by Peter Bichsel
translated from the German by M. Schuller
Let me tell you the story of a man I once met, a man who told me a story. As I said to him many times, I don’t believe a word of his tale. ‘You’re a liar,’ is what I told him, ‘you tell fibs, and you’re a fantasist. A fraud.’
My words made no impression. He continued to tell me his story, in a quieter voice, until I started to shout at him: ‘You hack! You swindler! You phony!’ And when I was done, he just looked at me, smiled sadly, and shook his head with disappointment. And then he said, in voice barely above a whisper, and so softly that it almost made me feel ashamed, ‘there is no such thing as America.’ I felt I had to make it up to him, and promised to do so by writing down what he told me:
It begins five hundred years ago, at the court of a King. The King of Spain, in fact. An enormous palace; silk and velvet; gold, silver, beads, and crowns; candles, servants, and maids. Courtiers who the night before threw down gauntlets at each other’s feet, and now rise at dawn to run each other through with swords; watchmen blowing fanfares from the towers; messengers who hop into the saddle, messengers who leap out of the saddle; the King’s friends and the King’s false friends; women, beautiful and dangerous; and wine; and all about the palace, people whose only purpose was to procure all of these things.
The King knew nothing besides this life, and in the end, life is the same every day. The King was bored. Just as the people of Barcelona imagine that other places are more beautiful, and want to travel to somewhere else.
The poor, of course, imagine how wondeful it would be to live like a king — the King imagines how much better it would be to be poor.
In the morning the King gets up out of bed, in the evening he gets into bed, and during the day he is so bored with his own troubles and with his attendants, his gold, his solver, his velvet and silk and candles. His bed is like a palace all on its own, but what can you do in a bed but sleep.
In the morning, the servants bow to him deeply, and every morning in just the same way. The King does not even notice. At dinner, his fork is handed to him, as is his knife; someone pushes in his chair, and the people around him only say nice things to him, and compliment him, and nothing else at all.
No one ever dares to say, ‘you idiot! You’re a complete blockhead.’ Everything that they say to him today, they said to him yesterday.
Such is life.
And that is why the king has a jester.
A jester can do as he likes, and say what he likes so long as the King laughs, and if they cannot make the King laugh, he kills them, or something like that.
Once he had a jester who loved to play with words. The King enjoyed this greatly. The jester would say ‘so high my mess!’ rather than ‘your highness’, or ‘tassle’ instead of ‘castle’, or ‘dice nay!’ instead of ‘nice day!’. It’s rather silly, to be honest, but the King thought it was hilarious. For a whole six months it made him laugh, until the seventh day of July, and on the eighth, when he got up in the morning and the jester greeted him with ‘dice nay, my high ol’ mess!’ the King ordered his head to be chopped off.
Another jester, who was short and fat and called Pepe, the King enjoyed for only four days. Pepe spread honey on the chairs of the courtiers, all of the nobles, and the knights. On the fourth day he put a big glob of it down on the seat of the throne, and the King no longer found it funny, and Pepe was a jester no more.
After that, the King bought the most terrible jester in the world. He was ugly — thin and fat at the same time, both tall but also short in some ways, and his left leg was bowed. Nobody knew if he could even speak, or if he was completely dumb. His gaze was angry, his face sullen. The only thing nice about him was his name, which was Little Hans.
But then there was his awful laugh. It always started small and glassy and deep in his belly, then gurgled up, until it was a belching that made his face all red and almost made him choke, and then burst out in a big, booming cackle. Then he would smack his knees, and dance about and chortle, and the King loved it, but only because it made everyone else pale and tremble with fear. When Little Hans’ laugh would ring out through the castle, doors were locked and windows barred, shutters closed, and the children were taken to bed with wax in their ears.
The laughter of Little Hans was the most ghastly thing in the world.
Whatever the King said, Little Hans would laugh.
The King said things that couldn’t be funny to anyone, and yet Little Hans still laughed. One day, the King said, ‘Little Hans, I’m going to hang you.’
Oh, how he laughed! He roared out like never before.
So it was decided that Little Hans would be hanged the next day. The King was serious. He wanted to see Hans laugh from the gallows, and wanted to make everyone watch the awful spectacle. But all of the coutiers, the nobility, the knights and the squires, they all hid in their rooms, with the doors locked. The morning of the hanging, it was just Little Hans, the hangman, the King, and his attendants. So the King cried to the attendants, ‘bring me everyone you can find!’ They searched the whole city, but found no one, as everybody was hiding.
Finally, one of the attendants returned with a boy, who they dragged before the King. The boy was small, pale, and shy, and the King had him brought to the gallows and ordered him to watch. The boy looked up at the gallows, clapped his hands in amazement, and said, ‘you’re such a kind King! You’ve built a perch for pigeons! And look, two have already landed.’
‘You’re a half-wit,’ said the King. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I am indeed a fool,’ said the boy, ‘and my name is Colombo. My monther calls me Columbine.’
‘Well, you’re an idiot, Columbine. Someone is about to be hanged,’ said the King.
‘What’s his name?’ asked Columbine, and when the King told him he said ‘aah, that’s a nice name. How can a man with so nice a name be hanged?’
‘His laugh is terrible,’ said the King, and he ordered Little Hans to laugh, and it was twice as bad as the day before.
Columbine said, ‘your highness, what’s so terrible about that?’ The King was surprised, and could not answer, and Columbine went on, ‘I don’t like his laugh much, but the pigeons are still sitting on the gallows. They aren’t frightened. Pigeons have good ears. You should let Little Hans go.’
The King thought about it, and then said, ‘Little Hans, go to hell.’ And for the first time Little Hans spoke, and he said to Columbine, ‘thank you’, and smiled a warm smile, and then went.
The King had no more jesters. The King’s servants and maids and all the courtiers believed, though, that Columbine was the new jester. But Columbine was not funny. He stood around, lost in thought, rarely speaking and never laughing, and never making anyone else laugh. ‘He’s not a jester, he’s an imbecile,’ is what everyone said about him, and Columbine said ‘I’m not a jester, I’m an imecile,’ and then everyone laughed at him.
If the King had known about this, he would have been very angry, but Columbine said nothing about it, because it didn’t bother him at all to be laughed at. At court there were the strong, the intelligent, the King was a king, the women were beautiful and the men brave, the priest was pious and the kitchen maids industrious. Columbine, and Columbine alone, was nothing.
If someone said, ‘Columbine, come and fight me!’ he would say, ‘I am weaker than you.’
If someone said, ‘Columbine, how much is two times seven?’ he would say, ‘I’m dumber than you.’
If someone said, ‘Columbine, I dare you to jump over that stream!’ he would say, ‘no, I don’t think I can.’
And when the King asked Columbine, ‘what do you want to become?’ Columbine would say, ‘I do not want to become anything. I am something, I am Columbine.’
The King said, ‘but you must become something,’ and Columbine said ‘what can one become?’
And the King said, ‘look at that man there, with the beard and the brown, leather face. He is a sailor. He wanted to become a sailor, and he did, and he sailed across the sea and discovered new countries for his king.’
‘If you want, my king,’ said Columbine, ‘I’ll become a sailor.’ At that, the whole court burst out laughing. Columbine ran out of the hall shouting, ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’
Everyone looked at each other and shook their heads, and Columbine ran out of the castle, through the city, and across the fields, and when the farmers who were in the fields greeted him, he called out to them, too: ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’
And so he came to the forest and hid for weeks in the bushes and brambles, and for weeks no one heard a word about Columbine. The King was sorry and blamed himself, and the courtiers were ashamed for laughing. Finally, after weeks and weeks had passed, the watchmen on the tower blew a fanfare and the court rejoiced, for across the fields, through the city, and up to the gate came Columbine, and he went before the King and said, ‘my king, Columbine has discovered a country!’
And because the courtiers did not want to laugh at him, they tried their best to look serious and asked, ‘what is it called and where is it?’ ‘It does not have a name yet, because I have just discovered it, and it is far out to sea,’ said Columbine.
One of the grizzled sailors stood up and said, ‘well, Columbine, I, Amerigo Vespucci, will go and look at this country of yours. Tell me how I get there.’ ‘You go into the sea, and then go straight, and you have to keep going straight and not give up until you come to the country.’ Columbine was terrified, of course, because he knew that what he said was a lie, and that there was no such country. So off went Amerigo Vespucci, and for days and days Columbine could not sleep.
No one knows where Amerigo went. Perhaps he, too, hid in the forest.
Then the trumpets blew, and Amerigo came back.
Columbine was red in the face and dared not to look at the great sailor. Vespucci stood before the King, and said loud and clear, so that all could hear: ‘Your Majesty, O King, the land is there.’
Columbine was so glad that Vespucci had not betrayed him that he ran up to him, hudded him, and cried, ‘Amerigo, my dear Amerigo!’
And the people believed that this was the name of the country, and they called this land that did not exist, ‘America.’
‘You are truly a man,’ the King said to Columbine, ‘and henceforth you shall be called Columbus.’
And Columbus was famous, and all marvelled at him and whispered as he walked past, ‘there he is! The man who discovered America!’
And they all believed that there is such a place. Only Columbus was not sure, and doubted it his whole life, but never dared to ask the sailors for the truth about where they had gone. Soon enough, other people went to America, and then, a great many people. And those who came back all said, ‘America is there!’
‘I,’ said the man who told me this story, ‘I have never been to America. I do not know if America exists. Perhaps people only say that it does, so as not to disappoint Columbus. After all, when you see two people talking about America these days, they wink at each other, and hardly ever say “America”. Instead, they say something vague about “the States” or “over the pond”, or whatever.’ Perhaps when someone gets on a plane or a ship to go to America, they are told the story of Columbus, and hide away somewhere, and come back later to talk about cowboys and skyscrapers, about Niagra Falls and the Mississippi, and cities called ‘New York’ and ‘San Francisco’.
In any case, they all say the same things, and talk about things that they already knew before they left, and that is very suspicious.
And people are always arguing about who Columbus really was.
I know it.
The last time I found myself back in Nashville, in the back of my mind, the whole time, I knew what I really wanted was to be somewhere else—anywhere, in fact, but home.
I have an uncertain relationship with the concept of “home.” There are, I think, reasons for that—I lived in the same house, from the earliest period in my life I can remember, until I left for college at the age of eighteen. Nor was it a sudden, clean break, setting off for a country three thousand miles away, never to return except at Christmases: rather, my adult existence has proceeded in fits and starts, sometimes feeling like a kind of half-maturity, inhibited by the occasional realization that there are times and seasons in my life when I lack a certain critical resolve, and have found my course bending homeward again, back to Nashville, for a few months, or a year or so. But, of course, in time I always rediscovered that necessary strength, and left again. And it helped that every time, Nashville felt a little less like home.
It is the curious feature of time spent away—which we forget, lulled as we are by the closing of conceptual distance by the jet engine and the automobile—that places continue to change even after we are gone. They change while we’re there, too, of course, in ways both welcome and unwelcome. I am not a big fan of change, especially of the unnecessary sort, as anybody who was there for my childhood will attest, but at least when we’re present for those changes, they feel gradual, and can be incorporated into our internal histories of the places we inhabit. But the changes which accumulate while we are away will always seem to have happened suddenly, and to possess an alien quality, because we were not there to witness them unfold. The house down the street is torn down, or repainted. A new building goes up downtown. The menu changes at your favorite coffee shop, and now the staff are all different, and they don’t know what your usual order is anymore.
And these things might seem small, and it might seem only the peevishness of the stubborn mind, intent on finding flaws in the universe where none really exist, to harp on them, and to find in them small traces of a deep and illimitable sadness. But I do, and it is not peevishness, nor stubbornness, nor merely a penchant for melancholic moods (though I admit I possess all three at times, and not rarely together). But we write the psychohistory of our lives in the places that we know; and in that way, we map our selves to the spaces we have inhabited for years at a time, so surely, I think, that the paths and places where we played as children become for us a metonomy of our childhood as a whole: the creek behind the house, the backyard, the floppy-eared dog, the cracked sidewalks, and everything else. And human memory is a notoriously unsatisfactory device: memories fade with time, are lost, and shift in emphasis as we remember them. So how wonderful it is to turn a corner, or visit a favorite spot, or see a familiar face in one’s hometown, and by the physical sensation find oneself confronted with memories suddenly fresh, suddenly new again, and pieces of a life we had thought lost forever returned to us, even if only for a little while. It helps, of course, if the memories are good ones. As for me, I had what seemed unremarkable at the time, but was in retrospect a very happy childhood. And for that reason, maybe, I especially hate to go home.
With time, of course, the city where I was born, and where I spent the vast majority of the first eighteen years of my life, feels less and less like home. My parents are divorced; a strange man lives in my mother’s house where I grew up. The last time I returned, the house had been rearranged, and my room no longer felt like the little sanctuary I had spent years carefully building for myself. Nashville is now a rather alien place, the city of a Capgras delusion, very like (but not the same as) my home. And the city where I have lived, on and off since, feels more and more like mine, even though I don’t hold the local citizenship, can’t vote in the elections, and have a funny accent. Any place you stay long enough will become inhabited with new memories, just like the places you grew up, and I have been lucky in my adulthood, as I was in my childhood, in that many of them are very good ones.
Tonight, at about three AM, because I couldn’t sleep, I reinstalled World of Warcraft. I’m not sure what exactly my motivation was. The new expansion, of course, is being talked about, and the occasional post bubbling up into my awareness on Reddit. When I really can’t sleep, when I feel my thoughts going endlessly in circles, what I want more than anything is to be taken out of myself, and into another world. RPGs are good for that. So I found myself back in Azeroth, for the first time in, I think, about two and a half years. My Tauren druid, level 85, was standing right where I had left him, in a hut in Orgrimmar, a staff slung over his shoulder, in a motley of armor picked up from various dungeons and quests. The sensation of returning to an avatar I had spent a couple of years inhabiting, in a world I knew as well as my own, was not a little pleasant. Aha, I thought; yes, I remember how *this* goes. The muscle memory of the hotkeys came back quickly enough, and no sooner had the desire formed in my mind, but I had transformed into a hawk and was again soaring through the sky.
And yet, what’s true for Nashville is true for Kalimdor. Out of curiosity, I clicked around on the various social windows World of Warcraft offers. Out of what was once an active membership of a couple dozen people, only five characters still had the <Luminous Path> guild tag. None of them, save Ekhan of course, had been online in years. Half of my friends list was missing entirely, their names replaced by an ominous “UNKNOWN”; even the long list of people I had permanently /ignored over the years was now two-thirds “unknown” entries. Orgrimmar was functionally deserted (of course, the fact that a new expansion had been released, and that it was the small hours of the morning, probably contributed to that). For curiosity’s sake, I later looked up the server’s entry on Wowpedia; of the top-rated Horde and Alliance guilds listed on that page, all of which had been active when the Path was in its heyday, most did not even have their websites up anymore. Ten million people are subscribed to World of Warcraft—just not, apparently, anybody I know.
And it goes deeper than that. I think in a lot of ways, despite its phenomenal success, World of Warcraft is an object lesson in how not to build a good MMORPG. There are a couple reasons for that. Not the absurdity of the stories it tells, or its penchant for scenery-chewing melodrama—I love that about WoW. But its theme-park nature, its grindy gameplay, the inability of the players to meaningfully create their own stories in the world, all stand against the strong lessons games like Minecraft—or even EVE Online—have taught us since. World of Warcraft isn’t a tool for players to create with, like good virtual worlds are, and it certainly doesn’t have that alive-sense that the best have. It is, at best, a carefully curated set of dioramas and theme parks, and thus has to be driven by continuous content-heavy expansions, which, when they fail to appear regularly, tend to result in precipitous drops in the subscription rate. What this means, in real terms, I think, is that if you log in for the first time in six months, you feel out of the loop; if you log in for the first time in two years, you feel you have landed on another planet. Old features, like reputation factions from previous expansions, or endgame content rendered meaningless by a raised level cap, sits there, orphaned and abandoned. That’s not all bad: you might have very fond memories associated with those dungeons. But it’s strange—like coming home and seeing the house next door has been abandoned.
Cataclysm in many ways was a serious error on Blizzard’s part. There were things about that expansion that I loved, but it is not a coincidence that it was in the middle of Cataclysm that we wound down the guild. The stories Cataclysm told were fantastic—Chris Metzen has refined melodrama into, well, not a *high* art exactly, but certainly something I consume with relish, especially where the dynamics of the Horde and the Alliance, and Lovecraftian gods and mad dragons are concerned. But in changing the world so thoroughly, for those of us who inhabited Azeroth for years beforehand, a great deal was lost. I have no strong memories associated with Orgrimmar now, or the Barrens, or Azshara. Those are all zones which, in their previous incarnations (red cliff canyons, endless sere grasslands, high autumnal hills and ancient ruins), I spent an embarassing quantity of time, mostly just running around, and which I knew like the back of my hand. Tonight, though, when I returned to them—well, it’s like coming home, and finding the house next door is now a parking lot.
Parking lots are good. You need somewhere to park your car. But no parking lot in the world is a special place.
None of this is meant as specific criticims of WoW with my video-game-critic hat on; that’s not what I’m interested in at the moment. I really just want to talk about familiar places, and the passage of time.
I have a problem with time—a beef, a fundamental personal disagreement. It has a bigger, more existential component, but only when I spend too much time reading about astronomy on Wikipedia (don’t ask), but the core of this disagreement is simple, and personal. I don’t like it when things change. I don’t like it when things change, because I don’t like to lose people. I don’t mean death (although yes, I have a problem with that too, obviously). I mean in the most mundane, unremarkable sense of loss; I don’t like to lose people. It is partly, but not only pragmatic—I don’t make friends easily, and it’s a pain to make new ones. But more than that, it’s just sad, a little stab of grief, to look up one day and remember that you have not spoken to someone who used to be a good friend in weeks, months, years—that you have no idea what they’re doing or what they’re like now. Or worse, in the age of Facebook, you know exactly what they’re doing: but it’s like looking into their life through glass, because you have no connection to it anymore. You could send them an email, or write them a letter—but what would you say?
I have this problem with time, because it seems unbearably cruel to me that we should live in a world where even the happiest thing it is possible to have in this world, the bright bond of friendship, is subject to the same slow death as every other entropic process in the universe; and crueler still, that the physical matrix in which the memories of such things are embedded should likewise be subject ot the same decay. Time, that old son of a bitch, can keep his mitts off neither Nashville nor Azeroth; and one day, when I have moved away to some other city, with less soul-destroying winters and less rain, and I return to Dublin to visit, I do not think he will have had the courtesy to refrain from meddling in my adopted hometown as well.
And just as it is true that all things are subject to decay, it is true that such decay is never permanent. You do make new friends. You do fill a new place with new memories. There are always more adventures to be had, a little down the road, even if everything that has gone before is in some sense lost. But ain’t it a bitch all the same? For even if unending future joys should wait for us, a little ways further down the line, there is always sorrow behind. It does not crush; it does not overwhelm. But it accumulates in a slow drift beneath us, like the subduction of a tectonic plate, and carries us along.
I do not know if there is a place in this world which will ever feel like home, in the way the place you are born does, when you are a child. For me, it is not Nashville, nor can it ever be again. It isn’t Dublin, not really. In my mind’s eye, it might be a place a little like my brother’s neighborhood in Berlin, with wide, tree-lined streets, flanked by handsome old buildings. And if it were really home, my heart of hearts whispers, it would always be early autumn in a place like that, with a fragrant breeze and the midday sun; and you would know, that maybe not next door, but not far away—just down this street, or that, maybe a couple blocks over—was every friend you had ever had, and every companion you had ever missed. You might see them often, or rarely; but if suddenly one evening the urge struck you, to while away a few hours with someone you had not spoken to in years, you would know just what door to knock on, and there they would be, beloved, and familiar, and glad. It would be a place without partings, sweet or sorrowful, and there, time would have no power to wound or mar our hearts, because however far we went away, we would return safe in the knowledge this was where we were meant to be all along.
Quantic Dream/David Cage 2010
for the PS3
I need to lampshade something at the beginning. Here at d3mok, we review every video game, consciously or un, by comparing it to ‘Deus Ex’, the cyberpunk RPG shooter-or-nonshooter from the year 2000. There are some rational and some irrational reasons for this, and going back through the archives of our internal communications, it appears I’ve been as guilty of the irrational ones as anyone. The worst of these moments was an invocation of it in describing ‘Skyrim’, which made an initially very positive impression but turned out to be junk by the end: a fair comparison might have been “omg, it’s juuust like ‘Deus Ex’ if JC Denton hadn’t been able to hack it in his first UNATCO assignment and had been laid off and had to get a job as a delivery guy for FedEx. And then got assigned a route on a bullshit medieval fantasy island.” That’s the irrational talking, the part of me that thinks that Warren Spector is the only RPG developer to have seen the face of god. In the realm of the rational, ‘Deus Ex’ figures heavily in my discussion of ‘Heavy Rain’ because they both have similar ambitions in terms of giving the player agency to shape the story, are both generally successful in these ambitions, but have very different approaches to and definitions of things like agency and choice. They are also games which while ultimately very good exhibit a number of shocking, jarring flaws—sometimes even the same ones—such that I think it’s pretty constructive to consider them side-by-side a lot of the time. I’ve also embarked on a playthrough of ‘Deus Ex’ for the first time in about four years which ran parallel to my playing ‘Heavy Rain’, so both have been swirling around in my mind for a while.
For all their similarities, ‘Deus Ex’ and ‘Heavy Rain’ come from different sides of the fundamental divide in video games, best expressed in ultimate archetypes: there are Pongs, and there are Froggers. Froggers, a category that includes ‘Frogger’ but also things like ‘Super Hexagon’, or even hide and seek, are deterministic systems through which the player moves using play and game elements, but which only reach their end states through player success. Failure is an option: you can fall in the water, get run over, etc., but this doesn’t produce an outcome. It halts the system, which is then run again and again until the end is reached without the interruption of failure. Pongs are the category that includes games in the larger sense that spans all of human history: ‘Pong’ is one, but so are chess, soccer, and ‘Candyland’. These games all move toward a definite end state (eleven points; checkmate; 90 minutes; hyperglycemia) which produces an outcome, and one of the outcomes for any given player is failure. ‘Deus Ex’ is a Frogger, but Heavy Rain is a Pong.
Player agency in ‘Heavy Rain’ works like this: no matter what you do in any given scene, the game continues on to the next one. Completion of or failure to complete the game sequences in the scene will have consequences—sometimes fatal ones—for whichever of the four player characters is the focus of the scene. If you get someone killed, the game continues toward its end state without them or any of the subsequent scenes they would have appeared in. Failure also might not have any immediate consequences, but it might get someone else killed further down the line. There is also ‘failure’ in the sense of refusing to even attempt something that has been laid at your feet: you can get up and walk away, and the game goes on anyway. The implications of this are tremendous, and I need to revisit them when I talk about controls a bit further on. Contrast that with ‘Deus Ex’: as many paths as there might be through one warehouse, and as little killing as many of them may involve, there is only one path through the game and the only way to walk it is without JC Denton getting killed. Here, it’s almost (but not quite) the reverse: ‘Heavy Rain’ doesn’t grant you this decisional sovereignty all the time or in every scene, and some outcomes are scripted to the point where you can push buttons frantically or just put down the controller to cover your innocent stuffed hippo’s eyes from the violence unfolding in front of you and the outcome will be the same. It also micromanages the environment to an absolutely infuriating degree: you can only interact with objects when they have the controller-button halo over them, and not at all when they don’t. This is applied with stunning condescension: searching a room for clues, I can open a closet door because the halo has appeared over the knobs, but once I’ve opened it and my character has seen that it’s empty, the halo disappears and I can’t open it again. In perhaps the most maddening example, the game permitted me, walking down the hallway in a nursing home, to stop and look at some flowers. Since this wasn’t my first video game, I knew I would need them later, but I wasn’t permitted to pick them up until I had walked all the way down the hall, run through a bunch of conversation options with the dialogue holding my hand, and then only after the visit from Captain Obvious was I allowed to walk all the way back down the hall, pick them up, and bring them all the way back—which, by the way, I had to do, Frogger-style, if the scene was going to advance. For a game that lets you choose, ultimately, whether all of the people with speaking parts live or die and which is brave enough to painstakingly construct whole scenes and chapters that never see the light of day because every choice excludes some later alternatives, this kind of railroading is supremely annoying. But it’s hard to say which is more condescending: not being able to pick up the flowers until my cue or permitting me to think that some difference will be made by having a body count of 0 versus 1200 when really I’ve been on a monorail to Area 51 since I landed on Liberty Island and the only choice with any significant consequences for posterity is the one between doors number one, two, or three at the very very end. (It was in many ways more intellectually honest for the end of Deus Ex: Human Resources to be just a big ol’ gleaming console with a red button and a blue button on it.)
‘Heavy Rain’ has one of the strongest, most vivid, tightest—both in the sense of coherent and of constricting—atmospheres of any game I’ve ever played. Just as ‘Deus Ex’ evokes the dystopian cyberpunk horror of ‘Neuromancer’ and the nighttime, somehow both shadowy and alive with electric possibility, of ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’, so ‘Heavy Rain’ is what would happen if Michael Haneke and Raymond Chandler decided to make a movie together. It has the bitter bleakness, the intensity of suffering, and the chamber-orchestra scale of ‘Funny Games’, but the moral grounding, the noir tropes, and the noble punching-bag protagonist of ‘The Long Goodbye’. It is not a world-building game—it won’t even name the city it’s in, though connoisseurs will recognize Philadelphia—and the plot is dramatic, not epic. Even as it involves the police, poverty, income inequality, and social exclusion, it is not a Brechtian vehicle for the discussion of these things; they serve to shape and display the emotions and fates of the characters rather than the other way around. And the rain—good god, the rain. It is both plot and atmospheric element, the relentless background to everything, the fundament of the whole story. It is a small wonder that ‘Heavy Rain’ manages such intensity without ever tipping over into monotony.1 Similarly, the music is instrumental (as opposed to synthesized), vivid, and school-of-John-Adams, gripping the player’s emotions in a very American way by urgently flinging about the same broad, high major harmonies found all over the works of people like Adams and Copland, the kind that have always made me Feel Something even as they blocked my mind’s eye’s field of vision with the same silvery glint given off by quarters. You will have the urge, after playing this game for hours, to towel off your rain-soaked head and warm up with a cup of tea. It works utterly.
This has the effect of making the game’s glaring flaws and oversights all the more maddening. Let’s start with an old saw from the ‘Deus Ex’ days: where do they find these voice actors? Deus Ex was made on a too-quick timetable and a too-small budget by people in Texas who might, under the most generous possible construal of things, be forgiven for not being able to locate a Cantonese voice actress in Austin at short notice. But I watched the credits for ‘Heavy Rain’, which was a multimillion-dollar production with the full backing of Sony—who paid for the game to be dubbed completely into at least four languages—and they nevertheless expect me to believe that French actors doing transparently awful American accents are the best they can do? Let me give you some advice, Quantic Dream and or Sony Computer Entertainment Incorporated: If you are going to develop a triple-A video game whose showpiece villain is called the “Origami Killer”, it may be wise to point your voice actors in the direction of the correct pronunciation of these words, because your hard-boiled Philadelphia police detective becomes a ridiculous figure every time he shouts about finding “origammy” at the crime scene. Have you people ever actually been to America? Come to think of it, I don’t think they have. Emergency exit and fire-safety signs conform to European, not US, standards in the richly detailed environments; a scene in a hospital prominently shows British electrical outlets (go figure), and every light switch without exception from start to finish is of a make and model never before seen between Canada and Mexico. Their Frenchness shines through at other utterly preventable points as well, such as the cemetery: it is universal French practice to print surnames in all caps in official and technical contexts, something never done in the US, and so you can be forgiven for wondering why, when it shows the grave of Scott SHELBY,2 he was taken all the way to Paris to be buried. This is the kind of immersion-breaking stuff that is as sloppy as it is preventable, and it’s even a little dangerous: by flagging the narrative eye as that of an outsider—there’s a lot of hand-holding or deliberately leading camera work in ‘Heavy Rain’, often in ways that exacerbate the problems with railroading controls described above—the director invites his gaze to be examined on other levels as well.
Doing that, in turn, highlights the most unsavory male gaze of the camera, even—uh, especially, actually—in the chapters where the protagonist player character is a woman. ‘Heavy Rain’ fails all but the first of the three elements of the Bechdel test, and does so no matter which choices you make. Think about that: an elaborate tree of choices, whole branches on a plot tree, fate thrown open, and in none of these parallel universes do two women speak to one another directly—the closest one comes is a mother hearing her infant daughter cry in the next room. The woman among the four main characters spends her entire introductory scene taking a shower and then running around in a bra and panties. Every bit of progress she makes in her sleuthing is bought by bringing some degree of sexual satisfaction to a man, be it the Ethan Mars protagonist of protagonists or one of a panoply of gross villains. The androcentric dramatis personae is not itself problematic given that it’s a game about a serial killer with daddy issues who puts his victims and their fathers through ‘Funny Games’- or ‘Saw’-like challenges as a kind of sadistic test, but the masturbation material really doesn’t add anything beyond putting another straw onto the back of the camel that has to carry #gamergate around. The only thing I can find to say in the director’s defense here is that the male protagonist, Ethan Mars, is subject to the same voyeuristic camera-fucking more than once, but even if you were to argue that sexuality was tied to his having to prove his heroic manly fatherness to proceed, it’s a little bit more abstract and certainly more dignity-preserving than if he were to have to do a little dance and nearly get his cock out to get to the next level, which is the interrogation method that our Nancy Drew is forced to employ. Here, too, player decision is involved. You actually get an achievement for managing to conk out the smarmy sub-villain before you actually have to expose anything, but there’s no player choice—and therefore no choice on the part of the character, Madison—about whether or not he gets to put his hands on your ass first. Spoiler alert: he does.
And here’s where I get to have the interesting discussion about controls. Giving the player meaningful choice, of course, also gives the player a degree of moral responsibility for the consequences of the choice. I don’t feel morally conflicted about killing Gunther Herrmann in Paris because it’s justified by necessity: not only is it him or me, but I also know in advance what choice the game requires me to make, and you can’t get past that scene until you do the killing, justified or not. But there is more blood on your hands when a killing is avoidable and when it is perfectly possible to progress without doing it, and especially so when instead of just pressing X to shoot, you have to, as a player, issue a much more complex set of instructions or make a much more conscious decision to omit. Quick-time events, a controversial aspect of PS3 control heuristics, are applied to great effect here. Playing as the FBI agent, you must literally react instantly to a suspect swiftly pulling a blurry black object out of his back pocket and raising it toward your colleague. Scott the private detective can save himself from drowning with or without untying the other person in the car, and to untie her, you push and hold a series of buttons and move the controller back and forth, jerking it outwards and away from you to kick out the glass of the car window, allowing you to escape. If an action is performed using the stick, the speed and roughness with which you do it as the character correspond to how you treat the controller as the player. And all these converge in the infamous Lizard scene, where Ethan Mars must3 cut off his own finger. This is not done by clicking a mouse. It is done by holding down a button combination that requires you to move your hand over the PS3 controller into the same shape you would use to hold scissors (as Ethan is doing onscreen) and then, when you have gripped the tool correctly, jerk sharply downward with the whole controller to accomplish the cutting. The effect is a nearly holodeck-like sensation of cutting off your own finger, and I had to force myself to do it against the reflexive recoil of my whole body: the controller vibrated sharply as the scissors impacted the flesh, and stopped when they had cut through. It is the most horrible thing I have yet had to do in a video game. The more intimate mind-machine interface, even though it is a primitive boosting of intimacy, draws the player both physically and morally into the choices he has to make—consider the implications of this given that the Origami Killer, it transpires toward the end, has been one of the player characters all along—, and though a lot of things are murky in the world of ‘Heavy Rain’, one thing is clear: nothing comes about in this universe for which you, as the player, are not in some way responsible, from the tragedy that sets the game in motion to its bloody end. JC Denton is a stooge; the real conspiracy runs through the fourth wall.
- The only exception to the rain motif is the glorious, sunny, bloom-effect-soaked introductory scene, a children’s birthday party in a gorgeous architect’s home. Sitting down to write this, I initially thought “man, there should be one of those untranslatable German words for exquisite beauty that everyone knows is about to be shattered by horrible tragedy but oh my god isn’t it gorgeous right now, let’s not try to think about the sadness”, and then I realized that the word for this is actually just “beauty”, which only ever exists in a transient state at the cliff’s edge of waste and decay, and now I’m in a really bad mood.
- This is not a spoiler because the overwhelming odds are that he will not die when you play the game; there are sixteen different endings.
- You don’t have to. You can put the scissors and or knife down, get up, and walk away, and the game accounts for this choice and carries on in a different direction.
"Sublime Propaganda: Beauty and the Exhortation to Kill in ‘Palästinalied’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ (2014) 2 J. Incend. Art. Tit. 77-94."
Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe
Leidenschaft nicht noch Verstand
Dass ein gutes Deutschland blühe
Wie ein andres gutes Land.
Dass die Völker nicht erbleichen
Wie vor einer Räuberin
Sondern ihre Hände reichen
Uns wie andern Völkern hin.
Und nicht über und nicht unter
Andern Völkern wollen wir sein
Von der See bis zu den Alpen
Von der Oder bis zum Rhein.
Und weil wir dieses Land verbessern
Lieben und beschirmen wir’s
Und das Liebste mag’s uns scheinen
So wie andern Völkern ihr’s.
— Bertolt Brecht