Heavy Rain Hands-On PreviewBy Andrew Pfister - Posted Dec 14, 2009
I’ve completed the first eleven scenes of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, and I’m not entirely convinced I should be calling it a “game.” Don’t take that as effusive pre-release praise about games being some form of higher art; it’s just that Heavy Rain, thus far, makes me feel like I’m an actor more than a player.
It starts with the completely mundane. Getting out of bed. Taking a shower. Brushing my teeth, using and flushing the toilet. As I get to know architect Ethan Mars and his family, Heavy Rain is teaching me its mechanics: movements with the analog stick, combination button presses, conversations with other characters, and exploration of inner monologue. The only traditional control element to be found is the “walk” button, and everything else is based on contextual interaction. The plot is propelled mostly by talking, thinking, and examining... and in the moments where life and limb are actually in peril, it’s much more reminiscent of a cinematic action scene than a typical video game combat scenario.
Because of this approach, Heavy Rain will succeed or fail on the strength of its plot. The introductory scene of the once-joyful Mars clan sets the tone early. Ethan, his wife, and their two sons are a model family. We don’t just get to see Ethan’s joy of being a father -- the interactions are designed to try to make us feel the emotions at play. That sets us up for the tragedy that happens next, and the quick tonal shift from sunshine and happiness to grime and depression.
Thematically, Heavy Rain seems to concern itself with adult things: estranged relationships, the difficulties of raising children, dealing with crippling depression, chemical dependency, feminine vulnerability. It runs the risk of being unable to resonate with the video game audience at large, but because Quantic Dream has chosen these themes, it can elicit responses that other games don’t need to bother with. Losing Jason, one of Ethan's sons, in a crowded mall – a situation inspired by something that creator David Cage experienced in real-life – really wants you to panic as a father would, responsible for his child's well-being.
Private detective Scott Shelby finds himself in the middle of a convenience store robbery, a scenario that’s all about indecision and dealing with an unpredictable actor.
Alone in her apartment in the middle of the night, Madison Paige senses that she’s not alone, and because you’ve just met this character and don’t know what she’s capable of, the ensuing scenario has a genuine sense of peril.
Norman Jayden, dependent on chemicals to maintain his composure, fights off a public meltdown that would adversely affect his career... and the choice to resort to drugs is left to the player.
If we are to call Heavy Rain a game, it’s one of those games that you can’t describe as “fun.” But it’s engaging and provocative in a much different way, and barring any script meltdowns, I very much want to see how these stories and characters weave together and conclude. It won’t appeal to everybody, and I hope that Sony and Quantic Dream are prepared for that and already have established different expecations for its success.