This week, we finished streaming David Cage’s crime thriller Heavy Rain on Kotaku’s Twitch channel. It’s a game of astounding highs and disappointing lows, with intense action and awful writing. It’s not as bad as everyone says, but it’s still not very good.
Heavy Rain’s core concept of a father trying to save his son from a serial killer is engaging, and the main protagonists’ search for the truth is full of twists and turns. Like a B-grade summer movie, it’s very watchable and stirred a lot of fun discussion in our Twitch chat. But it’s also a game defined by inconsistencies. Let’s start with what works.
Heavy Rain follows multiple perspectives: a desperate father, a by-the-book FBI agent, an investigative journalist, and a private detective with a dark secret. Their struggles are surprisingly relatable, whether that means watching Ethan Mars spend a depressing afternoon with his son or Norman Jayden balance his desire for the truth with his need to be a good man. In the best moments, Heavy Rain thrusts these character into propulsive scenes of danger and intrigue.
The world of Heavy Rain is full of small interactions that help the world feel real. Players shave, brush their teeth, pull up chairs, turn doorknobs, draw, turn on CD players, and more. Every one of these actions is accompanied by controller prompts that vaguely approximate the action. Turning a steering wheel means tilting the controller, while a close shave means slowly and carefully moving the analog stick. These interactions root players in the game space and help them embody their characters. It creates empathy that can then be exploited in the game’s action scenes for powerful effect.
Composed by the late Normand Corbeil, Heavy Rain’s score perfectly captures the mood of the game. It is a plaintive affair full of low, moaning horns, sinister strings, and plonking piano keys. I’m willing to say that half of the game’s emotional resonance comes from the music. Heavy Rain aims to be a serious affair, but the acting and animations often fall short. Corbeil’s soundtrack elevates these moments and give them heart.
Despite these strengths, many of Heavy Rain’s glaring problems drag the game down. Offensive racial stereotypes, cruel treatment of women, and more end up detracting from the piece.
Madison is one of the game’s four player characters, and her treatment throughout the game is utterly disgusting. She is repeatedly subject to physical and sexual violence. In the scene in which she’s introduced, Madison wakes up in her apartment due to a bout of insomnia, and the player is tasked with finding ways for her to relax. These include watching television, making a cup of tea, or a shower scene in which she takes off all her clothes. While a shower scene is present for Ethan as well, Madison’s features lingering shots of her nude body and in-depth toweling off mechanics. Ethan’s nudity, by contrast, is mostly obscured, and he towels off for less time. In the scene following Madison’s shower, her apartment is raided by masked men who menace her in an action sequence full of violence and positions of sexual power. Madison is tossed on a bed and mounted, and she is thrown to the ground as the intruders stand over her fallen form. The scene ends with her death, only for her to awaken—it was a nightmare all along.
The scene is emblematic of Cage’s handling of Madison and shows a casual disregard for the only woman in the cast. Heavy Rain was marketed as a game of consequence in which anyone could die. Madison’s introduction does nothing to further the story; it simply shocks the player. This is a repeated pattern throughout the game, as scene after scene turns Madison into a damsel. She is sedated and tied up by a mad doctor later in the game; failure in this scene leads to her gruesome death. Another scene has her follow a lead to a nightclub where she is eventually made to strip at gunpoint. This sexual violence is not something the player can decline. While players do not have to strip Madison completely naked, they must remove one article of clothing to proceed. This complicity in Madison’s exploitation only stresses her ultimate lack of agency within the story. She is meant to be a brave character and occasionally rises to the occasion, but she also has the misfortune of being a woman in a David Cage game. For all of her stronger characteristics, there are many scenes of brazen exploitation and degradation.
Jackson “Mad Jack” Neville is Heavy Rain’s only major black character. He is also a thug and murderer. His accent is a gross attempt at African American vernacular. Nominally, protagonist Norman Jayden is investigating Jack’s connection to a stolen car used by the serial Origami Killer, but in practice he is simply another challenge for the player to conquer.
Jayden is an FBI agent faced with a criminal. In one scene Jayden holds Jack at gunpoint, and the player can casually threaten to murder Jack or even discharge their weapon near his head. While it is possible to end the scene without violence, players are far more likely to fail the difficult button prompt require and instead end up in an extended action sequence that ends with Jack violently crushed by a forklift.
Cage’s work has not been terribly flattering to characters of color. Indigo Prophecy features black proagonist Tyler Miles, a police detective who spends more time talking jive and listening to funk than solving cases. A supposedly major character, he leaves the story near the end of the game to make room for white protagonists Carla Valenti and Lucas Kane. In Beyond Two Souls, the kindly scientist Cole Freeman fairs better, aided by a strong performance by actor Kadeem Hardison, but he largely exists on the game’s periphery. Meanwhile, protagonist Jodie Holmes invades an unnamed African country and slaughters dozens of soldiers, ultimately assassinating the nation’s president. Much like how women exist to be exploited in Cage’s narratives, black people exist to be dominated by white characters. Mad Jack is another log on the fire.
Throughout the game, all the protagonists are seeking the Origami Killer. The major revelation is that player-controlled character Scott Shelby is the killer and that the player has helped him recover loose pieces of evidence to dispose of. In theory, this is pretty cool. The idea of a character hiding an agenda and exerting their own control away from the player is compelling. The structure is interesting as well, with the revelation framed partially as a breach of trust between the player and Shelby that removes him completely from their control.
While there are plot holes involved in this reveal, the twist is never communicated or foreshadowed before the revelation. There might be some clues for players aware of Shelby’s true nature in retrospect, but on a first time playthrough, there’s no real indication that he’s anything other than a stand-up individual caught up in a dogged search for the truth. This lack of disclosure with the player makes the twist shocking but ultimately nonsensical. It marks the moment that the game shifts from a tightly-woven thriller to a cartoonish series of action scenes with little payoff. What might have been emotional and surprising comes off as tepid and forced. For a game hinging on the question of who the killer is, having all the investigation the player did be for nothing is disappointing.
I like Heavy Rain a lot. It’s exciting and has many well-designed moments. But overall, the game doesn’t just stumble, it topples over under the weight of its mistakes. I think everyone should play Heavy Rain, if only to see how something so good can also go so wrong.