Friday, 1 February 2013

The Sexism Of Heavy Rain

The following blog post contains major spoilers about Heavy Rain.

Lately, I think I've been focusing more on sexism against men in the gaming community rather than any sexism in games themselves. With the exception of Far Cry 3, I haven't really delved into the content of any games for the last couple of months (and even my post on Far Cry 3 became more focused on the writer, Jeffrey Yohalmer, than the game itself). A while ago, I wrote "I'm tempted to write about the poor portrayals of men in Heavy Rain but the more I think about it, the more I think it'd just be a list of character names with a description next to them". I think now is the perfect time to write about Heavy Rain and I'll try to make it more than just a list of character names.

For anyone who has never played Heavy Rain, it's a very cinematic game by Quantic Dream about a father, Ethan Mars, whose young son has been kidnapped by a serial killer, known as the Origami Killer, and the harrowing ordeal he has to go through to rescue him. The game's strength is its story and it features an incredible number of characters, each based on the likeness of a real actor or actress (much like L.A. Noire). The big problem is that, out of this incredible number of characters, there are only six adult male characters who aren't complete scumbags. There are plenty of innocent male children but children can't really be held to the same standards as adults.

I should point out that while I enjoy putting pictures in my blog, there are far too many characters in Heavy Rain for me to post pictures of them all. Luckily, Giant Bomb has me covered, as does the Heavy Rain Wiki.. Unfortunately, neither one is a complete list but together, they cover most of the characters. There's definitely one that I'd like to mention who isn't featured on either list.

L-R - Norman Jayden, Scott Shelby, Ethan Mars, Madison Paige. Image: SiMPLExDESiGN
I think the easiest way of doing this will be to go through each character's story and mention the significant characters from each one. I'll stick to male characters for now but I'll write about the female characters towards the end. First though, the playable characters:

Ethan Mars: Ethan is the main character of the game and the father of Shaun Mars, the latest young boy that the Origami Killer has kidnapped. Ethan is one of the six good male characters in the game. He's portrayed very compassionately and the trials that the Origami Killer forces Ethan to go through to collect clues to Shaun's location are designed to make the player feel sympathetic for Ethan (as well as incredibly uncomfortable). Even though the player can make Ethan walk away from each trial, he's always portrayed as a good father and often talks about how much he loves his son.

Norman Jayden: Jayden is an FBI criminal profiler, brought in by the police to try and figure out the Origami Killer's identity. He's also the second good male character of the game (and my favourite character, incidentally). He has a very cool pair of glasses called ARI (Added Reality Interface), which acts as a "portable CSI" and allows Jayden to easily search for clues at crime scenes. Unfortunately, his addiction to the glasses leads him to indulge in the use of a drug called Triptocaine. In spite of this, he's shown to care deeply about the Origami Killer's victims and doesn't endorse the use of force against suspects.

Scott Shelby: Here's the big twist of the game: Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer. He's a former police officer who poses as a private investigator, investigating the Origami Killer case. While Jayden's storyline deals with suspects, Shelby's revolves around visiting the relatives of the victims. We later find out that this is to clean up any evidence left behind by the previous fathers of the children he killed, such as phones, messages or origami figurines. Needless to say, as a ruthless killer of children, Shelby is not one of the good male characters.

Madison Paige: A journalist looking into the Origami Killer case. We don't know this at first and it's revealed after she and Ethan get a little closer. It's a big shock to Ethan when he finds out but Madison is still portrayed sympathetically. Madison has to play nurse and help treat Ethan's various injuries over the course of the game and plans to ditch the story she was writing, since Ethan clearly isn't the Origami Killer. She develops feelings for Ethan and the two can either enter a relationship or Ethan can refuse to forgive her for her subterfuge. She's also responsible for at least one attack on a man's groin in the game and one of the endings of the DLC, "The Taxidermist", features Madison killing a man by using a chainsaw on his groin.

Characters in Ethan's story:

Ethan meets the fewest characters in his story, since he's not involved in an investigation like the other three, so this list will be quite short.

Clarence Dupré: Ethan's psychiatrist and the third of the good male characters in the game. It's a small role -- I didn't even know he was a named character until I looked at the wiki -- but Clarence tells Ethan he shouldn't blame himself for the death of his first son, Jason, and encourages him to move on for the sake of Shaun. He clearly cares about Ethan and, if that isn't enough to endear him to the player, being a victim of one of Carter Blake's (see below) beatings is sure to be.

Brad Silver: For Ethan's fourth trial, the Origami Killer wants him to kill a stranger to earn another clue to Shaun's location. Brad Silver is that stranger. Silver is a drug dealer who chases Ethan around his apartment with a shotgun in one of the game's quick-time events. Once he runs out of ammo, he pulls out a photograph of his two daughters and the player is given a choice whether or not to spare his life. When I read about other people who played this segment, I was actually surprised to learn that they suddenly felt sympathetic towards Silver once he showed Ethan the picture of his daughters. To me, any sympathy was lost after I learned he was a drug dealer and after he attempted to kill Ethan. That was the easiest trial for me to decide on; while the other four all threatened Ethan's life (or a part of his body, in the case of the third trial), this one only threatened the life of a drug dealer and attempted murderer. If Quantic Dream had wanted me to struggle with my conscience, I think they should've made the man Ethan had to kill be innocent rather than a criminal (although, with former police officer Scott Shelby as the Origami Killer, it does make sense that the man he wanted Ethan to kill was a criminal).

That's pretty much it for Ethan's story. There's an overlap with other characters but, since we learn more about the police officers in Jayden's story, I think it's more suitable to write about them there. There are two other characters Ethan meets who I don't think are really worth listing; a clown who Ethan buys something from at the start of the game and a mechanic who Ethan talks to during the first trial. Neither one is a major character and we don't learn anything about their personalities.

Characters in Jayden's story:

Carter Blake: Jayden's partner in the Origami Killer investigation. He's an amalgamation of every "bad cop" figure you've ever seen in movies. He's more than willing to use police brutality, being physically abusive to suspects to get answers without being sure that they even know anything. This includes Ethan himself, Clarence Dupré and Nathaniel Williams (see below). He's also verbally abusive, even towards Jayden, and mocks his more co-operative approach. Blake is so unpleasant that even the Origami Killer comes off more sympathetically than him ... and that's a character that murders children, bear in mind.

Leighton Perry: The police captain of the station that Jayden is assigned to. He seems to be more interested in socialising with the reporters that the Origami Killer case is attracting than catching the killer himself. In fact, Perry takes Blake at his word that Ethan Mars is the Origami Killer and doesn't seem to particularly care whether he is or not; calling a press conference to announce the killer's capture is the number one thing on Perry's mind. Perry doesn't seem to realise that he might be condemning an innocent man and leaving a child murderer to continue his killing spree. Or if he does, he's completely indifferent about it.

Nathaniel Williams: The fourth good male character, although this one is pushing it a bit. Nathaniel doesn't display anything that would really classify him as "nice" but he also doesn't do anything nasty either. Jayden and Blake suspect him of being the Origami Killer and he ends up on the receiving end of Blake's abusive methods. He's highly religious and seems to be mentally ill, believing Blake to be the Anti-Christ. Blake's treatment of him makes the audience sympathise with him, so I class him as a good male character.

Miroslav Korda: A very minor character but also an Origami Killer suspect. Jayden and Blake chase him through a market and have a fight with him. He later reveals that he fled because he was violating his probation. Interestingly, in the audition tape for Leon Ockenden (who plays Norman Jayden in the game), Korda is described as a child-killer. Presumably, this was removed because Quantic Dream didn't want a third child killer in the game, the other two being the Origami Killer and Gordi Kramer (see below). Still, as a criminal who violates his probation and attacks Jayden, he's hardly a good male character even without the child-killer background.

Jackson Neville, aka "Mad Jack": Runs a junkyard where the Origami Killer's car was serviced. Jayden discovers that he murdered a police officer in an acid bath and was more than happy to try and murder Jayden too.

Characters in Shelby's story:

Even though I said I'd go into female characters at the end, Scott Shelby's story features one female character quite significantly and, since there are no less than three bad male examples in her introduction, I think I need to mention her straight away.

Lauren Winter: Lauren seems to exist to be the character who plays the "all men are scum" card, or at least be the living embodiment of why all men are scum. She's a prostitute and the mother of one of the Origami Killer's victims. In her introduction, she makes sure to mention that cops have demanded "freebies" from her in the past. She describes her husband, Alan Winter, as "a loser without a job that liked to beat me after a few drinks". Alan himself makes no appearances throughout the game. He left around the same time his son went missing, so it seems likely he died facing the same trials as Ethan. However, that's not necessarily the case and given that Lauren's description of him is all we have to go on, it wouldn't be fair to class a wife-beater as a good character just because he may have set out to try to rescue his son. Anyway, Shelby leaves Lauren's apartment and, out in the hallway, sees an abusive client of Lauren's, Troy, force his way into her apartment. You can choose to stop him and, if you don't, Lauren will have a black eye when she shows up later in the game. So crooked cops who demand sex and two woman-beaters, all in Lauren's first scene. Oddly, this is the only one of Lauren's scenes in the game with any real misandry. In all of her others, she seems happy to play sidekick to Scott Shelby.

Hassan: Hassan is the fifth good male character. He's the father of one of the Origami Killer's victims and runs a convenience store. He isn't interested in answering Shelby's questions at first but is willing to help out if he survives until the end of the scene. When Shelby talks to him, he's still mourning the loss of his son, Reza. He apparently decided against going through the trials that Ethan did, or at least all of them, but is still portrayed as a loving father.

Andrew: A man who intends to commit armed robbery of Hassan's store. Depending on the outcome, he can either kill Hassan, shoot Shelby or put the gun away and leave the store. He has a young daughter. Although even if he can be convinced to put the gun away and leave, he can hardly be called a good male character. He's more than willing to pistol-whip Hassan when he refuses to open the till, for one thing.

Gordi Kramer: A rich playboy and Origami Killer suspect that Shelby interviews. Gordi raises Shelby's suspicions because a young boy named Joseph Brown was last seen entering his limousine. It's revealed that Gordi, obsessed with serial killers and looking for a thrill, drowned Joseph Brown in rainwater because he wanted to mimic the Origami Killer's modus operandi. Although supposedly, the death was an accident -- Gordi held Joseph's head underwater for too long -- Gordi is creepy and emotionless for his entire appearance and has no problems threatening Shelby's life.

Charles Kramer: Gordi Kramer's millionaire father. Charles is uncomfortable that Shelby's investigation led him to his son and offers to pay him off if he'll quit. Shelby refuses. Charles responds by having his henchmen knock out Shelby and Lauren when they return to Shelby's apartment. When Shelby wakes up, he finds himself and Lauren restrained in his car, which is at the bottom of a lake. It's possible for Lauren to die in this chapter. So Charles Kramer is either a murderer or an attempted murderer, depending on what the player does. Interestingly, Charles Kramer isn't entirely evil; he owns a building site where a young boy -- later revealed to be Scott Shelby's brother -- died and he lays flowers on the grave every year. He still feels guilty over that. So maybe Charles only becomes psychotic if you threaten his son's privacy.

Manfred: The sixth and final good male character. Manfred is a pleasant old man who runs a repair shop for items such as typewriters, clocks and music boxes. Shelby and Lauren visit him for information on a typewriter that was used for an address on an envelope. Since Shelby was the last client who asked for repairs on the typewriter in question, Shelby bludgeons Manfred to death to stop him from revealing anything incriminating.

Scott Shelby's Father: There are two flashback sequences in the game, where you play as Scott Shelby as a little boy and you see first-hand how his brother died and what led him to become the Origami Killer. His brother, John, drowned in rainwater and the one person Scott went to for help -- his father -- was an abusive alcoholic who refused. So John ended up dying and Scott ended up as a child murderer who came up with sadistic trials in order to find a good father.

I was going to wait until after Madison's characters to write this but this seems like the best time to write about fatherhood. So far, I've written about twelve bad male characters (don't forget the two examples in Lauren's description) and six good ones. Of the twelve bad ones, five of them are fathers. Of the six good characters, only two are fathers. Arguments could be made for Andrew the robber not being an evil father -- it's for his daughter that he decides to leave Hassan's store without harming anyone, if you're able to convince him -- and even Charles Kramer, for all his attempted murder and subverting the course of justice, is only doing so to protect his child-murdering son. Still, I don't think a case can really be made for him.

This is where Heavy Rain's theme of fatherhood falls apart, in my opinion. As far as I can tell, it aims to promote the value of fatherhood, through Ethan and the lengths he'll go to in order to rescue Shaun, but condemns fatherhood by portraying fathers as abusive, alcoholics or attempted murderers. We're meant to see the Origami Killer's trials as being twisted and sadistic but with the string of bad fathers in the game, how can he be considered anything but justified? It feels like Hassan is meant to be there to stop the player from feeling that way; to fill the role of a good, sympathetic father, in spite of the fact that he chose not to do the Origami Killer's trials. Without him in the game, the player could very well agree with the Origami Killer's motive, and Scott Shelby certainly is meant to be a sympathetic character, complicating the issue further. Ethan would be the exception to the "fathers are scumbags" rule, rather than a prime example of fathers being worthwhile, valuable human beings. Given that the number of bad fathers outweighs the number of good ones, any player could be forgiven for thinking that "fathers are scumbags" is the message Quantic Dream wanted to send out.

Characters in Madison's story:

The Motel Receptionist: The very first character Madison meets in Heavy Rain is a huge pervert, who calls Madison "sweetheart" and stares at her rear when she walks away. He really has to be seen to be believed. He makes a note that she's checking in alone ("single", he says suggestively) and talks in an incredibly annoying, nasal voice. In Heavy Rain, you can hear what your character is thinking by holding down L2 and pressing one of the face buttons. Immediately after meeting the receptionist, Madison thinks, "That obnoxious receptionist better not have a spare key to my room. The thought of it leaves me in a cold sweat".

Adrian Baker: A former surgeon who became a drug dealer after he retired. Madison visits him to get some answers about an apartment that he's renting to Paco Mendez (see below), the he rented to the Origami Killer. If Madison drinks something Baker offers her, or is caught snooping around his house, Madison is knocked out and wakes up on an operating table in the basement. Baker intends to torture and kill her and it's up to Madison to escape.

It's interesting to note that one of the ways Madison can die in Baker's basement is via Baker using a drill on her vagina. Remember when I mentioned that the "Taxidermist" DLC gives Madison the option of killing a man by using a chainsaw on his groin? Seems like Quantic Dream are happy to treat male and female genital mutilation as equal, right? Well, before we start praising the equality, compare the first minute of this video to the last three minutes of this one. Baker's drilling of Madison's genitals features a cutaway to the outside of his house and a scream. Madison's chainsawing of Leland White's genitals is seen in all its gory detail. There are huge fountains of blood and White's corpse twitches on the ground.

What's the message being sent out here? Genital mutilation is fine to display as long as you're doing it to a bad guy? I doubt it. Obviously, the message seems to be even when men and women are subjected to the same horrific form of violence, it's acceptable to see men suffering in extreme pain but not women. It's one of the most blatant double standards I think I've ever seen in a video game. It even seems like Quantic Dream want us to root for Madison while she's doing this: "she killed a serial killer, yeah! Go Madison!" There's nothing more I can really write about it. The evidence speaks for itself.

Paco Mendez: A nightclub owner and acquaintance of the Origami Killer. Forces Madison to strip for him at gunpoint. Madison hits him in the head with an object, ties him to a chair and squeezes his testicles painfully to force him to answer her questions. Ends up being killed by the Origami Killer.

Leland White: The antagonist of the "Taxidermist" DLC. He kills women and then stuffs them. Madison investigates his house and finds his victims posed like mannequins in odd positions upstairs. Oh, and one of the endings features Madison using a chainsaw on his genitals. Don't know if I mentioned that or not ...

The female characters

I saved the female characters until the end because it'd provide a good contrast; compared to all the male characters, the female characters are completely saintly and innocent people who would never hurt a fly.

Madison Paige: I know I've gone over Madison already but, in spite of the genital mutilation, she's a deeply caring and compassionate woman who nurses Ethan back to health twice in the game and ditches her story about the Origami Killer, valuing his and Shaun's lives over her journalism career. She puts herself in harm's way for their sake multiple times, proving herself to be both a brave and moral character.

Lauren Winter: I've gone over Lauren enough already. She works to catch the person who killed her son, so that immediately puts her on the side of good.

Grace Mars: Ethan's ex-wife and the mother of Shaun Mars. A lot of Heavy Rain players find Grace unsympathetic, based on a line she had shortly after Shaun was kidnapped; she says to Ethan, "wasn't it enough losing Jason?" in an aggressive tone of voice. Despite this, I get the feeling that Quantic Dream didn't want Grace to be unsympathetic. She's just a parent at the end of her tether, much like Ethan, and needed something to blame. She apologised to Ethan immediately afterwards and says that she didn't mean to say that.

Susan Bowles: The mother of an Origami Killer victim, investigated by Scott Shelby. I think I'm going to put Susan in the "bad female characters" category (even though she's the only person in there). Susan had another child besides the one that was murdered. A baby girl. In spite of this, when Scott Shelby enters Susan's house, he finds her in the bathroom, having slit her wrists. So it's fair to see why she's a bad female character. Having said that, she does have some redeeming qualities. When Shelby helps her recover, her thoughts immediately go to her baby. It seems like, with her son dead and her husband, apparently, another victim of the Origami Killer's trials, she tried to commit suicide out of desperation. I think this makes her seem a lot like Andrew the robber; both pushed to extreme circumstances because they didn't know what else to do. Even though she's not entirely without merit, her willingness to kill herself and leave her daughter an orphan (and probably end up dying herself had Shelby not intervened) has to qualify her as a bad female character.

Ann Sheppard: Scott Shelby's mother. Suffers from Alzheimer's disease but talks often about her love for her sons (especially John, the one who drowned). A very pleasant old lady.

That's pretty much it for the characters, excluding minor ones with only a few lines. Before writing this blog, I typed "Heavy Rain Sexism" into a search engine and, as well as a ton of apparent sexism against Madison (which I'll come to soon) there was this article on The Border House blog about fatherhood in games. One of the games it goes into is Heavy Rain and I think some of their criticisms are worth addressing:
"These three games all share a father whose main motivation through the story is to save their child. They are acting as caregivers and protectors who truly love their children. I mentioned previously, fathers are largely ignored in the role of caring parents so this trend to show loving fathers must be a good thing, right? As I played these games some problems with these game images became apparent.
In each of these experiences the mothers are largely ignored. [...] But the most glaring example of pushing out the mother’s storyline is in Heavy Rain. At the start of the story we meet Ethan’s wife and she clearly loves her family. We briefly see her anger and confusion at the kidnapping of her second son during a scene at the police station but after this scene she disappears from the game. The end of the story shows what happens with Ethan and his son but what of Shaun’s mother? How does she deal with the end results of the experience? She is not the only mother who gets pushed aside by this game. We know that the Origami Killer left behind women who had lost both their husbands and children through the killer’s actions but we never delve into their stories or their loss. We do get to see one mother’s pain in the character of Lauren Winter. But she becomes little more than an annoyance to Scott Shelby’s character. Lauren is portrayed as a grieving mother that will not leave the private detective alone. This shows another problem with these games: the mothers are simply grieving and hurt while the fathers are the heroes out to save the day.  Women are shown as weak and too hurt to rescue their children whereas men are strong figures that go out in the the unknown to rescue a child. This is not subversive, it is just feeding into stereotypes."
These paragraphs, particularly the last few sentences, seem to ignore much of Heavy Rain's content in my opinion; while Scott Shelby does consider Lauren Winter a hindrance at first, it's because he doesn't want a civilian accompanying him into dangerous areas and Lauren does almost get killed by Charles Winter. After learning that Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer, the player could also consider the possibility that he didn't want a partner who actually wanted to find the killer, since he was only collecting evidence to destroy it. Plus, as a woman who is desperate to stop the killer to the point of putting herself in harm's way, how is that not being a "hero out to save the day"? The whole reason she seeks Scott out in the first place is out of determination to find her son's killer. So how is Lauren an example of "women are shown as weak and too hurt to rescue their children"? The sentence "she becomes little more than an annoyance to Scott Shelby's character" is blatantly incorrect, however; Scott and Lauren actually develop feelings for each other, making for an intentionally uncomfortable moment when we realise that Lauren is kissing the man who murdered her son.

It also seems odd that the writer believes the women not going to rescue their children is a weakness and that reads like someone who has either never played the game or missed the main theme; fatherhood. The whole reason why it was fathers who the Origami Killer wanted to "save the day" was because they were the ones he specifically targeted, on account of his own father being abusive. Criticising Heavy Rain for focusing on fathers is like criticising a Martin Luther King biopic for focusing on the civil rights movement; it wouldn't make sense without it. Instead, this just comes off as someone who is annoyed at a game focusing on the male parent while they'd prefer it to focus on the female one. The mothers aren't too weak or too hurt. They're simply not the Origami Killer's targets.

To criticise the game for pushing aside mothers also ignores the number of times the game pushes aside fathers; we never see Alan Winter, for example. We never even learn Susan Bowles' husband's name (and Susan herself wasn't mentioned in the article). Of course, we've already been over the prevalence of bad fathers in Heavy Rain, as well as bad men, while mothers are usually angelic individuals. Grace Mars, Lauren Winter and Ann Sheppard all cared deeply about their children and Susan Bowles' first thoughts after Shelby resuscitated her were about her baby. Even with fewer female characters, the number of good female parents outnumbers the good male ones.

I also have to take the article to task for describing Heavy Rain's fathers as "heroes". Ethan's actions could definitely be described as heroic ... but it's not like he's taking down bad guys and stopping evil to save his son. All of his trials threaten his life and deeply affect him. We see Ethan in tears several times. He suffers from blackouts and agoraphobia. Madison has to patch up his wounds twice. So to describe him as "a strong figure that goes out into the unknown to rescue a child" is misinforming the readers; he's a regular man who is rendered weaker by the sadistic trials he's forced into. It's also worth mentioning that Ethan is not the first father who was forced into the trials but he is the first who passes them ... and depending on the player's choices, he might not even do that. Before Shaun, the Origami Killer murdered eight children. Removing Hassan, that's anywhere between one and seven fathers who were murdered by the trials. We know there was at least one because taking a wrong turning in Ethan's second trial -- crawling across broken glass in a labyrinth of narrow pipes -- will find you the body of an adult male in a suit. The Heavy Rain fandom has decided that this is Susan Bowles' husband but it could've been any of them. Yet the adult male victims (or disappearances, as far as the police know) of the Origami Killer aren't focused on. Couldn't that be described as fathers being pushed aside?

I know it sounds like I'm defending Heavy Rain now and I am. Believe it or not, I love Heavy Rain. Several moments of the game will stick with me forever, such as Madison being attacked in her apartment, every time Jayden used the ARI glasses and especially Ethan's third trial. I remember that one like it was yesterday. However, there are plenty of bad fathers in the game and I'd like to defend Heavy Rain when it comes under fire for featuring the good ones.

Speaking of Madison being attacked in her apartment, that's one of parts of the game that is criticised by people who want to claim that Heavy Rain is sexist against women. As does Madison playing nurse to Ethan after he's injured and being forced to strip for Paco. I had a few articles that I wrote out responses to about those but I decided it was far too long-winded in the end. As well as another Border House article, there were others that made claims about Madison's sections having "a tinge of sexual assault". It's impossible for Madison to be sexually assaulted in Heavy Rain (unless the genital mutilation counts and we've been over that already). It seemed like the Tomb Raider controversy before there even was one; the female character can't be sexually assaulted but people see what they want to see. One article even mentioned rape.

Several made mention of Madison's introduction -- where she fights off attackers in her apartment -- being "pointless" and "not adding anything to her character or the story". Firstly, this ignores the fact that Madison being unable to sleep in her apartment led her to the motel where she would meet Ethan. Secondly, aren't most elements of games "pointless"? Would these critics refuse to play a Final Fantasy game because "random battles add nothing to the story"? I mentioned Madison's introduction being one of my favourite parts of the game earlier, and for good reason; it's tense, exciting, atmospheric and her apartment is one of the most beautiful settings in the game. It's a shame it only appears once.

It's also worth noting that Quantic Dream don't want the player to objectify Madison. Both her and Ethan have shower scenes, only Madison's is optional while Ethan's isn't. The same parts of the body are shown; everything except the crotch area. It lasts around the same amount of time. Later in the game, when Paco forces Madison to strip at gunpoint, the player is rewarded with a trophy if they can knock him out without removing an article of clothing.

All this is better than writing lengthy replies to lengthy quotes from lengthy articles. However, those articles all did a very good job of displaying the double standard that exists when discussing sexism in games; always framing things in terms of how they affect women, without comparing them to the treatment of men. Women are prioritised, even if men suffer worse or more frequent treatment. In other words, Madison and the mothers are the important ones. Men and fathers? Who cares.

Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at themalesofgames@gmail.com

4 comments:

  1. I find this an incredibly blinkered analysis of the games treatment of gender. I’m a little taken aback that you should overlook the way Madison is sexualized from the moment she is introduced via a gratuitous shower sequence, not to mention the cameras subsequent concentration on her ass throughout the game. Then there’s the notorious gynecological drill attack, which has no symbolism or broader meaning in the context of the narrative, and so can be regarded as not only gratuitous but a nasty extension of Madison’s sexualization (and the chainsaw sequence you mention, which is problematic for other reasons, isn’t actually in the official game). The other principle female character, Lauren Winter is, as you mentioned, a prostitute. Seeing a pattern emerging? You interpret Lauren Winters narrative as exhibiting misandry. Within that world she is playing a prostitute, and it seems the game makers (although their motives here are perhaps questionable) are at least conscious of the fact that female prostitutes occupy a particularly vulnerable position in society, one that quite clearly exposes them to the violence, aggression and general misogyny of men. Are the game makers being misandrist to pay heed to this fact? And as you touch on, for the rest of the game she plays the irascible, head-strong daughter to Shelby the patriarch.You also portray Scott Shelby as a non-sympathetic male character. You are surely aware that Scott Shelby is one of the most sympathetic characters in the game – this is part of the whole games narrative strategy. Even when revealed as the villain players are either shocked, or find it difficult to reconcile Scott Shelby with the origami killer. In one section we are actually asked to play him as a gauche, innocent child suffering a horrendous alcoholic Father and absent Mother, who is unable to save his brother from drowning. If this isn’t meant to illicit sympathy, if this isn’t meant to provide some emotionally charged explanation for Shelby’s murders, then I don’t know what is. In fact, Shelby is one key to unlock some of the problematic logics of gender that Heavy Rain is structured around. You resist claims that Heavy Rain is a sexist or misogynistic game, (which I believe it is), but by narrowing the arguments to this level you also overlook the patriarchal values that it is structured on. The games central theme is essentially one concerning male honour/duty and male love, and presents these as essentially bound up with one another. For instance, Ethan Mars (ok, I won’t get too into the possible symbolism of that surname) plays the archetypal good dad, who play sword fights and demonstrates his strength to his son. The wife is virtually non-existent in this middle-class paradise, built it seems on Ethan’s highly paid job as an architect. But Ethan ultimately fails to protect his sons, and is punished by losing his position in society, his family and can only restore his honour through undergoing a series of physically demanding and heroic challenges, Hercules style. Honour and his love for his son are clearly bound up together here by the narrative. The same goes for Scott Shelby, who is almost the mirror image of Ethan – Shelby tests the duty and honour of Fathers due to both the failures of his own Father and his inability to save his brother. Shelby incarnates this theme further, such as the sequence where he appeals to the burglar not to risk his honour (or in saving the shopkeeper in the alternative scenario), and his initial role as protector of Lauren. His main antagonist is Charles Kramer, who, of course, represents the cities bad patriarch. Kramer’s love/honour dynamic in protecting his son is managed via corruption and violence, leading ultimately to his dishonor (in the narrative, or at least in our eyes as the player). A minor echo of this theme can also be found through Norman Jayden, who states that he will quit his job if he cannot save the drowning boy.


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Now, this would be an interesting theme if it had been explored rather than assumed to be the core of some ‘good man archetype’. Instead we have a male orientated psychodrama. Heavy Rain undoubtedly exhibits its sexist moments, but it’s the patriarchal logic that underpins the entire game which it is important to recognize. It’s for this reason that attempting to settle the issue in terms of establishing the balance between good and bad male and female characters misses the point, and what’s more plays into the problematic logic of the game. If we use racism as an analogy, we are well aware that white slave owners would distinguish between good and bad ‘niggers’ – if we applied the same quantification in terms of a plantation consisting of slave owners and slaves we’d completely overlook the racist structure of that society whilst reinforcing it e.g. lazy or aggressive slave is balanced out by lazy or overly abusive plantation owner, or good hard working slave, etc. It’s the patriarchal logic of Heavy Rain that explains both the sexualization and marginalization of women in the game, and why the whole narrative is structured on a rigidly patriarchal system of values. The women are not angelic as much as they're simply maternal polly filler. As such they are not bearers of the value system the game ascribes to but rather figures that have value ascribed to them, either as damsels in distress or undress, or for the double whammy, some tantalizing suggestion of both.
      For what it’s worth I did enjoy it, strange beast that it is. But Heavy Rain is a sexist game, no two ways about it.

      Delete
    2. There's undoubtedly a patriarchal theme in Heavy Rain but it's consistently portrayed negatively. Fathers consistently fail to measure up, with the exception of Ethan (and your comparison to Hercules is apt, only because Hercules was trying to redeem himself after murdering his sons. Hercules' feats were far more heroic in nature while Ethan's are tragic). Men in general are unpleasant, abusive, perverted or engage in criminal activities. In spite of you saying "attempting to settle the issue in terms of establishing the balance between good and bad male and female characters misses the point", it's clear that the balance between good and bad characters skews in one direction more than the other. Even though it's not important to you doesn't mean I'm "missing the point" in any way. The lack of positive male characters is the point.

      Also, while the chainsaw sequence doesn't take place in the main game, Madison's shower scene and drill death are completely optional. Even I hadn't seen the drill death until I watched the Youtube video I posted above (and, of course, it's not at all graphic). I actually wrote about the shower scene at the end of the post, just in case you missed it. As for being sexualised, neither Madison's poses nor the camera angles on her are as sexualising as they could be, unless we're seeing things through the eyes of someone like Paco or the motel receptionist. Given how negatively they're portrayed, I can't help but wonder if Quantic Dream were trying to tell us something about what they think of sexualised portrayals of women.

      You write, "the women are not angelic as much as they're simply maternal polly filler" but I have to disagree. While I think Grace Mars should've been in the game more, she, like all other mothers except for Susan Bowles, was portrayed as a loving and reliable figure. In fact, she was doing all the work for Jason's birthday while Ethan played with his sons, so she's hardly a third wheel. Also, it has to be said, the fact that fatherhood is a central theme is a legitimate reason for the lack of focus on mothers; like the lack of focus on men in The L Word, for example, or the lack of women in John Carpenter's The Thing. As it stands, they weren't focused on as much but they were certainly the most positive figures in the whole game.

      As for Scott Shelby being a sympathetic figure, sure, that's true. But it's set up to make it a tragedy when you realise he's a child-murderer. His persuading of the robber to leave Hassan's store hardly compares to the fact that he murdered eight children (possibly nine, if Shaun dies). He also kills Manfred out of desperation. He even pursues a relationship with Lauren, so I have no idea where you get the idea that she plays a surrogate daughter to him. Regardless of how sympathetically he's portrayed for most of the game, Shelby's final scene involves being the antagonist in a fight scene, trying to shoot Ethan in the back even after all the challenges are complete, attacking Jaden after being helped up off a precarious ledge and a very bloody death. He's a typical villain at that stage, having committed several monstrous crimes and there's no vestige of sympathy left in him.

      Finally, maybe this is just me, but I can't see any justification for the misandry in Lauren Winter's opening. You asked if I saw a pattern emerging after pointing out that Lauren was a prostitute ... but considering how Lauren is never sexualised in the game, no, I don't. Her husband is described as "a loser without a job" so Lauren's job as a prostitute comes across as a rather noble effort to provide for her child and it's not like it's ever glamourised.

      I appreciate comments like yours on my blog though, so thank you for taking the time to write it all out. Even though I disagree.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for your generous response.

    Patriarchy, aside from functioning as a theme, is what guides the whole logic of the game – can these men restore honour, can they redeem themselves as men? That’s the challenge, that’s where the central values of the game derive. This was my point regarding how the females in the game are never truly part of the central drama but are at best bit players who function in stereotypically pleasing ways – mothers, damsels or sex objects. All dramatic significance, all the moral dynamics are bound up with the male characters. This is why you’ll probably find more conflicted, complicated, tragic characters who are males, because the male characters are the only ones provided the scope for heroism or redemption. And that’s why a comparison of good and bad traits misses the point.
    In terms of the shower scenes and drill attack - calling them optional is a little disingenuous given that on a first time play through there is obviously no option available to avoid these sequences (which would, of course, be weird), and the game encourages exploration. Saying that the camera angles on Madison are not as sexualizing as they could be is simply hand waving. Also, you are not considering the fact that films (and in turn games it seems) often employ the perspective of a reprobate or pervert as a way of justifying certain titillating sequences – it manages to make the audience complicit whilst allowing them to morally distance themselves from what they are watching.

    I agree that it’s not sexist per se to have a piece of media/art that concentrates predominantly on men, especially if that is suggested thematically. As I said, I think patriarchy is clearly as valid a topic as any other – what I do find problematic is the unquestioned patriarchal logic and assumptions that underlie the game and extend to the portrayals of women in something approaching the mother/whore paradigm. Lauren Winters is clearly sexualized in that the game makers decided to make her a prostitute!

    ReplyDelete