Oh, Quantic Dream…
Heavy Rain is actually the game that made me want to start a blog. And that’s not a good thing. So expect this to be a bit of a rant.
I was really intrigued by Heavy Rain when it was first announced. I’m always up for a non-traditional gaming experience, and I thought that, even if the game sucked, it would at least be a cool experiment.
I played it on release and, overall, enjoyed it. I loved the threat of permanent death for any of the main characters, and the finger scene is still one of the most tense moments I’ve experienced in gaming. There was one trial that I failed, making me feel genuinely guilty, and this was one of the first games I can think of that (attempted) to seriously delve into the parent/child relationship that has been so popular in 2013. The game wasn’t perfect, but at least it was trying to do some unique, genre-pushing things.
So it’s really too bad that Madison Paige is an abysmal character.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Madison is not a real person, so I’m not actually targeting “her.” I’m saying that David Cage wrote a terrible, sexist character, which dragged his game down and ensured it would stay mired in some of the most immature elements of the gaming industry.
At first, I was sad. Here was a really interesting, if flawed, game that obviously wanted me to take it seriously. But Madison was this huge blip that made any serious, artistic statements almost ridiculous to me. She was the product of bad writing and characterization and just… sexism. Straight up sexism. It really sucked that a game I would otherwise have been happy to recommend to others had these really squicky parts.
So I went to the internet to commiserate with other gamers. Even three years ago, the online gaming community had less of a social justice conversation going on, but it was still there. But I couldn’t seem to find anyone talking about the sexism in the game. Instead, I found a bunch of gamers talking about how the “Madison is almost raped in a dream” sequence made them feel like they could relate to women’s fears better. (I wish I could find these comments now. But they were mostly made on forums, and I don’t have enough Google Fu to find them.)
Maybe the conversation was happening somewhere, and I just couldn’t find it. But my experience was that gamers weren’t having the same experience as me with the game. Complaints were much more focused on loopholes and dislike of the QTE gameplay — both valid complaints — and maybe someone would mention that Madison was a shallow character. It was very, very frustrating for me, and that feeling was what made me want to start this blog.
Happily, there are a bunch of people talking about it now. If you go google “Heavy Rain is sexist” right now, you’ll get a bunch of hits. I mean, if Cracked is talking about it, the issue has basically hit the mainstream. But, you know what? I got around to playing Beyond: Two Souls recently, and it only made me more annoyed about Heavy Rain. And I really, really feel like talking about it.
Let’s start with the “dream threat-of-rape” part…
I probably should’ve known at this point…
So this scene starts with Madison taking a shower, and the gamer gets full-on shots of her naked breasts and butt (the camera lingers on her butt, too).
Guys, there’s nothing wrong with nudity. There’s nothing wrong with showers or characters taking showers. But why is there an extended scene of a character taking a shower at this point in the game? What does this scene accomplish for the narrative?
Large portions of Heavy Rain concern themselves with the mundane details in our lives. Ethan trying to get his kid to start his homework. Jayden bouncing a tennis ball against the wall. I get that — and I think it’s one of the more interesting risks the game takes — but I don’t think the shower scene is one of those times. First of all, the only interaction you have with the scene is whether you want to turn the water off (and end the scene) or not. Typically, when the game has you perform mundane actions, you do every little bit of that action through a QTE. The gamer is literally sitting back and watching Madison take a shower with these really strange, voyeuristic shots in which you see every part of her body except for her vulva.
And, within the context, of the rest of the game, I’m not willing to read this scene innocently. Perhaps, if it’d been just one scene in the entire game, I would say “oh, it’s just a shower.”
Also, fun fact: Madison’s body was modeled after real-life model Jacqui Ainsley, but she was voiced by Judi Beecher. The other three characters’ body models were all based off of their voice actors. What’s up with the discrepancy?
The obvious answer is that Madison is partially meant to titillate the viewer. At the very, very least, she’s meant to be sexy. Now, again, there’s nothing wrong with sexy characters blah blah blah. Look, we all know this already. But there’s got to be something else to a character other than sexiness (more about this later, trust me, plenty more), especially in a game that has three other main characters that have more depth to them than “look at my slinky walk and my naked nakedness.”
So we move on from the shower scene to an over the top there’s-an-intruder-in-my-apartment scene that has attempted rape overtones (and don’t bother trying to argue otherwise because she’s in her skivvies and is thrown on her bed, so…).
Again, I’m cool with games dealing with violence against women — that’s a valid topic for media. You just, you know, have to not suck at it. And this game does suck at dealing with violence against women and specifically sexual violence.
Because you know what happens? Madison has her throat slit and she WAKES UP. It was all a dream.
But, all right. Does Madison have some reason to be having a dream about violent home intruders? Something in her past maybe? (lol like we ever get enough characterization to learn about her past) Maybe she’s on the run. Maybe she’s being hunted by a clandestine group she got involved in during her journalistic adventures. (Seriously, what kind of journalist makes enough money to live in a ritzy apartment like that by herself? Especially one in her twenties. But, you’re right, sorry, I shouldn’t have expected David Cage to actually think this character through enough to consider details like that.)
Nope. This scene has absolutely no significance to the plot. It’s never brought up again. It adds some empty action to the game, I guess, which is probably a big part of why it’s there.
And maybe this really was an attempt to help get the male majority of gamers to get into the head space of a woman. All vulnerable in the face of physically stronger men. Scared by the constant threat of sexual violence. I sure hope not, though, because that’s sexist as shit.
All that other sexualized violence too
The main problem here is that we’re not just dealing with the threat of sexual violence. I really, genuinely think games are capable of handling that topic well. (Later, I’ll talk about it a bit.)
But the violence against Madison in this game is more sexualized than anything else. Worse, it’s constant. Almost all of Madison’s major set pieces within the game have to do with sexual assault and often put her in a position to be easily ogled at by the player.
How about that part of the game where Madison goes to investigate a red herring, The Doc.
I guess I’ll give the plot relevance of this part a pass (red herrings are fair game in a mystery), even though, seriously, can Madison get one important part of the game?!
So Madison goes to see this guy and he immediately decides to assault her, I guess. It seems like all the men in this game want to assault Madison, so that pretty much seems par for the course. She either gets drugged or knocked out and has to fight her way out of this guys murder basement.
The entire scene is very, very sexually violent. At about 6:27 in that video the “doctor” is about to rape her with an electric drill.
Again, like the earlier scene, this one is completely over the top. She goes to talk to to a stranger and he decides to rape, torture, and murder her? Incredibly, grotesquely violent assaults certainly do happen in real life, but they’re by far the exception. In a game that has some veneer of the banal, these scenes stand out.
And then, by far my favorite of all of these scenes, is the one where Madison is forced to strip at gunpoint.
She goes to a club to get information out of the owner (I can’t honestly remember why or for what information), and, to get closer to him, sexes herself up by putting on more make-up, unbuttoning her shirt, and tearing her skirt so that it’s shorter. She dances a bit (there’s a definite up-skirt shot at 3:22), he takes an interest, she intimates they should go have sex, and he brings her up to his office.
The club owner wants her to strip and when she shows hesitation (the player doesn’t have a choice), he pulls a gun on her.
There are a few options the player can choose here. You can have Madison keep her clothes on and just sort of dance around a bit before incapacitating the club owner. Or, like the above video, you can have her strip down to only her underwear (that’s minus the bra, to be clear) at which point Madison will start to dance seductively in order to distract the club owner while she grabs a lamp to hit him over the head with.
For a game that’s trying to do a lot of the same things as film, I’m going to take the shots seriously. In this scene, the shots of Madison are entirely unsympathetic. There are ways that this scene could have seemed to be from Madison’s perspective — the camera can be an agent in making us feel empathy for her. Instead, we get full body shots of her as she gets progressively more naked. When she does her striptease for the club owner, we see her from the club owner’s perspective (that is, we get a shot of her, bent-over, waving her butt around at the camera) rather than seeing her get ready to grab the lamp.
It really seems that Madison exists solely to be sexualized in violent circumstances, whether it’s the literal threat of rape or a coerced (by gunpoint) striptease scene. How many straight male gamers missed the menace of this scene and mostly enjoyed it for its “sexy” content? I don’t think developers have to account for everything their player base uses a game for, but the developers here aren’t trying for anything different. The striptease scene isn’t shot in a way to make the player empathize with Madison any more than with the club owner. There’s literally nothing there to discourage someone from getting aroused from a woman being forced to perform sexual acts with the threat of violence.
Maybe Madison is constantly getting into sexualized situations because of a lack of imagination. Perhaps the developers couldn’t think of anything else for a woman to do in their game. I wouldn’t be all that surprised, considering Madison has the least reason to be in the game.
Madison exists to be Ethan’s happy ending
At the very start of the game, the three male main characters all have a reasons to be in this game. Ethan is searching for his son. Jayden is investigating the Origami Killer murders (I think they did a bad job with his story, but he still has reasonable motivation to be there). Scott is a PD on the search for the Origami Killer.
Why the hell is Madison there? She only becomes involved in the events of the game upon meeting Ethan and nurturing him back to health. And on that flimsiest of reasons she gets interested enough in his problems to apparently risk life and limb multiple times to investigate the Origami Killer.
Basically, she’s there because she’s The Girl. She has almost no backstory or characterization. Really, by the end of the game, we know almost nothing about her. It’s enough to know that she’s The Girl, oh, and also, she’s Ethan’s reward at the end of the game.
Time to talk about the sex scene.
[WARNING: awkward video game sex scene. You might not want to watch this.]
Other than everything about this making me want to cringe, there’s a lot in here that helps explain why Madison is in the game at all.
[On a side note: I didn’t do the sex scene in my playthrough, because what the fuck, dude. You’re on a time limit to save your son. Why are you having sex right now?!]
Here, all that stuff earlier about how the camera tends to place us an unsympathetic distance away from Madison makes more sense. This sex scene takes place from Ethan’s perspective, and the player has no control over Madison. Instead, they control each of Ethan’s movements as he takes off her clothes and clumsily fondles her. (Seriously, games, wait for technology to progress a few more years before we start in on the sex scenes…)
Madison, who is already made into an object of desire for some imagined ideal of the male gamer, is transformed into an NPC while Ethan is the protagonist and actor in the sex scene. There’s no way this scene would’ve happened from Madison’s perspective. That would’ve meant the player would have to have sex with another man.
Further, in the ending that’s considered the “best” by many players, Ethan is rewarded for all of his troubles in the game by a relationship with Madison. And her role in the game suddenly becomes clear.
Like in many of the “save the princess” style games, the hero is rewarded by a potential sexual relationship with a woman. (That’s why there are all those jokes about Link/Zelda and Mario/Peach.) In Heavy Rain, there’s a little less princess saving, but Madison still essentially exists to reward the player. Do any of her other endings really make sense for the story? Since her only connection to the story is through Ethan, the only ending connected to the story is the one that ends with Ethan as well.
At least Beyond was better
Beyond was so, so much better when it came to female characters. By that, I mean that Ellen Page did a fantastic job as Jodie.
Maybe it was easier for David Cage to write a female lead when she was the only lead, especially when he already had an actress as his base. I say this because even though Jodie was fully realized, the other female characters didn’t do so well.
Nearly all of the other major characters in the game are male, and the women who did exist are mothers. There’s Tuesday, who I’d argue is definitely the least interesting of the homeless characters. Her story is literally that she’s homeless and pregnant, while the others have arguably (I would argue…) more interesting and compelling stories. There’s Jodie’s mom, who is the less interesting “nice, if somewhat neglectful mother” to the more compelling, if more assholish father. The mean girls at the party and their mom…. The Native American grandmother. (She had more of a role, but that part was also super racist, so…. Let’s not get into that.) There were just a lot of moms who weren’t defined by much else.
Jodie exists in a context where there would be a lot of men in real life. Scientific research, the army, government. But, first of all, this is a sci-fi video game, and it doesn’t have to be realistic. And even in real life there’d be more women than this in Jodie’s life. In my opinion, it’s an oversight on the developer’s part to have so many major male characters and only one major female character (even if we spend the most time with her).
Sexual assault is treated differently in this game than in Heavy Rain. I thought the scene where Jodie is homeless and a man on the street offers her money for a blowjob was, actually, exceptional.
That’s a real life circumstance right there, and it actually contains social critique. Jodie’s appearance at that point is in stark contrast to Madison — underlining how sexual assault doesn’t just happen to the most attractive — and the power dynamics of the scene are actually very scary. Jodie is in a vulnerable position in more ways than one, and the man is taking advantage of that fact. At the point when Jodie refuses and the man gets violent, it doesn’t feel overblown. Instead, if feels plausible, which is horrifying enough without drills and masked men breaking into apartments. Additionally, at that point, I was already invested in Jodie’s perspective, so I had no issues identifying with her instead of with the creep who proposed she prostitute herself.
The scene in the bar is a little less successful. Bars are definitely places where sexual assault is sadly a little more common than I’m sure any of us would like. But the scene probably would have been better if it’d been a little more realistic. For example, if the men had tried to get Jodie drunk, gotten her to go with them to another location, or even cornered her in the bathroom. The fact that they tried to rape her on the pool table in full view of the mysteriously disappearing bartender could happen but is much less likely.
There’s also a shower scene in Beyond (actually, there are two, but one is more similar to Heavy Rain), but it’s much more mild. Honestly, I’m not sure what I think about it. Jodie’s way of holding herself and walking strikes me as more realistic and less sexualized than Madison’s, which goes a long way toward me being less squicked out by this scene. The biggest question I’m left with is why anyone would wear a ponytail in the shower.
Maybe David Cage will get it right next time?
Like I said earlier, playing Beyond made me angry all over again about Heavy Rain, but that’s really because Beyond did so much right. Jodie was probably my favorite female game character this year, which only makes Madison seem even worse. I’m crossing my fingers that David Cage can get it right next time, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
Did Heavy Rain piss you off to? Tell me about it! Seriously. Sharing the pain makes it easier.