Heavy Rain is going to provoke discussion. There will be arguments about what kind of game it is; there will be arguments about whether or not it is even a game at all. Some people will call it a movie, others will call it an evolution of the adventure genre, some will love it, some will hate it, some will “get it”, and others simply won’t. It’s probably one of the most interesting games of the current generation, if for no other reason than it engages debate about the medium and its audience, and does things no other game has attempted like asking players bear the consequences of their actions.
At its heart, Heavy Rain is a more evolved, realized version of the same concepts and motifs that were seen in David Cage’s previous game, Indigo Prophecy. Indigo Prophecy was a daring, original experiment that ultimately failed because of problems with both the story and the interface. Heavy Rain, without giving away too many details, is about how four unrelated characters (a father, a journalist, an FBI agent, and a private investigator) unite in opposition to a Philadelphia serial killer dubbed “The Origami Killer”.
Right off the bat, Heavy Rain’s graphics establish their animators as serious contributors to the current generation of gaming. The art direction is beautiful, moody, and startlingly evocative, and it boasts the best facial capture and character detail seen in any available game. The graphics are slightly let down by technical problems, such as frequent screen tearing, but on a purely aesthetic level, Heavy Rain easily competes with other high profile titles.
Unfortunately, the audio is not quite up to the same standard. While the soundtrack could also be considered one of the best on the market, the voice acting is uneven, with an unpredictable mix of performances. While not an issue with most games, it’s a noticeable flaw in Heavy Rain, where narrative immersion is absolutely critical to the experience. Despite taking place in Philadelphia in 2011, only one of the actors sound like a legitimate American. Based out of Paris, Quantic Dream probably had budgetary limitations that forced them to work with European talent to mimic American accents, but it’s still a minor blemish on the game.
Heavy Rain is not what would be considered a “video game” in the traditional sense. It is a game that is played, but it uses different mechanics such as dialogue trees, quick time events and decision points that can affect the out come of the plot, in addition to steering a character around environments in 3rd person as most gamers are used to. Rather than simply assign the “x” button to jump and “square” button to shoot, actions are all context sensitive, allowing the player to wander through a playfield completely uncluttered by health bars, ammo counts and other displays, until an object can be interacted with.
At that point, “cues” appear to indicate what action players can take, such as pushing the right analog stick up to pick up an electric razor, and then gently curving it in a half circle in order to shave. When it comes to interacting with other characters, options will circle around the player’s head suggesting an attitude or line of questioning to take. But most interesting of all in the game, is that there is no “fail state” or “game over.” No matter what happens, even if one of the four main characters dies, the game simply takes the new development into account and the story keeps moving forward. In other words, players are urged to live with the consequences of their decisions, rather than simply stare at the words “game over” reload, and try again.
All of these methods are applied with a very different purpose in mind than what gamers expect. Where most games are about providing the player with enjoyment through a sense of empowerment, Heavy Rain, like some literature, cinema and other fiction, is not necessarily supposed to be “fun”. Players receptive to what Heavy Rain offers will find themselves engaging with the characters, experiencing dread, guilt, anxiety, regret and even disgust as the events of the game unfold. The game takes a surprisingly mature approach, repeatedly asking the central question “How far would you go to save someone you love,” and reinforcing this with elements of parenthood, childhood trauma, profanity, nudity, and even sex.
This is not a game for everyone. The lack of traditional mechanics is guaranteed to alienate a certain segment of the gamer population. The emphasis on narrative will bore the more action-oriented. It is flawed, but it is also an incredibly brave and dazzling attempt to provoke something other than the usual run n’ gun reaction in its audience.
It is also one of the most “non-gamer friendly” games available, particularly for an audience to watch, as the cinematic qualities are so strong, it is easy to lure observers in to find out what happens next. Heavy Rain takes many chances, calling itself an “Interactive Drama,” which, while a bit clunky, is still the most accurate description of what the game attempts to do. It does not want gamers to enjoy themselves with the adrenaline rush of a shootout, but rather, feel emotionally drained after having been through an arresting experience.
It’s still too early to say whether Heavy Rain is going to be simply another speed bump on the long road to gaming’s emergence as an artistic medium, or actually become a milestone. But one thing is certain, and that is gamers have never played anything quite like this. It may not be for everyone, but everyone should try it at least once. The adventure genre has reinvented itself and it is grimmer, darker, more emotional and more sophisticated than anyone was expecting.