Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-02-2011

It could have been ugly. When the French developers Quantic Dream announced that they were working on an ‘interactive film’ that used quick time events as the primary mode of player interaction you could hear the sceptical harrumphing from orbit. Many gamers compared the game to Cinematronics’ infamous laser disc-based arcade game Dragon’s Lair (1983).

Screenshot from Dragon's LairAt a time when most video games were comprised of poorly animated coloured blocks, the cartoon imagery of Dragon’s Lair was ground-breaking. Here was a game that did not simply suborn the language and titles of films; it actually looked like a film too. The only problem was that when players fed their money into the machine, they soon discovered that they didn’t actually have control over the on-screen action. Indeed, instead of being able to control the character’s movements and actions, players were limited to a series of timed button pressings. Up. Down. Stab. Dodge. Press the right button at the right time and the game progressed. Press the wrong button and you were treated to one of Don Bluth’s beautifully choreographed and lovingly animated death sequences. Though popular enough to spawn sequels and spin-offs such as Dragon’s Lair II (1991) and Space Ace (1984), Dragon’s Lair left enough disappointed gamers in its wake to leave an indelible mark upon the culture’s collective psyche which begins to ache like an old war wound every time a developer decides to use quick time events in the misguided belief that timed button-pushing constitutes a refreshing shift in game-play.

PS3 package artwork for Heavy RainQuick time events not only have a questionable heritage as a mechanic, they also feel like a betrayal of the tacit social contract between developers and gamers. People play video games in order to control the action on screen, but quick time events reduce the level of this control to particular buttons at particular times. This reduced level of interactivity makes gamers feel deprived of agency, like passive members of the audience. It is not what they are used to. Given these expectations, Heavy Rain’s reliance upon quick time events is not only brave; it is nothing short of revolutionary.

Heavy Rain is a game that challenges our expectations of control over the video game experience; by doing so, the game forces us to consider the extent of our own free will and powers of self-determination.

Set in a near-future version of Philadelphia, Heavy Rain tells the story of four characters as they attempt to track down a serial killer known as the Origami Killer:

Ethan Mars, once a successful architect, never got over the death of one of his sons. Now divorced and living in a mangy apartment, Mars is trying to pull himself out of a deep depression by undergoing therapy and throwing himself into what time he has with his remaining son Shaun. However, despite his best efforts, Ethan’s mind is not what it was and he is experiencing blackouts. It is during one of these blackouts that the Origami Killer abducts Shaun.

Norman Jayden is a technocratic FBI agent who has been sent to Philadelphia to assist the incompetent and brutal local police in their efforts to track down the Origami Killer. Equipped with some nifty Augmented Reality sunglasses, Jayden sifts the clues but his tendency to escape into this secondary world has left him a hollowed-out junkie prone to conversations with phantom bartenders who are eerily reminiscent of Lloyd from the Overlook Hotel.

Heavy Rain character montage

Scott Shelby is a former cop turned private eye. Living alone and drinking way too much, Shelby seems poorly adapted to the demands of life as a freelance investigator. He has police contacts and yet does not use them. He has social skills and yet tends to wind up relying upon his fists as his primary means of conflict resolution. Shelby has washed up on the shores of the Origami Killer like so much human driftwood.

Madison Paige lives in a stunning loft apartment. She is beautiful, humane and clearly enjoys a good deal of success as a freelance photojournalist. However, despite her good fortune, Paige is plagued by nightmares: hideous images of assault and oppression by masked intruders. She cannot sleep. She cannot rest. She must move forward.

Heavy Rain elegantly interweaves the destinies of these four characters as they try to discover the identity of the killer and save Shaun Mars. At a number of junctures, the characters will be forced to make snap decisions or undergo a physical trial. Depending upon the outcomes of these decisions and trials, the game’s narrative changes and adapts, eventually leading to one of twenty two different climaxes, ranging from happy endings and the survival of all four characters to tragic endings filled with death, misery and despair.

Screenshot from Heavy Rain

What is most surprising about Heavy Rain is the fact that, despite being less traditionally interactive than most titles, it actually manages to make what interaction it does allow feels more substantial and real. Indeed, in most games (including roleplaying games), one experiences the protagonist much as we might experience the setting or the plot: the audience are passive and along for the ride. While we may make decisions that affect the game, there is never any sense that we have control over our character’s destiny or that we are ‘creating’ a persona for them. By giving us characters that all share a certain degree of hollowness and then allowing us complete responsibility for their destinies, Heavy Rain allows us to create identities for each of these four characters.

For example, as I am shockingly bad at quick time events and played the game on a low-resolution TV, I frequently struggled to a) make it through the quick time events unscathed and b) make the dialogue selections that seemed most reasonable to me. As a result of my cack-handedness, Ethan Mars rapidly turned into a shambling wreck, a borderline-psychotic ruin of a man who had nothing to live for except the chance that he might save his son from a serial killer. As this character emerged from my own incompetence, my vision of Mars began to shape my decisions: he did not hesitate to maim himself; he took insane risks when confronted by the police; he gleefully crawled across glass; he drank poison. Nothing mattered to him except Shaun. Similarly, Jayden revealed himself to be easily led. He turned a blind eye to the actions of his brutal colleague, gunned down suspects without thinking twice, took insane risks with dangerous criminals. He did all of these things because, at the end of the day, he could retreat to a better world in which he was a good detective, a piano-playing sophisticate, a competent caseworker.

Neither of these characters is inherent in the text of the game. They are entirely my own projections, and yet these projections soon came to so completely dominate my understanding of the characters that I could not act in any way other than what was true to their natures as I understood them. Of course Jayden would go for that fix to take the edge off; of course Mars would refuse to kiss the girl. How could they possibly not be true to themselves?

Heavy Rain illustrates a basic duality in our nature that allows us to be quite content blundering along under one understanding of ourselves, while also retaining the capacity to radically reinvent ourselves on the turn of a card, to cast aside old ideas of self and don a new identity like a freshly laundered suit. What makes Heavy Rain’s approach to characterisation so powerfully compelling is the fact that it effortlessly captures not only the duality of our natures, but also our fondness for forgetting our capacity for re-invention and settling down into the roles that we define for ourselves: roles that stick, suffocate and bind. The fact that Heavy Rain sees its characters defined through a series of critical decisions rather than a cumulative weight of action recalls what some literary critics refer to as the ‘Acte Gratuit’.

Pulp novel jacket for Crime & PunishmentThe ‘Acte Gratuit’ – or gratuitous act – is understood to be a reaction by a character against the absurdity of his existence. Weighted down by expectation, history and circumstance, the Acte Gratuit affords characters a chance to radically re-define themselves with a single action without motive, without psychological context, without obvious explanation. Gide’s The Vatican Cellars (1914), Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) and Camus’s The Outsider (1942) all involve a terrible murder that seems to come from nowhere and which then goes on to define the character. In The Vatican Cellars, Lafcadio kills and saves lives with equal indifference only to weep over the consequences of his actions. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov works himself into a frenzy trying on different identities that might explain his decision to murder an elderly pawnbroker. In The Outsider, Meursault mutters “the trigger gave” and then sits by impassively as a prosecutor has him sentenced to death as a soulless killer who didn’t even cry at his own mother’s funeral. In each case, a single action defines a life – but in each case, the new identity spawned is fragile and inauthentic. Indeed, many argue that Meursault is one of the great existential heroes because he alone comes to understand the void at the centre of his being:

As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.  And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I still was happy. — pp. 116

Drawing on the work of these writers – along with that of philosophers including Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre – psychotherapists working on both sides of the Atlantic gradually cohered into what has become known as the Existential Psychology movement.

Kairos

Unlike most therapeutic schools that focus upon resolving internal conflicts, Existential Psychology is concerned with helping people to realise that they are creative entities who construct their own identities and values through action: that “Existence precedes Essence”, as Sartre once put it. The American psychologist Rollo May referred to the moments at which we fully exert this creativity as ‘Kairos points’. Taking their name from the Greek for the right or opportune moment, the concept of Kairos points draws our attention to the fact that we tend to see ourselves in one light right up until the moment when we act out of context, and then re-examine our sense of who we are. The fact that Kairos points feel like literary (or in this case video game) conceits is in no way accidental, given both the literary roots of Existentialism and our tendency to draw from the media we have experienced when re-constructing the grand narratives of our lives. Our tendency to shape our lives to narratives provided by popular culture is nicely reflected in the tendency of characters in The Sopranos to quote from The Godfather trilogy. After all, where else would they learn how gangsters spoke and acted, other than at the cinema?

Heavy Rain is a game that cruelly exposes our own refusal to embrace our freedom. Games such as Bayonetta (2009) involve more button-pushing than a Borgia family reunion, and yet – despite the phenomenal amount of physical interaction demanded of the player – the game gives them little or no control over either the nature of their character or their character’s path through life; it’s not as though you even have the choice to send her home to put on some proper shoes. Heavy Rain gives you more creativity and more sense of responsibility over the development of your characters than practically any other video game… and yet it is a game that demands little from its players but a few timely button presses.

Heavy Rain suggests that Dragon’s Lair had it right all along. Agency flows not from the ability to jump up and down and walk about, but from the capacity to make an important choice at an important time. Life lurks within those Up, Down, Stab, Dodge moments, and not in the ceaseless turbulence of continual movement along a path laid down ahead of time.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK.  His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector.  He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.

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3 Responses to “Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events”

  1. zipdrive says:

    Yours is an interesting view whith which I largely agree, except for the Dragon’s Lair bit.
    I agree that “Agency flows not from the ability to jump up and down and walk about, but from the capacity to make an important choice at an important time”, but I think Dragon’s Lair had it wrong: the choices it presented were NOT meaningful or character-revealing. They were only important in that they allowed you to live to see another scene, outlining a decision tree full of stumps, which is essentially as linear as any corridor-shooter.

    Another good example is the Mass Effect series, were the meaningful choices are those picked during dialogue, not during combat or exploration.

  2. Jonathan M says:

    Hi there :-)

    I agree about Dragon’s Lair. The choices were not meaningful and you never ever felt in control of the game (unlike HR). I wonder whether HR’s ability to use quick time events to impart ownership was not a result of all the moments when you can wander around the landscape ineffectually. HR, like good art house cinema, is a game that gives you time to think. DL was just a sensory onslaught.

    Mass Effect (and Dragon Age) also have important focal decisions but I think in the case of both of those games, the amount of control you have over the construction of your character actually distracts from the importance of those few moments of dialogue. If you’re worrying about builds, what is one dialogue choice either way?

    Good comment though… very thought provoking. I think that there may be a continuum here between DL which gave you too little freedom and ME that gives you too much with HR sitting in the middle and so getting the balance right.

  3. zipdrive says:

    Regarding ME and DA, I think it depends on how many “brain cycles” you but into “builds” and such decisions. As someone who’d spent over 100 hours with DA and now nearing 40 hours with ME2 I find that these things are pretty well separated, holding my attention at different points in time. Still, I don’t know which type of decision made for a larger impact, time-wise. I probably spent more time regretting a misplaced skill point than misplaced trust in an NPC whe looking at my time with DA as a whole.

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