Monday, March 01, 2010

What's wrong with Heavy Rain's controls?

Above: Heavy Rain characters contemplate internet criticism.

On Friday, I mentioned that some of the criticisms of Heavy Rain seem off-base to me. The biggest one has to do with the controls. There seem to be two essential complaints about them. One is that you're not really controlling your character. The other is that they are arbitrary quick-time events. The result: You are providing inputs at certain times, but you're just watching the characters perform the actions.

This is factually true, and experientially insignificant. I agree with Tom Cross when he says: "I’m not sure what everyone is complaining about when it comes to Heavy Rain’s controls. They’re too abstract, or something? They’re not like 'real' game controls? It’s really unclear."

Start with the question of abstraction. Sure, buttons don't map to specific actions. That's because the actions your character can perform are so different. Using the right analog stick to perform the bulk of the character's actions does seem to me to do the job, especially since Quantic Dream made an effort to have the control input track to the onscreen action (like pressing it to the right in order to open a sliding door). I suppose you could have a context-sensitive action button instead, but, really, what's the difference? Well, I can think of one: pressing a button feels less like opening a door than moving a control stick does.

Heavy Rain does have its share of action scenes that wouldn't look out of place in other games, like fistfights, and, yes, they do control differently than you'd expect. You don't have specific actions like "punch" and "guard." Instead, you have to quickly respond to onscreen prompts within a time limit. This, again, seems to bother people who are used to more traditional playing styles. I've found it to be rather exciting. I never know what's coming next, and I tend to mess up just enough to leave the outcome of the scene in real doubt.

"But you're not really playing it!" some complain. Well, I'm pressing buttons to create onscreen action, aren't I? Maybe I'm being obtuse, but I don't see a dramatic difference between these two scenarios:

-Press X when prompted to dodge an attack (Heavy Rain)
-Press the left trigger when the opponent's weapon flashes to dodge an attack (Bayonetta)

Bayonetta has been praised as pure gameplay, while Heavy Rain has been criticized for being all cutscene. Yet in each case, it's a matter of split-second reaction to visual cues onscreen. I'm not saying they're exactly the same, but I am saying that it's a difference of degree and not of kind.

A control scheme can only be judged by how well it allows the player to experience the game. Other than the first 10 minutes or so that it took me to get used to making the characters walk around, I've found the controls of Heavy Rain to be up to the task. No, they wouldn't work in many other games. They don't need to.


David said...

In Bayonetta you're constantly surveying the scene to decide what is the best thing to do of your dozens of options. In Heavy Rain, like in Fahrenheit, you press buttons like a lab rat so that the cutscene continues successfully in the background.

Gary A. Lucero said...

I sold my PS3 Slim a couple of months ago (it was the second PS3 I owned and sold in two years, BTW -- IMO there are not enough games available that appeal to me for it to be worth owning a PS3 at this point) so I won't be playing Heavy Rain.

Regardless, Heavy Rain is the only PS3 exclusive game from 2010 that interested me at all. And that's because I liked the story telling aspects of Indigo Prophecy.

But what ruined that game for me, and why I ultimately stopped playing it, are the controls.

For me, and I'm a very traditional Western gamer, if I'm going to play an adventure game, I want it to control like an adventure game.

I loved Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (Xbox Original) and it had very traditional controls, pretty crappy combat, but very strong story telling.

In other words, if you want to tell me a story, tell me a story. make that the focus of the game. If you want me to perform all kind of strange control inputs, you are trying to convey something a little different and I'm pretty sure I'm not interested in that.

I'm not saying you or anyone else shouldn't be interested. Sony has worked hard to differentiate the PS3 from the Xbox 360 through a strong selection of artsy games. That's good.

It's just not what I'm looking for.

Mitch Krpata said...

I guess that's the point of division -- I felt invested in the action and didn't feel like I was just watching cutscenes. Besides which, one of the things I really liked about the game was that the cutscenes didn't always continue successfully. It's possible to fail in this game, and you don't get to reload and try again. That's powerful.

I also thought they did some very clever things with the inputs, like displaying them upside down when one character was trapped upside down. The control scheme seemed much more thoughtful and game-like than the "Press X to 'Jason'" jokes had led me to believe.

ed said...

In Bayonetta, imagine having just a single enemy on screen initiating an attack. The press 'X' to dodge is, in that situation, no different than the same action in Heavy Rain.

At the atomic level of actions, it's the same thing, and I think that's what Mitch means by "difference of degree and not of kind". There's just _more_ actions and options in Bayonetta.

Julian said...

You hit the nail on the head for me here. Games like Bayonetta have a restricted palette of verbs that you can use freely: hit stuff, dodge, walk, jump I guess but it's not really that significant. Heavy Rain is trying to give you a broader range of actions than most games afford. If you were to attempt to give 1:1 button mappings for every significant verb in the game, you'd end up with something even more grotesque and unwieldy than the control scheme in a roguelike such as Angband or Nethack. I think it's an interesting direction to explore in game design, in any case. I'm getting to my saturation point with games where the only actions you can take that have an impact are kill, jump, run. The human experience runs deeper than that, and I'm glad there are some people exploring ways to express that in games.

Sinan Kubba said...

With you here, Mitch. I found the walking to be the biggest pain, the R2 movement often making me walk into things like a fool, which broke the immersion sometimes. But I thought the controls in general were not an issue, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. One question though: do you think they would have been bettered by Arc or Natal motion control?

abunnell said...

For me, there are two main problems with Heavy Rain's controls. The first is that the R2-to-walk mechanic makes me feel like I'm driving a tank, not making a person walk. The second is that the right-analog stick swishes, swivels, and other motions used to perform actions often have little or no context associated with them. I'll open the refrigerator, for example, and be greeted with three motions I can move the stick in. But I have no idea that down means "pick up orange juice" until I try it. As a result, in many scenes my character behaves like a complete psychopath as I try to get the contexts down for the controls. In the scene where your son watches TV on the couch, I wanted to walk over and talk to him and then go make him a snack. Instead, I switched on the lights, sat on the couch, got up from the couch, talked to him, walked to the refrigerator, drank some orange juice, sat in the chair at the table, got up out of the chair, and then finally made him a snack. This creates a tangible air of frustration in me as a player, and only amplifies the feeling that I am watching some guy do what he wants to rather than playing as him in any meaningful way. The game partially addresses this by placing the context-sensitive controls on or near the objects you interact with, but even this method of identification is haphazard in its consistency, and utterly defeated when objects are close together. It really wouldn't have killed my sense of immersion to label these actions, and it would've greatly increased my ability to control the characters in the game.

As for the quicktime events, I think they are well done. The button presses feel tied to the action, and these scenes are tense and exciting. It could be that the majority of complainers have a problem with the "adventure" controls rather than the "action" controls. That is definitely the case with me.

Kirk Hamilton said...

The controls led to my biggest gripe with the game. But, that gripe wasn't that they took me out of the experience, or anything to do with how interactive they did or not feel. I took all aspects of the game at face value and appreciated how different an experience it was (though no matter how many ways I tried, I could not figure out the speed at which I was supposed to input repeated button tapping).

My problem was that the controls felt deliberately inconsistent, and towards the end of the game, it felt as though they were designed not to reflect human motion, but merely to confound me when I needed them most. It almost seemed sadistic.

Case in point: Near the end of the game, I had to navigate Madison through the killer's burning apartment. Leaving aside the fact that her pathfinding was so headstrong that she was almost suicidal, I felt as though my eventual failure came not from an inability to react, but from the game itself setting me up and faking me out.

When it came time to leap from one room to the next, I had to do a three button wind-up (O+X+R2), then release, and hit "up" on cue to make her jump. I missed the "up," and her pant leg caught on fire, but she made it through anyway. So then, I'm trying to line up another jump, and I get the same three-button setup, and release, deep breaths, and just before I jump, the game replaces the "up" I was expecting with "L1."

So I missed that, too, and she missed the jump again, caught on fire, and died.

I have no problem with weird control schemes per se, even though those of Heavy Rain were frequently unintuitive. But late in the game, that unintuitiveness felt designed to cause irrevocable mistakes, and that really pissed me off.

A great deal has been made made of all the possible endings one can get in this game by playing through multiple times. However, I don't think I would get different endings - it seems far more likely that I would make the same damn quicktime mistakes the second time around, and everyone would just die again.

Michael Miller said...

I don't have a PS3, so the question I'm asking is purely academic (unless they make a PC port!) - but what IS the gameplay here? Why is it fun? It's remarkable that nearly all reviews and blog posts about this game do a really bad job at conveying how the game actually plays. This is especially true of people who liked the game. At least the negative opinions can take stuff that annoyed them and describe the annoyance in detail. And I don't mean just gameplay in the sense of 'button prompts' and QTEs. What is the play aspect? What would it be when reduced to the essentials? (puzzle solving for adventure games, tactics for strategy games, hitting a green square with a red dot in FPSs)

Anonymous said...

I was going to leave a comment, but you already said it better. Nailed it, in fact:

"In other words, if you want to tell me a story, tell me a story. make that the focus of the game. If you want me to perform all kind of strange control inputs, you are trying to convey something a little different and I'm pretty sure I'm not interested in that."

Mitch Krpata said...

Sinan, I think it might have worked as well or better with motion controls, provided the hardware was up to it. As it was, I thought the Sixaxis inputs worked quite well, and that's something I've only ever said about Flower.

abunnell, good point, and I pretty much agree. But when the game is in pure "adventure" mode, I'd compare it to point-and-click adventures, in which I've spent countless wasted hours clicking around for hotspots. This just takes some of that guesswork away.

Kirk, you're describing one of the things I liked the most about the game: consequences. You feel let down because you failed and couldn't restart. I felt that way too the first time it happened, when I failed one of the trials and my instinct was to reload and try again -- only to find out that I couldn't. And I loved that. It made it feel like the game had real stakes. As far as the inconsistency of the controls, I get that, but it also kept me on edge during every action scene, knowing that failure was a real possibility.

Michael, you ask a really tough question. I guess I'm not sure "fun" would be the word I would use. The adventure portions don't have the kind of problem solving you might expect from a graphic adventure. There is some, but it's straight-ahead and doesn't require any lateral thinking. And the action portions are only a matter of hitting the prompts when they appear. Sometimes multiple options might appear, but you don't have time to mull them over.

So as I said, "fun" might not have been the right word, but what these scenes did was give me a sense of real consequence and importance. Successfully inputting the prompts usually means an optimal outcome (and I did finish the game with all the good guys alive, something I'd imagine is the best ending), and messing them up usually means a sub-optimal one. Once you make that breakthrough, and realize that the story is going ahead in some fashion, with or without you, it seems to elevate the importance of everything else you do.

Kirk Hamilton said...

I agree that the inability to load a save changed the stakes entirely (in a good way), something that I believe Demon's Souls also did. My plan to check that game out has actually been cemented, if only because it (eventually) allows for a kind of mastery that Heavy Rain does not.

But as I get farther from Heavy Rain, I probably will give it another playthrough. I'm already less pissed than I was. And there's no question that if I had made it through those sections without everyone dying, I wouldn't have been nearly as het up as I was/am.

On the whole, I thought it was an extraordinarily compelling experience, though not always for the reasons the developer intended. It certainly affected me beyond a feeling of "okay, I beat it, yay," which is more than I can say for 90% of games.

Mitch Krpata said...

I wonder to what extent it helped that I got the ending I would have wanted from the "real" movie version. Everybody lived who I wanted to live, and everybody died who I wanted to die. When it comes down to it, I think what worked best for me about this game was simply that I truly doubted whether I would save the kid, something that was never the case in, say, Super Mario Bros., even though it took me 12 years to beat that game and rescue the princess. I do wonder what my reaction would have been if I had failed. Probably something like despair. That seems like a ballsy choice on Quantic Dream's part.

Sean Beanland said...

I haven't played Heavy Rain, but I wonder if it comes down to the fact that with most games, the buttons usually only map to one action that you perform repeatedly. B is always used to reload, A is always used to jump, etc. We get used to these actions and the abstraction fades away as we become proficient with the controls. A new shooter takes perhaps 30 seconds to adjust if the controls for reload and throw grenade have been swapped from the last shooter, but that's about it. The abstraction fades away, you forget that you're holding a controller and just PLAY.

When a button can mean anything depending on the context, you're constantly reminded of the fact that you're holding a controller. I think one reason QTE's (and I'm not calling Heavy Rain's controls QTE's) are frustrating for me is that after a certain point in a game I stop thinking about which button does what. A QTE forces me to remember where each button is and that second of confusion as I switch from reflexive input to deliberate presses is what causes me to fail. A game that's constantly reminding you to press a button can make it so that you're never immersed in the game and story to begin with.

Mitch Krpata said...

I think that is probably the crux of it. To me it's not really an indictment of the control scheme in this game, since I do think that it would be hard or impossible to do what Heavy Rain does without its control scheme. Granted, I often argue for game devs to adhere to play control standards, but that only makes sense to do within genres. Not to fall into the trap of overpraising Heavy Rain, but it is fair to say that there's little else on the market to compare it to, play-wise, and in that respect I didn't have a problem with its choice of inputs.

It probably also helps that I played a lot of PaRappa the Rapper back in the day. I know those face buttons like the back of my hand.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Yeah, despair, anger, regret... that about sums it up for me, anyway. The deaths seemed narratively worthless, too, which made it even harder. After all those trials and near-escapes, everyone just sort of... died. Well, everyone but stupid chipper-voiced Ethan Mars and his zombie son.

And while I'm frustrated with David Cage & company for (to my eye) unfairly gaming the prompts and controls to encourage player failure, I do respect their ballsiness.

Gary A. Lucero said...

I do get tired of everyone saying games like Braid or Heavy Rain do something other games don't, that somehow they tap into emotions others can't.

And if that's the case, why did I cry at the end of Planescape: Torment? And why have other games, mostly RPGs mind you, prompted emotional responses from me?

I think in the end some kinds of games really affect certain people, and other kinds of games affect others. And some people view them just as games and don't care either way.

DarkSock said...

I peed in a horse once.