Searching for a Golden Mean (and falling headfirst while at it) – a short tale about Heavy Rain’s controls

Since the dawn of time, man… Hm, sorry, didn’t mean to go “Molyneux” on you. Let’s try this again, slightly less megalomaniac.

Since Tetris, game designers constantly struggle with the same basic concept in each and every game… No, not how to put tits in and not get axed by the public opinion. How to implement the friggin controls.

For every consecutive title, they have to meet these principal standards:

–              be responsive – the most rigorous, comprehensive test a game has to undertake is the ‘first 15 minutes of playtime’. If within that timeframe the gamer gets frustrated in any way by the controls, they “don’t do what I wanted” or are too complex for him to digest (or served in a tough to swallow package rather than careful tutorial – gameplay pacing) – they are a failure;

–              keep it simple – you’re never going to achieve a level of density  as the keyboard and mouse, so don’t try to make a Rubik’s Cube out of the damn pad. Gradually, because beta testing and more conscious stance towards fine-tuning before RTM (Release To Manufacturing version) have become a necessity for a title not to drown in crappy reviews, this has somewhat improved. Not so much due to design understanding of this rule, as some still seem they could sing Dinah Washington’s classic “I’ll Close My Eyes” without a false note any day of the week (shout out to my dawg Randy Pitchford for his input to the Brothers in Arms series). Rather because 90% of the time you just copy a control scheme of a popular franchise in the same genre, sometimes going a little no-no-notorious (with better or worse outcome, just like Simon Le Bon in the 21 century) adding some of your own systems’ support. All in all the basic principle applies – to lazy or unimaginative to think about an easy to pick up GUI-to-pad scheme? Go make a PC strategy or something;

– bet on repeatability – remember all those games that had a button, or combination of thereof, to pull off a maneuver used roughly 2-4 times through the course of the whole thing? No no, not because it’s useless, on the contrary – the developers made it mandatory to use to pass to next area… but still you used it contextually only a handful of times! Man, nothing says “wasted” more profoundly! Well, maybe the time Metallica used to record their new “album”. This can’t be stressed enough – for a control scheme to work, to feel organic and easy to pick up, it has to be constantly reused, repeated, (re)mastered. Example first off the bookshelf – why Halo’s controller layout is now widely used in every FPS to-date? Because it’s super accessible and every input function is meaningful, thus by combining the two we get something of a perpetuum mobile – 14 buttons plus two analog sticks, all working in synergy throughout the whole game experience, mastered by the consumer in as little as 15 minutes time (which, again, is the typical gamer “interest” cap – a game must go balls out in the first 15 min and captivate the consumer, so if a control scheme manages to be simple yet responsive in that time – we’ve got a hit. Hence Halo’s success).

Alright, so where the hell am I getting at with this? Is this a pean towards those Guitar Hero controllers? Not while there’s a living breath still inside of me!

The whole thing is due to the second game that’s finally going to make me buy a PS3. No, not Katamari Forever… still – tempting. It’s “Heavy Rain”, the spiritual successor to a very rich in storytelling bling “Farenheit/Indigo Prophecy”, made by Quantic Dream. Some of us remember them first and foremost from Omikron – the “Blade Runner” meets a very first open world, highly sensual, book-esque game experience. Those were the days, eh?

But let’s get back to a very 2009, Cliffy-heavy reality and on track. For the above controller rundown to make any sense at all. To those of you who must use twitter to follow any news these days – Heavy Rain’s controls are going to be completely streamlined “on the rails” style. That means no “control scheme” per se – you just follow the on-screen prompts to execute all actions, the experience essentially resembling a constant QTE. Yup, there’s even no such thing as free roam in this one, by pressing one of the shoulder buttons, one of the three game’s protagonists will dwell further on a set rail, tied to a string if you will. You can either go “forward” on a track laid out by the developers, occasionally only choosing paths but not controlling the movement in a strict sense (now if you didn’t know about this already, I’m willing to wager my copy of Fable III I surely won’t buy – that this surprised you negatively. Strike one for our dreaded gamer habits).

Crazy? Absurd? Obama is Osama preposterous (read the poster’s comment for some extra laughs)? Yes. And no. Yet before I go any further, watch some videos from this year’s presentations, if you haven’t already:

Presentation 1

Presentation 2

Presentation 3 (choice 1)

Presentation 3 (choice 2)

  • Why it’s not going to work

Let’s be perfectly honest – the reason why you don’t attach a pad to your cable retailer’s set top box and execute all those people as Jack Bauer by matching some on screen prompts is because… nobody would want to play that (well… OK, but not with QTE). Games and movies (or their poor cousins – TV shows) each have their own, very distinct characteristics and aesthetics. On the most basic, yet really clearest level, while watching Sutherland Jr. throwing swear words left and right like a true American’s wet dream hero, you’re just not in a “competitive” state. You’re set to receive – and digest, but not react. While playing any game, even Wii Fit, our mentality shifts to a more “slippers on” approach, where we know full well we have the power (within set game world boundaries of course) to model the outcome by our actions, that being: controller input + thought process.

These two medias (movies and games) cannot and will not intertwine, ever. Because from a pure psychological standpoint, our stance towards them is different and they both satisfy completely different needs. Again, to watch something unfold, either by staring at a screen or frantically turning book pages – is to follow a story we know had a beginning, a “here and now” and ending – all three set in stone. Our interest compels us to find out how it’s all going to (keyword) play out. Whilst by playing the game we have a strong sense of being at the helm and making a change to a dynamically reacting world – shaping the outcome, even if from a pure technical perspective, that outcome has been already written, scripted and burned on the disc. The game just waits for you to follow a set or predefined inputs which propel the interactive spectacle from start to finish. But even the most scientific disambiguation has got nothing to people’s greatest strengths – feeling, senses, reasoning. Just tell me that when you played the CoD2 campaign on Veteran for the first time you absorbed the experience as “a set or predefined inputs” rather than an enthralling adrenaline pumping ride, with plenty “oww FUCK! Bullets everywhere!!” moments. That’s the difference. I could’ve just written “watching is passive, taking part in (even virtual) adventures is active by definition”, but that would mean I don’t get to say FUCK right smack in the public’s eye. Shwing one for the home team!

Alright, so if you managed to somehow not get bored and switch to a porn site (you’re perfectly welcome to do both, everything is for people), you probably got my argument that Heavy Rain’s control system isn’t going to work, because performing what are essentially strings of QTE is too passive and cannot convey enough substance to be considered a game experience. Simply put – it’ll get boring and tedious really quick. And – with all those exciting God of War moments, or any of the millions QTE-equipped games that followed (which tend to be as exciting as inflation) in mind, you disagree.

Here’s the thing folks – bear in mind that QTE utilize a fraction of the actual gameplay time, or in lesser cases – a fraction of cutscene time. It’ll be kinda unfair, because GoW was not designed from the ground up to fit this criteria like Heavy Rain, but let’s do a little though experiment. Try to imagine you playing God of War with no beat’em up gameplay it’s so famous for, but only traversing from one QTE moment to the other, in a nutshell – walking from monster to monster and pulling off those cinematic finisher moves. Sounds exciting? Not really? That’s because QTE are a cherry on the cake, without it, eating just a cherry is really meh.

Furthermore, by not adhering to those three basic rules I laid out earlier (I didn’t make them up, I’m just aware of them, really), Heavy Rain can scare off the audience it most wants to attract – adult “Sunday” gamers to whom the game’s theme will speak the most. Watching some of the more reflex-based sequences from the demo, these instances when the game’s difficulty cap must raise somewhat to portray a strong, adrenaline heavy response by the protagonist, it’s clear the developers overdid it with the input variety and number. Take the scene where the cop addict is desperately searching for his fix while holding the other guy at gunpoint. Sure, in real life that would probably be stressful as a new Lionhead game announcement, hard to pull off etc. – but I think we as the industry established long ago, that our products cannot treat themselves too seriously or try to “realistically” convey a sense of urgency and peril by amping up difficulty so much it twists the player’s balls out. That’s False Realism (TM, but I can sell the term for a Porsche). Based on a broken ideal that games are not meant to entertain – period, but tell a story as organically as possible first and foremost. The things I can see in that sequence are: lack of responsiveness (how many buttons am I supposed to press there? Do I even have that much fingers?!), lack of simplicity (who, wtf are those symbols in screen, I can’t see! Damn it, what am I supposed—argh… down, up, R2, triangle, wha… aww, fuck), and lack of repeatability for the sake of understanding and absorbing the control mechanic. All in all, when you dismantle the thing to its technical core, it seems the spine in tackled with scoliosis.

  • Why it is going to work

My, if the world wasn’t as beautiful as it is, constantly dodging dogmas that try to describe it, adding a sparkle of magic to fact and statistic, I’d probably be writing in Cyrillic right about now. About the western blasphemy and resources waste dump that are video games.

So kudos to The Powers That Be, whatever they might be, and let’s look at this thing from another perspective.

Although the above facts still remain in power, they are, as fate would have it, only one side of the coin. To realize the full picture, I in all good will, have to note that Quantic Dream since its “Omikron” days propose a kind of storytelling and scriptwriting technique I call “Michelangelo’s chisel”. Pretty poetic, huh? But accurate if you look into it – every moment in their games that transmit a story arc, plot twist or deepen a character’s role in the grand scheme of things – is tailored and polished to the highest level of excellence, way beyond anything other titles can muster. Their approach is stylish, sinks into you and has every aspect of immerse book storytelling which omits nothing, even the tiniest detail, which resembles Frank Herbert’s or Sylvia Plath’s works. As sensuality goes, Quantic was never off mark in delivering a gripping tale of though & sense, I still remember distinct nuances like Kay’l 669’s voice or a scene In Fahrenheit where Carla takes a shower and Martina Topley-Bird’s “Sandpaper Kisses” pour slowly through a steamy room. If you haven’t played these games, it’s really hard for me to portray what emotional value they carry (hot chicks in the shower, oh yeah), something that’ll never be achieved by Marcus Fenix’s grunts or  Shepard’s stiff “badass” gun-ho attitude. Why so?

The reason is Quantic have always strived to deliver an experience as close to a real life situation as possible, for good or for worse. By that I mean, mostly in Fahrenheit and now this tendency will move on into Heavy Rain, there is no strict “gameplay” in its typical sense. In other titles, when your nemesis is creeping on the stairs to your door, you’ll be given a sole choice how to deal with it – which in 90% cases will result picking up your guns and blowing his brains all over the wall. Just because – you’re playing a shooter. Or slasher. Etc etc. “Interacting with” Quantic Dream’s games you may have the choice to hide all incriminating items before the cop clams over the door – but you have to logically determine what they are. And even if you manage to find a mop and clean the blood stain off the floor, maybe you still left a bloody t-shirt hanging loosely from a laundry basket? What does a frightened everyday Joe do in a stressful situation like this – pull out a Magnum and let’er rip? Hell no, he may reach for a nearby frying pan and try to knock the cop out cold, then having a severe case of conscience guilt. It sounds like a William Gibson novel you may have read? It also plays out that way, believe me. By not having a one set game mechanic like shooting, hand-to-hand or stealth on which the game constantly falls back on, Quantic were able to spindle a web of intrigue, the player having no idea what’s luring around the corner because there was no grounded game system to base that assumption on. This got them as close to that “I know it’s late but I’ll read just one page more” feeling as possible in a digital medium. But everything has its price.

  • Why am I contradicting myself…?

Dunno, maybe it’s because I seem to be resembling Russel Crowe in his Fighting Around the World show more and more these days. Too bad I can’t act and do music, just the fighting.

First of all – full disclosure – I hate QTE. I think, for the most part these days, they’re a lame ass exit for studios that don’t have the know-how or talent to make a compelling action game. While the first titles that used them (in reality – reintroduced them, because Dragon’s Lair was first), like God of War and Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, actually manage to enrich their experience with a steady, mindful portion of those, now it resembles the story with Auto-tune in music, where it’s used to hide the singers striking lack of skills rather than syncing the voice with a beat to produce some fresh effects (I’ll let ‘Hova take the mic on that one).

That being said, all in all I still believe I’m not biased on games that introduce them, you won’t ever see me dismiss an idea just because it doesn’t do the job in 95% cases. In that 5, it just might.

So will it this time? Yes and no :) More precise question should be: who’s going to pick up this “game”? Why I generally look at age statistics of gamers with one eye closed, it’s true that these days good ol’ dad is more likely to lock his kids in the closet and play Halo till dawn, at the same time letting his marriage be handled by Mr. Good Vibrations. More and more of us grew up in the Amiga and not MTV age, gulped every Lem and Verne novel there was and then moved to Dick and Asimov. Do we want more “grown up” game scripts, meaningful stories and be able to really role-play our characters? Sure, why not, we still need our weekly shooter mindless gore fest/multiplayer frenzy fix, but sometimes even the toughest soldier goes melancholic and gets a notion he could try something else apart from sticking a grenade up someone’s arse and hopping away with a holler that makes all other match players deaf. Let’s face it, no matter how much Doom, Quake and Serious Sam are perched inside our uncomplicated hearts, we liked Beyond Good & Evil and/or Deus Ex. And we wait, albeit with growing impatience, on Alan Wake (though probably we’re immune to Remedy’s dev time by now). All that remains is to do a little soul searching and ask yourself – “is my curiosity so high I’ll sacrifice the thing I bought a console in the first place – gameplay – to see an interactive book? Or just do a “most popular” search on Amazon again”. And why you’re doing that, ask yourself if you have twelve fingers… in each hand to control this.

I will (had those fingers grown years ago, don’t ask what for). But to be completely honest more out of professional curiosity than anything else. I acknowledge, even from short story trailers, that Cage & Co. have once again nailed the narrative from a psychological standpoint and crafted a believable tale in which tears will likely pour as heavily as the rain. Nonetheless, that will always be too little for me. I don’t see the need to transfer a highly gripping moment to a “Guitar Hero hardcore mode” style button press sequence – in a book I don’t  have a say, here I’ll course the living daylights out of the designers for offering bullshit instead of real control. And call me stuck in the middle ages, but I’m an unbeliever in media merging – a game must be always interacted with on a higher and deeper level than simply by reflex and cutscene, a book must be consistent while leading me a narrow corridor so every page gives the same amount of satisfaction right up till the crescendo, and movies must visualize a screenwriter’s dream in a fantastic spectacle of light, sound and acting worth my 3 quid (for the nachos). And till one day when a games industry Einstein thinks of a way to merge these without compromising their greatest strengths, I’m “against”. To maybe give you something to think about, today I got my hands on a illustrated book about Valve and how Half-Life came to life, a step at a time. Among many others, I came across a lovely tale on how two devs sat in a small dark stuffy room (my, smells like memories) for a few days, taking only small breaks to grab not nearly enough sleep, because they had to make the famed test chamber failure sequence from the first game. Zombiefied after the work load, they woke up on Monday and noticed (only after drinking 1,5l of coffee and a quick intravenous adrenaline injection) there was a commotion in the office. As it turned out, people found their sequence, played through it and loved every bit. That day, everyone at Valve it was a good decision to make interactive story sequences instead of uncontrollable cutscenes. Power to the people. Amen.

And with that thought – and with a moment of silence to honor the old forgotten rail shooters while we’re at it, I bid you good night.

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~ by Pawel Wyslowski on September 2, 2009.

4 Responses to “Searching for a Golden Mean (and falling headfirst while at it) – a short tale about Heavy Rain’s controls”

  1. Once again a good reading, Paul :) You should post more often.

  2. And he returns, once again, writing like a pro.
    My short take on this matter looks something like that.
    Obviously Mr Cage wants to make a story centred game (and this time without elderly ladies changing into robots! woo!) and obviously he has somewhat strange idea about game controlls’ having great importance in said storytelling.
    And that simply screws with my mind. I mean – haven’t we all played games with great (and I mean Great) stories and completely standard control scheme? “But shalick” – you may say – “Cage wants to create something entirely new!”.
    And hell! I am all for creating anything new! But come on! Weird-ass controls will more likely piss me off than suck me in, just like in Fahrenheit. Till this day I remember the scene, where you had to climb a ladder. In ANY OTHER GAME this would mean holding W, of left thumbstick up for a few seconds, sometimes preceded by pushing the use button. But no, not in Fahrenheit. To climb the ladder you had to clik-and-drag a quarter-circular motion. About a dozen times. And don’t forget time constraints. Overall – it was actually harder, than climbing the damn ladder in real life.
    Here’s my opinion – it fucks up the immersion. “But how?”
    I’ll tell you how – let’s take some example. Something easy, that you do every day. Like getting into the drivers seat in the car. Here is how you do this in most games:
    1. You press the use button.
    2. Short animation, where you see your character opening the door, and getting int the car.
    3. Success.
    And here is, how it’s probably gonna play out in Heavy Rain:
    1. You approach the car. Icons appear around your characters pockets.
    2. You push the button corresponding to one of the icons.
    3. Fail. Car keys aren’t there. You try another.
    4. Win! Your character is now holding car keys in his/hers hand.
    5. Icon appears near the lock. You push up (to insert keys into the lock), you make half-circular motion with the thumbstick (to turn the key), you press L2 button (to open the door), you do some other stuff (to take a seat). Finally you press R2 to close the door.
    6. Now the fun starts. You are gonna start a car, which includes turning the key in the ignition, changing gears and pressing gas, stuff I don’t want to describe in detail.
    7. Success. Or is it?
    This is not immersive. Stuff you do seamlessly in real life should be done as seamlessly in the game.
    And don’t get me wrong – I’ll probably buy HR the first day it comes out. But that’s because I’m a sucker for a good story. Hell! Even it features grandmas changing into robots. And a UFO. This won’t be the first game that I finish (and enjoy) despite flawed mechanics.
    Well – I’m gonna cut this comment right here. It occurred to me, that I am, in fact at work, where I should do some actual work, instead of writing lenghty comments.

    • You’re too kind. And I do know who made you “soft” :P
      About the “doing something new” thing – true that there are some titles out there with great stories, albeit “standard” – as you say – gameplay mechanics. I believe what Cage wants is to make another step up that ladder and not just climb it up to the point of Half-Life 2. Bless him for trying. But by simply making a rough translation “more stress to the character = more stress to the gamer = more compelling/immersible experience”. Dear Dave… are you forgetting you’re making a damn GAME and not a virtual dick guillotine?! It’s meant to be enjoyable for fucks sake. If we’d like be more “immersed” in higher stress levels, we’d be parliament journalists by now.
      Bottom line – “to experience” does not equal “to live through” in game terms. And never will. At least till they don’t make that VR helmet thingamagig from the 80s sf flicks. At which point I’m bailing to the Bahamas.

      Oh, btw… Here’s that illustrative book I was talking about:

      All Valve’s tidbits and secrets – in one place. *Tease tease* (I know, I’m going to hell… and just from watching Dante’s Inferno stupid trailers).

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