Full-Sized Reading: Heavy Rain, Empathy, and the Problem of Player Agency
I gave a version of this paper at the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference in October 2013. It’s basically a rant about a video game I do not like. Enjoy!
I want to talk about the powerful capacity video games have for cultivating empathy, and the tremendous responsibility that accompanies that capacity. I also want to talk about the trend toward complex player decision-making within games, decision-making that affects game play in substantial ways, and in ethical as well as practical matters. But in order to make that bigger argument, I take as my object only one game: Quantic Dream’s 2010 “interactive drama” Heavy Rain. The first disclaimer of this paper is that I don’t normally study or write about video games, and that part of what motivated this paper was my personal, affective response to this game. Honestly, I hated it more than I’ve ever hated a video game before, and it was only after I started articulating why I hated it that I found there was actually a substantive argument embedded in that tirade. So my cards are on the table: I am not a fan of this game, and my treatment of it will be very negative; and I don’t normally research gaming, so I know I am coming at this topic somewhat as an outsider. But I do normally research gender, agency, empathy, and affect, and those are the axes along which I make my critique.
Because I’ve been studying gender and sexuality in pop culture for over a decade, the misogyny of this game was not only deeply distracting to my gameplay experience, it was also so blatant that I never thought I would have to prove it to anyone. I was completely shocked when I began to search for reactions to the game and found not only that very few reviews so much as mention gender, but further, that Heavy Rain was apparently received extremely well and lauded for exactly the elements I find most problematic. Reviews written for IGN, Kotaku, GameZone, and even NBC News rave about the game’s maturity, emotional resonance, and storytelling innovation. Even mixed or negative reviews are critical of many elements of the game’s controls, characterization, and plot, but say nothing about gender. (See this review at GamaSutra, or this one contributed to IGN by a blogger). Furthermore, when the occasional reviewer or blogger has pointed to problems of sexism, as this one does on 4PlayerNetwork, she (of course she) has had to endure numerous fans commenting to vehemently insist that the game’s violence against and sexual exploitation of women are in no way misogynistic. When I Google “sexism Heavy Rain,” half of the results on the first page are people defending the game against charges of sexism, (suggesting that they know the criticism exists but are winning the war to drown it out)—and the top hit is a blog I refuse to link to called “The Males of Gaming” on which the author argues that Heavy Rain is sexist against men because it features only six positive adult male characters. You can’t make this shit up.
All of which is to say that apparently I do have prove that this game is misogynistic before I can move on to any other parts of my argument. I apologize for what I feel is a completely obvious point, then.
Quickly: a thumbnail of the female characters in the game, the ways they are portrayed, and the situations they find themselves in. The problems are of limited representation, stereotypical roles, and gratuitous violence against women. The main character, Ethan Mars, is married during the game’s prologue but divorced for the game proper, and his wife disappears from the story. We encounter several other minor female characters in one scene each: a suicidal mother, an Alzheimer’s patient, and a reporter. Lauren Winter is a more substantial but non-playable character. The game is about a serial killer who abducts small boys and puts their fathers through gruesome and harrowing trials to save them; Lauren is the mother of a past victim, currently supporting herself as a prostitute. She becomes the sidekick of private investigator Scott Shelby, one of the four playable characters (also eventually revealed as the killer), and if both she and Shelby survive to the end of the game she kills him in an epilogue scene. In her first scene she is attacked by a customer and the player, as Shelby, can decide whether to intervene. She is always a victim to be rescued, a man’s helper, or a vengeful, grieving mother.
Finally, we have Madison Paige: despite her supposed role as a journalist and the fact that she is a playable character, Madison is also reduced to the roles of victim, nursemaid, sidekick, and sex object: in her first scene she walks around her apartment in her underwear; showers, giving players the chance to ogle her breasts; and is attacked by home invaders. In her next scene, she finds an injured Ethan and tends to his wounds despite the fact that at this point she knows nothing about him except that he might be the killer. In later scenes she helps Ethan escape from police custody, strips for a mob boss in an attempt to get evidence from him, and has sex with Ethan. She is also the star of the DLC chapter of the game called “The Taxidermist,” an episode in which she goes to a serial killer’s house, discovers his collection of stuffed women’s corpses, and must either escape, hide and wait for help, or die a grisly death. Madison is the latest playable character to be introduced, has the earliest possible death, and appears in the fewest chapters of any playable character. One of her death sequences involves a doctor mutilating her genitals with a drill. A YouTube video compilation of every Madison Paige death scene clocks in at 22 minutes long.
It should be clear already that another gender problem of Heavy Rain has to do with limited choices related to women: Shelby can ignore Lauren’s attacker or defend her, but Lauren has no option to fight him off herself, tell Shelby what she wants him to do, or call the police, and after the fight is over Shelby has no option to help her clean up the mess he made of her apartment or pay her for the things he broke during the fight, for example. Madison may or may not have sex with Ethan, but the decision is not hers to make: in that scene the player plays Ethan and can choose between the options “kiss” or “not kiss”: if you as Ethan choose “kiss,” Madison automatically kisses back and the characters have sex. Madison must fight off the attackers in her home in her first scene but because it’s a dream sequence you can only “win” for so long and eventually Madison’s throat is cut—and because it’s a dream, the scene serves no real purpose for the game beyond torture porn. Finally, in the infamous striptease scene, Madison eventually hits the mob boss with a lamp, but she must first get tarted up in the club bathroom, learn the proper moves, and then dance to get the boss’s attention, and when she is taken to his private room, take off at least one piece of clothing before the option to grab the lamp appears. So based on the combined impact of these scenes, let’s all agree that this game is misogynistic and move on, shall we?
The point I really want to get to is that Heavy Rain’s gender dynamics are deeply, insidiously problematic not merely because the women are sexualized or victimized, which is by no means unique to this game, but more importantly because of the ways the game employs empathy, ethics, and agency to achieve those effects. One of the primary goals of Heavy Rain is to make players empathize and identify with the male characters as they play, and to feel a range of emotions intensely as they do so. (It it clear to me that players are not intended to identify with Madison—in a telling snippet from one favorable review, the reviewer argues that Heavy Rain, “presents many moments of surprising maturity… [including] multiple inversions of gaming’s often lascivious presentation of attractive women. You may get the girl you’re controlling to take her top off, but you may feel guilty about it later.”) Favorable reviews include statements like, “The most gripping element of Heavy Rain is the fact that it is propelled by recognizable human emotions” and “I haven’t been this emotionally invested in the video games I’m playing since, well, maybe forever.” These feelings are cultivated by the dreary, noir moodiness of the mise-en-scène as well as the trauma suffered by the characters, and even by the game controls. One reviewer describes, “The amazing thing is that each of these characters feels real. Their actions may be controlled, but there is a connection made through the controller that resonates in the way they are given life that extends beyond the monitor” (emphasis mine). And another complains, “it’s sometimes hard to tell what you’re supposed to do. When your character is frazzled, the button or text options that pop up can be blurred and jittery to show that the person is tense as well as make it a little trickier to choose the right thing (you might say something wrong if you’re not careful, like in real life).” The overwhelming emotions of the game, therefore, are anxiety, fear, dread, and panic, and even when the actions players are to perform are fairly easy or straightforward, the emotions the characters are feeling are telegraphed to the player through the controller, making the game more difficult.
None of what I’m describing is problematic in and of itself. A problem arises, however, when we combine this emotional mirroring with another huge emphasis of the game: ethical decision-making. Players of Heavy Rain are supposed to weigh the decisions they make and live with the consequences—this is not a game where if you die or fail a mission you get sent back to last save point. One reviewer explains,
The core ingredient in this game is the choices that have to be made all along the way. That’s what makes the game so intriguing. There is never a truly right answer, or even a righteous one. The player will be second-guessing himself or herself throughout. … While a certain choice may seem the nice thing to do, or the noble, or even the right one, that one decision may wind back around and have terrible consequences later on in the game.
The directive to make the choices that seem best and then live with the consequences is sometimes contradicted by the emotional experience of the game, however, or works in opposition to goals of identification and empathy. For example, at one point in the game Shelby and Lauren find themselves trapped in a car, underwater. Lauren is unconscious, and playing as Shelby you have the choice to save Lauren or only free yourself and let her drown. If you empathize with the characters, chances are you want to save Lauren, either because you care about her or because you care about Shelby, who seems to care about her. You don’t at this point know that Shelby is the killer, so you don’t have any reasons, ethical, pragmatic or character-based, to purposely allow Lauren to drown. Because it is an emotionally charged scene, however, the options on the screen are difficult to decipher quickly, and it is easy to press the wrong button, the one corresponding to your own seatbelt instead of hers—or to assume, as I did, that you have to unbuckle yourself first and then free her—and if you do so you watch helplessly as Shelby turns his back on Lauren and swims to safety. It is not that Shelby attempts to save Lauren and fails, although that is another possibility if you’re too slow—it’s that player error can result in a character’s purposeful decision, revealing a breakdown in the assumed easy correspondence between identification with characters and purposeful, ethical decision-making. In such a moment players may actually feel that the character as they know him or have been playing him acts out of character, and one of the game’s directives suffers: either your identification with the character is broken, or you back up the game to replay the scene, which undercuts its choice-and-consequences emphasis. One reviewer writing about the same scene says “I replayed the sinking-car scene until he succeeded in rescuing Lauren… because it seemed inconceivable to me that this character, the character I’d developed in tandem with the game’s authors, would ever leave a woman to drown” and feels deeply betrayed by the later revelation that Shelby is the killer “because that twist negated the meaning of every truly interesting choice I’d made in the game up to that point. All that time I thought I was at least getting to craft one character, I was being played.”
Like the emphasis on cultivating feelings, Heavy Rain’s project of repeatedly asking players how far they would go to save someone they love and what trade-offs they find ethically acceptable is not problematic in and of itself. Where these elements of the game become problematic is in their shoddy execution. The age-old dilemmas in any work of fiction seeking to produce strong feelings in its consumer are, first, the relationship between affect and effect—even if you succeed in producing the feelings you want to, what comes next? Are those feelings an inherent good? How can they be translated into action?—and second, the danger of slipping into voyeurism, spectacle, and exploitation of suffering. Heavy Rain falls short in this area because although it could raise provocative questions about the effects of trauma and violence even when that violence is necessary and justified, and thereby put all of its fear and anxiety-mongering to good or at least purposeful use, instead it seems to assume that making players feel anything is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. Much has been written in recent years about the capacity video games possess for cultivating player empathy and emotion and thereby, in some vague way, making players into better people. But Heavy Rain simply makes players feel bad for no apparent reason—or no reason beyond the visceral, voyeuristic consumption of a spectacle that is frequently a spectacle of suffering, exploited, or vulnerable women. It becomes chillingly fitting that one of the playable characters is the killer, because the gameplay experience is apparently supposed to be entertaining precisely insofar as it is gruesome, horrifying, and painful.
Similarly, video games’ uses of player decision-making and ethical judgment calls can be amazing, if players are presented with true choices. I’ve played many games in which players do have quite a bit of freedom: you can specialize in one class or another, choose to complete side quests or not, travel to cities or planets in whatever order you choose, affecting the options available to you when you get there, or even make a complex ethical decision that affects the plot and characters from that point forward but that has fully fleshed out stories and repercussions associated with any option you choose that are equally valid but different. Heavy Rain is not such a game. Instead it is structured around a fundamental tension over how much choice it actually wants to extend to its players: it is marketed as an “interactive drama,” which sounds like the least free-form game style ever—in some regards it’s basically a film, in which the player only has control over the most mundane decisions, like whether to let your kid watch TV or make him do his homework. Even the “action sequences are controlled through so-called Quick-Timer Event sequences, requiring the player to tap certain buttons at certain times during, say a fistfight,” a feature that has “been criticized as game designer crutches, a cheat that lets designers render flashy action without offering controls that give players meaningful involvement in what’s going on,” and indeed, where these scenes can be said to have a variety of outcomes, too often that variety consists of where you are finally defeated, or how injured you get before winning the fight.
Again, there is nothing wrong with this kind of game. But Heavy Rain also foregrounds and emphasizes its decision-making elements. The same writer who explains the QTE writes, “Heavy Rain is uncomfortable, its designers skilled at putting the player in awkward situations and making them sort their way out of it. What choice would you make if you were in the back of a convenience store while a robber walks in and pulls a gun on the owner? … The game is composed almost entirely of vignettes like this, behavioral laboratories that appear to have no Game Over wrong answer.” Indeed, another reviewer describes the game as “a branching narrative. You can’t ever actually fail in Heavy Rain. There is no Game Over screen, and nothing will force you to have to replay anything. No matter what you do, the game, its characters and the story move on.” Despite the assertion that there are no wrong answers, however, the same writer explains that “if a main character dies, the game will continue on anyway, but you’ll miss story clues and scenes that the now-dead character would have come across” and you will experience one of the endings that is clearly a failure, a less than ideal outcome due to your mistakes and incorrect choices. If at the end of the game you want to go back and replay it to see different endings, it’s often a matter of purposely missing things the second time around, letting yourself die—playing badly. Heavy Rain therefore presents the player with false choices: one option is clearly right and one is wrong, one allows you to experience the game fully and one irrevocably shuts off game options and plot lines, one results in characters acting the way you think they would actually act and one is jarringly inconsistent.
This kind of false choice holds true even when the choices in question are not fully explained in advance and the player has to guess whether to run right or left, whether to press triangle or circle. What is really boils down to is that players are put in a position of making a false and unequal choice and then blamed and punished when they choose incorrectly. When the choice involves the negative treatment and exploitation of female characters, then, like letting Lauren’s customer beat her, leaving Lauren to die, having sex with Madison as Ethan, or having Madison get all the way through her striptease before fighting back, a few things occur: first, very little changes for the male characters—these decisions profoundly affect the lives of the female characters, but all that matters for the way the game unfolds is when and whether they die. Second, the game gets to play innocent because it was your “choice” to do something sexist or violent to these women, even though it was a false choice. It reminds me of a current trend in K-12 education toward so-called “shared decision-making,” if you’ll permit me a slight digression. It sounds awesome at first, to give children more control over their education, and it would be if it were offering kids options like “which lab experiment do you want to do today?” But really the “decisions” presented to kids run along the lines of letting them “choose” between following the class’s rules or staying afterward for detention. As Elizabeth Weil, writing for New Republic explains,
This sounds great to the contemporary ear. The child is less passive and prone to be a victim, more autonomous and in control of his life. But critics of the technique are harsh. It’s “fundamentally dishonest, not to mention manipulative,” [education commentator Alfie] Kohn has written. ‘To the injury of punishment is added the insult of a kind of mind game whereby reality is redefined and children are told, in effect, that they wanted something bad to happen to them.”
I see the false choices of Heavy Rain in very much the same way: often your choice amounts to pressing stop or pressing play, to going through the full body scanner at the airport or getting groped by TSA. These choices create the experience of being coerced and manipulated but simultaneously shamed and blamed for doing something wrong. In short, Heavy Rain victimizes its players and then engages in victim-blaming.
To branch out from this one game and try to make some broader points: first, games have an amazing potential and possibility for cultivating empathy. Is it too much to ask that they take that potential seriously and don’t simply use it to pat themselves on the back for making players feel something? Creating strong player feelings and identifications could make the violence within video games less mindless and more traumatic, could actually do good in the world without taking anything away from the gaming experience. I’m not here telling game designers to make games less violent or to tie them up in neat, moral resolutions; I’m also not saying there’s no place for mindlessly violent games—sometimes you really just want to shoot some zombies. But if a major goal of a violent video game is to create intense emotional experiences for players, I am asking game developers to put some thought into what they want players to feel, why they want them to feel those things, what they think players will get out of those emotional experiences. And if the only answers are “guilt, anxiety, frustration, and helplessness,” why would those be desirable goals?
Second, games also have an amazing potential to include aspects of choice and player agency—more so than any other media, really. So again, I’m issuing a call to use that capacity well and responsibly: it will enhance the emotional resonance of a game as well as ethical, character, and story complexity, and game repeatability, if a game gives its players true choices and follows through on them in good faith. But it can seriously undercut player investment in a game if, like me, players grow to feel manipulated, lied to, and blamed—and especially if they are made to participate in the degradation of female characters and implicitly told that it was their own decision to do so.
When I delivered this paper to an audience of people who ranged from Heavy Rain-neutral to Heavy Rain-superfans, they brought up a few points I’d like to address. One person disagreed with my characterization of the game as victimizing its players. Fair enough. I don’t think that language is quite right for the experience I’m trying to get at; it’s really that being coerced into doing something you don’t want to do while being told it was your choice feels a lot like victim-blaming to me. This audience member further pointed out that most players would not feel that way while playing and that my experience was a minority one, to which I say: exactly. This game assumed that the only roles I’d be comfortable seeing women in are sex-worker or nursemaid and that the only reason I might want to play a woman would be to see if I could get her naked. But because this game succeeded in being all about FEELINGS, I had feelings for those female characters beyond “heh heh boobies” and feelings about the game other than “ooh so pretty.”
Another commenter brought up that as a mother, when she played the game she related to it through that lens and was concerned with nothing but saving the child. Madison using her sexuality to further that goal, just like Ethan cutting off a finger, crawling through glass, or killing a drug dealer, was just a means to that end, and if it’s an available tool, why not use it? But my point is that it’s Madison’s only available tool—and she’s not a real person making the best of a bad situation; someone(s) wrote her to have only that one available tool. Furthermore, Ethan can cut off his finger or not, can crawl through glass or not, can kill the drug dealer or not—the game goes on and the kid lives either way (which is perhaps a different problem with player agency in this game: why give us these seemingly important decisions and then make our decisions meaningless?) But Madison has no choice. You, playing Madison, have no choice. I do love that the other player brought up seeing the game through her mother goggles, though. I’m a mother now, too, and I still react to Heavy Rain with just as much rage as I ever did, because I’m thinking about my daughter’s available gaming options and the messages they’ll send her.
Finally, my frustrated pleas for game designers to put some thought into what they want players to feel, why they want them to feel those things, and what they think they will get out of those emotional experiences. Several people in the audience heard this point as me suggesting that all games should make players feel good, or should at least teach us some nice lesson, despite my disclaimers that I don’t think those things, so I’ll take another swing at this point. Someone commented that there is a place for games that recreate real world emotional experiences, the implication being that the real world feels like shit. And sure, I agree, let’s explore the full range of human emotion through gaming. But if you think this game’s emotional range feels like the real world, what kind of dystopian hellscape are you living in? I’m half joking here, so on a more serious note: if the game is going for some kind of realism, some sense of the deep and pervasive panic/helplessness/depression/anger you’d feel if your child were taken by a monster, I still think it utterly fails even on those terms. Having four playable characters presumably gives players a little breathing space, a chance to recover before they dive back into that headspace while playing Ethan. But Madison’s scenes are distractingly soft-core pornographic; Shelby’s are distant, at times nonsensical, and ultimately a betrayal; Jayden’s are completely expendable and still somehow depressing; and even Ethan’s, while draining, are also just confusing. The game wants us to believe it’s possible he’s the killer and doesn’t know it, basically telling us not to get too attached to him. Really the emotional landscape of this game is a mess, even if it is consistently a downer, and I don’t find that realistic. I find it lazy. So I repeat my plea: it’s fine if you want us to feel like shit while we play your game. But really think about why you’re making us feel like shit. And reviewers and players, why is “it made me feel something” a good enough reason to love this game?
It’s not that I demand that a game give me every possible option I can think of. It’s that I expect a game to be honest about the rules it’s setting up for me. A game is, after all, a set of arbitrary rules you agree to follow while trying to achieve a goal. So if a game tells me its rules are a) you get to make decisions and b) your decisions are super important, and then it repeatedly puts me in situations that violate those rules, I get a little cranky.