Heavy Rain and exploitation in marketing

Today marks the release of Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream’s groundbreaking new game for the PS3.

Heavy Rain appears to be far more cinematic than your average game. The four main characters are connected only by their search for a serial killer known as the Origami Killer; the player directs their actions through a choose-your-own-adventure style control system, selecting options based on the situation each character finds him or herself in. The story each player experiences is unique, dependent on the order in which each character’s story is played and the various mundane actions undertaken by characters throughout. This is no alien shoot ’em up where the player can reload upon dying; the characters in Heavy Rain are “normal people who have landed in extraordinary situations.” These characters can die, lending the player a sense of vulnerability that leads to harrowing and emotionally charged situations.

My apprehension about Heavy Rain stems from its marketing of one particular emotionally charged situation involving the lone female of the lead characters, Madison Paige. TRIGGER WARNING.

Game Informer’s “Meet Heavy Rain’s Madison Paige” was my first introduction to the game, where I learned that Paige is a reporter investigating the Origami Killer. In E3’s demo she is shown visiting a club to interview a man named Paco. After Paige witnesses a “sexy dancing blonde” gain access to her target, she tries to similarly capture his attention. This is where the account starts to get skeevy.

“Madison heads to the ladies’ room to see what she can do about her conservative appearance. Using more button prompts, players help her apply makeup, undo a couple blouse buttons, and tear off the lower edge of her skirt. Back outside, her dancing combined with her new appearance gets Paco’s attention and he invites her over. Madison suggests they go somewhere more private.”

As far as I’ve seen, Heavy Rain’s male characters haven’t been sexualized in promotional materials. I realize that there’s a noir tradition of femme fatales using their sexuality to get what they want, but I find it trite, dated, and unappealing. Know why femme fatales of the noir era used their looks thusly? That was the only source of power they had! I’d hoped we’d come somewhere since then. Alas, it gets worse:

“As they go up to Paco’s office, Madison checks on the gun in her purse to give her the confidence to face the potentially dangerous situation. As soon as she enters, Paco ushers her to the other end of the room, haphazardly tossing her purse onto a couch along the way. When he asks Madison to strip, several gameplay options float around her blurring in and out of focus. At first she tries to talk her way out of the room, but Paco pulls a gun and forces her to continue. Madison removes her blouse and skirt and casually moves toward an end table. As Paco is entranced, she grabs a lamp from the table and smashes him in the face.”

Ahh. Here they intend to give us a dose of “reality.” Unlike a femme fatale who remains independent, mysterious, and powerful regardless of her actions, Madison Paige is threatened—at gunpoint—and forced to remove her clothing. Wow, Heavy Rain! How edgy you are, dancing around r-a-p-e! Did you know, everyone, that going to nightclubs and dancing for mobsters can have REAL CONSEQUENCES? There is no guarantee that Madison will survive the encounter:

“With Heavy Rain’s flexible branching paths, things could have turned out much differently. Madison could have died at several points in the encounter and there would have been no game over screen. The story, Quantic Dream says, just adapts and continues down a new path.”

Well, that’s depressingly realistic.

Rape and sexual violence are alarmingly common in our culture. Women who haven’t personally experienced rape are still affected by and constantly aware of it. ‘Don’t walk alone at night’; ‘don’t drink with strangers (or at all!)’; ‘don’t wear a short skirt’; ‘watch your glass’—these things are drilled into women like a litany to avoid rape.

I don’t know a single woman who has not experienced an unwanted sexual advance in her lifetime. Some of these experiences have been relatively innocuous, some even more violent than Heavy Rain’s depiction, but every last one was violating and dehumanizing. Rape is a real and terrifying reality to women, and I have no interest in playing out that all-too-common feeling of revulsion and violation in a video game simulation.

A trailer for Heavy Rain also shows Paige fighting off intruders in what appears to be her apartment, wearing only her underwear.

In a December ’09 Game Informer interview, Quantic Dream’s David Cage referenced the assault scene in an attempt to positively highlight the game’s immersive power:

“As they identify themselves to the characters, they want to do what they believe their character would do in the context (and not necessarily what they would like to do as players). By doing so, players also actively participate to the consistency of characterization. A good example of this is the forced strip-tease in one of the scenes we presented: most male players were exclusively focused on trying to find a way not to get naked in front of this ugly guy, which means they felt they were Madison and they behaved accordingly.”

I’m appalled by this on several levels.

I’m disgusted by the idea of using a female character’s sexual assault as some sort of sensitivity training for male players. I don’t want to live in a world where male privilege is so paramount that the only way a man can imagine how a woman would feel to be sexually assaulted is to play it out in a video game. What’s worse is the implication that male players aren’t even expected to help their female character avoid such a fate without a heroic effort on the part of game designers to help them identify with the character. I’m sickened to think that “most male players” only tried to avoid getting “naked in front of this ugly guy” because they felt they were in Paige’s shoes. If they didn’t feel that they “were” Madison during play, would they WANT to see her be victimized?

The qualifier “most” before “male players” is, if not entirely surprising, certainly extremely disturbing. A Google search of any female video game character, particularly one who is covered up in-game, reveals a plethora of disturbing depictions designed to remove the character’s clothing and strip them of their power. Hell, my research for last week’s Portal post introduced me to someone’s reimagining of GLaDOS as a bound naked woman hanging upside down, and she’s a COMPUTER. I have no doubt that some sicko out there will take great pleasure in watching Madison Paige be sexually assaulted.

Finally, the lack of mention of female players is bothersome. Is it assumed that female players will naturally try to rescue Madison because they’re already familiar with such violation and wish to avoid it? Is sexual assault only a new and uncomfortable experience for the average male player? Or are female players just not worthy of consideration at all?

As an artist, I am uncomfortable calling for blanket censorship on any topic. I do believe, however, that care and consideration should be taken to present certain subjects in a manner that does less harm than good. As Mary Devereaux writes, “It is with respect to actual degradation that the asymmetry between men and women reappears. For in the case of women, unlike that of men, real life degradation often runs parallel to portrayals of degradation. Because women frequently lack power off screen, they are more likely to be degraded by their portrayals on screen.” Heavy Rain’s marketing demonstrates more of an interest in making the player feel uncomfortable than responsibility toward rape survivors or women at large.

I don’t believe the makers of Heavy Rain intended to condone sexual assault. Paige’s treatment at the hands of Paco appears to be an undesirable (though apparently unavoidable) in-game situation, and the player is expected to attempt to get her out of it alive. Nonetheless, I find the developer’s touting of Paige’s sexual assault in the game’s marketing irresponsible and offensive. I have no desire to play a game that exploits and emphasizes a vile crime perpetrated upon countless women in our society every day.

I don't want to participate in your violation, Madison Paige, or contribute to any other woman's.


“Meet Heavy Rain’s Madison Paige”

“Heavy Rain is not an Adventure Game”

Heavy Rain Wikipedia Page

Devereaux, Mary. “Oppressive Texts, Resisting Readers, and the Gendered Spectator: The “New” Aesthetics.”Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Ed. Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 651-663. Print.


4 Responses to “Heavy Rain and exploitation in marketing”

  1. 1 cate3710
    February 24, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Damn, the game sounded really interesting and maybe worth checking out until the Madison Paige stuff. Way to create a female character I have no desire to play as, game developers!

    The description of her prepping in the bathroom is skeevy enough (honestly, what woman is going to rip off a portion of her skirt? 1) most fabric doesn’t rib that easily without a starting cut, and 2) you would just roll it up at the waistband anyway), but the scene in the office sounds much, much worse. “several gameplay options float around her blurring in and out of focus.” Is the blurriness supposed to indicate that she’s scared and not thinking straight? That she’s been drugged? Both are sadly believable and unfortunate options.

    I am kind of intrigued by the note about male players. COULD video games like this be a good way to introduce men to the feeling of victimization that they generally will not experience in their own life? Like you, “I don’t want to live in a world where male privilege is so paramount that the only way a man can imagine how a woman would feel to be sexually assaulted is to play it out in a video game”. But sometimes, for some men, it seems like there’s no way to get the feeling across. I’ve had to try to explain to guys how catcalls and the like are horrible yet ordinary, why I’m so wary of getting into cabs (especially non-yellow/clearly marked ones) alone, why the term “stalking” should not be used lightly, etc. And even with the best guys it can be hard to convey the information so they really get it. So I wonder if gameplay like this could be effective in some way.

  2. February 24, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    “COULD video games like this be a good way to introduce men to the feeling of victimization that they generally will not experience in their own life?”

    Since it’s already out, I really hope some good can come from the inclusion of that scene. I’d like to think that it might make some previously insensitive guys give some thought to the reality of sexual assault, but I’m dubious. It’s presented as an “extraordinary situation” for the character herself, and I’m not sure many people will make the connection between what happens in-game and what happens to real women all too commonly. I sure as hell hope it will affect at least a few people in a positive way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

February 2010
    Mar »

%d bloggers like this: