Posts Tagged ‘ Heavy Rain

Let Me Show You Where to Stick Your Trophy

I used to be fairly positive about achievements and trophies. I saw a lot of great possibilities for them, because I saw how people like Valve were using them. Some of my best Team Fortress 2 memories are of those moments when I would do something I couldn’t believe, and then achievements would start falling into my lap.

But it has all gone to hell. The entire concept has been diluted into complete meaninglessness, as developers pile pointless trophies into every game that are not so much achievements as inevitabilities. As I played through Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune last week, I received “trophies” for getting 10 headshots, or for killing 50 enemies with my pistol, and so on. It’s like Naughty Dog were surprised they made a shooter.

“Whoa, look at that! He just killed a bunch of people with that machine gun. Dude has mad skills.”

It happened in the middle of a tense firefight in a church. I was running out of ammo, snipers were drawing a bead on my position, grenades were falling like hail, and I was desperately diving from cover to cover, killing as quickly as I could. I was completely into the moment, hanging on the edge of my seat as Drake slid his last clip into the M4 carbine. Then, just as I killed a sniper and a stream of gunfire doused my position, a window popped into the screen congratulating me on my 50th kill with the M4. The tension that had been building since the encounter began was broken by the intrusion. The reward that mattered was the thrill of riding out this desperate firefight. But the game forced a lesser prize into my hands, and took away the real one.

Worse by far, however, is the narrative mutilation that achievements perform on games. No plot point, no crucial character development escapes its requisite asinine and self-consciously clever achievement. The work of the writers, animators, and artists who create important moments is crippled by the attitude that unless it comes with an achievement, it doesn’t matter.

A few weeks ago I was playing through Grand Theft Auto IV on PC, and the end of the first act is marked by the destruction of everything Niko and his cousin have accomplished since arriving in America. The Russian mob has turned against Niko, his apartment and his cousin’s taxi service have been firebombed, and now Niko and Roman must flee Broker and go into hiding in Bohan.

It’s a great sequence. The player and Niko realize that they’ve been betrayed and have made their worst enemy a very powerful man, and now Niko and Roman race around Broker trying to salvage the pieces of their lives. But it is too late, and Roman begins wailing as he watches first his apartment and then his hard-won taxi garage burning to the ground. The pair race out of Broker with nothing but their lives, and Roman is yelling at Niko for ruining everything and lamenting the lost status and possessions he worked years to acquire. Niko tries to defend himself, but is also clearly racked by guilt over his colossal fuck-up. When you finally get to the safe-house in Bohan, Niko can’t even stay in the apartment. He walks back onto the street for some much-needed air and privacy. Outside, a street-preacher’s sermon is in full swing, telling you that you’re mired in so much sin that you’re already in hell.

I watched him from across the street as he stared back, and oblivious pedestrians brush past both of us. It was a crowning moment after a powerful bit of storytelling. Several hours into the game, Niko had only managed to ruin things for himself and his best friend.

Then a message box appeared on the screen: “Achievement Unlocked! – Lowest Point.” And that was the end of that.

Or how about this punishing moment from Heavy Rain, when the Origami Killer forces Ethan to amputate a finger in order to get another clue about where his son is being kept? It’s an unbelievable sequence. A prerecorded message gives you five minutes to chop off your finger in front of a camera. You go around a fire-damaged apartment, finding useful things like a knife, a cleaver, and some alcohol. Then, once you’ve set the place, you take a few shots of liquor, chop off a finger, and then pour alcohol over the wound. Ethan is screaming and crying from pain. I felt sick.

A few seconds later we get a loading screen, and the game announces that we’d won the “Goldfinger” trophy. Haha, how clever! Because, you see, we just chopped off a finger. Actually, I don’t even know what the fuck “Goldfinger” has to do with what just happened, but at least we can all agree that we really accomplished something here. We got a trophy!

Most games have trouble sustaining my interest in the plot and my emotional involvement with the characters. When a game manages the trick of pulling me into the gameworld, of making the room and the controls disappear, it has managed one of the most difficult and important tasks in telling a story within a game. That’s the achievement. That’s what creates the possibility that a game might actually mean something to you long after you’ve stopped playing.

Trophies and achievements destroy that. They piss on the narrative importance of anything you’ve seen or done, and they increasingly mock the concept of skilled play. They break in at every turn, rushing to reassure you that you’re doing well, that you’re not wasting your time, and that what you’re doing actually means something. And they only succeed in making it seem meaningless.

The Crowd Goes Wild

MK’s family visited this week, and her brother and I spent the Thursday together while MK went shopping with her mom. Since he was curious about the copy of Heavy Rain sitting on my bookshelf, and I’ve been kind of anxious to get to it myself, I figured we could crack it open together. Lange had his doubts, since he kind of envisioned that being a solo game, but we gave it a shot.

We got off to a rough start, as we both indulged in the kind of stupid shit that guys get up to when they play videogames together. We spent about 15 minutes screwing around with Ethan Mars in the prologue, making him slooooooowly open doors, but fail at the last second and reset the movement. We had him oscillating in a crouching position, halfway to standing, while he hovered over a note his wife had left him. When he and his kids had a mock swordfight, Lange delighted in beating the crap out of the birthday boy. When Ethan’s son Jason went missing at the mall, I chased him through the crowd calling his name every second for the next two minutes. “Jason! Jason! JAY-SON! Jason! Jason!”

But once the opening titles were finished, and the weather outside my apartment started to look a lot like the world of Heavy Rain, the laughter trailed off. The game ratcheted up the tension and we found what an amazing game this can be to play with other people.

In the first sequence after the prologue, as a now-divorced Ethan struggles to forge a connection during another disappointing visit with his son Shaun, Lange turned to me and said, “God, this is starting to really hit home for me.” Lange’s parents split a few years ago and there was a time he felt pretty estranged from his father. The dreary apartment, with nothing of a home about it and cardboard boxes stacked in every corner, was oppressively real for both of us. Shaun sat on the couch, ignoring our efforts to converse. Ethan shuffled aimlessly around, constantly checking the schedule on chalkboard in the kitchen, the only way to maintain some structure in his life.

I enjoyed watching it and I enjoyed playing it in equal measure. When MK came home early about halfway through the game, she became just as absorbed in what we were doing. There were so many tense, gripping sequences that nobody could get bored. I could scarcely breathe when I was negotiating with a kid trying to hold up a convenience store, frantically trying to figure out what I could say to prevent him from shooting me or the clerk. I froze when my FBI agent was in a standoff with a religious fanatic holding a gun on my partner, and couldn’t see anything but the huge “R1″ prompt hovering next to my pistol. The other, less-violent options were faint and wobbly. I ran out of time to talk, and took the shot. The adrenaline crash was followed by the realization that I’d completely failed, and my idiot partner had forced me to kill an innocent man.

MK and I were jerking with every motion of the car as Lange piloted it down the oncoming lane of a highway through the driving rain, and we were screaming at him to get out of the car as it burned around him. When he gunned down a slew of bodyguards in an orgy of vengeance, we were cheering. We were almost sick as he took Ethan through a nest of electrified wires.

I’ll have more to say later, and I haven’t completely sorted out my thoughts. But I know I loved it. I don’t worship at the altar of Gameplay, I don’t believe that there is some kind of Platonic “gameness” to which all games much aspire. I play games for great moments. It doesn’t matter if I control the action in a certain way, or if the entire experience even makes sense. Heavy Rain kept me engaged in a way that very few games ever have, and I treasure the experience I shared with MK and Lange as we went on the voyage together. We laughed at the ridiculous stuff, but we never stopped caring, and never stopped hoping.