Kids and chores

There’s a stark difference between just stating that Ethan is Shaun’s father rather than showing the complexities of their relationship; making Shaun dinner and pushing him on the swing seem more like chores than meaningful mechanics.

–David Chandler on on the father/son dynamic that drives (or fails to drive) Heavy Rain.

I found this an interesting statement precisely because the fact that the player as Ethan needed to take care of Shaun — and that “taking care” meant banal tasks like making dinner and ensuring that Shaun did his homework — was exactly what made the scene work for me. I thought the player’s tenuous connection to Shaun was an effective mirror of Ethan’s own emotional disconnection and the sort of effort-without-reward that trying to maintain connection in a broken family can be.

After all, I love my children dearly, but a lot of the time taking care of them feels precisely like doing chores.

But the more important observation might be that Heavy Rain is a game that leaves it to the player to figure out what relationship he/she (and largely Ethan) will have with Shaun. If the player doesn’t want to make Shaun dinner, there is no obligation to do so. In fact, there’s ultimately no obligation to save Shaun at all. Ethan can decide that crawling through glass and navigating an electrified maze is too much. He doesn’t have to sever his finger.

I agree with Chandler that there are more and less effective ways to build relationships between characters, and games that do more interesting things with child characters than other games. However, I think one of the things that makes a game a game is that there are alternative ways to do this than “showing,” and that not all strategies are going to be equally effective for all players.

That is to say, if a player doesn’t connect with Shaun, it’s not necessarily a failure on the part of the game. It may simply be a quality of their particular playthrough.

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