Heavy Rain: Game? Film? Art?

Heavy Rain
Heavy Rain

Format: PlaySstation 3

Release date: 26 February 2010

More information on the Heavy Rain website

The relationship between film and video games is a tricky one; while their quality is often questionable, the amount of games that have been transposed into a movie and, on the flipside, the number of games that have been based on film franchises indicates that there undoubtedly a strong bond between the two. With the February release of Sony and Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain, exclusively on the PlayStation 3, the cross-pollination of the two formats has moved ever closer.

When Heavy Rain was unveiled at the Leipzig Games Convention in 2008 (yep, it’s taken longer than a film to be realised) it was pitched as a game that was taking brave new steps in the industry, both in content – by offering an adult thriller with a complex plot – and in gameplay – the player shapes the story by making the kind of choices that decide how it will unfold. While cinematic in nature, on a basic level it’s more akin to those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books that were so popular in the 1980s-90s.

The game wears its film pretensions on its sleeve. It is a modern noir thriller that takes its inspiration from the likes of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Se7en (1995), Zodiac (2007) and the original Saw (2004). You play four characters who are all trying to decipher the identity of a serial child killer called the Origami Killer, so named because they leave an origami animal at the scene of the crime: there’s Ethan Mars, whose child has been kidnapped by the Origami Killer and so must go through a series of violent trials in order to find out where his son is being held; there’s Madison Paige, a journalist on the hunt for a good story, who befriends Ethan; Norman Jayden is a drug-addled FBI agent on the killer’s trail; and finally there’s Scott Shelby, a private eye who has his own reasons for retracing the killer’s steps. So far, so clichéd…

OK, so the characters are archetypes, but they grow on you as the game’s compelling narrative and unique story structure develops. The player takes control of each character in a series of vignettes that range from the mundane – taking a shower – to the more violent – cutting off a finger. The player is presented with various options, both in how to act and in what to say, and these trigger how the story develops – make a wrong decision and this can lead to the death of a character, who then will play no part in the rest of the story. Although the identity of the killer always remains the same, there are multiple story threads and finales that can ensue.

To coincide with the launch of Heavy Rain, Neil LaBute made a short documentary, How Far Would You Go?, in which he asked the likes of Nic Roeg, Hanif Kureishi, Samuel L Jackson and Stephen Frears, ‘How far would you go to save someone you love?’ The documentary can be dowloaded for free on the Heavy Rain website.

Heavy Rain is far from a traditional game, but to call it an ‘interactive movie’ is not quite accurate either. It’s certainly immersive, like many other games, but where it is at its best is in affecting the player on an emotional level and to a degree that has not really been done before. In that sense, it is closer to a movie than a game.

The best films engage, challenge, provoke, entertain and often move the viewer, rewarding them for investing in both the story and/or the characters. Games can do this too, with the added appeal of being interactive – although admittedly games predominantly focus on the challenge and entertainment elements above the emotive or provocative. Few games manage to match the capacity of film to deliver on the above attributes: The Godfather or Scarface games, for instance, are evocative of their source material but fail to deliver the emotional gravitas of the films, providing a visceral and action-orientated experience instead.

On this level, Heavy Rain works very well, with the gameplay, narrative and evocative music making it akin to taking part in a dark thriller film; the major difference being that here the viewer is also the narrative’s main protagonists, developing the story as they go. Playing the game, you do feel connected to the characters and having invested in their emotional development you then care what happens to them (often fearing for their safety).

The game is far from perfect, and actually works better as a viewing experience than a playing one (perhaps unsurprisingly it has already been optioned for a film), but as a template for how an interactive format can work beyond the often formulaic structure of video games, Heavy Rain is ground-breaking. As the game’s creator, David Cage, told the Guardian website on release: ‘I strongly believe that interactivity has the potential to become an art, it is just a matter of time.’ If Heavy Rain is an example of things to come, then gamers could be in for a thrilling ride.

Toby Weidmann

We Live in Public: Interview with Ondi Timoner

We Live in Public

Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 November 2009

Venues: Greenwich Picturehouse, Odeon Panton St, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: Dogwoof

Director: Ondi Timoner

USA 2009

90 mins

What do you do next, once you’ve won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival? Well, if you’re Ondi Timoner, you make another documentary and you win the Grand Jury Prize again (making you the only individual to have won the gong twice!). The first of those two films, Dig! (2004), charted the mixed fortunes of two bands, Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. While she was making it, Timoner was also working on her latest award-winner, We Live in Public, a documentary shot over many years about the antics of Joshua Harris.

You probably won’t have heard of Harris, but some believe he predicted the future of the internet, not just by creating one of the first live streaming web channels, Pseudo.com, but also by conducting experiments on exactly what people would be willing to sign away for their five minutes of fame. One such experiment featured in the film was set in an underground New York ‘bunker’, where more than 100 people agreed to live in the month leading up to the millennium. The bunker was packed with cameras that followed every move made by the dwellers, who were also subjected to regular humiliating interrogations. Electric Sheep‘s Toby Weidmann met Ondi Timoner to find out more…

Toby Weidmann: How did you first meet Joshua Harris?

Ondi Timoner: I had worked at Pseudo.com for a little while on the Cherry Bomb show, just to pick up some extra cash while I was making Dig!. My initial impression was that he was something of a buffoon, that he was a businessman trying to buy his way into the art world. I certainly didn’t know whether he was a visionary or not – time is required to prove that. He didn’t sit around making verbal predictions either – he didn’t know what he was doing himself. But I did think he was somebody who spent his money in very extraordinary ways and I appreciated that. He affected people’s lives in that way – he was out buying bunkers in the middle of Manhattan when other people were buying houses, and that’s cool. But I didn’t know what to think of Josh…

TW: Did you have any inkling at the start how the story would pan out?

OT: I follow my subjects like I followed those ‘choose your own adventure’ books as a kid. That’s how I live my life. I have a gut feeling about certain things at certain times and so far I have been lucky enough to be picked for the gig…

TW: You are part of this story though, because you were there in the bunker, weren’t you?

OT: Yeah. Josh called me and asked whether I wanted to document cultural history. I said: ‘Always, but what do you have in mind?’ He said: ‘I can’t really tell you that, I can’t articulate that because I don’t actually know. It’s kind of unfolding, but I’ll provide you with whatever resources you need to do the job right.’ So I walk over there and they have these men moving all this metal into the building, which they were using to build the ‘pods’. Inside, there’s a guy hanging surveillance cameras from the ceiling. I asked what he was doing and he said he was putting 110 cameras in this place. And right there, I was like, ‘I’m in’. The first thing I did was to get a multiplex system so we could put all the cameras through one machine, allowing us to record the cool images, from the living pods you see in the film to the four ‘walkie’ cameras I had going, so we could ‘walkie’ out what was going on in different spaces in different rooms. We used this system as the eyes of the place. That was crucial but we still had no idea what it was all about.

TW: The film nearly wasn’t made when Harris pulled the plug on it after you edited a rough cut of the bunker material in 2000. How did it get back on track?

OT: After we won at Sundance for Dig! in 2004, I got an email from Josh asking if I was interested in finishing the film, and I really wasn’t because by then it was less relevant. But he wrote to me a few months later, and he said he would give me 50% ownership and full creative control. I thought that was a pretty good deal, and I also felt it was an opportunity to finish what I’d started – especially with no end date attached to the project. So I caught up with those who were in the bunker, and with New York post-9/11. But I still didn’t know what the film was about until I saw Facebook and read my first status update. Then I realised the bunker could be a metaphor for the internet. The only thing I was having a hard time with was the neo-fascistic elements of the bunker, because the internet doesn’t feel that way – it doesn’t feel like you’re under interrogation, it feels like you can be yourself. Then I realised that that part of the metaphor was crucial because Josh was testing the limits of how much people would be willing to give up to be a part of this. They would answer 500 questions, they would submit to these interrogations, and that became like the terms and conditions that you just accept on the internet. You never read them. Facebook owns all our content. As Josh says in the film, ‘everything is free except your image – that we own’.

TW: Are you a fan of the internet?

OT: Yeah, sure, but as powerful as it is for good, we’re paying a price. I think we’re only just becoming aware of that now. The film is definitely a dark vision of it, but it’s important to present the dark side. For a lot of people the film serves as a wake-up call. It’s a shock and it provokes all sorts of reactions. I wouldn’t have told Josh Harris’s story if it wasn’t a metaphor for all of us. There are incredible aspects that the internet brings to our lives, but our identity and our relationships are changing, and a lot of it is more superficial because we can communicate with 500 times the number of people at one time, and we can’t possibly communicate as deeply. Are your Facebook friends your friends? I don’t know, maybe you should go have coffee with them and find out. I really dislike that term – ‘Facebook friend’ – and I think it is dangerous to call them that. If that’s what friendships have become, then we have a problem.

TW: It’s being released theatrically and on DVD, but will it also be available for download? Given the subject matter, it seems well suited…

OT: It is going to be available to download, but it has to be available for the Oscars and they are old school [ie, it needs to be released theatrically first]. We feel it’s an important film, but maybe it’s a little edgy for them… We’ll see. We’re at least going to give it a shot. Dig! was disqualified from the Oscars because it went on TV too early, so we can’t put the film on the internet until then. But it should be a huge stunt when it does happen and it will be exciting to see how it does. There is a potential for We Live in Public to blaze a trail.

TW: What are you planning on making next?

OT: The story of Robert Mapplethorpe as a narrative. It’s perfect for me, right? I’ve met the Mapplethorpe Estate and I have the exclusive rights. Eliza Dushku, the actress, and I are producing it. It’s about him and his relationship with Patti Smith and about how he acted as a cultural lightning rod, pushing the boundaries of art, even beyond his death. I’m really excited about it. It’s called The Perfect Moment. I’m also engaged to make a documentary called Cool It, about the controversial environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg. He wrote a book called Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming about global warming and economics and what we need to prioritise. It’s more of a political documentary and very different from the other films I’ve made.

Interview by Toby Weidmann