(Not) Seeing Is (Not) Believing

In Heavy Rain, an unreliable narrator lied and it broke the game.

By: Gavin Craig

Filed Under: Criticism Mechanics Story-driven


There’s a broad spectrum of critical responses to Heavy Rain, and while I tend to come down on the favorable side, I’ll freely admit that a lot of the complaints have a great deal of merit. Heavy Rain is one of the richest and most intense narrative-driven games of the current console generation, but that story can’t always decide whether to take itself seriously or wallow in titillation and gore. The box promises that “your smallest decisions can change everything,” and the no-game-over mechanic accommodates divergent outcomes in a way that too few other games have tried to imitate, but major plot points — perhaps most significantly the identity of the serial killer whose actions drive the story — cannot be altered no matter what choices the player makes.

In one sequence, Heavy Rain actually lies to the player. A character ostensibly under player control commits a murder that the game conceals from the player, who then discovers the victim and — attaching the player’s status as innocent bystander to the player character — is encouraged by the game to destroy evidence. As effective as I consider the rest of the game, my initial take was that this scene constituted a fracture in the game, an event where the game needed to violate its own mechanics in order to keep the player invested in a character who would be revealed as a monster at a later point in the story. Given the game’s successes, I was willing to forgive a single moment of failure. But I was missing something.

In order to discuss this moment effectively, I’m going to need to spoil the game’s big reveal, so consider yourself warned. About two thirds of the way through the game, Private Detective Scott Shelby (the player character in this chapter of the game) and Lauren, the mother of one of the Origami Killer’s victims, visit an antique repair shop in order to identify the typewriter used by the murder to write notes to the victims’ families. Manfred, the shopkeeper, identifies the typewriter and states that his shop is the only place where the model in question can get repairs. As Manfred goes to the back of the store to retrieve a list of his customers, Lauren’s attention is caught by a ballerina figure on a music box, which she picks up and examines closely. After Lauren puts the box down, Shelby’s internal monologue directs the player to look in the store office for Manfred, where Shelby finds him dead on the floor. Telling Lauren that being held by the police may prevent any chance of catching the Origami Killer before his current victim dies, Shelby attempts to clean his and Lauren’s fingerprints from the store and flee before the police arrive.

Immediately before the game’s final chapters, it’s revealed that Shelby himself is the Origami Killer, and that he murdered Manfred because he had made the connection between Shelby and the killer’s typewriter and was contacting the police. To me, at least, this revelation was far more jarring than the fact that Shelby was the Origami Killer. After all, I had been in control of Shelby while he was in Manfred’s store. For him to have committed the murder seemed to be a violation of narrative time and space. The only explanation seemed to be that, in effect, that there was a missing instant, a point, in effect, where the game’s camera had stopped rolling and then restarted — another fact which was hidden from the player. It was a point at which the game simply broke.

Revisiting the scene, things aren’t quite that simple. What happens is that the game utilizes one common convention in order to violate another. When Lauren picks up the music box, the player actually loses control of Shelby, and while the game (and the player’s) view is on Lauren, Shelby slips into the office, murders Manfred, and slips back out so that when Lauren (and the game, and the player), look back at him he’s standing in the same spot as when Lauren (and the game, and the player) looked away. In itself, this is a not-entirely-satisfactory bit of narrative sleight-of-hand typical of genre murder mystery stories. What makes it worth noting in Heavy Rain is the way the game uses a cutscene to mask the fact that the player loses control of Shelby. There’s no actual break in narrative time, no half minute gap in the tape. We are looking when the murder happens, we’ve just been misdirected.

This is not intended as an attempt to explain how a problem in the game isn’t actually a problem. If the hidden murder isn’t a murder, it’s still a seam, a place where two parts of the narrative have been joined rather roughly. After all, a number of critics have criticized Heavy Rain’s use of cutscenes as interrupting player immersion in a game where narrative immersion is the primary mechanic at work. (I don’t think I’ve ever read a review that encouraged people to play the game because the Quick Time Event mechanic was just that much fun. And for good reason.) I can’t think of another game, however, where the fact that cutscenes disconnect the player from player characters was actually used as a narrative tool.

Manfred’s murder is jarring because it feels like a violation of game narrative conventions to lose control of a character simply because the player looks away. It is, however, entirely conventional for player characters to assume agency in cutscenes. In a cutscene, every character is a non-player character. They deliver lines and perform actions entirely independent of player volition. (For many players, this is exactly the problem with cutscenes: They pull the player out of the game.) Conventionally, however, even when player characters assume independent agency, the player still sees it. I’m not sure I can think of another instance where a cutscene is used to obscure an event rather than to show it.

This is perhaps the greater — and more interesting — violation in Heavy Rain. We’re used to and know how to read unreliable narrators in books and film. We’re even familiar with unreliable characters in games. The “would you kindly” revelation in BioShock is jarring, but it’s also frequently discussed as a high point in game narrative and not as evidence of a broken game. With some very rare (and usually clearly signaled — think of the Scarecrow sequences in Batman: Arkham Asylum) exceptions, what the player sees is treated as objectively reliable. It becomes difficult to imagine functioning in most games if what you see isn’t what, for the game’s purposes, is really there. In Heavy Rain, however, just for a moment, the camera itself becomes an unreliable narrator.

I’m used to stories that lie to me, but a story that lies to me in a new way is a story I’ll come back to, whatever its flaws.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Criticism Mechanics Story-driven

About the Author:
Gavin Craig is a freelance writer and critic. His work has appeared in The Idler, Kill Screen, Snarkmarket, and Comicosity.

4 Responses to “(Not) Seeing Is (Not) Believing”

  1. Maurice Pogue

    I’m not sure if I would make the leap from “misdirection” and “slight of hand” to straight up lie. If that is the case, then the game lies to you more egregiously when you have no choice but to save the day in these multiple scenarios where Shelby MUST save the prostitute, MUST save the single mother. His “private investigator” guise establishes him as “one of the good guys” long before the typewriter shop scene.

    Another scene you might consider is when Nathan loses track of Sean (IIRC, his son’s name?). You lose control of that character, and the son disappears out of nowhere, without a peep. That scene immensely contrasts with earlier in the game, where I think you “track” your son through the mall with the balloon…or something. You are still “on scene” as the action unfolds, rather than the traditional “previously non-navigable path is unlocked during cutscene” convention that you discuss here.

    During spring break, I think I will attempt my “Perfect Crime” playthrough, because besides the minimum of those two scenes I have mentioned, there are others where Shelby can be morally ambiguous. I’ll take a look.

  2. sfphilli

    That was perhaps my favorite part of this game. incredibly smart design choice, made the whole revelation much more impactful, more personally hurtful.

    and i did enjoy the quicktime event controls, they seemed like the perfect way to give players the ability to do just about anything the story required, while still giving some autonomy of choice.

  3. Douglas Scheinberg

    The text adventure “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” has a particularly annoying “puzzle”:

    “Blah blah blah room description. There is an exit to the east.”
    > east
    “You can’t go that way.”
    “We lied. The exit was to the south.”

    At that point, I quit playing – if the game is going to do that kind of thing, then I might as well just type in random commands because, well, it’s not like I can believe the room description when it says there’s something there!

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