SPOILER ALERT: Heavy Rain
I recently got around to playing Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream’s interactive noir thriller released back in February 2010. Normally I detest quicktime events, but somehow I stomached through roughly 10 hours of them and actually found myself enjoying the game. By the end, though, something didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t the controls, it wasn’t the plot-holes, nor was it the Norman Jayden’s horrible accent. What really bothered me was the game’s use of what I call the Mysterious Protagonist.
From the very beginning, the game set me, the player, up to root for Scott Shelby; he’s the lovable old man who can still hold his own in a scrap, defending the honor of the downtrodden and prostituted while still trying to solve the case of the Origami Killer. He’s a character whose identity I could rather painlessly adopt, much like that of, say, John Marston. He’s likable enough and the goals he purports to have, protecting Lauren and finding the killer, aligned with those of my own, so there was very little conflict of interest between Shelby’s actions and my own desires.
HUGE EFFING SPOILERS FOR HEAVY RAIN
However, when I got to the climax of the game where it’s revealed that Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer, and that he’s been leading Lauren on a wild goose chase all along, it was a slap in my face, one that stung much harder than Quantic Dream had originally intended. Now this is technically my speculation, as I don’t have an “in” with the developer, but I’m assuming they had one of three goals in making Scott the killer. One possibility is that they were trying to arouse a feeling of guilt in me, stemming from my aiding or controlling this serial killer as he lied to Lauren and killed innocent people. Another is that they wanted me to feel betrayed and manipulated by Scott, someone I (hypothetically) thought I could trust. The third, and probably most likely, is that they just wanted to make the ending as intriguing as possible. However, regardless of which was their true intention, Quantic Dream failed.
Rather than feeling guilty, I simply felt betrayed. Before you say that this satisfies the second alternative, though, let me clarify: I felt betrayed not by Scott, but by the game. After spending so much time in this man’s shoes, any sense of immersion I had built up over the course of the game got thrown out the window as I watched Scott burn the evidence in his garbage bin. I may have been controlling him as was defending Lauren, or as he was caring for her child, but not as he abducted Shaun Mars. Not as he killed the antiques shop owner. Scott Shelby did those horrible things, not me, the player. By having me control the action surrounding those scenes, the game implied that I, in some capacity, AM Scott. After all, it isn’t much of a stretch going from simply wiping off fingerprints to actually killing a man, is it?
Oh wait, yes it is! See, I can easily accept wiping down fingerprints, especially when I’m unaware that the character I’m playing as, the character I’m are supposed to be embodying, has just killed a man. All I would have to do is remind myself that this menial and illegal task is all for the greater good of solving the case. But I cannot accept taking responsibility for Scott’s autonomous actions, those he performed outside of my control or knowledge. Even though I played as him for parts of the game, I myself did not intend to kill anyone, nor did I actually kill anyone (in the game). No matter how much it may be insinuated that I somehow am the Origami Killer, it simply isn’t true. I felt no guilt for Scott Shelby’s actions. I felt betrayed only by Quantic Dream. I lost all sense of immersion. Regardless of how interesting such a plot twist may be in a Heavy Rain movie, it’s absolutely horrible in Heavy Rain, the game.
And this, my friends, brings us to the problem of the Mysterious Protagonist*. It’s a frequently used trope in video games, but one that’s rarely handled with care. Scott Shelby is a problematic Mysterious Protagonist, or MP, to the core; he is a main character, one whom the player directly controls, whose past is not only an integral part of the game’s plot, but is also known, at least in the beginning, only to him. Worse still, even his intentions are hidden from the player for most of the game. At least in other games which feature MPs, their intentions are clearly presented. In the beginning of FFVII, players may not know exactly why Cloud Strife feels the need to stop Sephiroth, but they at least know that that is his goal, and it’s a goal that they can get behind.
This isn’t to say that MPs are always problematic, however.Take Daniel, the protagonist from Amnesia: the Dark Descent. He is also a prime example of an MP, one that even suffers from another classic video game protagonist ailment: amnesia (go figure, right? On a side note, for a more in-depth analysis of the treatment of amnesia in video games, check out the Extra Credits on it here: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/2681-Amnesia-and-Story-Structure). At the start of the game, Daniel wakes up in a castle, disoriented and confused. After a quick search, he finds a note left on a desk addressed to him from his past self, explaining briefly what has happened to him and what he must do: enter the inner sanctum and kill the man inside, all while avoiding the “shadow” that is tracking him. Right from the get-go, both the player’s intentions and Daniel’s are identical: both want to perform the task given to them by Past Daniel, both want to find out why Past Daniel would ever decide to wipe his own memory, and both want to not die. There is absolutely no conflict of interest.
Better yet, as the player finds more letters, some by Past Daniel, some by other authors, Present Daniel’s past is slowly revealed. Unlike Scott Shelby’s, Daniel’s former self, that which the player didn’t see, doesn’t have an effect on the game’s immediate narrative. As far as the player is concerned, Past Daniel is dead. From his re-awakening onward, the player is a new Daniel, one whose actions are defined completely by the player, and there is no insinuation that the new Daniel, and in turn the player, is responsible for any of Past Daniel’s actions. It’s an incredibly satisfying and organic experience, one which allows the player to simultaneously retain their sense of immersion in the game and feel genuinely shocked to discover the person they “were,” an effect which Heavy Rain failed miserably to create with Scott.
And this gets at the heart of the matter when it comes to problematic Mysterious Protagonists: it’s all about immersion. Regardless of how cinematic an experience a game wants to create, there is nearly always some sense or implication of immersion between the player and the characters they control. By relying on MPs for plot twists and “big reveals,” however, this immersion is often broken, as demonstrated by the character of Scott Shelby. Broken immersion, unless done for some effect, typically means a broken game narrative, and this is exactly the case for Heavy Rain.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Not that this is by any means the best way to fix this problem, but here is at least one possible solution: to really sell the player on the idea that they are the Origami Killer (a reveal which would be, in my opinion, rather affective), the character himself would need to be as oblivious to the consequences of his actions as the player is. A simple way to do this would be to change the instructions given in the shoebox for each trial. What if, instead of chopping off his finger, Ethan had to participate in a catch-
22 take on the classic Milgram experiment, inflicting pain on some unknown person at the behest of the Origami Killer, only to find out later that he was actually harming his own son? In that scenario, neither the player nor the character would know the true consequences of their action until much later. And when that information is finally revealed to them, there would no break in immersion, only a mutual sense of horror. Again, I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to fix the ending of the game, but this is one suggestion.
David Cage and Quantic Dream may know how to craft an interesting static tale, but until they can grasp the concept of immersion and understand how important it is to video game narratives, I’ll most likely be sitting their next few “interactive dramas” out.
*To be clear, the Mysterious Protagonist is different from the Blank Slate. MPs have histories and backstories, previous lives which are known initially by the game alone, only to be slowly revealed to the player over the course of the game. Nearly any protagonist who suffers from amnesia at the beginning of their games is an MP. In contrast, Blank Slates are either characters who are almost completely defined by the player’s actions throughout the course of the game or are characters who merely act as husks to transport the player through an external plot. They may be amnesiacs, they may have a backstory, but their past is often a moot point, having little or nothing to do with the actual narrative of the game. Gordon Freeman of the Half-Life series is a great example of a husk BS.