Applied Philosophy: Heavy Rain

I’ve spent many months thinking about the role of a game designer. I’ve found some excellent resources online and much like my writing (which I barely talk about on this blog anymore :P), I find that the most helpful information comes from the pros: designers talking about game design.

Here’s a little article I game across today whilst perusing one of my dailies.  Now I haven’t played Deadly Premonition for the obvious reason that I don’t own an X-Box 360, but Hidetaka Suehiro, a Game Designer for the game, shared his design philosophy at last week’s Game Developer’s Conference. Here are his major points:

Point 1: Make gamers think about your game when they aren’t playing it.
Point 2: Make gamers actively “want” to play through your meticulously scripted story.
Point 3: Create a storyline for a free-roaming open-world game.
Point 4: Prevent players from quitting the game at the result screen.
Point 5: Make appealing characters.
Point 6: Characters should talk in a memorable way.
Point 7: Use all of your ideas while you can use them.

What I found to be particularly interesting about this article was that I had no interest in Suehiro’s own project but in how these design philosophies can be applied to just about any successful game. (I should note that I use the term “successful” here because one could argue that by not embracing the above points, a game would be less successful based on Suehiro’s own approach to Deadly Perils.) With that in mind, I thought it would be an appropriate (and fun!) exercise to apply Suehiro’s 7 points to another successful game: Heavy Rain, my current obsession and pick for 2010’s champion of gaming excellence.

Point 1: Make gamers think about your game when they aren’t playing it.

I’ve read a number of reviewers who’ve complained about the slow start to Heavy Rain: you set the table, you play with your kids, you go to the mall, blah blah blah. Yeah, so those tiny actions might seem insignificant to the average gamer, but Heavy Rain is telling a different kind of story. In fact, one could say that’s the only goal of Heavy Rain: to tell the story. Every element of the gameplay reinforces this concept–the story will go on until the game tells you it’s over. For these reasons, Heavy Rain dabbles in some of the more “mundane” actions that most games never detail and for good reason: to force you to think about the everyday. Heavy Rain is about actions and consequences: how every choice you make or fail to make will impact upon a future event. Only Heavy Rain takes something mundane, like shaving, and asks you to reflect on why it’s important that you shave in the first place. You may not understand why it’s important while you’re doing it, but when you go downstairs and your wife tells you that she likes it better when you shave, you’ll wish you had done it.

You might find yourself in the same position some day. “Should I shave? Would so-and-so like it better if I shave?”

And it’ll be that moment when you think of Heavy Rain. When you engage the player in tasks that mirror reality, you’re going to make your player think about the game when they aren’t playing it. Suddenly, all those tiny actions aren’t so insignificant anymore.

Heck, if you’ve already played Heavy Rain, I bet you’ll never look at a saw the same way again either.

Point 2: Make gamers actively “want” to play through your meticulously scripted story.

Another one that Heavy Rain accomplishes with ease. As I mentioned, the ultimate goal of Heavy Rain is to tell you a story. This isn’t an RPG, which plays like the same roller coaster every time, making you watch the same dialogue scenes and play through the same areas to get from point A to point B. By focusing entirely on the story, Heavy Rain ensures that you have no other choice then to play. And by telling you that all of your actions matter, that everything you do in the game has a consequence (however ultimate), Heavy Rain also tells you that you matter. Few other gaming experiences give you this kind of freedom, a godlike power to control the fate of the characters for good or bad. By engaging you in this way, Heavy Rain successfully makes gamers want to play because of a co-dependent relationship. It rewards you with story by making you play the story itself. After all, how many RPGs have you played where you slog through an area just to get to the next story scene?

The additional benefit to Heavy Rain’s approach? The story is meticulous indeed, and there is allowance for it because the story is the game.

Point 3: Create a storyline for a free-roaming open-world game.

The “sandbox” game is popular for a reason: give people the freedom to play and they will. Show Spiderman a tall building and he’ll want to scale it. Tell someone you can create lightning bolts and they’ll start blowing up cars. People love not having the restrictions of being forced into a scenario at a certain time. Sidequests have become a required staple of almost every video game for this very reason. Heavy Rain is the exact opposite in its approach, which is, at its core, on the rails like an arcade gun-shooter.

But Heavy Rain takes a different approach to “open-world”. Rather than give you a sandbox to play in, Heavy Rain places you in a room with objects, characters and words and says: “Go for it!” You may not be riding around on the city in a bike, or scaling tall buildings, or shooting lightning bolts from your fingertips, but Heavy Rain is giving you the equivalent. It doesn’t look flashy, and you don’t have superpowers, but you have the same freedom and control that you would in a sandbox game.

Point 4: Prevent players from quitting the game at the result screen.

Those clever little buggers at Quantic Dream, the studio behind Heavy Rain, avoided the issue of a result screen by not only not having one, but by structuring their game to not need one. Ever. There is no such thing as a “Game Over” screen in Heavy Rain. Once you’re on the ride, there isn’t any opportunity to reload or return to a save point. You’re going to play, you’re going to make decisions, and you’re going to live with it. (Your characters may not live with it though. :P)

For this reason, Heavy Rain becomes a near-seemless experience. Why do I say “near”? Because in between chapters you will, every so often, see the following message at the bottom of the screen: “You’ve unlocked a new bonus!” Well that’s sweet and all, but it pulls you out of the experience just a tad. Like those cursed trophy notifications.

Point 5: Make appealing characters.

The easiest way to do this is to just simply design a variety of characters and ensure they are relevant to the story. Every game has a goody-goody and a bad-ass. That’s because some people like to play innocent while others enjoy engaging with their devil-may-care attitude.

Okay, so it’s not always that simple. Characters also need to resonate with the player. There needs to be a quality about them that the player admires or respects so that they can put themselves in the shoes of the character either mentally or emotionally. In some cases, a player’s attachment to a character can come through negative feelings of hate, resentment or frustration. But these achieve the same effect: you’ve successfully made the characters meaningful in the eyes of the player.

Heavy Rain emphasizes this more than most games through the use of clothing, action and, most inventively, internal monologue. At any time during the game you can press a button and hear the thoughts that your character might be having. That’s primo character development and allows for characters to talk in their own voice quite literally–there’s no need to police one’s inner thoughts. It all serves to add to the appeal the characters have in addition to the excellent dialogue.

He’s more appealing than he looks, I swear!

Heavy Rain also prides itself greatly on its motion capture and facial recognition. Quantic Dream pulled each voice actor into the studio and duplicated their facial movements as they spoke each line and then transferred them directly onto the in-game characters. (Interestingly, this is why most of the characters look almost exactly like their voice actors.) This adds immensely to the realism of the game and the player’s ability to really see themselves in the characters, right down to a distracted look.

Point 6: Characters should talk in a memorable way.

Okay, so I’ve kinda covered this one already. The characters in Heavy Rain benefit from two sets of dialogue: that spoken aloud and internal thoughts. Add this to what is some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a game and you have appealing characters.

One gripe: at one (very important) moment during the game, a character says the following:

“Yes, I am the origami killer.”

But the line itself is spoken like this:

“Yes, I am the origarmi killer.”

Seriously. What a huge oversight in the voice acting, especially given that it’s so pivotal to the plot. But hey, even then the line is memorable (if for the wrong reason)!

Point 7: Use all of your ideas while you can use them.

I really can’t speak to this one, but I’m guessing that the downloadable content to Heavy Rain (entitled “The Taxidermist”) meant that someone had an extra idea or two that they wanted to incorporate!

Overall, I find it fascinating to see just how many of the 7 design points, all of which were utilized for a different game in a different genre by a studio with a different primary language, could be applied to Heavy Rain as another successful commercial product. It goes without saying that many of these ideas are ones that should be utilized for a number of different games in order to craft and present the player with a memorable experience. In fact, I can’t help but wonder how many other great games there would be if these 7 points were applied more fruitfully.

For now, however, I’m perfectly content with replaying Heavy Rain. :)

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