You're a man trying to rock a baby to sleep. You're a woman trying to look sexy for a sleaze. Who cares if you're having fun, as long as you're interested? You're playing Heavy Rain, a video game about people.
Many years in the making and a successor to what could most kindly be called an uneven experiment, Heavy Rain is finally launching on the PlayStation 3. It's an ambitious video game from French development studio Quantic Dream, a game you don't have to worry about losing, but will fork and change depending on what you do. Progress in it is inexorable, but a happy ending is not inevitable.
But what is it exactly? It's a drama broken into several dozen chapters that advance the interwoven narratives of four playable characters: Distraught dad, FBI investigator, crusty private eye, insomniac lady. It's a mix of traditional ideas of character movement and dialogue options integrated with a control scheme style that might best be described as emotional. It's a serial killer whodunit. It's also a smartly-masked game that isn't about what it initially appears to be about. Its an exploration of fatherhood and of a notion that can be tough to explore in the potentially-desensitized medium of video games: The violent lengths a player will virtually go to accomplish a goal.
A Game About People: The most gripping element of Heavy Rain is the fact that it is propelled by recognizable human emotions. A player will sense the cues of what they are supposed to do next based on the most obvious of feelings: fear, lust, panic, concern, and so on. The game's boldly bland prologue chapter has the player controlling Ethan Mars, an initially happily married father of two. This level involves nothing more than Ethan getting out of bed, brushing his teeth, showering, deciding whether to work on architectural sketches before his wife and kids come home, helping to bring in the groceries when they do, maybe helping his wife by setting the table, playing in the backyard with the kids and that's about it. Through this, the player is learning the game's controls. They are also learning that this game assumes you will recognize, care about and act upon the implied emotions of doing and not doing such simple things. You can't not brush your teeth, sadly, but you can decline to help set the table. You can choose one son to play with in the backyard than the other. And maybe there will be consequences, maybe there won't. But the game will adapt to your choices and continue to ask you to make these kinds of subtle decisions. A few chapters later you're juggling the calls of duty of letting one of your sons watch TV or forcing him to do his homework. I played that chapter multiple times, once with the son loving me, once with the son hating me. That's the draw here before any local serial killer mystery gets added to this emotional mix.
A Game Of Uneasiness: Heavy Rain is uncomfortable, its designers skilled at putting the player in awkward situations and making them sort their way out of it. What choice would you make if you were in the back of a convenience store while a robber walks in and pulls a gun on the owner? Grab the frying pan, creep behind and whack him? Hang back and let it play out? Try to negotiate? The game is composed almost entirely of vignettes like this, behavioral laboratories that appear to have no Game Over wrong answer. I'd love to tell you about the five or 10 best ones, but that would spoil the fun. Well, here's a very vague and minor one: If you and your friend are being chased by the cops, what do you do? The game keeps raising its stakes, putting its players in one conundrum after another and is guaranteed to provoke the kind of "How did you handle that moment" conversations generated by the less subtle and less flexible interactive airport massacre in last year's Modern Warfare 2.
Emotional Controls: Heavy Rain looks like a good-looking action game even though it is more of a pretty 3D version of the 2D adventure games from where this developer-dubbed "Interactive Drama" gets much of its inspiration. The game is well-made enough to effectively render shootouts and rooftop chases, crowded nightclubs and shopping malls and the detailed, dank scenes of crime-scene murder. But within this visual context, Heavy Rain controls in an unusual way. A trigger moves the character forward, while a control stick guides them. Camera angles are fixed, often for the best view but, unconventional in modern games, often not behind the back. Dialogue is activated by button presses prompted by floating-text options, options that never spell out the next spoken line but provide a hint at the kind of thing that will be said. Action sequences are controlled through so-called Quick-Timer Event sequences, requiring the player to tap certain buttons at certain times during, say a fistfight, in order to land the next punch, dodge a blow, pick up a lamp to toss it at the enemy or whatever else has been choreographed by the game's designers. QTEs have been criticized as game designer crutches, a cheat that lets designers render flashy action without offering controls that give players meaningful involvement in what's going on. Heavy Rain, however, manages something smart and novel by working into this mix the requirement to sometimes use the PS3 controller's analog stick to trigger certain actions — slowly moving it to pull a frying pan off the wall without that stick-up guy in the convenience store hearing you, for example. That addition of analog prompts forces the player to be more subtle with their finger movements. What this all comes together as is a control scheme that sometimes demands feverish button-pressing and other times accepts only the gentlest of touches. When such a scheme is mapped to, say, gently rocking a baby to sleep with soft sways of the analog stick, the excellence of that mix shines through. We may not be mimicking the actions on screen, but pleasantly often in Heavy Rain, we are mimicking the attitude of those actions, the temper of the intent, the feel.
Almost All Grown Up: Heavy Rain's predecessor, Fahrenheit (released as Indigo Prophecy in the U.S.), offered much of what I've mentioned above but in cruder ways. It too aspired to present an interactive drama of emotional maturity, but by the time one of the characters was having sex with the reanimated corpse of another, it wasn't completely succeeding. This new game, by contrast, presents many moments of surprising maturity, from the aforementioned exploration of fatherhood to the multiple inversions of gaming's often lascivious presentation of attractive women. You may get the girl you're controlling to take her top off, but you may feel guilty about it later. The designers know what buttons their players are pushing and they have some buttons to push of their own. (One demerit to the game, though, for presenting yet another video game romance that I can't believe in for a second.)
Let's Do It Again: Rare is the game of supposedly deep branched gameplay and so much variety that you could Play It All Over Again But Differently that I want to actually play a second time, all over again but differently. But with Heavy Rain I did want to play many of its chapters again, to see how I could change events and make things happen differently. It doesn't hurt that people from the development studio let it be known that even main characters can die and stay dead. Really? Let's see if that's true…
Crime Scene Investigation: Controlling the game's FBI investigator character, Norman Jayden, provides a twist to the gameplay. When controlling Jayden, players can augment the virtual reality of the game world and search for fingerprints, bloodstains and other crime scene clues. Back at Jayden's office, players can sift through the clues. All of this is disappointingly the least open-ended of Heavy Rain's gameplay. There does not seem to be much variety in how you can go about investigating crime scenes as you hunt for the identity of the mysterious Origami Killer. But the way that you do these things is rendered in a visually interesting way, and adds just a dose of linear almost action-oriented gameplay that offers a nice change of pace to the otherwise play-as-you-like chapters. It also provides some satisfying opportunities to push the investigation forward in what turns out to be a pretty good murder mystery.
Distracting Voices: Speech is important in this game, but to my American ears I had trouble believing in the otherwise powerful virtual reality of this world when I heard actors speaking in what sounded like fraudulent American accents. The children, key characters in the game, are the ones who sound the weirdest. This won't bother some, nor will the occasional lack of precise lip-syncing, but it was the one thing that threatened to shatter the illusion and cheapen my emotional investment in Heavy Rain's world.
Movement Errors: As much as I liked the basic controls, Heavy Rain does have some of that fixed-camera old Resident Evil problem. You're pushing the stick one way as a character walks through a door. The camera angle switches. And suddenly you are disoriented, pushing the stick all the wrong ways and your brilliant private eye is walking in silly small circles. It doesn't happen often, but it's a pitfall Quantic Dream didn't manage to fully bound.
Sometimes Dull Lead Characters: Video game developers often have to decide whether to leave their playable protagonists as blank entities, the better for players to see themselves in the shoes of, or to make the lead characters distinct, a love it or hate it kind of persona. Three of Heavy Rain's leads are more of the blank type, which can make them bores compared to private eye Scott Shelby, who seems like an interesting and complex guy from the get-go. We all will have our favorites, and I finished Heavy Rain having enjoyed the times I felt I was more of a specific character and less of the time I felt I was controlling an avatar.
Heavy Rain is a strong effort by Quantic Dream. It succeeds as a game that doesn't need the constant killing and chaos that so many video games depend on to be interesting. It may ultimately be a murder mystery and an exploration about the lengths to which players might push the characters they control. But Heavy Rain is, at its frequent best, a game about emotion and subtlety, a game that doesn't condemn choices as bad but instead allows them to be different, allows them to be meaningful and allows the player to feel. This is a game for grown-ups or anyone who wants to feel like one.
Heavy Rain was developed by Quantic Dream and published by Sony Computer Entertainment of America for the PlayStation 3 on February 23. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the game in about a dozen hours, tried multiple playthrough variations for some chapters, figured out the identity of the Origami Killer halfway through.
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