It’s fascinating how computer- and videogames have evolved over the years. If “Pong” made you decide which way to go to hit the ball, then it’s pretty revolutionary what “Heavy Rain” does. Of course you can’t compare the two in terms of gameplay or graphics, but what they have in common is that they are a landmark in gaming culture.
“Heavy Rain” might not be the most amazing game ever or the definitive storytelling example (as it borrows or rather steals a lot from movies like David Fincher’s “Seven” or the “Saw” flicks). But what it does is: It pushes the medium forward in a way not many games have done before. It’s difficult or impossible to call it an adventure game at all. The spiritual predecessor “Fahrenheit” (or “Indigo Prophecy” as it’s know in the US) tried to give the player some kind of freedom in a cinematic experience. But what it ended up in was a mishmash of different movies with a horrible ending and a lot of putton-pushing.
Of course the uninitiated might think “Heavy Rain” is nothing more than pushing the right button at the right time. In a way that’s true. But what is new and innovative is the way that a missed button does not necessarily mean “Game Over” and repeating the scene again. It simply moves on whatever the end result. Another very important step forwards is the way alternative scenes are played out.
Taking as an example (for the last time) two scenes of “Sunrise” you can either look for some plans which are needed for the completion of a machine or help the female character to get some clothes (after she accidently ripped her own when you drove by her with a truck… a really weird and not very funny scene). Now the first option puts the player in the position to simply drive over to a building, do some puzzle solving and that’s it. The second option doesn’t involve more than talking to the female protagonist. What it does do is to flesh out both characters background stories and their relationship. Only problem is: There are no consequences for the rest of the game.
It has been tried again and again in many games to have alternative scenes, dialogue and endings. But with few exceptions (like “Blade Runner”) it rarely amounted to more than doing one specific action or saying one specific thing at a specific time. The rest of the game was linear. “Heavy Rain” doesn’t work like that. David Cage, the director of the game, calls it Interactive Drama. And that’s pretty accurate. There’s nothing like puzzle solving, and you have lots of opportunities to spend the time which moves in real-time. But it never feels as if you HAVE to find anything, you EXPLORE the world around you, you EXPERIENCE it, something which has been lacking in adventure games for quite some time recently.
Now what makes “Heavy Rain” really unique? It’s the way that your actions really play out differently in the context of the story. If a character dies, it’s not the end of the story, and with no quicksaving option you really fear for the characters’ lives. Especially Ethan Mars, the broken father who lost his son, goes through a spiritual redemption which is also physically exhausting. The button-pressing might look and feel a bit odd (let’s see how Sony’s new Move-technology works with that), but you’re really in the action instead of being an observer.
What is also interesting to note is that “Heavy Rain” is one of those rare games which can appeal to a whole new demographic. Usually games demand a lot of time and patience to learn the control, game mechanics etc. But this is a game everyone who likes good storytelling in movies can play. It also has some of the more interesting characters in adventure games (another thing lacking in this genre for a long time). The story might not be completely new and it has some clichés, but which movie doesn’t have those things? What is even more important: Which movie can make you the director? Your decisions are not the type of saying the right thing at the right time or using another exit or object. Your decisions really mean something, like: Can you really kill someone you don’t know in order to save a loved one? Can you really bring yourself to cut off your index finger? Those are pretty gruesome and more mature decisions than anything computer-or videgames of the last generations came up with.
Only recently have games dealt with more mature topics and brought to life more realistic characters (Mass Effect as a prime example), but the future looks quite bright if games like “Heavy Rain” find an audience they deserve and open the market for another demographic as well.