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[Ian Bogost looks at Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain in the context of film and cinematography's history -- including spoilers for the critically acclaimed PlayStation 3 game -- to explain why he feels the game, billed as an "interactive film," is not quite that.]
Heavy Rain is not an interactive film.
I know that's what its creators were after, and I know that's how it's been pitched to the market, and I know it's been critiqued as both a successful and an unsuccessful implementation of that goal.
To understand why the game is not a playable film, it's important to review what makes film unique as an art form. There are conflicting opinions, of course, but one stands out: film is editing.
Soviet filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov first suggested editing as film's primary quality.
His well-known "Kuleshov Effect" seemed to prove the point: in the experiment, Kuleshov cut between the expressionless shot of a famous Russian silent film actor (Ivan Mozzhukhin) and a variety of other shots: a young woman reposed on a chaise, a child in a coffin, a bowl of soup.
Even though the shot of Mozzhukhin's face remained identical with each cut, the audience made different assumptions about the meaning of his expression.
Kuleshov's influential pupil Sergei Eisenstein believed it too, arguing that editing techniques (particularly montage) made it uniquely possible for cinema to link seemingly unrelated images through juxtaposition.
The Soviets weren't alone in their reverence of editing. D.W. Griffith's early work made strong use of editing and cross-cutting, for example. And as the years and then the decades passed, editing only increased in importance. Stanley Kubrik adopted Kuleshov's position more or less directly. Francis Ford Coppola has said this about the practice:
"The essence of cinema is editing. It's the combination of what can be extraordinary images, images of people during emotional moments, or just images in a general sense, but put together in a kind of alchemy. A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually."
Indeed, editing has become an ever more important tool in filmmaking. The use of jump cuts (edits that disrupt the continuity of a sequence) and quick cuts (rapid edits that increase the pace of a sequence) have become ever more common and familiar as action films and television have increased creators' reliance on editing as a central cinematic aesthetic.
But generally, video games don't have cinematic editing. They can't, because continuity of action is essential to interactive media. In fact, that continuity is so important that most games (3D games, anyway) give the player direct control over the camera, allowing total manipulation of what is seen and from what vantage point.
Perhaps, if we're being particularly generous toward cinema, we could count shifts in fixed-camera views in games like Heavy Rain and Metal Gear Solid as a type of jump cut, since the action is disrupted rather than continuous. But in most of these cases, shifts in camera correspond only with changes in location, not changes in the way a video game mediates the player's relationship to space or action or theme.
Survival horror games offer the best specimen of film-like editing in games. By holding the camera hostage, games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill remove player control, a technique needed to create tension and fear. The best example of this effect through camera editing alone might be Fatal Frame 2, which creates an effective sense of simultaneous familiarity and dread as the player moves through rooms of the possessed homes in a village.
In modern cinema, edits move action forward. Films are short compared to games, for one thing, but more importantly, editing helps a filmmaker focus the viewer's attention on important plot elements through abstraction. For example, instead of showing a character get ready and leave for work, a few rapid quick cuts can communicate the same information more efficiently: closet door opens, fingers button shirt, hand grabs keys, car backs out of driveway.
Like many interactive narratives, Heavy Rain appears to adopt the practice filmic editing by allowing the player to control how sequences of narrative appear based on quick-time event (QTE) actions. In this respect, it follows in a long lineage of titles starting with Dragon's Lair.
But that similarity is a foil. Instead, the most important feature of Heavy Rain, the design choice that makes it more important than any other game in separating from rather than drawing games toward film, is its rejection of editing in favor of prolonging.