Originally posted on October 7, 2013.
Telltale's The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain are quite the unique specimens for the current generation. They are both Adventure games, but with one macro distinction; TWD is a traditional point-and-clicker, while HR is more of a normal third-person game and uses gestures instead of a cursor. HR removed genre staples like puzzles and inventory, and TWD followed suit. Both are made to appeal to experienced and casual players alike, with a broad audience. Both have a 100% focus on an emotional story-driven experience. Both are made to be played, not beaten.
TWD is lauded for it's story while HR is criticized for it's own. The writing in TWD is also praised highly, whereas HR's script has incited many wats and unintentional lols. TWD's cast of characters is one of the most beloved since Mass Effect and Uncharted, while HR's cast, let's just say, hasn't inspired much fan art or cosplays. The voice actors of those characters in TWD have done a memorable and award-winning job, while everyone and their mothers have been pointing fingers at the suspicious accents in HR.
I myself consider TWD to be one of the best and most important games of all time, and it is certainly the most moving and affecting story I've ever played.
So with all that said, how in the love of Jason can Heavy Rain be better? Well it isn't objectively better as a whole experience or anything, but rather it is the better game. It's better at interactive storytelling. It's braver, it's bolder. It was the first triple-A adventure game of it's size. Most importantly though, it is the biggest single-step evolution that a genre has taken since the 3D revolution.
Note: This is more or less analyzing both of Quantic Dream's PS3 games, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls at the same time, but with a focus on HR because it came out first and Beyond isn't out at the time of this writing.
Now, let's compare what things each game does better than the other:
What The Walking Dead does better
TWD does all that delicious story stuff way better. This we all know. Butt, guess what? All that stuff has shit-all to do with the fact that it's a video game. None of it is based on interactivity, the player's ludic experience, or the presentation. It's all in the script and the voice recordings. These are the accomplishments of the writing team and the cast, not the game designers. I know most of you are probably like, “hey bub, the story IS interactive”, and you'd be right. What I am referring to, however, is the story in and of itself, as can be represented by the screenplay/ script or someone talking about what happened in their playthrough.
What Heavy Rain does better
- Branching narrative
- Letting choices speak for themselves (no “they will remember that” or objective prompts)
- Story-based fail states and no game overs
- Dialogue presentation and implementation
- Verb presentation and implementation
- Dialogue and Verbs at the same time
- Verb variety
- Physical presence (exploring without a pointer)
- Camera presentation and implementation
- Action scenes
- Less cutscenes
- Motion Capture
- Engine performance
These things are gameplay-centric, and enhance the experience in all the right ways. All of the above bullets are present in The Walking Dead, but are implemented in an flat, boring, standard way; the cursor, the dialogue menu, the interaction system, the prompts, the QTE's, everything about the mechanics really, are made to be functional and nothing more. Compared to Heavy Rain, TWD feels old and dated. HR has all the same mechanics, but all of those mechanics (except for the bonehead R2 walking) have been innovated upon and elevated to something more than mere function. In just one game, literally everything that adventure games are known for has been injected with creativity and logical progression by Quantic Dream.
Let's examine them one by one:
1) Dynamic presentation / Realistic mechanics
- In other games, dialogue is relegated to a sub menu. In Heavy Rain, dialogue options have a physical presence in the game's world. They are a part of the presentation. They serve not just function, but form as well.
- During timed conversations, they float around the player character's head or body. This is a representation of brainstorming. It's the concept of thinking about what to say, of weighing your options, manifested visually. During down-time conversations that aren't timed, this effect is replaced with a calmer stack of prompts.
- In arguments and other tense situations, the prompts will shake and move faster. This makes decision-making under stress all the more palpable. It presents intense situations as inherently different from calmer situations, and makes them stand out and feel more, well, intense. Look at how the prompt's personality changes as the tension grows in the scene: 1, 2, 3.
- Instead of full sentences like in TWD or fragments like in Mass Effect, each dialogue option is represented by either the subject, emotion, tone, idea, or key word of the line.
This is closer to real talking. In normal conversation we usually have an idea in our head and our mouths basically do the work for us. In normal conversation, and especially arguments, we generally don't rehearse whole sentences in our head before speaking. It's a little more abstract than that. Having simple one word prompts that get across the main idea makes the decision making process fast, fluid, and efficient. This method also applies to actions.
One of the worst design decisions in The Walking Dead is the use of full sentences in the dialogue bank. This conflicts with the timer. Having to read 3 complete sentences before getting a chance to evaluate them is just frustrating. The game takes the Fallout/ Elder Scrolls route of letting you know exactly what you're going to say, but it works in those games because you can read and evaluate the options for as long as you need. It also just doesn't make sense in context; nobody rehearses entire sentences in their head before replying to someone, especially when they're on the clock. The use of single-word dialogue options also used in Alpha Protocol, another game which is overlooked for it's choices.
- The timer is invisible. There isn't a shrinking bar to let you know time is running out. You have to judge it based on the environment that the conversation is taking place in. The silence of the scene is the timer, so when you're lagging your response, you feel it rather than see it. This is much more natural and realistic. The visible timer in TWD just makes the allotted time seem arbitrary. It's like using a "sad" meter instead of facial expressions and body language.
- Like in TWD, silence is a valid option. If you simply don't choose anything and wait for the timer to run down, you feel that choice rather than see it, as explained above. There also isn't a "..." option, meaning the silence option never replaces the fourth available slot.
- In other games, conversations take place in pseudo-cutscenes where no other gameplay mechanics take place. In Mass Effect and most of Deus Ex for example, characters just stand around and aimlessly stare at each other, recycling the same arm-crossing and stance changing animations for hours. In The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, you stare directly into a soulless deadpan face for the entire conversation. In The Walking Dead, some conversations have Lee walking or doing other tasks while the player only does the talking.
- In Heavy Rain, a lot of the conversations are during live play, where the player can walk, talk, and interact with the environment all at the same time. For example, when playing as Jayden at the crime scene, you walk and talk with Blake, and can look at clues as well.
- When a physical action can be taken while talking, it doesn't always replace one of the face button prompts. For examples: While trying to talk down Nathaniel, you are also free to shoot him at any time with the R1 button. When trying to fool the drug dealer, you can sip the drink with the right stick so you don't look suspicious, while you yourself are suspecting that he may have spiked it, so there's another battle to wage on top of the words. Having other buttons aside from the face buttons to perform actions leaves all four slots available for dialogue.
- When you want to talk to someone, you don't click on them with a pointer initiating the dialogue mode. You walk up to them, and dialogue prompts will appear when you're in proximity. This also means you can force-end the conversation whenever you want by actually walking away, instead of just tapping the X or A button until you reach the end of the current line being spoken.
- Sometimes new dialog options pop up if you see something new or interact with an object during the conversation.
3) The Player Character's thoughts
- During pretty much any time of the game that's not a spoken conversation or action scene, you can hold L2 to reveal extra dialogue options that are inner monologues within the player character's head.
- These provide narration during down time, and offers insight into how the character is feeling during a scene.
- This is also a clever way to remind the player of their objective. This lets us do away with using normal text to directly tell the player to do what the designer wants them to.
- It's always optional.
Now, having advanced (like, really advanced) design doesn't mean talking in Heavy Rain is a better experience than talking in The Walking Dead. The writing makes sure of that. Butt imagine a game written as well and acted as well as The Walking Dead utilizing this system. I can't even begin to fathom how good it would be. Hopefully Beyond approaches that level of quality, as the script and acting is already better than all of Heavy Rain in just a single demo.
Adventure games are unique in the gameplay department because they offer players more than a controller's worth of actions. There's no limit to what the player could end up doing.
There are more verbs more of the time in HR than in TWD, but that doesn't really mean much. What's important, is how those verbs are interacted with. Pointing and clicking works, and that's fine. It's the same principle I mentioned above about the dialogue menu. It's function, which is necessary, but it's not form. In HR, like with talking, verbing is a matter of form and function coming together.
When in "search" mode, the player explores the environment and interacts with whatever or whoever is around.
In TWD, the player uses the cursor with a mouse or the right stick. In HR, the player uses the right analog as an action button. Most areas in TWD allow you to just click on something across the field and have Lee walk over to it automatically. Since there is no pointer in HR, when you see something or someone you want to interact with, you walk over there yourself. In TWD, when multiple objects can be clicked on, you hover the cursor over the one you want and press the action button. In HR, multiple gestures appear corresponding to which side the object is on, and you flick the right stick towards it.
|Large circled dots let you know if an object can be clicked on|
|Arrows show you what direction to flick the stick in for whichever interaction|
|Beyond: Two Souls combines both systems; small non-intrusive dots, and you flick the stick in their direction|
Both systems accomplish the same thing. Butt, the advantage of using the gesture system rather than a pointer has to do with immersion. You aren't aiming anything, so you can focus on body movement and feel more present and in control. You don't see a cursor around the screen, and less HUD the better. TWD and HR both have in-world HUD elements, but Beyond only has wee dots, so it's the furthest evolution of the system.
Quantic Dream offers way more ways to interact as a player with the object you picked. In TWD, you can only click on a thing, and then watch Lee interact with or use it in a cutscene. You can actually do things with things you click on in HR. I mean jeez, just look at this damn control scheme:
There are tons of ways to "use" the thing you picked in addition to stick flicks:
Single button presses
Holding movements / buttons
Better example (gif) (No gore)
Also, as I demonstrated in the Dialogue section, you can explore and interact while having a conversation at the same time.
Butt of course, Heavy Rain is the one that people say is just Dragon's Lair, and "barely interactive." Some parts of TWD are literally on rails due to being a point and click game. There's even this part of 400 days where you can only walk forward, not right, not left, not back, only forward, like you're pressing play on a movie.
When performing more advanced actions outside of "search mode", Quantic Dream has the upper hand again. TWD and HR both use their general verb mechanics when in more serious situations (I'm not talking about the fights yet). This means TWD is still limited to just pointing and clicking, while HR utilizes all mechanics in new ways.
One of the action mechanics that people complain about is the sixaxis. I think it's actually quite effective and implemented well, and it's used the least.
This part is a little unfair. The Walking Dead definitely has less action scenes than QD games. I actually think there are too many action packed set pieces in HR and (at least it seems) in Beyond. Aside from that, the way the interactivity is implemented in these scenes is what makes QD games even more unique compared to it's Adventure contemporaries. That implementation isn't just unique, but also far more advanced than what Telltale put into TWD. Also, whenever there are walkers or even heated arguments in TWD, the game lags hard, which affects the enjoyment of action scenes (you can see it below).
Here are some gif comparing the basic use of QTE's in both TWD and HR:
In TWD, all QTE's are, as you saw, button mashing the action button until a random prompt appears. Not only does it get old after the first episode, but it has 2 major problems:
- The random prompt after the mashing is always at the bottom of the screen. You have to be looking at it so you know what to press. This means you don't get to focus on the action the whole time. Also, because the QTE is always in the same spot, you expect it, and are comfortable when it's about to happen.
- No consequence for failure. When you fail one of these, along with the pointer ones, the game simply reloads the exact same part. This means there is no real tension when walkers are about. Lee isn't in any danger, because he can just retry as many times as he wants. You have to play the game the exact way the designers want you to, the right way. The story even has the advantage of zombies; If every potential bite can be canon, and Lee got infected, that would affect the story a lot. Same with other characters you need to save. It would add so much more tension when Wakers show up, and more drama due to the consequences of failure. These last two sentences spoil episode 4; -----------Lee's bite in ep4 just enforces the fact that nothing is dangerous until the writers say it is. It makes other encounters trivial and arbitrary, and forces the story to be more linear and less interactive.
Heavy Rain fixed these problems 3 and a half years ago.
- Every prompt is overlayed on top of whatever is the focus of the action. Gotta block an attack? The prompt is on the weapon. Gotta dodge an attack? The prompt is on your head or the weapon. Gotta swing a pipe? The prompt is on the pipe. Etc, etc, etc. The gifs in the list above demonstrate all this.
- No game overs. Hot damn is this special. Absolutely the best innovation QD implemented. The fact that when you fail you don't get any re-do's, and the story goes on, gives QD games real consequences. You can fail in many ways besides death; evidence, interrogations, convincing someone, failing a trial, etc. Death is the big one though. Since life or death scenarios are very apparent and happen sparingly, they carry more weight. Madison can die in 3 scenes. Ethan can die in 2 scenes. Jayden can die in 5 scenes. Scott can die in 2 scenes.
Here are 2 examples of how dangerous single scenes can be. There are multiple chances to fail in one encounter:
|Madsion can get her throat cut here|
|Her back drilled there|
|Her back sawed there|
|Her throat sawed here|
|Her throat sawed there|
|Jayden can get squished in a compactor|
|Or choked out|
|Or run over by a tractor|
|You can fail to talk the robber out of Hassan's shop, or take to long to intervene|
|I reacted to Nathaniel's sudden move after he surrendered and shot him. Turns out he was just pulling out a cross, and I regretted not keeping my cool. It's this scene.|
One of the misguided complaints about Heavy Rain's QTE's has to do with when you fail one prompt, the sequence still continues. This is interpreted by idiots as the game "playing itself", because the character still does stuff even though the player didn't get that punch in or dodge that debris or whatever. You can fail one prompt, then another, and another, and something even more, before the fail state. These idiots can't seem to realize that failing one prompt is the equivalent of losing some health in any other game. Just because the fail state hasn't happened after one misstep, doesn't mean it will never happen. You are just closer to it now. Blunder too much, and you will get to the fail state. That's how video games have worked for 50 years.
The only form on non-button mashing in TWD is pointing and clicking.
This is more or less the same as pressing the right button at the right time, but the difference is the aiming part. That's a great mechanic, butt the wee problem with this is the fact that it's the same exact mechanic used for the general interactions. You play the same way all the time. It's not special, and doesn't feel more serious or intense. Having game overs also means there's no tension, because you can just keep doing it till you do it right.
The non-QTE action sequences in HR are more varied gameplay-wise. This is because they involve physical movement, options, and the ability to fail. For examples:
- Rushing around Manfred's shop wiping your finger prints off the things you remember touching before the cops get there.
- Feverishly searching through all of your evidence for proof of Ethan's innocence before Carter arrests him.
- Gathering all of the potential tools and sharp objects in the Lizard room, and then preparing to cut off your finger.
- Escaping the burning apartment by navigating the fire, and then searching for a safe place before the bomb goes off.
- Following the balloon, and making your way through the sea of people at the mall while searching for Jaaaaaason.
Beyond also benefits from this variety of movement-based action, even just from what we have seen so far:
- Searching for the group in the burning building.
- Sneaking around a warzone.
- Exploring a dark, evacuated hospital with a survival horror atmosphere.
- Getting Jodie and her house ready before a date arrives, or neglecting it and just watching tv or something.
And then there's the main attraction. Aiden.
Playing as a ghost really shakes things up. Flying in first person with the ability to pass through walls and people is exhilarating. Being able to give people the chills, possess them, choke them, or just mess with them is quite the good time. You can blast objects to help Jodie and also channel visions from what looks like dead people.
|Aiden can make force fields too|
I don't feel like explaining Aiden in detail, but it really adds so much depth (and intrigue) that both TWD and HR don't have. Play the demo, and during the experiment, just go crazy. Fuck shit up like no one's business. Flip the table, break the windows, choke Kathleen, do it all, and don't return to Jodie to stop it. It gets so damn intense. Jodie starts screaming and bleeding, and it starts to get frightening all around. I tried it and my heart was pounding afterward. Neat stuff.
The main difference is what the choices affect:
The Walking Dead's choices affect the characters, and Heavy Rain's choices affect the plot.
Neither focus is inherently better than the other, because it all depends on the particular story you are telling. The Avengers has the most generic and un-exciting plot ever, butt it's all about the characters and the way they work together. Meanwhile, Inception is so gosh darn amazing and enthralling because the plot keeps you on your toes and your mind sharp, wondering if they'll succeed or not. Breaking Bad is a great balance of the two. TWD's method works best for it's survival and group dynamic, and HR's method works best for it's mystery and 4 perspectives of one crime case.
|This photo has nothing to do with this essay.|
TWD is a linear story, where certain characters die or go missing no matter what. The group ends up in a certain place with a certain headcount in a certain episode no matter what. There is one ending, and most choices end up being cosmetic (like Clem's hoodie and Lee's arm). Butt, the heavyness of the choices is derived from the way the player affects and is affected by other characters. This guy hates you, she likes you, he's useless, oh now that guy likes you, Clem's sad, they don't trust you, Clem's happy, etc. These story changes carry emotion but don't affect the plot. Even big difficult choices, like the food rationing, only determine how people view Lee for that episode, but it's effective anyway.
Heavy Rain's choices affect the plot more than characters. This means that the arcs the characters go on are more rigid, but the story itself is more malleable. It's a trade off that makes sense with the story. It's a crime drama and a mystery. A who-dun-it. Finding the Origami Killer, trying to save Shaun knowing that it's possible to fail, having real life or death consequences, and the weaving of 4 player characters' actions are what keeps the story flowing. Branching paths and all that. It's an interactive story to the core.
Either one can fly really, and both work swimmingly. The reason I'd say Heavy Rain takes the cake here, however, is because not having a malleable plot makes TWD inherently less interactive as a story. It's not that choices shouldn't affect character, it's that you can have both. There's no reason not to, aside from maybe resources and dev time. If you want to tell a specific story, just make it a movie or tv show. Or make it a game, butt at least don't advertise it as a branching narrative when it isn't one.
Telltale's choices are very obviously choices, and are presented to your face so you know you are making a choice. There is zero subtlety. No nuance. It's about as natural as a choose-your-own-adventure book with moving pictures.
Just look at it, man: Spoiler for Episode 1
This could be so much better:
- Angle the camera the other way with person 1, Lee, and person 2 in the frame
- Don't tell me I need to save someone like I can't see that
- Let me use the left stick to run towards whoever I choose. It's a game not a menu.
- Ctrl+A+Del the HUD
- Don't tell me who I just chose like I don't know
In HR there's no need for objective reminders because player's can figure out their obvious dilemmas on their own, or even listen to the player character's thoughts. There are also no notifications of and about the choices you make. The outcomes speak for themselves.
|Oh so that's what happens when I choose "hide from truck". Interesting.|
This just keeps reminding you that you're playing a game, or at worst, an arbitrary series of choose-your-own-adventure moments. The reason for the notifications is to make it feel like your choices have more weight even if they don't matter. It works for some, bit it's dishonest. It also takes away a bit of agency from the player. It's less "this is my story", and more "hey player, this is your story", if that makes any sense. At least you can turn them off, so I encourage you to play Season 2 or The Wolf Among Us like that.
The big 2; Heavy Rain has 18 different endings, and, all player characters can die. These are the main factors that differentiate HR from other choice-based games. These are also facts. Facts that most of the gaming community chooses to deny. All over the place in every comment section and internet argument, people choose to live in their own little world where HR is one long cutscene that plays out the same exact way till the end for everyone. I shouldn't have to, but I'm compelled to provide some sources because of how damn prevalent lies and misinformation about the game is. Hopefully you are convinced now if you didn't already know.
I actually hate when people complain about a lack of meaningful outcomes to their choices. All you really need is to feel like your decisions matter in order for it to be effective. The Walking Dead does this, as stated above. It is a linear story with usually 2 ways to get to each pre-defined plot point, and there is one canonical ending. The biggest choice in the game is most likely the last one, butt we won't know how it affects the story until Season 2 slides itself into our dusty disc trays and hard drives. The game is very on rails gameplay-wise, and choices are just a means to a certain end. That's okay, and works great in TWD. As long as I can choose what to say, no matter how obvious the smokescreen, or how empty the consequence, it's still more enjoyable than a cutscene and has more weight.
So while HR is an actual branching narrative in comparison, it is not better because of it. This point is about the concept of interactive narrative. David Cage wanted to make a game where player decisions had consequences, success and failure, and exclusive scenes, and he succeeded. This is just about the mediums best asset as a narrative artform. To make a story that is too big and/or has too many moving parts to be made anywhere else, is quite a feat. Telltale did not do this. Again, HR's story isn't better, but the ambition and application is well above Telltale's effort. It also doesn't help, that TWD actually being linear is not something any dev dared to admit until well after release. All of Quantic Dream's promises of malleability, however, actually came true (contrary to popular belief).
Telltale and Quantic both use a cinematic, non-interactive viewpoint. Well it's a little interactive; When moving TWD'S cursor pass the borders it will move a bit, and HR let's you see different angles by pressing L1.
Quantic's cinematographer does well in form and function. Where to go is always apparent, especially with multiple angles to choose from. There are lots of good views, from sweeping crane shots to indoor static shots. The big separator though, is the conversation camera. When not moving about, the conversations have as much work done them as any great cutscene, butt with the added pizazz of framing in-world dialogue. It's a lot of animation work, butt can be seriously beautiful to watch.
Telltale uses their camera much less responsibly. Many wide shots just don't show you the right angle, and the cuts to closer angles don't help. Telltale wants to be cinematic but they just don't have as good a cinematographer. This is especially apparent at least once every episode; the liquor store, the hotel lot, the train, the house, and the tower. It tries too hard. There are a few good shots now and then, like when climbing the ladder in the elevator shaft. HR's camera can be awkward sometimes as well, especially with the bonehead R2 walking.
Luckily, Beyond improves HR's camera quite a bit, leaning more toward function, and also fixed the walking! Moving within the not-too cinematic angles in the demo was a breeze.
|My favorite shot from one of the gameplay trailers|
Also, you can control the camera with the right stick but it's pointless. It's obviously just there because of people's bitchin' that games need a movable camera like they never played God of War. You can always see where you're supposed to go with the angles they give you. Natural gamer instincts lead players to moving the camera constantly, but it screws everything up because it's not a conventional orbit cam and has auto center. You can see them flailing the camera in their let's plays and then they start complaining that they can't see shit. Just ignore it when moving, and you should be fine.
This counts towards Beyond for everything, butt only the body animations for HR.
Both Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead have less than stellar facial animation. Telltale hasn't the time and manpower to hand-animate all that dialogue, and Quantic had a rough first try at facial capture. Everyone agrees on HR but people seem to think otherwise about TWD.
It's not difficult to see that TWD does not have good facial animation. It's pure function and no form. Eyes go sad when sad, angry when angry, but with no fluidity and poor lip sync. It's not as absurd as faces in Mafia 2, Farcry 2, or dear lord, Jeff Gordon in GT5, but it leaves much to be desired. Telltale isn't Naughty Dog or Rockstar, so at least it's understandable.
There's also the body animation in cutscenes. Telltale didn't use motion capture, which would have freed up a lot of animator time for the faces. When another small team like Double Fine can animate hours of body and faces by hand in Brutal Legend with near Disney results, it gets me wondering why Telltale can't do the same for one episode.
Heavy Rain's faces are as wonky as TWD's, but the character models are much bigger and more realistic, which makes things worse. Only during extremes does it look good. The bodies on the other hand are motion captured with as good results as one can expect. Both TWD and HR use realistically proportioned humans for stories based in reality, so motion capture is a must.
|Also, the acting we've seen so far is is great, as expected from Ms. Page and Mr. Dafoe|
|Cage seems to have gotten better at directing his actors. Let's hope he continues learning for the better|
Imagine if Heavy Rain's story was written as well as The Walking Dead's. Or if TWD had all the gameplay engineering of HR (without the kinks). That's the kind of game I want to play someday. If no one will make it, then I guess I'll have to, if I get the chance (hire me pls).
I think the main reason for HR's story being bollocks is that Mr. Cage wrote his 2000 page branching script all by himself. Telltale on the other hand has a team of writers. No one can write eight hours interactive dialogue and branching plot by their lonesome in a single year and make it gold throughout. I wouldn't trust writers like Aaron Sorkin, Tolkien, or even Shakespeare with such a task. It's just ridiculous. Single-writer films rarely creep past three hours, TV shows have writing staff, and even single-writer giant games like Assassin's Creed and L.A. Noire are written practically up to release. Other developers making dialogue games like Bioware also have a writing staff.
I'm going to back up my theory that Mr. Cage isn't as bad a writer as we think with another point; his shorts are great. Before Quantic Dream starts development of a new game, they build a new engine by way of tech demo. These demos are in-engine real time short films that showcase whats new with their tech. For HR it was The Casting, for Beyond it was Kara, and for PS4 it's The Dark Sorcerer. These shorts show what Cage can do with a more stable scale. Kara won “Best Experimental Film” at the '12 LA Shorts Fest and was even eligible for an Oscar nomination. TheDark Sorcerer is pretty funny, and considerably longer than the others yet still manages to be interesting till the end. Give em a watch, or at least do yourself a favor and watch the incredible Kara (hint: it's better written and more emotional than the entirety of Heavy Rain).
Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more posts!