Where games and movies cross over: L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain

heavy rain

Last year, I wrote about how I believe that “books, films and video games [are] going to meet somewhere in the middle. The lines between them [will] blur and interactive storytelling [will] be the result”. I then proceeded to write a number of posts looking at meeting points between books and games but not really thinking about film.

At the time I was playing L.A. Noire, which is a cinematic game, but I found it so repetitive that most of the time it made me feel worn down. So it never occured to me to write about it. But on reflection, L.A. Noire does have something to contribute on this subject.

In the game you play Cole Phelps, a detective working in 1940s L.A. Each time he goes to a new crime scene, he has to gather clues and find and interview witnesses and suspects. Sometimes they’re willing to talk, other times they have to be chased down. Depending on their attitude and what they have to hide, they may tell you the truth, part of the truth or none of the truth. Cole has to figure out whether they’re lying or not. He has a list of clues he can consult to help him determine this.

When the game came out, it was much touted that Cole could also look at suspects’ facial expressions to work out whether or not they’re telling the truth. Facial expressions didn’t seem particularly helpful to me when I was trying to work that out. And they certainly can’t be used to back up your claim when you tell someone they’re lying. But regardless, the interviewing is interesting. At the conclusion of the interview you find out how many questions you got right (though not which ones). Without having seen direct evidence of this, my presumption is that this then can affect the game, because if you haven’t found out the right info, you don’t go to the right place next.

Also, I once put away a man both I and Cole knew was innocent, because I’d messed up the interrogation at the police station. I was playing two suspects off against each other and did it ineptly. And the game didn’t give me the option of fixing my mistake. I liked that about it. Actions have repercussions.

The execution of the interview scenes didn’t always quite come off, and particularly during the murder cases they were a bit repetitive, but in general they were the greatest source of my narrative pleasure in the game. (Though I also did like working out the serial killer’s clues.)

I played L.A. Noire because I thought it was going to change my life and all our lives with its melding of cinema and game. But it didn’t. It had interesting ideas but too many cut scenes (scenes that you watch but don’t play) and too much repetitive game play. And then I played Heavy Rain. I had no expectations of it beyond that it was supposed to be cinematic in some way. I deliberately didn’t read anything about it before I played it.

This meant that I didn’t know it was by David Cage.

David Cage, on paper, should be my best friend. He believes in the melding of video games and cinema to create something that is not quite either. He thinks games can be and should be more than first-person shooters, platformers and whatever the word is for games where you solve puzzles (complex puzzles that can come in narrative form, not just Tetris). In fact, in a speech he gave a year ago, he proposed a new name for the sort of game he is talking about — digital entertainment. I think this new name needs rethinking as it is so bland, innocuous and ambiguous as to be almost non-existent, but I’m also with him because he is describing the same space that I’m talking about. The only difference is, in my vision, books are also going to be part of the picture.

Cage believes in emotion in games and thinks you can get that from the kind of interactivity where you control a character’s day-to-day life and in effect, live that life with them. And that’s what you do in Heavy Rain. In the opening scene you learn how to control your character. How to make them move around a room, open a door, sit down on a bed. Each room or environment you walk into has different kinds of interactivity associated with it. There are clues on the screen to let you know what you can and can’t do in any given space.

But it’s not just about going through the routine of someone’s life. Heavy Rain is the story of a father whose son has been kidnapped, and what he does to try and get his child back. There are four playable characters — Ethan, the father, and also a journalist, a private detective and an FBI agent. You don’t get to choose which character you play, the game nominates when it’s time to move onto someone else. Each character has their own narrative arc, but the minor stories are all there to advance the main storyline.

Something that I like is that Cage wanted to get rid of the idea of Game Over — that moment when your character dies and you have to start again. So for the greater part of the game, your characters can’t die. What that means is, if you make a bad decision you don’t realise. It was only in my post-game reading that I discovered that small decisions in the game can drastically affect the ending that you get. I would have liked to have known this as I was playing it, because most of the time I felt I had only the most banal amount of control over the story. It seemed to me that the storyline was already set and that I was only allowed to tinker at its edges or at unimportant details in the middle. It’s exciting that this is not the case and if I had liked the game more, I would play it again to see what would happen next time.

But I didn’t really like it. There are two main reasons for this. The first is my annoyance with the way Madison, the female character, is written. I was so happy when I discovered there was a playable woman. And then so annoyed when all she did was play guardian angel/nurse/bringer of food to Ethan. She’s a journalist, apparently, though I only found that fact out in an incidental way towards the end of the game. And I never saw her at her workplace or doing anything remotely journalistic. But I did have to make her do a striptease to get information out of a fellow, though I hit him over the head before that could get very far.

I don’t think Cage knows very much about women. He appears to think we don’t play games. And then, he thinks the reason we don’t play games is because it’s too hard for us to understand how to work the controller.

(And don’t get me started on his Kara project, an android that can look after the house, do the cooking, mind the kids, organise your appointments, speak 300 languages and be entirely at your disposal as a sexual partner.)

The other reason I didn’t like the game was because of the writing. It’s badly written. At the end, Madison had knowledge about something she hadn’t seen. Knowing now that there are multiple versions and endings of the story, it makes sense that the reason she knew that was that she found out in another branch of the game. But not in any of the branches I played. So that piece of dialogue shouldn’t have been there. Norman, the FBI agent, was addicted to some drug. I don’t know what, I don’t know why. It affected his actions in the story and was clearly there for a reason, but that must have been hidden in another branch of the story that I never came across. Those are just two examples, but the game is littered with these kinds of problems. It’s admirable to take on four characters with different story branches that affect each other and that can change. But only if you’re going to do it properly and make sure that each narrative strand makes sense.

So, Heavy Rain. A cinematic game in which the cut scenes are mostly interactive (quick time events) and the decisions made in the interactions actively affect the rest of the story. And it’s made by someone who believes that games should give us different types of experiences, more than just running and shooting and jumping and puzzle solving. He believes in emotion in games. He thinks he’s creating something that is not a game and not a film but a hybrid.

I got what I wanted, but then I discovered I didn’t want it because the writing is bad. The writing has to be good otherwise there’s no point.

Cage’s next game after Heavy Rain is Beyond: Two Souls. It came out just last October. I thought I’d get around to playing it eventually but now I’m curious. I’ve ordered it and will play it next.

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