Heralded by many as the breakthrough of videogaming into popular movie culture (or vice versa), shunted by many as nothing more than a series of QTEs and the death of the classic point-and-click adventure, David Cage’s/Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain is obviously a divisive title. But how much is true of the hype, how successful is it in the attempt to combine mature storytelling with satisfying gameplay, and does the Move system actually work or is it an afterthought? Read on…
The Origami killer who drowns his child victims, abducts architect Ethan Mars’ son and forces the father to play a dangerous game in order to save him, while photojournalist Madison Paige, FBI profiler Norman Jayden and former police officer Scott Shelby cross his path in many different ways with their own agendas.
Originality of movies not found in games
Thrillers with a psychopathic killer, disillusioned parents, an ambitious profiler and a die-hard cop are time a dozen in the film industry, and even in games, this genre has already brought some more or less successful imitators to the surface with the likes of Memento Mori, Still Life and others. Now if one would set the plot and character development of Heavy Rain against classic movies like Se7en or to some degree Saw, it becomes obvious that the game doesn’t offer anything particularly original for the film aficionado. The often violent trials-sections are clearly inspired by the horror franchise, even if it never gets too gruesome, and the overall depressing mood certainly reflects David Fincher’s style (especially with the beginning credits which even have the same font).
Hollywood presentation in a good and bad way
So it’s not a cinematic masterpiece or defining classic when it comes to the content. In some ways, certain aspects of storytelling are even clichéd or handed down in a less than subtle way. Introducing a loving father with his happy family to evoke sympathy is one thing (which doesn’t necessarily work in such a small time frame), but having characters meet and shortly become so intimate to have sex is a bit unrealistic and smells of the often gratuitous love scene in Hollywood movies. There are also some more illogicalities and plot holes despite the script trying hard to come be something very clever, which is a shame, because it’s a very suspenseful and emotional ride the player actively participates in.
This is mainly due to the presentation which is very Hollywood-esque in action set-pieces, but also leaves room for some sad and brutal moments. It might be delivered a bit too strong at times, especially with the bombastic soundtrack, and the acting can feel exaggerated, but the pacing of the story is still well-balanced without any dull parts. The combination of a moving drama about depression, loss and redemption with an action-heavy cop thriller works beautifully and is peppered with some breathtaking chase and engaging fight scenes.
Choosing characters and sides
What makes the story development even more interesting is how the player controls different characters and sees the plot from various angles. Of course this isn’t without its fair share of problems. Having multiple story branches and spending quite a lot of time with one character while the others are on hold feels disconnected at times, and even when the characters finally meet, there’s always a sense of superficiality about them, as if the plot moves too fast for its own good and shies away from going deeper into each character’s life. Still having different motivations to find the Origami killer or help save Ethan’s son makes for some varied gameplay experiences, even if some parts of the story (e.g. with a psychopathic doctor and the constant panic attacks of Ethan when looking for his son) are a bit overblown and overdramatic.
Play your own game of decisions
As much as Heavy Rain is one director’s vision, it’s also part of the player’s own decision-making process. Depending on what actions one performs, the story takes different routes and the characters’ fates can be changed. So even if one or more die, there’s no game over. With the automatic save system, these paths have to be taken (although there’s a way to replay chapters) and the consequences accepted.
In theory, it’s a very interesting concept which works for the most part. Unfortunately like most great ideas, the execution is flawed. There are many instances when the player is simply forced to perform a certain action (e.g. when Shelby has to save a woman who tries to commit suicide) without giving the option of simply going away. It’s also a bit annoying that in many QTEs, one can simply leave the controller alone and still survive most of the scenes. Additionally, the player is often restricted to certain environments, so leaving them isn’t always an option, again breaking the illusion of a non-linear experience.
Although one can’t shake off the feeling that many decisions are forced on the player and not every action has an effect on the overall story, these are still choices one has to make which are not as black and white as in other games. Being put to the test of killing someone in order to save someone else with the knowledge that the former has a family of his own, or being forced to strip down one’s clothes and being humiliated to gather some information are scenes of real emotional impact and further proof that the game wants to push videogaming into a more mature direction and succeeds in making the player care for the characters.
Defying genre conventions and embracing them
The gameplay borrows from different genres, but can mostly be traced back to adventure games. Having an inventory is not one of the elements, but items have still to be picked up and used in some cases while conversations and choosing appropriate answers play the most important part. Certain environmental objects can also be looked at, although the characters seldom make comments how to use them. More often, these are for fleshing out the game world. The same goes for the characters’ thought bubbles which can be activated to help inexperienced players when they don’t know what to do next, as well as some camera windows which open up after a certain amount of time has passed to prompt the player in the right direction, which can of course also be a bit disorientating and disruptive.
Investigative work is another part of the gameplay, especially in the case of FBI profiler Jayden who collects evidence with the help of his special VR glasses. As much sci-fi nonsense as it sounds and very Matrix-or-Minority-Reportesque it’s implemented (and there’s certainly an argument about its status in the otherwise very contemporary representation of today’s world), it’s essential for progressing in the story. By putting them on, the profiler can see fingerprints, tyre prints or traces of smells and fluids like blood which are then archived and later analyzed. It’s a neat idea and makes for some varied gameplay, but compared to other detective games like the Sherlock Holmes series or last year’s Memento Mori 2, it’s very simplified and doesn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation.
Move and control the fate of your protagonists
Usually, QTEs are rather arbitrary actions in other games, like in the God of War series, because what is indicated by button presses seldom makes sense with the action on screen. Heavy Rain is a prime example how to do it right, even with or actually because of the Move controls. There are still some camera problems when moving the characters around the screen with the navigation controller and some button presses or movements of the motion-controller aren’t always intuitive. But for the most playtime, this control method works surprisingly well and replaces the standard Dualshock controller in many places.
So in order to open a door one has to move the controller towards the screen, reach out for the door handle and move backwards to open the door. Having the right position of the move-controller takes some time, but this usually makes much more sense than using the analogue stick or random button presses. It’s also important to note that the whole idea of imitating real-life actions with the Move system creates a bigger sense of immersion. After having played the Move edition at the Gamescom for a bit and not really having been very impressed by it, I was pleasantly surprised that it’s so reponsive, even though there are still some scenes in which the Move controller requires too much input and results in hand cramps.
A cinematic presentation of unparalleled quality
If the controls and gameplay come with some deficiencies and drawbacks, there’s not much wrong with the graphics and sound design. The term “photo-realism” has been used so many times in different eras of videogaming that it has become redundant marketing talk. But in the case of Heavy Rain, this might actually be the only time this really fits. Character animations and backgrounds look terrific and give the impression of watching a movie. Fluid movements, realistic facial expressions (although L.A. Noire would improve on these a few years later) and detailed environments have lost none of their quality, even after after three years, which is quite a long time considering the next generation of consoles is nearly here.
Voice acting and general performances of the real actors might not be the most impressive in some instances (just watching the making ofs in the bonus section shows how exaggerated these are) and the soundtrack uses certain key notes a bit too often, but overall one never gets the impression to actually play a game, as it’s so varied in tone and presentation. As water plays an important part in the story, it should also be highlighted here, because the weather effects are excellent as well. An additional cinematic effect can be seen in some scenes when different camera angles are used to strengthen the sense of tense action or simply to watch characters in various positions. Even during conversations, it’s possible to move the characters around, lean against walls, sit down etc. to have a more dynamic approach to the dialogues.
A flawed gem, but still an important interactive drama for the industry
Calling Heavy Rain a milestone in videogaming might be a bit too much, as storytelling doesn’t break new ground with David Cage borrowing heavily from well-known movies and the freedom of choice is something of a mixed bag because of its often intruding director’s hand to keep the player from trying out certain things. But it’s certainly a very influential part of gaming culture, considering how much The Walking Dead uses the idea of non-linearity and the presentation of mature themes. What’s even more interesting is how the title defies categorization and opens the doors to non-gamers as well, bringing a breath of fresh air to the stale adventure genre, although as has already been said by Cage himself, it’s far from a classic point-and-clicker and plays more like an interactive movie. As such, it’s a very entertaining, but also moving piece of entertainment which should be experienced many different times to see what side stories or endings can affect the overall pleasure of watching and playing it.
The implementation of the Move system should also be applauded. Even if it was only added later, it never feels like a cheap extra or annoying as in so many Nintendo titles in which waggling becomes more and more tiresome. Heavy Rain uses motional control in a much more intuitive way and despite very few parts in which it’s not so clear what the program wants from the player, it’s another great way to experience this game, if not THE best way. If only more motion-controlled games would follow Sony’s example, there would be a lot less cursing going on. It’s also a nice touch that owners of the original game are given a free (but also quite big) download update without buying a new edition to use the Move system.
If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every Facebook LIKE or comment is appreciated :).