Heavy Rain, art, and craft

Recently, I was fascinated by Brainy Gamer Michael Abbot’s response to Heavy Rain designer David Cage’s talk at this year’s GDC.1 Unlike Abbott, I did like Heavy Rain, although at times I found its interface maddening, and I felt like there were a lot of untapped possibilities in the story. The game was rich, though, in what I value about gaming, which I have talked about at length elsewhere in other games: empathy, shared subjectivity, difficult non-binary choices, moral and ethical ambiguity, and origami.2

As I reflected on Abbott’s commentary on the session, I realized that part of the reason I liked Heavy Rain is that it walks a difficult line, navigating a very hard-to-find path through two different conceptual dichotomies, both of which I explored in the first post on this blog: the tension between “art” and “craft,” and the tension between ludic and fixed narratives.

In a recent article at Kill Screen, Jamin Warren proposes,

Instead of thinking about videogames as art, first let’s think about them as objects. Specifically, let’s think about them as design objects. More specifically, as things that we interact with both physically and digitally. This seems immensely valuable to me. Consider the difference between a sculpture (“art”) and a quilt (“craft”). A sculpture exists in a gallery, to be looked at, and meaning is made by interpretation—that is, I look at it, and I attempt to understand what the artist is trying to communicate. A quilt is no less a made thing, and can be a thing of great beauty, but we recognize it as an object that is made to a purpose, and we accept that its value comes from its interactivity: we can do something with it.4

Abbot has another piece concerning the same session, and the interplay between Cage’s ideas and those of Clint Hocking, who seems to be interested in the same things I am, generally speaking. In it, Abbott uses the phrase “interactive storytelling” to describe the kind of games that Hocking and Cage are striving toward (in very different ways). For me, though, “interactive storytelling” seems self-contradictory. “Telling” is a transmissive mode of communication, and as such it is unidirectional. Contrast with “discuss,” “converse,” “dialog,” etc. What Hocking and Cage are describing, and what Cage is working toward, is something more like collaborative storymaking, though that sounds to my ears a little goofy.

This is what I feel is missing in Brian Moriaty’s explication of the tension between games and what he calls “sublime art.” I don’t know if I care whether games are “sublime art,” or even whether I believe that such a thing exists. Moriarty asserts that the market pressures exerted on videogames mean that nearly all games will be “kitsch” (according to his clearly articulated definition), in the same way that nearly all films are “kitsch” by that same definition. In order to qualify as sublime art, a text must innovate, must interact with emotion in a way that is timeless, and must reward repeated interaction with new experience and discovery. (I think.) Commercial art is discouraged from doing these things.

However, Moriarty (and Ebert) acknowledge that some films can be art, despite these same pressures. To me, it stands to reason that some games can be art (even if we concede Moriartebert’s contention that none currently are). A game like Heavy Rain can (and should) lead to discovery, in the way that Moriarty is describing. Abbot mentions that Cage described a player of Heavy Rain who, confronted with the decision of whether the player character should kill another, turned the game off for two weeks. This is discovery: the player was essaying, deciding who he wanted to be under these circumstances with these limitations.

Put in the language Moriarty borrows from Schopenhauer, the gamer was contemplating the absence of Will—of agency. True, he was making a choice, but I object to Moriarty’s assertion that “choice is the most fundamental expression of Will.” If sublime art is rooted in our responses to and reflections on experiences we can’t control, then Heavy Rain effects this beautifully: we can only make the choices, perform the actions, allowed by the game (and thus by Cage). This is what happens when the fixed narrative of a game and its ludonarrative are intertwined—our Will is removed by that of the designer, and we are forced to understand and accept that loss. With each interaction, agency and intention overlap; it’s like playing a tightly braided cord. There are certain branches, certainly, that one can take, but each of those branches leads immediately or nearly immediately back to the same fixed point.

Ultimately, we’re left a feeling of free will, but wondering to what extent we’ve been controlled. Could I have saved Jason? Could it have been someone else? Could I have stopped him from killing? But you don’t know. Without repeated playthroughs,5

In fantastic writer6 Patrick Rothfuss’s utterly engrossing7 The Wise Man’s Fear, Rothfuss describes Tak,8 a game of strategy wherein the goal of a skilled player is not to win, but to play a beautiful game. Victory can be achieved with brutal quickness,10 but this misses the purpose of the game. What seems to matter in Tak is the relationship between the players, the art of the game, the way in which two sides that seem opposed make a beautiful thing together.

This seems a valuable way to think about narrativity in videogames, too. Instead of seeing the ludonarrative and the fixed narrative as oppositional, Heavy Rain allows the two to work together, one shaping the other, toward the goal of a well-crafted thing.

  1. Which conference—from the tweets I saw—I would have liked to attend, but I couldn’t’ve gotten drunk enough to keep up with. 

  2. One of my fondest memories of the game is folding the little paper whatever-it-was that came with the game while my PS3 took its sweet damn time installing the game to my HDD.3 

  3. Isn’t the whole point of consoles that we don’t have to install things? 

  4. This doesn’t mean craft can’t be art. Cf. 

  5. And I wonder if perhaps this is the only way to experience a game as sublime art you don’t know the limits of the designer’s intention. 

  6. And beardwrangler. 

  7. Seriously. Read this. After reading both this book and its precursor, The Name of the Wind, I have felt an odd ambivalence toward reading, like there is nothing else worth reading after this. I don’t ever remember feeling this way about another book. 

  8. The name of which is almost certainly not a semiobscure Steven King reference.9 

  9. Tak ah lah; mi him en tow. 

  10. Cf., for instance, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II