Over the past year, I’ve been following any media I find on Heavy Rain for the Playstation 3. At first, I only knew this as the game that introduced me to the concept of the uncanny valley. And even though the game’s Quick Time Event based gameplay doesn’t excite me enough to buy a Playstation 3, I really hope this game sells well because Heavy Rain means a lot to the future of mature games.
When I say “mature”, I don’t mean it in the classic “Mortal Kombat” sense. Thanks to the general perception that video games are a kids medium and the perception that “mature” in video games means blood, gore, swearing, and sex, video games are still very much a “juvenile” medium. There is nothing “mature” about Mortal Kombat. There is blood and death, but the context and execution of the game is done in a juvenile way that aims to appeal to teenage boys. Most games that are labeled “mature” by the ESRB are only mature in the sense that they have gore, swearing and sex in them, not because they deal with mature themes and subject matter on a mature level.
Video games as a medium is still in its infancy and its still trying to find its place in this world. Up until the mid 90’s, video games were seen almost exclusively as a kids-only medium. We have made strides for more mature content since, but on a commercial level, most games that are classified as “mature” are just as juvenile as the original Mortal Kombat. I don’t need to stretch far for examples of this. Is Gears of War truly “mature”? Is God of War? The Dead or Alive series? I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point.
The one major blockbuster game that I think most people will point to as a counter-argument is Modern Warfare 2. I’m pretty sure you know what happens during the beginning of the game, but if you don’t, skip the next two paragraphs. One scene in particular at the airport features you as an undercover agent running with a bunch of Russian terrorists as they massacre hundreds of innocent people. You, as a gamer have the option of shooting innocent civilians if you want to. I understand what Infinity Ward was trying to go for in terms of making you feel bad for the brutality of terrorism, but I feel like that entire scene did not fit the game, was poorly executed and overall didn’t have the weight that the scene should have had.
I don’t think Modern Warfare 2 “earned” that scene. For a game that just before the airport asks you to ride on a snowmobile and shoot guys, then follows the airport scene with increasingly bombastic and ridiculous tasks and plot points, the one “serious” scene feels horribly out of place. The game never tries to make you think about it on a more serious level after that scene, instead going back to the core mechanic of shooting thousands of dudes. The ultimate failure of that scene though, is that it doesn’t make sense. Shepherd’s main goals is to take out Makarov, so why doesn’t he have you do it right there? Sure, it would ruin the entire plot, but at least what was left of the plot would make sense. Should you try and kill Makarov in that level, the terrorists will kill you, causing a fail-state, and you having to try again. In a scene where you’re supposed to die anyway, the only reason for the level to not end there is because the creators of the game want you to play through it all the way, regardless of how it breaks the story to the player.
To bring this all the way back around, Heavy Rain has been hyped as truly mature game. The overall story and the way it unfolds is done in a way that appeals to an adult on a mature level. I can see the kids who play Modern Warfare 2 cringing at the thought of playing a game where you have to help your son do his homework and tuck him into bed at night, but I like knowing that this experience isn’t for them. Are there enough people interested in playing a game like Heavy Rain? That’s the million dollar question.
Heavy Rain could potentially be a notable step forward for video games as a medium if it is a sales success. By proving that gamers will buy games with truly mature content, major publishers and developers could decide that it’s worth it to make more truly mature games. Maybe then the medium will move a step closer to universal acceptance. But if this game flops, then it’s further proof that people aren’t ready to play truly mature video games.
I don’t think Heavy Rain will be the “Citizen Kane” of video games. But as someone who wants to see this medium grow, it’s hard for me to cheer against what Heavy Rain is trying to do. I applaud Quantic Dream and Sony for backing up such an endeavor and hope for the best.