Catching Up With Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain
Let me make this clear right off the bat, Heavy Rain is a videogame. You may have heard, from other gamers or websites, or from David Cage himself, that Heavy Rain is some kind of tectonic shift in the way we think about videogames. In fact, the first trophy you receive is called “Interactive Drama – Thank you for supporting Interactive Drama”.

Heavy Rain might still be all of those things, but that isn’t for us to decide, not right now. In the future, if we see more games of this kind expanded upon, then we can talk about Heavy Rain’s place in history. For now though, and for the purpose of this post, we need to look at Heavy Rain solely as a videogame, and on that note I’m happy to report that it’s a good one.

Heavy Rain
Looking at the previews, I wasn’t terribly impressed. Heavy Rain didn’t look like much of a game, more like a series of cinematics with button presses in between. We’ve come to dislike Quick Time Events (QTE’s) as a lazy way to incorporate bombastic action sequences with minimal player input, and Heavy Rain seemed to solely depend on them. Sure, the game looked fantastic, and the story seemed intriguing, but in those months leading up to the release, I found myself totally uninterested in playing a next-gen version of Dragon’s Lair.

Having now completed Heavy Rain, I can say that in many ways, all of those preconceived notions I had about it still apply. Yet none of that felt like a barrier between me and the game. Those QTE’s, which in past games felt disconnected between the action on-screen and the player’s input, flow more naturally in Heavy Rain. Even Quantic Dream’s previous effort, Indigo Prophecy, had this problem: it was showing me an awesomely choreographed fight sequence, yet the player’s involvement was simply a matter of “Simon Says”.

The difference this time around seems to be in the way these QTE’s are presented, various inputs (sixxaxis motions, thumbstick moves, button presses) float over interactive objects or body parts. Sometimes you’ll have a few options presented simultaneously, sometimes you’ll have a limited amount of time to make a decision, and sometimes you don’t have to do anything at all. What this amounts to is the kind of player/character control we’ve come to expect of our games, only presented in a way we aren’t used to. So yes, you are just pressing buttons to Win the Day, but isn’t that true of all games?

Heavy Rain
Even still, the mechanics of the game aren’t all that compelling taken at face value. It’s the emotional pull tied to those actions that is the real shining star of Heavy Rain. I’m not a father, but you can tell David Cage poured all of the joys and anxieties of being one into this game. A good example happens early on during a little mock light saber battle with Ethan Mars’ kids. Most of us, when presented with commands to hit on time, wouldn’t think twice about it. Of course I tried to “win” the fight. Soon enough I realized that I’m playing a father, and what kind of Dad would “win” in a play fight? So I intentionally fumbled a few times and the kids laughed. A good time had by all. Gold sticker for Virtua-Parent.

Heavy Rain is filled with moments like this. Where apparent failure opens up another avenue to explore, where doing what you’re instructed to may not be so easy, and where many of your choices have a lasting impact on the game. Progressing further, the story starts to outwardly mimic the structure of videogames, when the player will be directly asked to complete tasks for a reward, but it doesn’t always feel “right” to do so.

This is a huge part of the allure in Heavy Rain, the numerous times the game seems to subvert how we typically view games. The above example is a harmless play fight, but eventually you’ll be asked to do things that might cause you to pause for a moment and think about how you (as in the player) might react in this situation, to say nothing of how Ethan Mars or any of the other characters would act. The stakes quickly escalate far beyond backyard antics, as each new chapter ratchets up the intensity. This sounds cliche, but there were several occasions where I had to sit up and at the edge of my seat, and sometimes I messed up because I was legitimately feeling the stress of the situation.

Heavy Rain
Thinking back to Bioshock, a lot was made of the choice you had to make – should you harvest or save the Little Sisters? To me, it was never really a question, I’m not going to kill little kids, as creepy as they might be. Maybe I’m just the type of guy who has a hard time roleplaying Chaotic Evil – but in Bioshock, and in many games, moral choices are often black and white. Heavy Rain asks you to do things that straddle an uncomfortable grey zone. Saying that I had “fun” playing the game isn’t an entirely accurate statement, but I loved navigating that murky moral strata.

Since each decision you make causes the story to branch off in another direction, the way you play the game and the eventual ending you get can vary wildly from the endings that your friends might see. In this way, Heavy Rain reveals the entirety of it’s shape and form only at the end. After all the crazy things I had experienced in the game, there was another mind blowing aftershock when I was comparing notes with my brother and discovered how fluid the story can be.

The best part is that all your decisions will feel natural, even when tragedy strikes and one of the main characters die, you won’t be punished for “failing”. The game never asks you to retry a scene because you messed up, you simply have to carry on and live with your choices. In my case, one of the main characters died on my first play though, and I had a brief moment to consider restarting the scene again, but the story continued to unfold so I carried on playing. I ended up liking how the story played out in his absence when compared to my second run where I kept him alive, but I would have missed it if I always restarted scenes. Just thinking about all the alternate dimensions that exist within Heavy Rain makes my brain hurt a little bit, but in a good way.

Heavy Rain
Heavy Rain is often bleak, punctuated with small moments of joy. That emotional quality of the game, and how it works with the actual play of the thing, are perfectly balanced. Other aspects could use a bit more work though. I experienced a few frame rate drops and screen tears, usually with crowded scenes. And controlling your movement could definitely use some streamlining. While the visuals are amazingly real, in motion, the character animations feel stilted. The same applies to some of the voice acting. The main cast is excellent, but the side characters are sometimes lacking. Even when the acting is good, sometimes the dialog falls short.

Another more pressing issue is the apparent plot holes in the narrative. It could be argued to death, for or against, but don’t think that any of the inconsistencies break the story in an irredeemable way. It seems to me that the writing is actually more soundly constructed than most people give it credit for, but it still could have been massaged just a bit more. I would imagine that for some, the problems with the game are enough to bring down the overall experience. For those people, there is nothing Quantic Dream can do or say that will change their minds. No future patch is going to improve the voice acting, no update will cover up those plot holes. Your enjoyment of Heavy Rain is going to be dependent on how well you can stomach these issues. Looking back at the game, I don’t remember the problems, instead I took to heart that strong emotional pull it has.

Heavy Rain
At the beginning of this post, I said that Heavy Rain is a videogame. It’s a lot like many of the other games you’ll see on the shelves – you press buttons to Win the Day. Some have wrongly called it more a movie than a game, but I think it’s important that we claim this as one of ours. If the rumors are true, a future Heavy Rain: The Movie that’s in the works will probably be boring. I feel the same way about the Shadow of the Colossus movie – both are doing something that feels unique to the videogame medium. Turning them into movies would risk losing much of the power the original source material has to offer.

Heavy Rain is an intensely emotional piece – loneliness, belonging, wretchedness, a quiet sense of responsibility, are all potential feelings you might experience whilst playing the game. David Cage and Quantic Dream have made a video game that works to evoke more than just those primal emotions that we often see in games, the joy of success, combative bloodlust, or outright nerd rage. For now, Heavy Rain is an anomaly in videogames, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It needs to be improved upon, it needs a response, it needs more like it. The branches growing here need to be fostered, not left to wither and die as just another weird tangent in the history of games, like Full Motion Video or Digitized Actors.

We like to play videogames, but that doesn’t mean we should limit ourselves to blasting away aliens and killing zombies. I love playing as a kick ass martial artist, or a kick ass cyborg space marine, or a kick ass knight of the realm as much as the next gamer – but every now and then, I wouldn’t mind inhabiting the shoes of a down trodden single father living in the scummier parts of Philadelphia. Having given that a try with Heavy Rain, I would gladly embrace the opportunity to do so again.

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  • EdEN

    I liked the demo of the game but right now this purchase is on hold until more funds can be obtained since I have to spend $1100 in car payments and license plate renewals along with an extra $50 I’ve already spent since I’m painting the kitchen. Still, look forward to playing it in August.

    • http://www.gamesugar.net Jamie Love

      oh Eden, you sure do love spending monies ;)

  • EdEN

    I don’t love it, I just HAVE to hahaha. Being married means prioritizing your spending and house and family must come before games. Between January and the end of april 2010 I will have spent $4500 between house renovations, painting (exterior and interior of the house), car payments, car maintenance service, a car battery that died, fixing our main shower and a small vacation to the beack on spring break. And when you factor in we’re trying to have a baby well…

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/ujnhunter Ujn Hunter

    Hey guys, I haven’t started playing Heavy Rain yet… but I have a question… Should I play the DLC episode first or the main game first? I’m having this dilemma with Mass Effect too… I have the books but I haven’t finished the first game… and I don’t know if I should read the “prequel” book yet as it might spoil some things in the first game… argh… I wish there was a ‘read this first, then play this, and read this third’ time line out there.

    • http://www.rey-o.com Rey Ortega

      Hi Ujn Hunter,

      I would recommend playing the main game first. The main game has tutorials to introduce you to the controls, as well as the characters. You could probably play the DLC first, it’s a prequel but it’s also really short.To me it was more like a nice bonus “cut scene” like you see in DVD’s.