“Warning: This video game psychologically profiles you as you play. It gets to know who you really are then uses this information to change itself, it uses its knowledge against you, creating your own personal nightmare. This game plays you as much as you play it.”
Cue roll of the eyes. We’ve all seen this before. Remember Eternal Darkness? Pretends to delete your save file, you panic, have a nervous laugh, continue playing. Not quite the mind cuss it espouses, but its good harmless fun. After all, a videogame can’t genuinely mess with your head, right? But then again, maybe you have yet to play Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. You could roll your eyes at its warning, brush it off as just another gimmick. But see, when you reach the game’s conclusion, when you realize the game does play you, you’ll be unprepared for it. You may even get genuinely upset, like I did. That a videogame could make you feel that, could prompt you to come to terms with something real, that manages to subtly change its story to make it uncomfortably personal—now that’s something. Imagine my surprise when Shattered Memories delivers on its unlikely promise.
Most games handle narrative in one of two ways. Completely linear, like say, the cinematic tour de force of Metal Gear Solid 4, or the “choose-your-own-adventure” style of multiple branching paths, like Mass Effect. Both methods can be problematic. Developers tend to let players operate as agents of chaos, antithetical to the idea of deliberately plotted stories. What’s more is player choice is hell on characterization (to quote playwrite David Mamet, “character is habitual action”). Branching paths enables an even larger sin: creating several mediocre stories instead of one solidly constructed narrative, in the name of player control. Surely this all makes for less meaningful storytelling.
Heavy Rain attempts to negotiate the two methods, operating as an example of “bendable fiction”, a story that would continue towards its conclusion no matter what choices the player makes. For me, the story bends so far it breaks. The game produced wildly different conclusions depending on specific player choices, greatly changing the meaning and logic of the story. It fell into the choose-your-own-adventure trap of mediocre storytelling, and confusing characterization.
Shattered Memories delivers on Heavy Rain’s promise. It has one specific narrative, but the epiphany, the catharsis experienced at the end, is tailored based on a “psychological profile” of how the player played the game. Not from Mass Effect like dialogue trees, or BioShock-esque binary choices, but from both the subtle and deliberate actions the player made throughout the game. The important characters still meet the same fates. But the realization the protagonist reaches is specifically tailored to you.
It’s a gambit on the developer’s part. I’m sure there are some players for who the game completely misses the mark. But to my horror, I was guilty of the assertion the story’s antagonist forces the protagonist to confront, had run away from that uncomfortable secret. According to Tomm Hulett, the game’s producer, “In a horror game it’s about playing off that dark side and revealing something that the player already fears deep down, and forcing them to deal with it.” This is what interactive fiction is capable of! While Heavy Rain changed the external elements of its narrative based on player control, Shattered Memories changed the psychology, the scary, interior space of its characters (and by extension, players).
As an example of how to do an interactive narrative (the key: subtley!), on how to deal with mature themes (sex, death, dysfunctional families), and on how to use videogames as a tool for self realization, Shattered Memories deserves another look. Developers, this is what interactive narrative should be doing: using interaction to make the story a more personal experience, not as a tool for the player to play screenwriter.
So what was that realization, that key epiphany that made me realize this game was so much more? Play it for yourself, and by yourself. You’ll understand why I won’t be sharing it with anyone anytime soon.