GUEST COMMENTARY: Video games aren't just for kids

Friday, March 12, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 1:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 13, 2010

A serial killer is at large. He has a special interest in young boys, drowning them three or four days after they are reported missing. Four people are on his trail — a father (Ethan), a journalist (Madison), a private detective (Scott) and an FBI profiler (Norman). They are all searching for the killer before he murders his next victim, who happens to be Ethan’s son. Their lives intertwine as they get closer and closer to uncovering the killer’s identity.

This drama isn’t playing out in your local theater or on TV — it’s exclusive to the Playstation 3. The video game, Heavy Rain, was developed by Quantic Dream, a company based in Paris. Its story isn’t aimed at the stereotypical young gamer audience, either.

According to a 2008 survey of more than 1,200 U.S. households conducted by the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a gamer in the U.S. is 35. Surprised? You shouldn’t be — video games aren’t for kids anymore, although that’s not always apparent. One reason for this conclusion could be that a lot of popular video games include harsh violence. Half of the top 10 selling games of 2008 contained violence — including but not limited to — shooting human beings, forcefully stealing cars and blowing up buildings, but that’s not the point of this article. It's about stories.

We often get wrapped up in the stories movies and books tell. Has the thought ever crossed your mind that a video game can tell just as powerful a story as its non-interactive siblings? It’s not often that a video game has a compelling narrative (only a handful come to mind when I think about it) because games are just that — games. Usually they’re built with game play in mind first and then a story is loosely tied around that.

Quantic Dream changed that method completely with Heavy Rain, which was released Feb. 23. David Cage, the founder of Quantic Dream, wrote and directed the entire game. It features thousands of lines of dialogue and full motion capture work done by real actors. More than 200 actors auditioned for parts in the game — about 90 were cast. The most important quality of Heavy Rain is its suspense-mystery story taking paramount precedence over the game play.

Quantic Dream has handled this story in the most innovative way possible. Since the dawn of video games, the point of them has always been to win. Cage threw that concept out the window. Although it is possible for any of the four main characters (and other supporting characters) to die in the game, the story will not halt because of his or her death. There are no “game overs.” If someone dies, the story plows on with the other characters trying to solve the mystery without the newly deceased. That has a huge ripple effect for the story including, but not limited to, varied dialogue, many different endings and the characters’ epilogues. The game literally adapts to the choices you make for each character. It’s possible to play through the game many times and miss entire scenes based on how you act as each character.

And once you make a choice, there’s no going back — just like in real life. Heavy Rain auto-saves often during scenes so hitting the reset button isn’t an easy way out. However, all of the game’s fifty chapters can be replayed after clearing them for players to go back and see what they might have missed. This adaptable story is a strong advantage video games have over any other form of entertainment.

Heavy Rain is not perfect by any means, but the focus on story and emotional attachment is almost unheard of in the industry. Even Seth Schiesel of the New York Times wrote, “…no single-player game has made me feel as profoundly connected to the outcome of a story I care about,” in his review. The game is clearly aimed at the adult bracket of video gamers, the 35 year olds, if you will. And it’s worth mentioning that Heavy Rain is not an ideal trip for younger players, as it features violence, nudity and even sex. Even though prestigious films nominated for Academy Awards and the like also feature these, somehow gratuitous violence and sexual themes are often shunned and debated in video games.

My point, whether you believe it or not, is not to directly advertise Heavy Rain. My point is that Quantic Dream is taking risks and doing things no other video game development company is doing. It is taking painstaking amounts of time and effort to create a story that people will care about in an interactive environment. We all watch movies and read books for entertainment value, but we also become wrapped up in their stories. Similarly, gamers play video games for entertainment, but rarely succumb to the (often lackluster) stories in them. Heavy Rain marks a new point for the continuum of gaming by putting the story first, however you decide to play it out, with all its ephemeral glory. And it will stick with you long after setting the controller down.

Maybe some day in the future, more and more people (including adults over 35) won’t be afraid to adopt video games as a way to discover and play a new story. Until then, I can only count on other development companies to follow Quantic Dream’s lead in crafting characters and stories that I will actually care enough about to want to play.

Corey Motley is a junior magazine student at the Missouri School of Journalism. He prefers Heavy Rain to real rain and keeps up a blog about video games on under the username “Survival Shooter.”

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