Final Paper: Video Games as Art and Heavy Rain

The debate over whether or not video games can be classified as art is one that has been going on for a long time now, and while this paper will probably not sway anyone’s opinion from one side of the debate to the other, it is my intention to present my own opinions, as well as (more importantly) another aspect of this complicated debate that could help to open up and expand the discussion already in progress, with a particular focus on how the game play and narrative components of the video game Heavy Rain affect this discussion.

You can read the entire paper below, or you can navigate through specific section of it by using the box to the right. You can also click on each title to access that section by itself.

Introduction

Roger Ebert, the proclaimed film critic, once made a statement claiming that video games could never be art. In response to this statement, Kellee Santiago, video game designer and producer for ThatGameCompany (Flow, Flower), gave  a TED talk discussing the concept of video games as art (video above). Her talk is a bit scattered, but there are still some interesting ideas to take away from the talk.

While Ebert has since recounted his opinion by stating that he should never have mentioned video games in the first place (though he cleverly does not concede that video games are art), between his initial statements, Santiago’s response, and Ebert’s blog post in response to Santiago’s talk, the discussion was opened up, and there is no stopping the debate currently going on between those who follow Ebert’s beliefs, that is, those who believe that video games are not art, and those who fall in line with Santiago, those who believe that video games can be, and already are, art.

Part 1: Traditional Games and Heavy Rain

In Roger Ebert’s response to Santiago’s talk, Ebert at one point claims that video games are not art because of their ties to classical games, he states “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite [an] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them” (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html).

Jesper Juul reinforces this notion in his book, Half-Real when he outlines the history of video games, explaining that they developed from classical game forms such as chess and ancient Egyptian card games: “…video games are a comparatively new cultural form, intimately linked to the appearance of computers… However, if we think of video games as games, they are… continuations of a history of games that predate these by millennia.” However, it is my belief that this issue is a bit more complicated then these sources have made it out to be.

When Ebert says, “you can win a game,” intrinsic in this statement is the fact that you can also lose games. What then, would Ebert, or someone who shares his beliefs, say to a game such as Heavy Rain? In the video clip above, we see a sequence wherein, by all means, the player “fails” their given task (to properly play the piano). However, the game does not stop, it does not force the player to try again until they get it right, it does not tell them that they have lost. Instead, the game incorporates this “failure” into the storyline. However, the player knows that they have “failed” this task. Why?

As Mike Thomsen puts it in his article Contrarion Corner: Heavy Rain:

“There is no competition in Heavy Rain. Fail states result in your character behaving like a klutz for a few seconds. Payoffs aren’t the obsequious bursts of blood and wailing cries of enemy clones, but purely experiential. Without the nattering possibility of failure, I found my mind wandering, filling in the gaps between button press and action with my own sense memories.”

As Juul and others have pointed out, games must have rules, and video games are no different. What Heavy Rain does is simply set up a world that is seemingly parallel to our own, and as such, the player fills in the rules of the game with their own conception of how this world works. They know that failing to catch the killer is a “failure” because in their own life they would feel as if they failed to catch the killer. On a more subtle level, they know that not keeping Ethan’s children happy is a “failure” because they, too, would like to keep their children pleased.

Ethan greets his son on his birthday in the opening segment of Heavy Rain

What makes rules a separating factor between games and art is the fact that, in games, these rules have consequences on the play of the game itself. If you fail to play chess according to the rules of the game, the game cannot continue, or at the very least it ceases to be chess. In Heavy Rain, however, the consequences of these rules have a narratological effect instead, essentially altering how one views the story presented in Heavy Rain (that is, whether they discover who the killer is, whether they save the character’s son, etc.).

Part 2: Re-playability as Reinterpretation

Of course, this ability that Heavy Rain has that allows it to incorporate different player’s actions as part of the story means that each player who plays the game will get essentially a different narrative. There are some who might claim that this inhibits Heavy Rain to function as art, because if each player is getting a different narrative, then it is seemingly impossible to interpret the creator’s intended message. Or, in essence, that each person is only getting a piece of the entire narrative, and no one player is getting a complete experience. However, to those who would make such a claim, I would direct them to the works of Franz Kafka.

http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/kafka/countrydoctor.htm

Above is a short story written by Kafka, A Country Doctor, and it is, personally, one of the more confusing short stories that I’ve ever read. However, I encourage anyone reading this to at least read a little bit of the story and make out of it what they can. After doing that, take a look at one or more of the following videos.

That series of videos is a visual interpretation of Kafka’s short story done by Koji Yamamura in 2007. Undoubtedly there were portions of the video that do not reflect how another reader might have read the short story, but that video does represent Yamamura’s interpretation. There is, of course, more than one way to interpret Kafka’s story, some have, for example, read it as an existential piece, such as Louis H. Leiter in his article A Problem in Analysis: Franz Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor, wherein he states:

“A Country Doctor” comments on man, who, buffeted by the scheme of things, is unable to transcend the part assigned him by the absurdity of that existence. Because he does not lack conscious knowledge of his condition, but refuses to act in the face of his portentous freedom, the doctor, an archetype of the anti-existential hero, deserves his fate. Lacking the human stuff necessary to create and structure situations, he permits himself to be manipulated by the groom, the family, and the horses; but he becomes, by submitting, a tool within the situations they create. Never, consciously, does he attempt through an overt act, until too late, to establish his own essence, to rise above any manipulative value he possesses for others. As doctor he is a thing, an object, a tool; as man he is nothing.”

In the last several paragraphs we have looked at three different views taken to Kafka’s short story. So, ultimately, my question is this: what is the difference between discussing the different meaning and actions of A Country Doctor as determined and experienced by different people, and discussing the different plots and actions of Heavy Rain as determined and experienced by different people?

Novels, films and other works of art sometimes require repeated readings, viewings, etc. in order to fully comprehend, and yet, all of these works can be said to deliver a whole experience. One does not feel as if they are missing any aspect of the story in A Country Doctor simply because they must re-read it in order to fully understand its nuances. So, too, then can one receive a whole experience from a video game, even if that game requires repeat play-throughs  in order to understand its nuances.

Even though Heavy Rain has multiple endings, (pictured here: Madison dies, Madison and Ethan fall in love) this doesn't affect the games' ability to deliver a complete narrative experience

I would answer my previous question by saying that there is no difference, and that just as novels, films and other works commonly considered art have different ways of approaching them and experiencing them, so to do video games have different methods of being experienced, albeit, in a bit more obvious fashion.

However, these two examples (A Country Doctor, Heavy Rain) are extreme examples of both ends of this interpretation spectrum. There are, of course, novels that can only be interpreted a limited number of ways, and there are video games where not every action has an effect on the narrative. However, in these novels, there is always at least room for multiple interpretations. In video games, as well, there are actions that the player can take that affect how they experience the story in more subtle ways.

In the game Half-Life 2, much of the back story must be gleaned from newspaper clippings and other resources scattered throughout the environments. If a player plays the game in such a way that they don't witness these newspaper clippings, they would be missing certain elements of the plot.

Part 3: The Faults of Heavy Rain

“If the system decides the ending, we have guaranteed closure without interactive freedom; if the user decides the ending we have guaranteed freedom but possibly no closure… story means fate, interactivity means freedom (doing whatever you want), therefore interactivity and story can’t be combined”

Interaction and Narrative, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern; from The Game Design Reader

While the ideas and concepts purported thus far rely a great deal on the ability of Heavy Rain to perform as intended, this is not always the case. What I have mapped out thus far is more in-line with an ideal version of Heavy Rain, one in which the game falls perfectly into the image that the developers had hoped to attain. As it is, however, Heavy Rain doesn’t always live up to these expectations.

While it is true that, in certain instances, the ways in which the player interacts with the game influence how the narrative develops, in subsequent play-throughs, players quickly discover that often times, the narrative is actually unaffected by how the player interacts with the game, but merely gives the impression of being affected. In essence, the game is giving players the illusion of freedom.

No matter what actions the player takes, they must encounter the scene in which Jason dies

However, the game also has moments that alter how the story progresses entirely, depending on which action the character takes. While I’ve defended this earlier by stating that these different story lines represent different interpretations of an overall narrative present in Heavy Rain, the fact still remains that, as it is, the game’s different story lines are sometimes melded together awkwardly because of how the player progressed through the game. This leads to situations where, even though one character is shown achieving redemption, the overall plot has not been fully resolved.

In Mateas and Stern‘s article Interaction and Narrative (quoted above), the two authors grapple with this apparent dilemma between game-play/ player freedom and narrative/ pre-determined story.

“A narrative is an already accomplished structure that is told to a spectator. A game is an evolving situation that is being accomplished by an interactor Since an already accomplished static structure is not the same thing as an evolving, dynamic situation, then the argument goes, narrative and game are fundamentally dichotomous.”

However, one cannot fault Heavy Rain for seceding points in both the area of player freedom (by not actually have their decisions affect the outcome of certain events as it seems to claim it does) and narrative (by not creating a fully cohesive story given all of the player’s decisions). While most video games give players no real freedom, and are merely plot driven (Killzone, Gears of War, etc.) or go to the other extreme and offer little to no plot but give the player almost complete freedom (The Sims, Roller Coaster Tycoon, etc.), Heavy Rain actually manages to merge both aspects.

In The Sims, there is no narrative other than one that a player might create

Heavy Rain concedes points from the game aspect in order to improve the narrative aspect (denying players the ability to control every aspect of the game in order to maintain a plot) and vice versa (risking a less cohesive plot in order to give players the freedom to influence the narrative). These concessions ultimately make the other aspect stronger, and the product as a whole better.

It is because of this give/take relationship between these two aspects of the game that Heavy Rain is ultimately able to offer a rich, rewarding experience akin to something that a piece of art would offer, while at the same time maintaining rules that are demanded of a game.

Conclusion

Dictionary.com defines art thusly: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”

True, this definition leaves art up for individual interpretation, what one person finds “beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance,” another person may not. Is it safe to say, then, that art is subjective – relative to how each individual experiences it? Of course. Then it is natural to assume that anything that has an emotional impact on a person could be defined as art.

Ultimately, then, trying to define video games as either art or not art is a bit of a pointless task. I personally have been emotionally impacted by video games, and as such I believe that they are capable of being art. Does Heavy Rain have this artistic quality to it? Again, I can only answer for myself, but that answer for me is yes. For someone to deny the emotional experiences that I’ve had with video games, though, by saying that the entire medium is incapable of being art seems downright absurd.

As for the the finer details within the category of art, such as

  • Can a piece of art have a cohesive narrative with satisfying closure, and still involve participation on the part of the person viewing it?
  • Can a game that requires re-playing, or “re-reading,” in order to experience every aspect of it, still deliver a complete and whole experience to the player?
  • Can a game with no “lose” scenario still make players abide by rules

Well, these are things that I find a bit more worthy of discussion, and frankly more interesting. I’ve looked at these scenarios in relation to Heavy Rain, but of course there are more games, novels, interactive dramas, etc. that they can be applied to. I hope that I’ve managed to open these ideas up a bit and that others will continue these discussions further.


One response to “Final Paper: Video Games as Art and Heavy Rain

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