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.).