Life is full of moral decisions to make, every minute of every day we are faced with choices that can affect the rest of our day or indeed, the rest of our life.
Turn your attention to movies and literature and you can also see the playing out of morally important decisions - should Neo have taken the red or the blue pill in The Matrix? Of course we are also subjected to moral choices in the games we play, not all of the choices we are asked to make are as apparent as others. They could be as simple as shooting an innocent deer in the Cabela's Hunt games to the murdering of innocent people in Modern Warfare 2. These two examples are at complete opposite ends of the moral spectrum but they can have the same effects on your moral standing based on your own personal views and opinions One person might not think twice about killing a polygon created deer but another person may be sickened at the thought of it. Should we be exposed to these kind of decisions in games, though? Surely games are a means of escapism to a great many of us and forcing tough choices upon us would make the gaming experience less enjoyable. Wouldn't it?
So far I have established that moral choices might not be the best thing to include in a game, due to the fact that they are too close to real life to be enjoyable, but what then about games that mimic real life? Back in the days of the Dreamcast I fell hook, line and sinker for the epic known as Shenmue. In Shenmue you played the part of a young man, Ryo, who was out to avenge the death of his father. Sounds like it could be an action packed tale of murder and vengeance, which in a very slight way it was but there was so much more to Shenmue than revenge. The game was the first time I have ever played anything that felt like the daily grind. You would wake up in the morning, leave your room, stroll around the house and gardens, play a video game, walk in to town, buy food, buy toys, interact with other characters and the list goes on. At no point during this experience did I ever feel bored or wanted to give up, which was strange because essentially I was playing through life which I could do for real at anytime, but something kept me coming back to experience the rich world that had been created. Maybe, though, the only thing missing was the lack of any moral decisions to make. As much as you had the freedom to explore the game world the structure was fairly linear in the aspect that certain events would happen at certain times eventually leading you to the end of the game. All was not lost, though, Shenmue had put down the foundations which were to be built on in the future by games that would shape how people would look at games and change many perceptions and misconceptions frequently held with regards to the video games industry and gamers in general.
2005 saw the release of a game called Fahrenheit, developed by Quantic dream. This was seen by many people to be the first truly interactive, immersive game, offering a new way to control what was happening on screen but also offering the story to take different directions based on the choices the player made in the game. I never played it! I have to admit it because at the time I had no interest in it at all. I played the demo and was a bit confused as to what was going on so I decided not to bother with it. There was another reason for me not buying in to it, it was released at the very end of the line for the original Xbox. It was one of the last games to be published before the 360 came along and I was saving up for one so I missed the boat, but it wasn't the last I was to hear of Quantic Dream. Games are escapism, games are fun, games most certainly are not emotion generators, well… to me anyway, so why in the name of the great master did I decide that I had to play Heavy Rain? Those people at Quantic Dream had made another game and this time I had to sit up and notice. If you are still to play Heavy Rain you better stop reading now or you may spoil one of the best game experiences ever, you have been warned. I am going to do the game a massive injustice here and attempt to summarise it without too much detail – there is a serial killer who abducts young boys and murders them. You play a man who loses his son and is made to perform tasks by the killer to attempt to rescue his son before he is killed. You also control a private investigator, an F.B.I. agent and a journalist, all the time you are trying to work out who is the killer. The characters are controlled by intuitive use of the PlayStation 3's controller, allowing you to interact with almost anything in the game in a seamless fashion, this helps to immerse you even further in the story. The graphics and character models are some of the best I've ever seen in a game and the twists and turns kept me playing right through to the bitter end. What is so spectacular about it, though?
I am a parent and as a parent it is your moral duty to look after and raise your kids to the best of your ability, what I never expected was to be playing as a parent in a game and caring for my in game child nearly as much as I do for my own daughter. Heavy Rain starts all warm and sunny with a nuclear family enjoying life in typical movie fashion. For the first half hour or so you think you are playing a family simulator much in the same mould as Shenmue. You can walk around your house, have a shower, eat, watch television, work, play with your kids, it goes on. You then go to a shopping centre with your family and what starts off all nice quickly turns in to a nightmare. As you are paying for a balloon for one of your sons he walks away and is lost in the crowd, the game then lets you control the main character, Ethan, as you frantically search the mall for the child, it really is every parents worst nightmare. The music gets more tense, the camera angles jar more and you can hear the distress in Ethan's voice as he calls out for his son, all the time you are controlling this. I felt the dread, horror, panic all welling up inside me. Eventually you find your son, much to my relief, but then as you are about to be re united he is knocked down and killed! How could a game do this to me? Why did it put me through all these emotions, was it necessary for a game to do this? Surely it was all a bit over the top for just a game to use this as subject matter, this should be reserved for books and films, not my beloved games. As it turns out this was just the start of what I was going to be put through, for the duration of the game I was asked to be a single parent, a role which I do in real life. I was tasked with attempting to communicate with my in-game son who was emotionally separated from my character and that was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in a game. I could feel the rejection and dejection in Ethan's eyes. I have never made such an emotional bond with a character before, I really cared about him and wanted to repair the broken bond with his remaining son. Just when I was settling in to my role in the game and it seemed I was starting to make progress with the father/son relationship the game kicked me in the teeth again and my son was abducted! Dammit, the game was pulling me from pillar to post and putting me on an emotional roller-coaster ride like never before. I was angry at it for doing these things to me, I considered not playing it anymore surely this was just sick! No, this was the best game I've ever played, it made me question so many things, it evoked so many feelings, I talked about it for days, I didn't want it to end. I knew that I was playing something very special, but was it just me getting all this from it? Was this payback for my lack of caring in other games, I had to know so I set up a small experiment.
I decided that to get the best possible result I would try to get a polar opposite from myself to play the game and see what happened. My test subject was a 17-year-old male, gamer, non-parent and not too familiar with Heavy Rain. Step forward, Stewart. I handed over the controller and watched him play through the game for a few hours and at points asked him probing questions about his feelings and emotions. Strangely, after a few minutes of playing Stewart said to me about Ethan, " What a lonely man". It was something that I hadn't picked up on when I played it but his observation was right at that time. For the next 20 minutes as Stewart came to grips with the game there was a general sense of mucking about and mirth as he toyed with the available actions and interactions. I asked Stewart what his feelings were about Ethan and he said, "I feel like I'm being a good father to my children, why is he so kick ass?" There was a definite connection being made between Stewart and Ethan much in the same way as I had connected, interesting. The shopping centre scene was approaching and I really wanted to see the reaction. Stewart reacted in almost the exact manner I had done when the boy is lost except Stewart was even more thorough in his searching, he wasn't smiling just transfixed by what was going on. "I was gutted that I couldn't get to him on time" was his reaction when the boy was killed. It was becoming more apparent that Stewart was experiencing the same emotions as I had playing the game. I let him play for another few hours and then asked him to tell me his thoughts on what he had played. "It's strange, because in other games I wouldn't have cared about the characters but because I was a dad I did. I felt that near the end of my play it was getting better because it had stopped raining, it's quite gutting in general because you are just starting to have fun [with your son]and then he's gone. The characters are believable, they don't feel random like other games do, Ethan's story progressed the most so I made more of a connection with him."
This was Heavy Rain, nearly 10 years ago.
I was pleased that my experiment had pretty much confirmed my suspicions about how awesome Heavy Rain is but I wasn't sure that I had fulfilled a full test. In the true tradition of Ready-Up! I decided that I should get some female input on the game and out the shadows stepped our very own Celeste to tell me about her experience of Heavy Rain. Celeste sits right between Stewart's and my age bracket so I felt her options should balance out our own ones, maybe even put a cat among the pigeons, I was also curious at her perception as she isn't a parent but has contact with child relatives. I wanted to know if she felt that being in contact with children may affect your thought on the game, "The contact I have with my niece and nephew has heightened my appreciation of the vulnerability one feels for children," Celeste told me, "I think it's pretty easy for most people to empathise with parents anyway as we all have loved-ones and can appreciate how vulnerable children are.It may for some people but I certainly don't think it did for me." So, not vital that having children will affect your perceptions but maybe easier to empathise. I was also curious if Celeste felt she could empathise with the main character, Ethan, in the same way I did, "Immensely. I think this was because he was such a believable and well-rounded character, the sophisticated visuals allowed nuanced facial expressions and body language to easily be conveyed, which also heightened my ability to connect with Ethan's character," so it wasn't just me that gained all that from the game, so far it seems our experiences were fairly similar, so another probing question had to be asked. I wanted to know if Celeste thought that game swere the right place to have such heavy moral decision making, "I think so. Movies do it, so why not games? I think Heavy Rain is an excellent example of how interactive dramas can work. They act as powerful conduits for the artist's message because the viewer's relationship to that work is no longer a passive one," Celeste told me, and I couldn't have phrased it better myself. Finally I wanted to see if Celeste had expected any of this from Heavy Rain and if she felt it was the way forward for games, "Before playing Heavy Rain I was honestly quite apprehensive about the game. I was of the mind that the term ‘interactive drama' may well be an oxymoron. But by about a third of the way through I had been converted," Celeste said, but was it the way forward? "I think Heavy Rain is a landmark title in the video game medium's lifeline. It's the first true sign of authentic maturity, It's an exciting discovery in the boxer shorts of interactive entertainment. That's bound to command attention." On that positive note I let Celeste return to her journey of discovery, happy that it seemed almost all people were getting a huge experience from playing the game, my experiment was now finally done. Result.
It seems that games are evolving in to something that is far more believable than we could ever have possibly imagined, the days of shooting waves of descending aliens may well be consigned to history but we are now seeing a new dawn rising with games that can challenge us on levels we never thought possible. It shouldn't be an enjoyable experience to play through games that mimic real life but maybe that is what has been missing from the games market, maybe it's good to challenge our morals and ethics and prove that underneath it all we are just the same as each other.
Republished with permission from Ready Up.
Martin Robertson is a Staff Writer at Ready Up a website staffed by industry professionals and passionate amateurs each bringing different skills such as writing, photography, web design and professional gaming to the site. With daily updates to the website's blog and review pages Ready Up's large staff work closely together to produce fresh, topical content with a personal slant and with passionate style.