God, where do I even begin. (The discussion below “spoils” the first hour or so of the game, so consider yourself duly warned.)
If you’ve been following Grump Factory lately, you probably saw Tim’s impressions of the Heavy Rain demo that came out a few weeks ago. I’m going to assume you, the reader, have already perused it and don’t need the nitty gritty of the “gameplay” described, because for people that have been following this release, they’ll just glance over it, anyways. This article’s for the people that are already familiar with the concept of a QTE and just want to know if the fucking thing is any good, from someone who’s played the whole thing start to finish.
Heavy Rain takes place in an unspecified, rainy, eastern metropolis in the United States. The tale revolves around a serial killer who has for three years been kidnapping little boys through drowning, and leaving their mud-covered bodies for the police to find in a wasteland days after the initial kidnapping. His calling card is not only the method in which his victims are killed, but also an origami figurine alongside an orchid that he leaves with his victims, almost as if a parting gift to say “sorry”. The story develops through four unique viewpoints. Norman Jayden is an FBI criminal profiler brought in to help the local police develop a portrait of who the killer could be. Scott Shelby is an ex-cop private eye who’s been hired to conduct his own investigation into the killings. Ethan Mars is an architect who lost one of his sons in a tragic accident three years ago and now lives separated from his wife and suffers from a strained relationship with his distant son. Madison Paige is a journalist who stumbles into Ethan’s life and becomes entwined in his drama. One day while taking his son Shaun to the park, Ethan Mars has one of his frequent black-outs and wakes to find his son missing. It’s not long after that he receives a message from the Origami Killer: how far will he go to save his son? What follows is an intense four-day race to save Shaun Mars and discover the identity of the Origami Killer.
It’s obvious Heavy Rain takes a lot of inspiration from Hollywood thrillers like Se7en. In fact, I’m pretty sure this game worships the ground Se7en walks on. With a name like Heavy Rain, you can bet that it’s going to have an oppressive, gloomy atmosphere. Rain and wetness is a huge motif, with the game taking place during a constant downpour; hell, the opening credits are a montage of people’s faces standing in the rain. While the prologue to the game is all sunshine and bloom effects, the game proper starts with Ethan picking up a miserable Shaun up from school (late!) on a cruddy afternoon and taking him back to his awful, depressing apartment. There’s environments that look like they’re ripped right out of David Fincher’s serial killer flick, urban decay that makes the city look more like an awful tumor: an abandoned warehouse, a whore’s apartment, a white trash dive… And then there’s environments of banal normalcy: Ethan Mars’ idyllic suburban dream home, Madison Paige’s downtown loft, Scott Shelby’s office/apartment. Occasionally the game really stuns when it comes to environments. One time, I caught myself fairly agog by the cinematic beauty of what I was seeing, like I’d fallen into some sort of Kubrick-ian invention. Heavy Rain has atmosphere that can almost rival Silent Hill 2, by far one of the most “cinematic” games I’ve ever played.
And while the story is good (a far cry more coherent and enjoyable than developer Quantic Dream’s previous game, Fahrenheit), it really revolves around the characters, like any good story should! And what juicy morsels they are. Most of the characters have depth that few other video games even attempt. Ethan Mars is first presented to us as a happy, fulfilled husband and father; you can even give one of your sons a piggyback ride and engage the other in a mock sword fight! After tragedy strikes, however, he’s a shell of who he once was. The player can visually tell he’s not taking good care of himself, he’s living in the aforementioned crappy apartment and has regular therapy sessions to deal with his grief over the loss of his child. A sequence early in the game has Ethan trying to connect with Shaun, to what effect the player can decide. Allowing this sort of intimate look into Ethan’s life was a crucial step toward getting the player to empathize and to also flesh out who this Ethan Mars guy really is.
Norman Jayden’s introduced as an FBI hotshot who’s here to save the day, but then we’re witness to his crippling drug abuse problem. We get the sense that Norman’s got good intentions, but is losing control of his life to his addiction, and his worst fear is that it’ll result in another little boy ending up face-down in a ditch. His pangs of conscience flare up when he’s paired with his local cop partner, a detective who seems to think the ends justify the means, and that any suspect is better than none. Norman’s a character struggling for control over himself and the case and finding both increasingly out of his reach.
Scott Shelby is the kind of guy who the audience would be rooting for in the theater. A down-on-his-luck loner private detective? There’s a reason books and movies have practically fetishized that archetype. And he’s old and asthmatic to boot! All he needs is a droopy-faced dog and he’d be the ultimate grizzled old man detective. Personally, he was the character I bonded with the most while playing. Games seldom put you in the shoes of an older gentleman, but when they do (see MGS4), the extra vulnerability seems to really set them apart from the typical invincible action game meathead (see God of War).
And then there’s Madison Paige, the flimsiest main character in the game. We’re first introduced to her in one of the few truly pointless sequences in the game, which is already a bad start, but Quantic Dream’s auteur/dictator David Cage fails to give her any added depth throughout the whole game. Women in movies (Hollywood movies, at least) have the dishonor of being paper-thin cardboard cutouts that exist merely to be walking, talking boobs for the male protagonist (and consequently, the male audience) to idealize and objectify. Name five female characters in big Hollywood movies that aren’t defined by their relationships to their male counterparts. Bet you can’t. Madison has the same problem. Her “weakness” of insomnia is so insubstantial as to be laughable, since it’s just a flimsy excuse for her to check into a motel and meet Ethan. Yes, I forgot to mention that Madison has some super-advanced form of insomnia that only allows her to get some rest when she’s sleeping in a motel. Isn’t that convenient? There’s nothing particularly offensive about Madison except for her innate shallowness. It’s clear that David Cage has no clue how to write female characters, since Madison is reduced to a plot device and a potential fuckbuddy for Ethan.
Of course, there are those that would say David Cage can’t write at all. Motion pictures have had decades to get the whole writing thing down, especially since they had the head start of movies being a primarily narrative medium. And books have had centuries to inspire authors to greater literary heights. With all this cultural wealth at their disposal, what was video games’ first cutscene? The interludes in Ms. Pac-Man? It’s clear that the makers of video games are primarily technical experts rather than storytellers. Even Kojima, whose Metal Gear Solid series has been lauded (and occasionally condemned) for its cinematic aspirations, seems to have a mostly tin ear for human speech. It could be the fact that it was originally written in Japanese, but the final result was generally stilted and goofy. So when characters in Heavy Rain started opening their mouths and spouting cliches like “You go, girl!” or stumbling over really unnatural lines, I wasn’t surprised, or particularly bothered, because I was looking at it from the video game perspective. If I saw this shit in a movie, though, first I’d look at the case and make sure it wasn’t a David Lynch film, then I’d throw it out the window. And for a game with such bald-faced cinematic aspirations as Heavy Rain, that’s not a good thing. The examples of truly well-written video games are so few and far between (Vagrant Story and… uh…) that I don’t feel like I can pick on Heavy Rain or David Cage specifically in this department. Yeah, it’s a bit corny and stilted when it shouldn’t be, but if you’ve been playing video games at all recently, it’s nothing you’re not already familiar with.
And then there are the story and characterization issues that can crop up when you have a game like this with such well-defined protagonists for you to inhabit and ultimately decide their actions. Destructoid detailed this extremely well in their spoiler-heavy editorial, so much so that I wonder what else I can add to it. I agree with them that the fact that you can make characters veer so completely out of character creates a huge potential for undermining the authorial control you would expect David Cage would have if he were truly making this as a movie. And it’s clear through playing the game what Cage intends players to do when he gives them free reign to make choices. Hell, you can make Ethan chicken out of saving his son if you really want, but what would be the point of playing the game? All of this may sound quite damning when discussing it in the sober light outside of the game experience, but honestly, my mind wasn’t brimming with thoughts about how the interactive nature of the game subverts auteur theory while playing. I was too busy doing what the game had intended: being caught up in the plot and being invested in the characters’ survival.
Because, really, the measure of a movie isn’t in how free of nitpicks it is (LOL, DID I JUST SAY THAT ON GRUMP FACTORY), but of how much it can sweep you away and make you get lost in the world it builds. And this is something that Heavy Rain absolutely did for me. I teared up a little when I gave Ethan’s, my son a piggyback ride. My heart raced when I tried to do as the Origami Killer said and get Shaun back. I would feel crestfallen and depressed when I would fail a character, even leading to a few characters’ deaths. I would have to take breaks after particularly intense segments because the game would just weigh on me like an 800 lb. depressed gorilla. I’ve never really had that sort of experience with games before. Movies, sure, but not games. Even Silent Hill I could barrel through with minimal interruption. The intensity just got to me, and the sense of just getting lost in an experience to the point where it starts affecting you is really cool to find in a game.
That’s not to say I was always 100% engaged in what was going on or that Heavy Rain had perfect presentation. Should I talk about the uncanny valley poster children that are the character models? The distinctly European actors in a story purportedly set in the U.S.A.? The occasionally frustrating dump truck controls? The graphical glitches such as the omnipresent screen tearing? Heavy Rain is not a perfect game or the best game… in some ways, it’s barely a game at all! Any technical criticism you can levy against Heavy Rain I could probably understand and agree with. I wish the people looked more natural. I wish I didn’t have to hear Norman Jayden struggling as hard to conceal his British accent as he does to conceal his drug habit. I wish Madison Paige was a real character. I wish Heavy Rain had a script that had dialogue that was a pleasure to listen to. Heavy Rain has had a rocky, damaged relationship with fans on the Internet since it was first announced with the tech demo in 2006. People were understandably burned by Fahrenheit and assumed the worst about another “interactive drama” from David Cage and Quantic Dream. The trailer featuring bizarre line readings, graphical glitches and technical limitations that exceeded people’s expectations made Heavy Rain an easy joke on a certain image board. And so it was released with having something to prove to all the skeptics and I can’t help but come off as somewhat of an apologist when I talk about it, since I’m mostly refuting the criticism of people that have either not played it, or haven’t played it to completion. Obviously no one has to like Heavy Rain. But it also seems that its nature makes it difficult for some people to even want to understand it, as if the existence of “interactive dramas” means the decline or downfall of the medium. Books have everything from comics to Tolstoy. Movies comfortably exist with everything from Transformers to The English Patient. With a rapidly widening audience of “casual” gamers, the gaming marketplace is changing, too. Not everything is going to be a first-person shooter or an RPG. Just because Heavy Rain and Farmville exist doesn’t mean Bayonetta is going anywhere.