The Simple Art of Murder

Discussed in this essay:
  • Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream/David Cage 2010)

I need to lampshade something at the beginning. Here at Democritus the Third, 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 driver for FedEx. And then got assigned a delivery 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 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 array 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.

  1. 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. [back]

  2. 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. [back]

  3. 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. [back]