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The Time I Was My Dad in Heavy Rain

Ed Smith | 23 Feb 2013 09:00
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The real world is a horrible place filled with wars, poverty, disease and Jersey Shore and that's why videogames are so popular. More than films, more than television - even more than novels - they allow their audience to escape into an exciting fantasy world where they can live out their dreams of being a soldier or a wizard or whatever.

But games have been escapist fantasy for years now; even so far back as the seventies, players were immersing themselves in sci fi epics like Space Invaders. And although you could argue that the first responsibility of any game, digital or otherwise, is to be fun to play, given the level of today's technology and writing, I think games can be used to explore topics rather than avoid them.

For me, Heavy Rain is the best example of how a videogame can change your thinking about the real world. There's a wonderful, heartbreaking scene towards the game's beginning where you play as a single dad, Ethan, in the midst of a messy divorce, trying to take care of his young son, Shaun, on one of the nights that he's been given custody. Making conversation with the boy is near impossible - he invariably replies with either silence or single words - and unless you pay attention to the clock, the evening ticks past homework and bed time, and you end up looking like a bad parent.

For me, Heavy Rain is the best example of how a videogame can change your thinking about the real world.

Getting everything right is really tricky. You have to wash your son's clothes, prep his dinner, help with his math assignment, make him a snack, watch TV with him and then make sure he goes to bed on time. Time goes by at a much faster speed than in real life and if you fumble more than a few of the game's tangled button combos you end up spoiling dinner or missing snack time, failing to live up to the itinerary given to you by the boy's mother.

You also have to contend with your kid's cold disposition. Walking up to Shaun and pressing square or circle to talk leads nowhere and the whole scene passes without so much as three sentences said between the characters. What's interesting is how these are the same buttons you used to talk to him before; in the pre-titles, pre-divorce sequence of Heavy Rain, approaching Shaun and pressing one of the talk commands elicited a chirpy and verbose response. Now, you're being told to shush because he's busy watching TV.

The fact that the buttons are the same mirrors the way Ethan thinks about Shaun. In the way that you're still trying to do the same things - pressing square and circle - Ethan is trying to be the same father he was before the divorce. He's trying to play with Shaun, connect with him. But he can't connect. In the way your button presses don't have much effect, neither do Ethan's half-hearted questions and platitudes.

And then, when you've failed to cook dinner and rekindle the relationship with your son, you can trudge Ethan upstairs to sit and cry over photos of his ex-wife. And that's what my dad used to do. Almost every evening he had custody of my sister and me after he'd split up with my mum, he'd either cook something in the microwave or not cook at all, make small talk with us as best he could, then slink away to another room in the house, or watch TV in silence until it was our bed time.

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