Scott Shelby is a Bad Man, But That's Totally Fine

There’s a trophy you can unlock in Heavy Rain called ‘Perfect Crime’. This exists because one of the game’s four main characters is both protagonist and chief antagonist—though you of course don’t know this until the very end. This means that getting the trophy on your first time round comes down to either luck or some gross personal lust for ruining stories in the name of accumulating hollow achievements. Having said that, there are people I know who insist they saw this particular twist coming well before its gestation period was through. That makes them incredibly prescient or big smelly liars.
Regardless of whether it came with a dollop of gloating self-congratulation, everyone’s opinion of Heavy Rain’s about-face was about the same: it’s just not right to have a player character turn out to be a wrong ‘un. Which raises the question of why such a twist mightn’t be appropriate for games? We love ‘secret bastards’, as I affectionately call them, in every other storytelling medium. I’m a bit of a pedant to be honest, so I can only really talk about films here, but there are still plenty of examples. Kevin Spacey being Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects is probably the standout. Does anyone remember anything else about that film beyond its twist? Who else is in it? Gabriel Byrne? Pete Postlethwaite? Benicio Del Toro? Stephen Baldwin? Who knows? But Kevin Spacey was definitely there and he was definitely a secret bastard, we all know that whether we’ve seen the film or not.

The Usual Suspects does a sterling job of keeping its intentions under wraps. First of all, it disguises its main character. In placing Spacey as the narrator we’re misled into thinking he’s somewhat outside the story he’s telling. Yes, he’s there in lots of the scenes, usually somewhere near the back not making a fuss, but he is painted as such a sleight force within the story that we almost instantly forget about that old narrative trick called ‘the unreliable narrator’. Once we’re comfortable with Spacey as a benign force, the film runs rings around us. Is Söze a physically-imposing gangster? Is he a collection of people acting under a pseudonym? Is he a myth used to control the criminal underworld? Nobody, not even our humble storyteller, knows. When the twist finally reveals itself at the film’s end we’re all taken by surprise. And The Usual Suspects wins lots of awards.

Why then, was Heavy Rain not met with similar applause from my friends for its rug-pull, especially considering it uses the same narrative tricks as The Usual Suspects? Our bad guy, ageing private investigator Scott Shelby, is one of four leads, and so gets lost in the mix. He is portrayed as being heavily emotionally involved in catching the story’s killer. He’s a bit fat and old and nice an emotionally stable to be a child murderer—it couldn’t possibly be him. The misdirection is the same, so why isn’t the end result?

This obviously has a lot to do with the participatory nature of games. In being the one who moves a character around and chooses how they act, we feel a justifiable sense of ownership over everything they do. But should we? We are, after all, never omniscient figures when we order these characters to do our bidding. Just as our forces act upon and influence them, the game itself, with its rules, variables and systems, defines our own trajectories. We control the characters, but we only do so within the constraints of a set of predetermined inputs—doubly in the case of Heavy Rain, which seeks to tell a heavily scripted story whilst still being somewhat interactive. We are never as in control as we’d like to think we are.

I’d also argue that the third person perspective of the game further strengthens our bond with and ownership of its characters. In being able to see their bodies we convince ourselves that we understand them and their motivations. In first person we take on the role of the character, turning them into versions of ourselves wearing power armour, a HEV suit or leather chaps. When we can see them there is a strange disconnect paradox: we are not them, but at the same time we are in control of them, and so a bond of trust develops between player and character stronger than if we were to simply embody them.

Heavy Rain upset so many of my friends because it exploited this in its twist. They couldn’t rationalise and accept that they weren’t fully in control of the middle aged gumshoe they’d been running around for hours. This revelation sullied their opinion of the whole game to the point where they couldn’t see past it. Pre-twist we’d excitedly discussed our progress from the previous night, eager to find out where one another was in the story. Post-twist it was dead to them—they couldn’t forgive its treachery. Heavy Rain was cheap and exploitative. End of, son.

I’d disagree. It’s twist is heavy-handed and gleeful in its execution; the game knows it has played with your sense of control and it is happy you’ve allowed it to do so. But beyond this I think its point is a valid one. We’re so accustomed to our video game protagonists being clear-cut and unambiguous—even when they’re a bit of a bad guy it’s fine as long as it fits with the mechanics and we force-rationalise it—that we’re largely unable to fathom them being anything else. I’d like to see more uneasy alliances between player and protagonist, where we’re unsure of their intentions but unable to do anything beyond stride ever forwards or stop playing. It’d certainly be a bit more interesting than always being zealots, completely dedicated to whatever cause we’ve taken up this week.  


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