Heavy Rain ReviewBy Andrew Pfister - Posted Feb 10, 2010
Heavy Rain weaves together an entertaining thriller, an interactive presentation, and story-altering decisions. And though it shows signs of unraveling, it comes together in the end for a gripping and unique experience.
- Lack of a "fail state" provides unique pressure
- Provokes both emotional and "gamer" responses
- Sets a fine example for future story-heavy games
- Problems with plot consistency
- Outside cultural influences seep into setting
- Distracting discrepancy between cut-scene and in-game animation
You won't understand Heavy Rain until the first time you do something wrong. You'll be required to make a quick decision based on limited information or an altercation will end poorly, and instead of a "Game Over" screen and another attempt at the same challenge, the script briskly continues to the next scene as if what happened was how it was supposed to happen all along. When you wonder for the first time, "What if I did that differently?" is when Heavy Rain blooms.
THE PLAY'S THE THING
This is not David Cage and Quantic Dream's first attempt at interactive drama. The praised-yet-flawed Indigo Prophecy laid much of the groundwork for Heavy Rain back in 2005, and it was then that Cage first attempted to rework the concepts of adventure games and interwoven fiction into something more modern. But Indigo Prophecy's script weakened under a load of supernatural confusion and while not entirely solved, that same mistake has not been repeated for Heavy Rain.
Like Indigo, Heavy Rain is built entirely of character interactions with the environments, with each other, and within themselves. These interactions are translated to the controller in the form of context-based motions and gestures: "half-circle up on the analog stick," "shake controller to the right," and "hold triangle, square and circle" are examples. The shorthand industry jargon for this type of control scheme is "QTE," or quick-time event, and usually carries a negative connotation. The reason that Heavy Rain should avoid that negative association is that this is the basis for the entire experience -- there are no jumps between different types of control schemes like those found in the finishing moves of action games like God of War or Bayonetta.
And an experience like Heavy Rain wouldn't be possible without such a structure. There's a very simple link between the controller motions and eliciting a similar mental feeling that corresponds with what happens on screen. Holding down three buttons at once tests your hand dexterity as one character tries to maintain his balance on a muddy hill. The translation is not even close to direct, but it's enough to trigger the empathetic reaction that you're somehow participating in the scene. In the beginning, the simple motions of a Saturday morning routine prepares your "gamer" side for the far more intense scenarios to come, but it also builds required emotional links that give the inevitable tragedies their punch. Playing with your kids in the yard, for example, doesn't just teach you how to play, but also means you're playing with your kids in the yard. That's an equally important bond to establish, and Heavy Rain does this well throughout.
Context-based control is equally important in redefining the idea of an action scene. Going with a a cinematic presentation requires that a certain amount of direct control must be surrendered by the player. That's true with Heavy Rain, but the trade-off is more effective here than it would be in games with a traditional 1st- or 3rd-person perspective. A car chase or a fistfight can be exciting no matter what the vantage point is, but there's a unique tension and excitement that can only be brought out by a director with a plan. That's not to say there's right or a wrong way of doing things; Heavy Rain doesn't invalidate other methods of gameplay as much as it validates its own method as a viable alternative. It can be called a game, but it's more of an interactive drama. And to call it that is the furthest thing from a slight.
THE GRASS IS GREENER
There's no dominant philosophical statement in David Cage's story apart from "it's important to have (or be) a good father." Much was made about who this game would appeal to, and as it turns out, it's the same people who enjoy movies like Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, or Zodiac. Cage borrows from such influences and infuses his own experiences as a father to create a gripping crime drama, and the only requirement to relate to the story is that you either have a father, had a father, are a father, or grew up without a father -- which should account for everybody. His driving question of "How far would you go?" puts the responsibility of divining a theme on the shoulders of the player, as it's those dynamic decisions that decide Heavy Rain's ultimate resolution. Using the game as a mirror works, just as long as the player is interested enough in holding it up -- and using a straightforward story about a serial killer more than suffices as incentive.
And it's absolutely vital that these decisions are presented as irreversible. The absence of a fail state -- the traditional "Game Over" screen -- and knowing that key characters of the story can die and not return generates a genuine sense of danger when those characters find themselves in deep trouble. That trickles down into smaller decisions and conversations where you need to make a choice, and what ends up happening more often than not is going with your gut instinct and accepting the consequences. Feeling that you made a "wrong" choice shouldn't be construed as failing at the game, nor is it reinforced by the scenes that result -- you're just seeing the story march on a different path. The flexibility of the script allows for multiple conclusions, and multiple variations on how you arrive at those conclusions. Though there are "good" and "bad" results, the endings can't really be defined as "good" or "bad" -- there's ample resolution in both, and the dissatisfaction you might feel with what you end up with only compels you to explore the story again following a different path.
But not everything is perfect. With such an emphasis placed on the story, the plot quirks and logical inconsistencies that might be brushed aside in other games stick out here. Characters sometimes behave irrationally for the sake of plot convenience; red herrings lead too far in one direction without any explanation to justify it; important revelation scenes are skipped over depending on player decisions; the game's shocking twist was well-hidden in retrospect, but also contradicts itself upon review due to dishonest misdirection and unconvincing voice work. Depending on your path, it's possible the game can end in a disappointing way because of a double-whammy plot contrivance and "stubborn, stupid cop" cliche. But it's also possible you never see that happen.
Weaving such an open story leads to such unique narrative-related problems that Cage was unable to avoid. Some of which are evident through the initial playthrough, but others that reveal themselves only after you already know what happens. To use a spoiler-free example, in one scene Character X makes Decision A. But later in the game we see Character X in a state where it assumes Decision B was made. Having access to the characters' inner thoughts, for all of its benefits, also poses a problem. Heavy Rain does a great job of keeping you true to your outward decisions and performance, but frequently you'll be able to choose from a wide range of inner thoughts, and you aren't forced to commit to one way of thinking like you are with one course of action. That will lead to weird mood swings where characters contradict themselves internally as you explore their current state of mind. If we're supposed to be playing the part of these characters, it would have been more effective and in line with the game's action scenes to choose one train of thought as a gut reaction and commit to it.
ARE YOU FROM AROUND HERE?
One last quirk that you have to force yourself to accept is that Heavy Rain is a game about Americans written and cast by French developers. This wouldn't be an issue had Quantic Dream been able to fully maintain the illusion that everything is happening in an area heavily inspired by Philadelphia, but there were too many instances of poor voice acting, particularly in the children characters, that definitely did not come across as originating from the Eastern United States. There are frequent slip-ups with pronunciation, cadence, and inflection that suggest an effort to suppress European accents. Much of the voice work is passable, but when it's not, it eats away at the all-too-important immersion. As does the awkward, almost alien-like way the characters move around in anything that isn't a cut-scene (which, in contrast, are executed quite convincingly).
But credit must be given to Quantic Dream for creating an environment -- a proper stage -- that's soaked in the grime and depression needed to underscore what's really a sad and terrible story. You can be walking through a crime scene at 8:14 in the morning and feel like it's 3:00 AM and you've been up for 72 hours and you really don't know what time of day it is...which doesn't really matter because the constant rain makes the days bleed together anyway. The soundtrack, too, accentuates the mood. Whether it's simple piano notes providing a noir tone to a lonely private eye's investigation, or strings screeching alongside the tires of a car about to crash through a police blockade.
YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
Quantic Dream has improved and refined the template they created with Indigo Prophecy, and it's an example that hopefully other developers will consider following, especially if they have an idea for a game that might not be suited for a genre with more established conventions. But there's still room for improvement, and it's going to take a skilled and attentive group of people to avoid common game mistakes, cinematic mistakes, and new hybrid mistakes that we're just now discovering exist when the two are blended.
But in the frequent moments when it works, the unpredictable nature of the story is a special thing that's unique to games. Instead of talking to someone else who experienced it and both of you recounting the same scene, you might end up excitedly saying, "Wait...that's not what happened to me..."
"Should" you play Heavy Rain? If you enjoy a good story, then yes...especially because you get to take part in it.