Freelance work

from Monthly Gamer

It’s a bit unfair to review Quantic Dream’s cinematic video game Heavy rain nearly three years after its release: other games have been released since that time and, of course, we’re currently in a post-The Walking Dead world, which pushed the envelope of what to expect from video game narratives. However, back in 2009, Heavy Rain was hyped as being the next step in bringing video games that much closer to film, heavily promoting its realistic depiction of human performances through motion capture and its usage of Quick-Time Events (QTE) which served to maintain its cinematic influences without breaking away into more “gamey” territory by giving direct control to gamers.

Heavy Rain begins with an idyllic scene: we’re introduced to Ethan Mars, one of four playable characters throughout Heavy Rain’s single-player campaign as he prepares for his son’s (JASOOOOOOON!!!) birthday party. This also serves as the game’s tutorial level as many of the game mechanics are used here. Players move characters via the R2 trigger and use the left directional stick to move in the appropriate direction.  It works better than you might expect, but it is at times needlessly frustrating (a la Resident Evil’s tank controls) whenever you need to make a sharp turn or even walk towards a specific object: Ethan will sometimes walk toward the opposite direction or take too long to go through an animation. The L2 trigger is used to access the thoughts of each character, which serves as a helpful reminder as to what you’re supposed to be doing.

The other main component is the Quick-time-event sequences. Much like predecessor Indigo Prophecy, cut scenes are comprised entirely of QTE’s where the game will present images indicating which face button to press, using the right analog stick, or the trigger buttons in order to successfully do tasks as simple as picking up an object or as complex as engaging in one of the game’s many fight sequences. Some might find them overly redundant as the game uses QTE’s for even the most mundane things, such as making breakfast, but I think it does help in making sure gamers remain engaged as these QTE prompts come randomly.

Of course, there’d be no video game if a tragedy didn’t occur (or else, Heavy Rain would be the happiest film noir ever made) and soon enough, JASOOOOON is killed, setting the tone for the rest of the game and bringing us back to Ethan two years later, who has since become disheveled, divorced, and suffers from random blackouts. As if Ethan wasn’t already in a tight spot, his other son (SHAAAAAAAAAUN!!!) is missing, and believed to have been kidnapped by the Origami Killer, a serial killer who has been drowning young boys and leaving their bodies with a single origami figure. From here, the game slowly introduces us to the other playable characters: Scott Shelby, a private detective; Madison Page, a journalist; and Norman Jayden, an FBI Agent. Each character slowly uncovers clues as to the identity of the Origami Killer.

Throughout the game, players are given the ability to choose how they want to deal with specific circumstances; events can change drastically depending on those choices. Actions made during a specific character’s play through can determine who lives or dies and completely change how the game ends. It makes for some thrilling moments as the specter of death constantly hangs in the air.

Graphically, Heavy Rain is still a good-looking game. Wearing its film-noir aesthetics on its sleeves, the game is filled with world-weary environments; rain spots nearly every single part of the game (It always rains in Noir City) serving as an extension of the characters’ state of mind. More importantly, the game understands the language of cinema. When the game works best, it understands how to get into the player’s head, creating agency simply through presenting certain camera angles and the (at times oppressive) musical score. At its best, Heavy Rain does feel like a well-produced film.

The character models are extremely detailed with their own various facial tics and postures that make them feel like individuals alive in their own world. Quantic Dream was clearly proud of how the game looks, and oftenHeavy Rain will feature close-ups of its central protagonists to show-off the emotional impact of the game. However, as the game approaches reality, the limitations of the tech make for moments of “unreality:” it’s hard not to ignore those dead, soulless eyes that imply mere imitation of human qualities. Sometimes mouths move in strange ways, or at times, not at all; and NPCs serve to show how artificial Heavy Rain’s heavily detailed environments ultimately is, sometimes clipping into buildings or each other. Even the sight of two identical-looking models is enough to take you out of the experience.

Though that’s not all Heavy Rain’s fault and even the worst technical slip-ups can’t entirely mar a quality gaming experience. What I can blame Heavy Rain for is the awful voice acting; there’s a reason why that clip of Ethan running around screaming “JAAAAAAASON!!” is infamous—the voice acting range from bland to humorously bad, with the actor for Ethan being the worst. Which is unfortunate since Ethan is put through the most trauma as he is forced to prove his love for his son in increasingly dangerous ways. But it’s hard to take in what’s going on when I’m too busy giggling over his accent slipping in and out as he talks.

All this leads to the most problematic thing about Heavy Rain: the narrative eventually stumbles all over itself. The game starts out strong with Ethan trying to find his missing son and sets up an interesting mystery-plot regarding the origins of the Origami Killer, but it quickly falls into B-grade silliness which serves to cheapen the experience. The Walking Dead works so well because the game derives emotion and tension entirely from the interaction of its protagonists. Heavy Rain routinely throws spectacle after spectacle that serves only to gain a shallow emotional response: a moment that forces you to choose whether to spare or kill a man is instantly undermined by a previous chase sequence in which said man is manically chasing after you with a shotgun. The game is filled with moments like this that make the game ironically “gamey” than what was obviously intended. The final reveal operates purely in the M. Night Shyamalan “let’s just pull things out our ass” school of thought as the final plot twist is a complete betrayal of the choices that you have made during the game. It doesn’t really make any sense and it’s kind of insulting.

As a relic of a specific time in the Playstation 3’s life-cycle, Heavy Rain makes for an interesting look at how far video games have come in telling stories. But as it stands, Heavy Rain is an ambitious and gorgeous video-drama that unfortunately teeters into pure silliness thanks to ridiculous leaps in logics, a dumb plot twist, and some unintentionally hilarious voice-acting, keeping this from being the great piece of narrative that it so desperately wants to be.



Usually when we digest our daily amount of media consumption, we expect some semblance of reality in what we watch. Sure, there’s the matter of suspending ones disbelief—the cinematic world is one of fiction and not like our own—but a level of realism allows us to remain enthralled in whatever we watch, which is why even fantasy-laden superhero films such as The Dark Knight or even The Amazing Spiderman operate on some level of reality—even if they’re about individuals who make the conscious decision of donning tights and punching bad guys repeatedly in the face. When entertainment becomes “unrealistic,” it’s jarring; it becomes noticeable and can potentially take us right out of the film.

Even television, in all its artificial, studio-mandated glory, attempts to operate on an acceptable level of realism.  But discussion routinely arises to question that reality: If we expect some level of realism in the way television characters act or the settings that these series take place, should we not expect it in its portrayal of race?

Stereotypes—whether you like or not—are an almost fundamental part of fiction: specific character traits that allow us to recognize where characters place within the structure of the story. If a female character is portrayed with glasses and conservative clothing, then odds are she’s the shy, innocent bookworm of the group; if a male is portrayed as slightly overweight, messy, and otherwise the complete opposite of the main character, then he’s typically the “best friend” who provides much of the comedic relief.  From a superficial point, it’s relatively harmless and part of a series of tropes that has been around since the dawn of fiction. But it becomes a bit troubling when we look much deeper into the tropes and clichés of modern television—especially in regards to race. It might seem humorous to see the classic “black friend” trope or even the loud and sassy “latina,” in a comedy but what does it say about our expectations of race, especially when it finds a way to keep showing up in our media?  Anything that is produced by a human being all comes from a specific ideology, and in this case, an American one. What does that ideology say about our culture when we pride ourselves in being a “melting pot” of various ethnic backgrounds, yet that diversity we’re so proud of is almost non-existent in our media?

In a perfect world, the idea of non-white actors at the forefront of television (or any entertainment medium for that matter) wouldn’t be much of a surprise; it would be a thing that just happens. More often than not, however, you’re likely to see a cast of smiling white faces mugging it for the camera then you probably ever would a diverse cast of characters.  A show like The Walking Dead, despite being a hit for AMC, is largely faulted for having a token black (T-Dog) and even Breaking Bad focuses mainly on the trials and tribulations of white people. In shows skewed for a younger demographic, even ABC Family’s seemingly harmless Bunheads couldn’t escape controversy when Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes called out the show’s lack of ethnic characters. With tragedies such as Treyvon Martin’s death stoking the flames of America’s perceived racism, it only makes sense for some of that outrage to reach our television sets.

It’s rather unrealistic that in settings that typically breed a multi-cultural environment, that whites are the only ones television seems to focus on—even if it is a work of fiction. It’s a problem that Lena Dunham of Girls ran into when critics and viewers pointed out how “white” the show is. Despite the generalness of its title, Girls focuses entirely on a group of post-collegiate, white hipsters, and critics noticed the complete lack of any substantial ethnic presence. Considering that show takes place in Brooklyn, it’s easy to see why so many people were upset with what they saw as Dunham leaving out minorities.

But aren’t there shows that are made specifically for minorities like Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and TV Land’s The Soul Man?  As a black film/TV enthusiast, nothing infuriates me more than the notion of the “ethnic” show, programming that is made in mind for an ethnic audience-you know, people like me. The problem is that despite being marketed towards an “ethnic” audience, they are often guilty of indulging in the same negative stereotypes that are found in shows that are “whitewashed.”  Aside from the fact that this creates the implication that this is how people of a certain race act or that this is what they exclusively find hilarious, it also implies that while non-white viewers need their own TV shows, that shows featuring whites are for everyone: they are the default race.

Of course there’s a flip side to this conversation: forced political correction doesn’t really help, and is just as bad as tokenism. Shonda Rhimes’ argument that Bunshead should have included black ballerinas so she “could feel good about her kid watching the show” implies this sort of attitude that every show should include an ethnic character so that those people could “relate to them.” As much as I’m in favor of seeing more non-whites play prominent roles on television, I don’t necessarily want to see them shoehorned in just to make me feel better.  In defense of Girls, I don’t believe that show would get any better (or worse) if it suddenly had a couple of Indian or Asian girls to complain about their lives and wear trendy clothing. Obviously context is important and I’m not about to go after a show like Arrested Development just because it has a predominantly white cast or even Mad Men since, you know, it takes place during the 1960s. And no one, reasonable at least , is claiming that white actors should be fired so that a Black or a Latino actors may get a role; ultimately, good acting is good acting regardless of the race, but when so many shows seem to have this problem, perhaps there are some issues regarding casting.

One of the most common arguments I’ve heard against claims of whitewashing is that TV creators shouldn’t be held accountable for appeasing to every single demographic—which is somewhat true. Despite the supposed whiteness of Girls, it’s a show that feels intensely personal and is noted for mainly coming from Dunham’s own experiences, so I can understand the argument that Dunham doesn’t necessarily have to appeal to everyone. BUT, I also understand that when you’re producing a show for a popular network, one that is watched regularly by a wide variety of people, you inherit a set of responsibilities in which it might be wise to be conscious of the people that are watching your show. If NBC’s Community can successfully portray diversity in a school setting without resorting to tokenism or the campy “rainbow effect,” where a group is comprised of nearly every single race, could it not be expected of all shows?

The whole point  of shedding light on this “problem,” is to create a conversation; to educate and to fight back against all forms of ignorance .The assertion that this doesn’t matter because no one gets hurt if a couple of characters aren’t “minorities” is a rather apathetic one. Racism is still a brutal reality, one that knocked people on their asses recently during the Treyvon Martin. But racism, or hatred, doesn’t occur in a box; it doesn’t just happen, and while I’m certainly not going to try to explain a causal connection betweenThe Big Bang Theory’s usage of Indian stereotypes and hate crimes, I will say that it’s a factor, albeit a small one, but a factor all the same.

I don’t want to seem like I’m standing on a soapbox and I’m well aware that there are a growing number of television comedies and sitcoms that are reacting to this problem, among them Shonda Rhime’s ownScandal which stars Kerry Washington as the main protagonist in a role typical of Rhime’s trademark “color-blind” roles. But the fact that Washington, who is black, brings attention to the show simply by being the lead star speaks volumes of a climate in which minorities get the shaft—whether it be due to ratings or the unfortunate truth that racism and discrimination still has a place in America. It’s true that the situation is getting better and that many of the shows that are guilty of this problem are ones that I regularly enjoy myself; but it’s frustrating knowing that as a minority, most of those heroes that grace both the big and silver screen mostly come in one color.