Player Roles and Heavy Rain

July 17th, 2010


Heavy Rain‘s core conceit is the question: How far would you go for the one you love? Those who have played Heavy Rain will know that this question is most obviously evident in the trials undertaken by the lead protagonist Ethan Mars, but it’s also one which ripples into the tangled stories of the other cast members. To follow through on this question, Heavy Rain establishes relatable characters (through menial, day-to-day context) and puts them in extreme situations which are constructed to press this question. These situations bring the player’s differing roles of agency to the forefront. In many respects, these sequences create deliberation between the different parties that the player occupies, which is why players agonize over their decisions; they can’t get everyone to agree and are forced into a tough compromise. Here is breakdown of the player’s roles of agency and the respective questions asked to each player role at each trial, using Ethan as the model: 

If I were Ethan, what would I do? 
(based on the player’s understanding of the avatar’s principles combined with their own)

Within my inferred understanding of Ethan’s character, what do I think he would do? 
(based on the player’s understanding of the avatar’s principles, independent of their own)

What do I want to see happen, what is most entertaining? 
(based on the player’s compulsion)

What is the responsible action, the right thing to do? 
(based on the player’s ethical interpretation)

When we play video games, we don’t just act upon our own whim, but rather our actions are influenced by the different ways we engage with the game. When I take the role of Solid Snake inMetal Gear Solid, I share this role with his—the avatar’s—doctrine. I know that Snake is cunning, inventive and stealthy, so my actions are mapped to my understanding of what it means in inhabit this character. I, therefore, have the freedom to act within my own interpretation of the character. This is called co-authorship. 

The avatar is also their own character, so they can exist independently of the player. As mentioned in the previous article, there are times when we are not in control of the avatar. For instance, in cut scenes. In these instances the avatar is in their own frame of mind, without our influence, which affects how we think respond to the second question. Another way to think of this is, “if there was a cut scene here, what would the avatar most likely do?”

Different types of games emphasize different roles. Open world action games such as Just Cause 2or Saints Row often feature “empty” avatars or at the very least avatars bent on fun and mayhem, because these games are viewer-centric. That is, the player’s actions are based around whatever seems fun or entertaining. Injecting prescribed character into these avatars works against the impetus of enjoyment as it supposes the player model their behavior around the predefined persona of the avatar. This was apparent in Grand Theft Auto IV, where some players felt uncomfortable with simulating the murder and destruction which the previous GTA games reveled in. Because Niko was a responsible, good-willed avatar such actions would contradict his innocent persona. 

The director is the Jiminy Cricket-esque conscience which puts ethical considerations into focus. Normally, most games are ethically sound, but occasional titles, like Heavy Rain, force the player into moments of moral and ethical deliberation. It’s here where we must consider our role as the director of the experience. 

All character-based games feature co-authorship and the avatar’s prescribed perspective. In video games the player needs a body to inhibit and a base level persona to model their behavior on; these are basic requisites that determine play. The presence of the other two roles depends on the subject matter of the game. What is most fascinating about Heavy Rain is the way these moments make the player conscious of their multiple identities within the interactive medium. We’re not just making one choice, we’re making many and under pressure.