Monday, October 7, 2013

Game Design Comparison - Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead

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  1. Wow, this is a wonderful article. As a game designer who's working forward to make games that are inspired by the QD interactive drama format, this is not only a great piece on a game that I feel is not only incredibly innovative and ahead of its time, but has drawn so much hate as you pointed out. You've summed up everything I've tried to say when defending HR and this new style of game.

    This article will certainly be nailed up in my head to stay pumped and not get discouraged - dorky, I know. Though I'd hate to be Cage with the review scores on Beyond.

    Great read, I'll be a regular visitor to this site!

    Chris M Ferguson

    1. Thank you so much!

      You seem to share the same concerns I do about the encouragement. I really don't want this type of design to be swept under the rug, so I'm doing what I can to stay positive and try to show others it's potential.

  2. Another inspiring and thought-provoking essay, but I believe it does have a few issues that require closer inspection. Hey, we have a discussion! :)

    I do think that some of the QD solutions that you have identified as superior to TT solutions are actually inferior when you zoom in on them even more. Sometimes, they are indeed better, and it’s just the execution that suffers, but sometimes they are, at the end of the day, worse.

    Let’s go one by one, but I will, of course, only talk about the things I disagree with, skipping the whole lot that is spot on (amazing work there). This post will be in a few parts due to the 4096 characters limit and my tireless fingers :)

    - The floating prompts are great, but way too often dealing with them is “fighting the UI”. If a game offers me options I cannot read in time then it’s the game’s problem, not mine. Trying to decipher fast moving, shaking action prompts (that are often an odd mix of verbs, nouns and adjectives) with hard-to-read button icons (QD removed the color coding of the buttons for stylish UI presence in the game world) is not a simulation of tension, it’s a simulation of annoyance. Note that I absolutely love the core idea, but I simply think that QD did not execute on it properly.

    - Replacing a sentence with a single word actually adds to the problem. Not only I have to decipher the prompts on the basic level (i.e. “WTF is written there?”), I also have to decipher their meaning. I don’t know of a person who can clearly understand what are going to be the consequences of choosing between Shelter, Caress, and Sorry (taken from one of the GIFs). So deciphering a prompt is a two-step process, and that is simply two steps too many. As a player, I want to be weighing my choices, not deciphering the UI and creator’s intent.

    - Let’s take a closer look at the “one word” action prompts. Here is another problem. If am one with the protagonist, I don’t want and should not be second guessing them, because that breaks the player-protagonist emo-link. In TWD when I am offered a sentence to choose from, I am then never surprised with what actually comes out of my character’s mouth (even though what they say is – to avoid boredom – never exactly the same as the proposed sentence). In QD games, I never really know what’s going to happen. Even when I choose something as simple as “Evade” (when my character is asked a hard question), what happens next is a surprise. This is a dissonance. It’s me. I play this game. I am Jodie or Ethan or whoever. But my actions result in a surprise. That’s not helping me maintain the emo-link.

    - Apart from the core problem, QD also does not execute on the idea properly. Good luck trying to understand what is the difference between Evade, Vague, and Change Subject (Heavy Rain), or Cold and Distant (Beyond).

  3. - As a side note: how to avoid TWD’s long sentences and QD’s (often enigmatic and confusing) action prompts that result in a surprise? I am not 100% sure, as this requires extensive testing, but one idea would be to agree to three words max and focus on the expected result, not on the action itself.

    Example: you play a detective and need to interrogate a man to get a crucial piece of information. The man says: “I will tell you nothing”.

    Here’s TWD’s choice:

    1. But if you will, a twenty dollar bill will change an owner.
    2. If you don’t, I will break your face.
    3. Be a decent man, answer my question, you have nothing to lose here.

    Here’s a QD game’s carousel that mixes bad ideas and bad execution (mixing verbs and adjectives):

    1. Bribe. <-- Ok, but really bribe or merely make a promise you can then retract from?!
    2. Angry. <-- Ok, but why exactly is the man supposed to get scared?
    3. Calm. <-- No idea what that would result in!

    Here’s my idea’s carousel in an example incarnation (there can be more):

    1. Promise a bribe
    2. Threaten to punch him
    3. Appeal to decency

    Of course, this idea can have more incarnations and further enhancements, e.g. if a game teaches the player that anything with a question mark is just “an inner monologue” that results in all talk and no action yet, then we can have it as:

    1. Bribe?
    2. Threaten?
    3. Reason?

    All right, but I took a detour here, this is not a game design exercise, but my comment to your analysis ;) So, uhm, let’s move on :)

  4. - The invisible timer is not a better solution for a simple reason: you are stripped of many senses in a video game, and even what you see is just a small fragment of what you are able to see and thus “read” in real life. The role of UI is to compensate for this loss. Otherwise it’s second guessing the designer again, no matter how well crafted the scene is.

    - The QTEs in all games suffer from the same problem: instead of focusing on the action, we focus on the UI. However, QTEs in QD games additionally suffer from a bad UI itself. I mentioned this before, but the decision to go with one color for buttons in Heavy Rain was wrong. I had all PlayStations in history, and I still cannot quickly say where “X” is located. I am sure this partly due to “X” being also on Xbox gamepad, but in a different place… Beyond is no better in that respect, relying on dots that were hard to read spatially and enemy movements of confusing direction in relation to Jodie. In short, QTEs must test player’s skills, and not have him, as we designers call it, “fight the UI”.

    - All “safe failures” (e.g. you do not manage to protect your face in time and get punched by a guy, but it does not result in Game Over) are just a waste of time, being fluff (e.g. yeah, he punched you, so what, the fight continues, you can win, and the punch had no real effect). You learn quickly – both in HR and Beyond – that you can fail often during action sequences without any real consequences. This removes almost all tension from a fight. This is solvable (e.g. a “safe failure” always sets you up for much more dangerous follow up), but was not executed properly in most cases (although to be fair it was done right is some, e.g. the train fight in Beyond had its moments where “safe failure” sent the entire action in a completely new direction).

    - Deaths were a completely wrong direction for Heavy Rain. This is a meaningless “choice”. Most people did not want their character to die due to a failed wonky QTE, so they just resorted to loading a savegame. This is no different to TWD having its rare “life threatening” QTEs instantly replayed, but at least in TWD there is the “instantly” part. Anyway, “let my hero die or not” is not a choice, really, when it’s the result of a “choice” not done Sophie’s Choice style. The savegame is right around the corner. Note that TWD essentially removed the need or the wish to load a savegame in all their games, except when you launch another session with the game after taking a break.

    - People are hard on David Cage not because he’s a visionary (if so, people would jump on Jenova Chen as well), but because for every amazing and revolutionary thing he does he follows up with something atrocious. Check out this link -- -- how can one not go berserk when the creator openly, proudly admits to the wrong way of doing things? Sadly, there’s more: Cage often repeats everybody else is wasting time, his way is the only way (he softened up lately, thankfully), equals improved visuals with a sure way to enhance emotions (cartoons prove it’s a silly way of thinking), and – the most painful sin of all – makes core, inexcusable mistakes in his designs. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that games can be divided into “before Fahrenheit” and “after Fahrenheit”, and I think the man is bordering on genius. I just wish he surrounded himself with more smart designers and writers, and let them influence his work. This solo thing is not working.

    1. " This is a meaningless “choice”. Most people did not want their character to die due to a failed wonky QTE, so they just resorted to loading a savegame. "

      I was really surprised that people did this actually. When playing Heavy Rain it never entered my mind that I should reload a save in order for a character to stay alive. I just took it as part of the story. However, I guess that I was very much into "the game will take care of the story for you" and from early on I decided to just go along with whatever would happen.

      But in the end having characters die, made the experience a lot worse. There were a lot of interesting-sounding (I never replayed to see them) scenes that I missed out on, and I do not really think this is fair. Having someone who cheats (ie reloads save) have a better experience that someone who plays the game "properly" does not seem right to me.

      It then gets interesting whether the perma death of the characters really do anything. There were some scenes (like being trapped in the basement by the mad doctor) that got really, really tense for me, but at this point in the story I was not aware that the characters could die. So I am unsure if it would have been any worse if the character death was removed (this of course depends on if I had to replay it 10+ times though, which would most likely foul my remembered experience no matter how could the first attempt was). I actually think that any lasting effect (eg get a scar, limp, etc) might have been just as powerful.

      And if the permanent character death is not crucial for excitement, then there is really no purpose for it at all. It just means more development work, and it also means many players will get subpar experiences.

      My thinking is that choices/branching are not intrinsically meaningful, but is just a tool for agency and engagement. For gameplay heavy games, it could have replay value, but I find that more playthroughs with different paths waters down the experience. The result is not a brand new experience but just the same one you read but with some changes in the scenes. I find that much power from stories comes from they NOT being able to be changed. That you can sort of ponder the happenings. If you just go back and fix mistakes, then the impact is lost.

      This is very noticeable in games with multiple endings, where the choice is very close to the end (Amnesia: TDD big culprit here!). You boot the game again, try some other option, and repeat until all endings have been seen. This just throws away meaning from the ending, and even if one of the endings are awesome, the effect is really lowered. Imagine The Last Of Us, if it would be possible to make some choice that at the very end, which changed how the tale ended.

      So I think that choices/branching should occur when the player would felt cheated if it didn't. For instance if it is clear the the player could take care of a situation without violence (*cough* Last of Us ending *cough*) then this choice is required in order to fit with the player's assumed action boundaries (which also ties into agency). Death is rarely like this, unless you sacrifice a character to accomplish a goal or similar.

      But much of the branching in Heavy Rain does not stem from this. It is there because of the belief that choice is intrinsically good. I do not think this is true at all, and that Heavy Rain could have benefited a lot from cutting down on its branching structure. The only real motivation to have much of it, is pure PR. It sounds good, but it does not do anything to improve the experience.

    2. Now I sort of slipped here, I there is a big reason for choices: to make the player feel like they earn the progress. I am in the progress of writing a blog on this, but summed up: If telegraphed properly that a choice has happened + make the player think when making the choice, it feels better to play subsequent scene as you have had some doing into them coming into life. If you just progress through a game without earning any of it, it makes it harder (but not impossible), to keep player engaged.

    3. Multiple playthroughs are evil. A perfect choice system game would never allow for the player to go back in time (encrypted auto-save on an online server before the results of a choice are displayed to the player). But, to be honest, it’s okay to leave that decision in the hands of the players: I never replay such games (I live with the consequences of my choices), but if someone wants to mess around, why not? To successfully fight against the savegame abuse a much wiser thing is to focus on a kind of experience that at the end makes the player sing “I did it my way” – and this way remove the need or wish for replays (other than sheer curiosity).

      Also, personally I don’t mind that I am missing content in a choice system game. That is the whole point of it (and kind of an extra proof that my choices were actually meaningful). The only problem I have is when making a choice makes me actually experience less game (e.g. I make a decision that results in the game skipping over an hour of gameplay) – but even that is a minor problem if the entire experience leaves a mark.

      “My thinking is that choices/branching are not intrinsically meaningful, but is just a tool for agency and engagement.” – I cannot believe you just presented agency as something that’s not „intrinsically meaningful” :)

      I think choices are actually crucial if you want to make the most impact with the story. If we agree that choices are great for gameplay (how do I attack, when do I attack, with what weapon, etc?) then why should not they work in favor of the story? And considering that the current trend is to merge gameplay and story into one cohesive narrative experience – and thus make them indistinguishable one from another – the element of choice becomes even more important.

      However – here comes the big one ;) – all we (designers) really care about is not a choice, but the illusion of a choice. In its extreme form, by achieving perfect ludonarrative empathy (as Brian nicely called it) we can even end up in a completely 100% linear game that will just feel to the players like all they have done was their very own choice.

    4. "I cannot believe you just presented agency as something that’s not „intrinsically meaningful"
      And I didn't! :) I mean that choice serves agency (and later on a sense of earning) and that is what makes it interesting. And a big part of this, is your thinking while making the choice, which makes you connect to the gameworld in your thinking. But thinking about a choice, is not the same as having system that allows for choice and branches. In movies and books, hard choices can be really effectful (simple example would be stuff in the Saw movies), even if we are not making them. But important here is that the actual outcome of the choice is not what is so meaningful, but our mental gymnastics when trying to determine the right course of action.

      Just so I am clear here: What I am trying to say is that the interesting part is not to have a this giant structure that provides outcomes for the player. Because, outcomes are not really that interesting in their own right, basically because there is so much chaos involved so any choice can really go whichever way. In a fictional narrative, you are really in the writers hands. If they want to, they can turn the best of choices into a really bad situation. You can never break free by being given choices in a story like this. You are still just following a long for the right. Hence, this is why I say that choices and branching or not inherently meaningful for the experience. It is the secondary effects that are potent.

      And this is very different from choices made during shooting. Here you have proper tactics. There is no pre written drama that you follow. You are dropped into a system and the choices you make will ripple across the system. You are now trying to pathfind through a simulation in order to reach a certain goal. This is very different from making choices in a narrative focused game. In a Doom, Sim City, Star Craft, etc the choices I my are very different from the choices in The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, on pretty much every level. HR and TWD is all about imaginary choices. We start to wonder stuff like "But if I do this, Kenny might not like me!" despite Kenny not really existing at all in any proper sense and is just a prewritten character. But in Doom, when I pick what enemy to shoot first, the objects in my choice are very real. The thoughts in my head are completing stuff that is in some sense "exists".

      What is interesting here is that we now start closing in on the whole Chris Crawford thinking. So what is so cool about choices in TWD and HR is that we start to think as if these characters really cared about our actions, as if their route was not lying on a disc, ready to play out. The seem "real" and we treat with a lot more complex underpinnings than what is really there. But this of course is a lie, and if you go with Crawford then proper interactive storytelling can only come with choices with characters are systemically the same as the choices you make in Doom.

      "all we (designers) really care about is not a choice, but the illusion of a choice."
      True, true. I think we are in sort of agreement, but I feel we might think of it a bit differently, so my rant is hopefully not in vain :)

    5. And also wanna add:

      "but if someone wants to mess around, why not?"
      Yes, yes and yes. You go over this a lot in the Trolling article, but just feel like repeating: If we start worrying about player screwing around, then we will just spend resources where they do not matter. And as you say, lets instead make the player understand, and encourage through design, that they should play in a certain manner to get the best experience.

  5. I feel like a lot of the engagement in the fight scenes did come from the fact that I thought the characters could die at any moment. It was advertised as such and so I expected it. If they hadn't said anything I would have expected a traditional game over screen and probably wouldn't have been as engaged. So in order to keep their promise they had to do it. Also players/reviewers are obviously going to test it, so it has to be there or the reviews will mention it as a negative and it will drag your game's score down. So I think the death scenes itself are not that important, but rather the fact that they exist which increases the tension and makes the game more enjoyable.

  6. "Any game - I point my mouse cursor toward a door. Open door, it says. I click on that door. I now watch as my character walks into the room for me. He closes the door, and now I'm back to pointing. This is widely considered to be a video game. Okay, sounds good.

    Quantic Dream - I see a door. I use the left stick to walk over to the door. There is a prompt on the door knob, meaning I can open it if I want. I turn the knob by turning the right analog stick in the same motion. The door opens. I use the left stick again to walk in or walk away if I want. This is widely considered to be a cutscene that plays itself, and not even a game."

    I would say that they're both games, but the second approach has a really annoying object interaction UI. :)

    Also, have you tried playing TWD with the choice UI disabled? I haven't, but I saw the option and I'm curious how much that fixes the problems you bring up in this article.

    As much as I prefer a very different game design/storytelling strategy than you do, I really enjoyed this article. You hit the nail on the head with:

    "The Walking Dead's choices affect the characters, and Heavy Rain's choices affect the plot."

    It's helped me realize that when it comes to storytelling, I don't WANT my choices to affect the plot. I want to know what happens, dammit!

    And I see no way around the problems that the others brought up with branching storylines--when you're dividing finite resources between 18 possible endings instead of 1 definite one, there's going to be a decreased level of quality no matter what.

    Anyway, great article, really enjoyed it. Is there a way I can subscribe to your blog via email? Am I just too stupid to see the button? I'm not using blogger or an RSS feed and would like to keep reading your stuff.

    1. With the option to turn off the UI in TWD, I guess you move the cursor around until a prompt appears.

      I'm not sure about subscribing via email, but it might work that way if you use Gmail due to Google+. You can follow the blog that way by clicking on the Pikachu on the right side of this page.
      You can also follow me on twitter where I'll be posting new links:
      Other than that, you can always bookmark. If none of these will work for you I can send you new links straight via email no problem.


    2. Ah, yeah, that probably will work. I always forget about Google+. And it sent me an email about this, so I guess it's working!


  7. Very good article, except it makes it hard to read since you use "butt" every time you mean to use "but".

  8. This is a smash article stay pumped and not get discouraged - dorky, I know. Read More


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