s not telling the kind of story that gamers are used to seeing, but make no mistake: its naive conclusions and impossibly weak characters would get Heavy Rain laughed out of any serious film festival.

That review was a yellow one. The red one, by Gamecritics, is probably more positive than the Destructoid one, so I feel like Metacritic lied to me.

I’m not going to summarize plot. You can read the four reviews that I just posted for that. I have two specific problems with the game: narrative and depictions of minorities. I think that the Destructoid review covers the ground of the former fairly well, so I think that I’ll talk about the latter for the bulk of this post.

The creative engine for Heavy Rain is entirely, if I’m reading correctly, male. There isn’t a single female listed on the IMDB page for the game, and that makes a lot of sense to me. My girlfriend and I played the game side-by-side, watching the narrative play out in that movie-esque way, and we were both bothered by the way that women are depicted.

Sure, I get it, the main female character, Madison Paige,  is attractive. She’s a “serious journalist” who works for a newspaper that gets mentioned once in the game. Fine. That’s what I like to call “paper-thin writing,” but it’s not like that’s any different from the rest of the game. I’ll even accept that she’s the kind of sexy, ass-shakes-while-she-walks kind of girl. I’ll even accept that she has her ass looked at by several male characters on-screen. My real problem is that she fulfills female functions in the narrative, and that’s the only reason that she is there. She’s there as a stereotype, and I don’t like that at all.

She plays nurse to Ethan Mars, the main character, in a very literal way. She fixes his wounds when he gets back from various trials, and at one point she’s even there to help him “let off some steam” in one of the most awkward and plot-pointless (interactive) sex scenes that I have ever seen. She’s capture twice in the narrative by psychopaths, one of which attempts to force a power drill into her vagina. She whores out her body in one scene in order to extract information. Among all of this, I can predict the response of 90% of the “gaming community,” whatever that means.

“This is a psychological thriller narrative, she gets stereotyped, so what?”

The problem is that we absorb information via stories. We learn acceptable behavior from the media that we consume. We live in a rape culture that crafts stories that subjugate, stereotype, and commit violence against women.

Let’s look at the women of Heavy Rain one more time, with specific deference to the violence that happens to them. Beside Ethan’s wife, a character with no impact on the plot, the first woman in the game is a prostitute that you have to save from an abusive John. The second is Paige, who is assaulted and killed in a dream sequence at the beginning of the game (unrelated to the plot). The third is a woman who commits suicide. The fourth is the mother of the Origami Killer, an elderly woman with Alzheimers that feels like she failed her children.

That’s it. There are only four women featured in the plot of the game, and something horrible happens to all of them. While I’m not going to play a numbers game of violence of victimization, I think agency needs to be talked about.

There are two facets to it: player-controlled agency and the agency of the game world. The player pushes the narrative of Heavy Rain along, diverting it along different rivulets that all lead to the same big river. The player has the option to move laterally a little in the plot, but just like the review said above, you can put the controller down and the game will play itself.

The agency of the game world is something else entirely. The men of the game world have options: Ethan can save his kid if he wants, Scott can investigate how he sees fit, and Jayden can do as he pleases in the police sphere. They all have options in their narrative. The women don’t. They have violence committed against them without temper, and they always end up being saved by the men of the game. The amount of “male comfort” in the game makes me uncomfortable.

African-Americans don’t get off easy, either. There are a total of two Black men in the game (no women). One is a giant criminal strongman who attempts to kill the FBI agent. The other is a story “magical Negro” who lets you play the killer’s story in flashback, one of the shittiest storytelling mechanics I have ever seen.

What did I learn from Heavy Rain? I learned that minorities need to be better-represented in creative positions of game design. I think that games like Heavy Rain reinforce a kind of subtle patriarchy. The main consumers of video games are unequivocally white males, and I think that HR makes them feel safe. The world is, though confused, pretty black-and-white. There are some bad guys and some good guys and everyone plays the role you would expect them to. Black people are there for service, women are there for sex, and everything is hunky-dorey while you listen to Top 40.

I also take back my previous statement. Heavy Rain is not good art, or even close to it.

This is, though.

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7 Responses to On Heavy Rain

  1. Ross says:

    First, a link:

    http://video.ign.com/dor/articles/958530/best-of-the-web/videos/bestofweb_prt_sevenheavyrain_30410.html

    This doesn’t really have anything to do with your post, but I figure you’d like it if you liked the Minority Report/Heavy Rain matchup.

    Anyway, just a couple of questions: First, do you think that Quantum Dream is intentionally demeaning women and minorities to further some agenda they have? I really don’t think that’s the case–I mean, you said it yourself, the QD is mostly male, and not everyone has the education or the worldview that you or I do. I think the quote goes something like “Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance.” I don’t think QD is being racist or sexist, it just isn’t something that crosses their minds. Having said that, I do agree that it seems to have the “subtle patriarchy.”

    Next, and this might be a stupid question, what changes would you make to the narrative to make it more inclusive? Have more female characters that have a more important role in the plot? I guess I’m trying to ask what you would rather have seen.

    And finally, aside from the subtle patriarchy, the stereotypical portrayals, the and the hetero-normative (fancy words!) aspects, how’s the game?

    -Ross

    • kunzelman says:

      First question: Your defense of QD is problematic. If a vehement white supremacist, raised in a family of white supremacists, never has the idea of racial equality cross his mind, should we be forgiving? I don’t think so. Questioning and being critical is necessary to change things.

      Second: I think you would have to scrap the whole narrative.

      I think the first third of the game and some of the trials were cool, but it eventually becomes hackneyed and boring. The plot is a majestic, complicated piece of shit once things start getting figured out.

  2. Tyler Suits says:

    So is the game worth buying; even worth playing?

  3. Ben says:

    I think you have an unnering ability to home in on things that could be found as questionable and talk about them out of context, making a great, experimental game seem worse than it is.

    I dont think the game is perfect, or possibly even great, but it is certainly not “bad art” by any stretch of the imagination. I think your are ignoring too many things, and perhaps your play-through of the game did not turn out how you would have wanted it to. You point out that Madison has a plot-pointless sex scene with Ethan, ignoring that the scene might never even happen. If your Ethan Mars still has feelings for his Ex-Wife, you can turn down some of Madison’s earlier advances and will never even have this scene. If your Ethan fulfills a more stereotypical movie male role and falls in love with the woman who selflessly tends to a strangers wounds, then by all means you can have him do so. The scene is interactive because it is actually interactive, not just a Quick-Time event, my play-through of that scene never progressed past the kiss.

    Your post also makes it seem like men are portayed as perfect knights in shining armor who rush to the womens rescue. The men in this story are exactly as screwed up as the women. They are either drug addicted, clinically depressed, psycopathic, or abusive. The men may not even succeed based on what happens in the game. The game could end with the villlian being foiled by Madison, or even possibly by the prostitute from the beginning. Or no one at all, the villian could win and Ethan could get blamed.

    Your issue about black people may have some merit, because I honestly dont even remember any black guy except for the one who tries to kill the FBI agent.

    I personally enjoyed the game, and would recommend it to most everyone (certain gamers would just simply not enjoy it at all, I would not recommend it to my brother for example). I thought that the story had some weak points, but it did a passable job of connecting the characters (whom I liked) and putting them in situations where they (and the player) have to make tough decisions. I felt true empathy for Ethan in several of his tests, and at several points in the game I had to actually stop and decide if I should do something not from a game stand-point, but based on what I would actually do. Should I kill a man who tried to kill me? Is killing someone acceptable if it could lead me to my son? How much should I tell my psychologist? A possibly homocidal man just reached into his coat pocket, possibly for a gun, should I shoot him?

    I think that most people know that the game has some serious faults, in some of the decisions characters make and some certain plot points. But that does not mean that we cant play and enjoy a game which may not be “good art” if it was a movie, but is above and beyond “better” than any game that has come before. Maybe you were unable to get invested in the characters enough because you immediately put them down as stereotypical characters and so did not develop any empathy with them. I can see how this could make you not enjoy the story and make you just “go through the motions” on the decisions, following the “normal” plot and not make decisions “in character”. I think that we should support Heavy Rain, because it breaks new ground as games attempt to become “good art” and because it has created a new genre. The first FPS and RTS games were very simplistic, but they were new experiences for players which opened up new genres of games to mass market appeal. Heavy Rain is a simplistic version of a new genre of game in which the player controls a movie-like story and makes important decisions for the characters. Regardless of what you think about the “artiness” of the game, you should support it simply because it is a novel, interesting experience and one of the few games that makes you think in non-gaming terms of hit points and EXP and morality bars.

    • kunzelman says:

      No, I think that’s bullshit.

      The only thing your comment here does is attack my “play” of the game. Which is fine, except that I played some scenes over again. I watched a few endings. I played some parts over again to get a different conclusion.

      Also, I’m not portraying the men as knights. And you’re right; they’re all fucked up. However, they have the agency to be all fucked up, and the women simply don’t. I’m not arguing that the men don’t have depth, but rather that the women don’t. The script denies them anything other than victimhood in the narrative, and no matter who is saving them, they have to be saved. And that’s fucked up.

      The first time I saw the sex scene was when you were playing the game and I was like, “Are they fucking behind that bed!?!?!” So I know that happened.

      RE Empathy: Sure, it’s good that we feel empathy, but is that any better than a shitty novel or a movie? Having those qualities is good, but when it’s patched together like a quilt, it doesn’t do anything for me.

      As far as the art question goes, I disagree. All Heavy Rain does is switch up the graph I made on video games and art. No matter what you do, Shelby is the Origami Killer, Madison has to dance to get information from Paco, and a black man assaults the FBI agent. The game offers the illusion of choice, which is nice, but we need to see outside of that.

      Bad art.

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