CAGE MATCH: PART TWO: Indigo Retrospective*

I haven’t played Heavy Rain, as I don’t own a PS3, but I have played the hell out of Indigo Prophecy, David Cage’s prior attempt at the interactive-story genre. When I picked it up, I’d just returned from an exhausting term abroad, and I wanted to sit back and enjoy a reactive game, something without statistics or strategy—basically, anything that wasn’t Dragon Age. So: Indigo Prophecy. I finished it in under two days. Then, like Jane Goodall emerging from the sweaty depths of the forest, I reemerged into society, slightly the worse for wear. Like Jane Goodall, I’d made important discoveries about the animal kingdom. Namely, I had discovered that David Cage is an absurd beast with a humorlessly bad taste in pulp fiction.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Indigo Prophecy. I thought it was an absolute riot. But the story was awful, and the controls were absurd, and I never knew exactly what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing, which was also pretty unpleasant. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoy bad community theater: it was comfortable, not too taxing, and charming in an embarassing kind of way. Whenever I see bad community theater, I want to leap up onstage and protect all those terrible little actors from the criticism of the outside world, and I felt the same way about Prophecy. I didn’t want to compliment David Cage myself, but I wanted him to receive comments, abstractly, from somewhere: I wanted him to feel good about himself, even though he’d made a pretty questionable game.

What makes it so terrible? The controls are, in fact, awful. The disconnect between what you are doing with your hands (infamously, of course, playing Simon Says) and what your characters are doing on the screen is occasionally so unreasonable that it bears no excuse. So much has been written about this. I find it unnecessary to add anything.

According to Me, reader of this many books, the plot is also horrifically bad. I can’t justify turning this into an outright spoilerfest, but those who haven’t played it should know that they may understand only around 60% of the plot. It is a mélange of unrelated science fiction and horror tropes, cobbled together in the least convincing way. The final hour of the game consists of a showdown between, basically, two opposing tropes: teams of secret soldiers who represent different science fiction clichés actually fight and kill each other with guns. I found this hilariously symbolic. Furthermore, that final hour develops jarringly: a very filmic ‘cliffhanger’ signals a kind of act-switch, and most of the player choice that took place in the beginning is rendered meaningless afterwards. The tropes move in and take over, the illusion of agency dissolves, and the player is left wondering how the hell the plot got where it seems to have arrived. Game suffers to story here in a big way, yeah, but story suffers too, in that it’s a bad story.

But: independence? Uniqueness? Yes. The game has it.

I played Prophecy off a 10-day Dragon Age high, and I was sick of the kind of choice-making that characterizes DA. The choices in Bioware games are simply too present. Will making this decision cut me off from awesome content? Will I lose a chance at a cool party member? There’s so much content and so much choice in these games that the player can actually reign with a crazy tyranny over the plot, doing whatever he or she pleases to see whatever content he or she wants. Mass Effect, with its stupid achievements for playing through with different party members, actually encourages this kind of illusion-breaking manipulation. Now, I know that you don’t have to play a Bioware game this way, but the temptation for me is overwhelming. I want my party members. I want my absurd dialog options. If they’re there, I’m going to game the system until I get them.

Prophecy eschews this kind of analytical, manipulative play. Stuff happens, fast. You don’t have time to think about it. In order to enjoy this game, you have to give in to the writers and just let their silly story play itself out.  And when you do that, it’s fun! Nonsense occurs, and you react! You punch those fucking buttons! Snap at your boss? Yes, please! Today we’re angry! Comfort your brother? Totally. No time to think. No matter what you impulsively choose to say, characterization stays pretty solid throughout, and even when the player makes discordant decisions—decisions along the lines of the much-maligned Heavy Rain sex scene—those crazy lines are delivered with conviction by the darling cardboard cast. It’s diverting, in the Jane Austen sense of the word. It doesn’t need to be anything more. It’s the weirdest thing ever, and it’s got a confidence and a ballsy drive to be unique that more than makes up for the fact that its foundational element—its story—is a load of steaming bullcrap.

I hope Cage wasn’t too set on changing lives when he made Prophecy. It doesn’t. I think people are nervous about Heavy Rain because Cage wants it to change your life, to change the way you perceive games in general. And it seems to be actually working as a challenge to the industry, a cannon-shot over the bows, so to speak. Prophecy was more like a challenge fired out of a potato-gun. But if Heavy Rain were about nonsense science fiction instead of serial child-killers, if its emotional plot was mostly-shallow twenty-something romance instead of nervous broken-dad misery, people wouldn’t feel so challenged. David Cage figured out that battling giant green Aztec beetles was less than emotionally-compelling, so he refocused: when he says that he’s working along the same tradition as the rest of his previous work, he’s wrong. There’s something pathetic and nonthreatening about Prophecy, but Heavy Rain’s been doing a whole lot of threatening. I’m pretty sure Cage figured out that the best way to hit people emotionally was to drop the canned sci-fi chatter and go for situations that were (marginally) more-relatable.

*AW YEAH. I just typed that.

The Heavy Rain won’t wash your hands for you

“ETHAN! WASH YOUR GODDAMN HANDS!” Dan and I yell at the T.V. screen while Ethan helplessly stands in front of the sink, staring blankly into space. “Look, dude, you took a leak. Now you wash your hands.” But no, Ethan is not interested in washing his hands.

Maybe half way through the game, Ethan takes another leak and then he walks to the sink. We are excited to discover a helpful interactive arrow! “It’s about time you washed your hands you stupid idiot,” I mutter, pressing forward with my right thumb. Ethan turns the faucet, cups his hands, fills them with water, and then splashes it all over his face. I can almost taste the blood, urine and fluoride.

You know how when you watch a thriller movie you sometimes want to yell at the characters for being so stupid? With all of the times they split up and wander into abandoned buildings, you’d think that they’d never watched a movie in their whole pointless, empty lives. Heavy Rain seeks to remedy the problem of viewer disconnect by letting you make the decisions. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Ethan won’t call the cops like I would, and he won’t wash his hands after he goes to the bathroom.

There are a few times, though, when the decisions are chilling and excellent. I played through the entirety of Heavy Rain with my buddy Dan. Dan doesn’t play games at all, but he sat there watching me participate in ‘interactive drama’ for 10 hours. The controller pulses in my hands as I hover over a table littered with sharp objects, preparing to sever the last digit of my pinky. Dan helpfully suggests, “Whatever you do, just don’t use the saw.”

It’s been said about a million times, but the game is incredibly cinematic. I think that this is why Dan was willing to sit there watching me play it for so long. It sometimes feels like it’s made for viewers as much as it is for players. The interactive elements of the game that are there, however, certainly increased my immersion in the game—navigating an electric maze was intense, and the countless quick time fights always had me gripping a sweaty controller.

It’s probably because Heavy Rain tries so hard to be like a movie that I find myself judging it on so harsh a scale. I found the romance subplot entirely unconvincing, for instance—and not only because of the awkward and unnecessary sex scene. I just didn’t believe that those characters could or would fall in love with so little and trite interaction. There were a few plot holes that bugged me, and one or two lines of dialogue felt pretty stale. By gaming standards, though, the plot, script and characters were great. It might be to the game’s credit that after playing the demo I was ready for an interactive version of The Big Sleep.

David Cage said in a recent interview that he has been writing thrillers because working within such a well established genre was convenient. With Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, he was trying to establish a new language, and in order to do that he needed something that was “easy to write.” Whatever problems that it had, Heavy Rain did establish a new way to tell stories. This is its greatest achievement.

And Cage seems prepared to move on. “I think I’m done with thrillers,” he says, and I for one am intrigued to see what other stories he has to tell. I hope that we will look back in ten years at the new masterpieces that Quantic Dreams and other developers have created and say to ourselves, these could not have existed without Heavy Rain.

This isn’t to say that the formula that Heavy Rain has established won’t change. I expect that motion controllers will make things better. I also expect that quick time events will become one way of doing action sequences, not the only way. There have been very mixed reactions to this game, which has prompted interesting conversations. It’s exciting. Here is where I stand: Heavy Rain has many faults, but it is still a fun and important experience. I would recommend it to anyone. But you might want to bring some hand sanitizer.

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