Monday, 14 March 2011

I was very lucky to see David Cage talking about his latest game -Heavy Rain. If you don't know this game it was made exclusively for the PS3 and you should really stop reading this and go and find out a little more about it.

David Cage is on a mission, he is attempting (one game at a time) to prove that games can be a meaningful and powerful way to tell stories. He spoke with passion and conviction and after Heavy Rains critical and commercial success he really has earned that right. As a game designer he took a vision of how he wanted games to be and he has attempted to build it. I'm sure that he would say that his exploration isn't yet complete and his next game will merge game and story even further. That kind of vision and dedication is what games design should be about.

One part of the session Mr Cage talked about starting a game with a story. He said that instead of finding the story late in game development you should begin with the story you want to tell. From that point on you try to involve the player as much as possible in every aspect of the game. This led onto him saying 'mechanics are evil'. Can a game exist without mechanics? Interestingly this isn't really what he was saying. His point was that you should involve the player by allowing them to 'play' as much as possible. In the case of Heavy Rain the game gave the player the chance to 'play' the mundane. Lay a table, brush your teeth, doesn't sound much like a game you'd want to play? Heavy Rain decides which actions you should participate in and creates an action that can be described with a control pad.

The interesting side effect of being so involved with the characters lives that you grow more attached. These are normal people that do normal things just like you. Just like a good story, the game draws you in by connecting you with the characters and gaining your trust and sympathy.

Heavy Rain has a very intense realistic graphic style. It wants you to believe that the action on screen is real, and you are involved with a real story. The connection with the player must be as easy as possible and any other approach to the graphics would take some acclimatisation. So the realistic graphics are an important part of the design.

The interesting thing is the choice of story. A murder mystery is interesting but of all they story types it is most game-like. As you progress through the story you cannot help guessing who dunnit. The best who dunnits spend most of the time disguising the culprit but leaving the clues necessary for uncovering the plot later in the story. Heavy Rain goes one step further by getting you to play the killer. Because Heavy Rain is a game the disguise is even more deceptive. The game connects you to the characters that you are playing and even allows you to behave 'out of character'. In a story the characters behave as the author allows, in a game the player can impose their behaviour on the characters they control and fool themselves into disguising the clues that are important to the story.

A good story has a beginning, middle and an end. To tell a traditional story the author normally has a hero that experiences events and survives until the final act. The hero can then unravel the whole of the mystery. Heavy rain's story is controlled by the player and because it is a game they can fail as well as succeed. How can the story be revealed in a satisfying way if the hero dies before the tale is told. Heavy Rain fixes this by telling a number of inter-twined stories. No matter what happens one of the selection of characters will survive, not least of which you play the killer. Every possible outcome of the story is covered.

David Cage talked about an 'elastic story'. To explain this bluntly it's like a choose your own adventure book (where the player turns to a new page when they have made a decision). The scenes in Heavy Rain were cut into many smaller scenes and between each scene the game allows the player to intervene and choose the course of action. No matter what the player chooses to do the story can progress (you can see why multiple characters are so important to this 'elastic storytelling'). So David Cage gets to tell his story but he allows a player to play inside, and to do this there is a meticulous plot. Every scene is played out and many outcomes are woven in. The player has a much broader sense of freedom in the game, and the cost of this is building huge quantities of content that may never be seen. It is a brilliant effect but it is a brute force approach.

I don't want to complain about Heavy Rain, I find it a fascinating game, pushing at the boundaries of what games can achieve. What bothers me is that the freedom is still limited. You cannot do any more in Heavy Rain than you can in any other game. The advantage of Heavy Rain is that it has built more of the alternatives. But the player is still experiencing the things that David Cage planned out for them, their only choices are the ones that were put into the game.

Interestingly there are several scenes in the game that require the player to react quickly and perform some more conventional game like actions. These events are normally big ones and can result in the characters death, if the player dosen't succeed. In a game these kinds of things are common place. But in a traditional game the consequences are normally inconsequential. the player can re-attempt and the death is just a short term obstacle. In a story the impact of a characters death is of huge significance. Here Mr Cage supports the story over the player convenience. It's bold and confirms the importance of story in this game. The player can always re-play if they want to explore other paths in the story. The only thing that jars for me here is that so many of the choices made in Heavy Rain were brilliant for introducing games to a new audience. The lack of 'mechanics', the strong plot to drive players through the game, the main-stream plot. The parts of the game that require gamer reflexes seem to be out of place - although they do fit into the context of the story.

Heavy Rain is a marvelous experiment. It works on so many levels but there is still room for more development. I'm sure Mr Cage will continue to push and explore the role of story in game. Anyone interested in the future of games should experience Heavy Rain and let it simmer in their brain for a while. While it may not be the future, it is a powerful attempt to move games out of the chase for the latest hit genres.