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The Time I Was My Dad in Heavy Rain

Ed Smith | 23 Feb 2013 09:00
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And I disliked him for it. First because he'd invariably send me to school with a rubbish packed lunch, and second because, when you're five, it's really confusing to see your parents be sad. They're supposed to be invincible, impervious authoritarians - you're the one that needs looking after. I couldn't understand why he was distant. At such a young age you don't have an understanding of complex emotions like that, so all I knew was that dad was less fun, worse at making my dinner than mum, and our relationship was strained.

Years later, I felt I could empathize to some degree. I'd been through break ups of my own by then and could understand how it affects you emotionally. But it wasn't until playing Heavy Rain that I really got what he was struggling with. That scene between Ethan and Shaun maps, I think, how awkward it can be for a single father and his children to get on after the end of a marriage. Playing it, I struggled, in a vicarious way, with the same things my dad did and although the emotional impact is far, far lesser that in reality, that sequence is nevertheless bloody heartbreaking, especially when you know the source material so intimately.

Rather than merely provide escape from it, I think videogames can adapt and explore the real world like no other medium.

By making it difficult for me, as Ethan, to talk to my son and have his dinner ready on time, Heavy Rain let me see, briefly, into what life was like for my dad after he and my mum split up. In the way I struggled with twisting the analog sticks to start the washing machine, and tapping square to get Shaun to talk, he couldn't muster the energy to look after us properly, or find the words to speak to us.

And I think it's a really valuable thing about games that it can take recognizable situations and map them out in three dimensions to let us see different perspectives. Rather than merely provide escape from it, I think videogames can adapt and explore the real world like no other medium. It might make the process of playing sound slovenly, but in a game, we don't have to imagine - we can do. The vague sense of empathy I had for my father before Heavy Rain was amplified by being allowed to experience, even in a condensed way, what life was like for him.

By embodying somebody, albeit indirectly, it becomes easier to empathize with them and that's something games are uniquely equipped to let us do. It's kind of like the bleeding effect from Assassin's Creed's Animus, where the more time Desmond spends in the shoes of other people, the more of their abilities and emotions he absorbs. The small time I spent being Ethan Mars, and the way that Heavy Rain translates his emotional struggles so well in gameplay conceits, taught me how it felt to be my dad. It helped me to stop blaming him.

But I'm keen to play down the personal side of this anecdote. As followers of the excellent PASSIONGAMER4CHANGE Twitter account will know, talking up your uniquely emotional response to a game is a widely recognised bullshit ploy for attention. And it's not like Heavy Rain really changed my life at all. I didn't play it then immediately call my dad to say all is forgiven. In fact, it wasn't until months after I'd finished it that any of these things really dawned on me.

What incidents like these do show, though, is how games can be used as educational tools. If we can measure cultural value by one thing, I think it's by something's ability to elucidate, edify or represent people and for me, and I suspect, plenty of other players, games like Heavy Rain are capable of that.

My dad is someone who distrusts games for being violent and puerile. If he knew what they had taught me, I think he'd change his mind.

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