- Heavy Rain
- CLR Rating:
Release Date: February 23, 2010
Platforms: Playstation 3
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Heavy Rain is not Just a Videogame,
It’s a Highly Advanced Emotional Trauma Simulator
As videogames evolve as an artistic medium it has been disappointing that most prominent releases nowadays seem to lack ambition. Gorgeous graphics have lately become the standard, so unless a game is particularly handsomely designed the presentation is not enough to stand out from the pack, and the prevalence of effective gaming engines have made it increasingly difficult for games to suffer from poor controls, sloppy artificial intelligence or shoddy scripting (not that these things don’t still happen, of course). So it is pleasing to discover that Heavy Rain, the exhilarating new game from French developer Quantic Dream, practically breaks new ground in narrative content and ultimately repurposes the Quick Time Event – to date one of the most hated developments in modern gaming – into an effective storytelling technique. In short, it is very hard to imagine Heavy Rain not being the best game of the year.
Heavy Rain stars you as four different characters: Ethan Mars, an architect grieving over the death of his son, Scott Shelby, a retired police officer turned private detective, Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler on the trail of a serial killer, and Madison Paige, an insomniac whose relation to the events of the game is revealed as the story progresses. During a rain-soaked autumn each of these characters finds themselves on the trail of the “Origami Killer,” who kidnaps young boys and drowns them several days later. Depending on the manner in which you play Heavy Rain, these characters may develop close relationships or even kill each other. One of them may even be the Origami Killer, and end up in a race against time to stop themselves from killing again. Then again… perhaps not.
The multiple protagonists are each relatable characters, whether you develop them as cocky or uncertain, cowardly or gung ho, and the game is never bogged down by having so many playable individuals. This is in part due to the game’s story – which never ceases to place your heroes in exciting situations – and partly due to a generally strong cast of actors in the lead roles. Minor roles are slightly more hit-and-miss, with many younger actors in particular seeming to struggle with their American accents. The result is only occasionally distracting, and gives the impression of watching an excellent foreign film from the 1970’s, with slightly “off” dubbing contributing to a dreamlike veneer. Of course, the final reason for the multiple protagonists is that once a character dies in Heavy Rain the game keeps going on without them, so you need a backup if you want to keep playing. There are no checkpoints to return to, and the game’s storyline deftly incorporates a character’s untimely demise at any point seamlessly into the overall narrative (based on the permutations I was able to test).
The result is a story in which death has meaning, which in videogames is nothing short of a miracle. Usually when a videogame protagonist is placed in a life-or-death situation the player gets to try it over and over again until they get it right, and while there are workarounds in Heavy Rain (if you really feel like it you can return to an earlier chapter and try a new approach, and if you’re like me you’ll probably want to play it again just to see what else could have happened) the designer’s ability to make every choice, even every mistake feel like a natural part of the narrative will prevent the player from feeling like it’s necessary to start over. There was a moment towards the end of Heavy Rain in which I realized that I had done something wrong, and that my favorite character was probably going to die as a result. I immediately shut the game off, not wanting to see the consequences of my failure, and it took me an entire day to work up the nerve to see the story through to the end.
Incidentally, that character did die, and I gasped when it happened. Like all artistic mediums, videogames excel at emotional manipulation, but most games seem content to cover the same territory: frustration at having your progress impeded, elation at overcoming an obstacle, anger at a stubborn opponent and maybe even unease during a particularly effective survival horror game. Heavy Rain’s many levels have more complex manipulations in mind, and by-and-large succeed at all of them. The opening level is a strikingly quiet one, focusing on Ethan as he gets ready for his day, helps his wife with the dishes and plays with his children. This contrasts strikingly with next chapter which follows Ethan and his family to the mall, where Ethan – and the player – loses sight of one of his sons. As the crowd impedes your movement, the only indication of your child’s whereabouts is a bobbing balloon you just purchased for him. Then, in the distance, dozens of balloons fly out of someone else’s hands. The effect is one of dread and hopelessness. The conclusion only confirms those fears.
Heavy Rain ekes more suspense out of losing your child in a crowded place than most games ever do out of saving the world, but also manages to find exciting ways to bring classic procedural tropes into the gameplay without resorting to constant gunfights. Another level places the player in a different scene with a young child, but when this child goes missing you find yourself in a police interrogation room where they ask you standard questions like, “What was the child wearing?” As in real life, you probably didn’t realize the color of someone’s jacket would be the most important question in the world a few hours later, and all of a sudden you have to remember it correctly or risk getting someone killed. Another exceptional scene finds you interrogating someone with information about the killer… someone who quickly ends up dead. If you don’t want to be implicated in the murder you have just a few short minutes to wipe your fingerprints off of everything you touched over the course of the last scene, but can you really remember all of them in time?
Many gamers have been skeptical of Heavy Rain because of Quantic Dream’s total reliance on Quick Time Events. Quick Time Events (or QTEs for short) are usually used in the middle of a fully rendered and otherwise unplayable cinematic. In Bayonetta, for example, they would come up randomly in the middle of long scenes and force the player to press a button – usually “X” for some reason – at exactly the right time or the protagonist will simply die. Generally speaking, QTEs are seen as lazy storytelling devices, a half-hearted way to keep players interested during long cinematics, or worse, taking control of the game away from the player, forcing them to react as opposed to interact. In contrast, Heavy Rain seems to maximize the gameplay technique’s artistic possibilities, in part because every character in the game feels like they’ve lost control of their lives to a cunning individual who wants them all dead, tying the control scheme to the game thematically. Every fight scene is expertly choreographed and every wrong move places the player in jeopardy. In most games, antagonists follow a carefully scripted pattern of attacks, but Heavy Rain places more control in the enemies’ hands, making every conflict seem like an insurmountable goal… in a good way. (There’s that fear of death again.) Every action is immediate, and although the game can be paused there is no inventory screen or complicated action menu to interfere with the delicately balanced pacing of the many intensely wrought suspense sequences.
If I may speak personally once again, I would like to reflect on a conversation I had with a most esteemed colleague in the critical community shortly before I played Heavy Rain. In that conversation I bemoaned an unfortunate tendency for critics to become so aware of the technical aspects of a film, the tropes being used for the nth time or even the individuals involved in the production that it is often difficult to have a pure audience experience in which you are emotionally connected to the story and its characters. Heavy Rain has minor glitches (the distracting accents, occasional freezing due to a system update issue – hopefully now resolved – and I think I found a pretty big plot hole in there somewhere), but none of them distract from a story that genuinely made me care about every development. Every death pained me, every trap placed by the Origami Killer got my blood pumping, and the conclusion – even with my favorite character dead and gone – was satisfying on every level. Do not miss any opportunity to play Heavy Rain which is, once again, a strong early candidate for “Best Game of 2010.”