Heavy Rain Review
David Cage is a man of deliberation. Where most developers don’t bother much with characterization or dialogue interaction, he revels in it. Rather than pointing a gun at someone to solve all problems, he prefers to create characters that use their heads. Hell, in game from Cage, you may not even be solving a common problem, from a game design standpoint—say, getting past or around an obstruction, or fighting your way out of a situation. Instead you might just have a conversation with someone. It could even be something as simple as making dinner for your son.
This is exactly what makes a game like Heavy Rain so polarizing, not to mention a ‘threat’ to the status quo of the typical games-as-big-business mentality that so often bottlenecks the medium. Simply put, it isn’t the same old thing. The game isn’t an entirely new concept—Cage and his dev studio Quantic Dream used a similar design model, taking the tenets of adventure game and changing the parameters to affect how the storyline plays out in 2004’s Indigo Prophecy (and to some primitive degree in the Dreacast-era Omikron before that). Heavy Rain is essentially an evolution of this somewhat-freeform adventure design, but one that’s generally more sophisticated than its last-gen predecessor. That Sony has put so much effort into getting the word out about this one shows their faith in the project, a surprising move considering just how different Heavy Rain is compared to just about any other game out there. In many ways, it’s about as far away from the status quo as you can get, despite a story revolving around four people’s relationships to a series of serial killings.
These are the more nuanced elements of the game, however. What’s also intriguing about Heavy Rain is how Cage has continually stressed that this is a game for mature players. The reactionary response to this has been crude and obvious: what about the sex? Where's the nudity? But to keep an ejaculatory focus on this aspect alone completely misses the point of what the game is actually about. Cage is right—Heavy Rain is made for adults. But it’s because of its overall emotional maturity, and, later, psychological anguish, that makes it so. We get a glimpse of this from the game’s opening, actually, as architect Ethan Mars, one of the four main characters in the game, gets ready for the day in his beautifully designed home. After getting out of bed, showering, shaving and brushing his teeth—all of which are handled with on-screen contextual commands that float around your character—Ethan makes his way downstairs to greet his wife and two children. It happens that today is tenth birthday of the Mars’ eldest, Jason, and after Ethan speaks to his wife about party preparations for that afternoon, he decides to go outside and to roughhouse with the boys. Once outside Ethan can pick up either Shaun or Jason and zoom them around the back yard on his shoulders, have a fake lightsaber duel with them, and pick up one each with his arms. It may be a pretty typical day in upper middle class America, but in terms of gameplay this is anything but. Even so early on in the game, you can already start to feel the emotional connection Ethan has to his family.
Later, after tragedy strikes, Ethan is sitting on park bench with Shaun. He tries to get him to open up, but his son is distant. With a little effort, he teaches Shaun to throw a boomerang, and in an effort to make him happy, buys him candy. It’s clear that the boy is still troubled, but temporarily feels better. Again, the empathic power of a father trying to re-connect with an offspring Cage is conveying is hard to ignore. Ethan himself is even a wreck, no longer caring enough to shave or dress with much care. A near-constantly updated internal monologue is available for you to see what the character is thinking at any time, and in this scene, Ethan silently worries about his deteriorating relationship with Shaun. It’s these little things that resonate with you in Heavy Rain, which is as much about the characters themselves as it is about telling a story. While the game clearly plays at and borrows heavily from cinematic conventions, Cage’s refusal to stick entirely to tightly edited scenes of action is admirable—the kinds of day-to-day scenarios of real-life humanity seen here are rare in a medium that's more often than not driven by primal, competitive design sensibilities.
Of course, things don’t have to turn out with Ethan starting to repair his relationship with Shaun. You have the option to widen the gap between Ethan and Shaun by screwing up when you throw the boomerang, or not, say, playing with Shaun on the seesaw, or pushing him on a swing. Heavy Rain’s design is firmly rooted to a linear track, but your actions are not. In almost every chapter of the game there is some scenario or situation that comes with ramifications, whether they’re immediate or affecting something later in the storyline. They can be as minor as Shaun remaining despondent, or, say, one’s physical appearance being damaged, or as significant as what ultimately happens to a major or minor character. After Shaun is kidnapped by the Origami Killer, a serial killer who drowns his victims in rainwater, it becomes clear that the game is as much about death and sacrifice as it is a study about what makes make life worth living. Particularly in Ethan’s case, the intense psychological torture and suffering he is forced into is emotionally gripping, almost reminiscent of the sheer abuse exacted on Snake over the course of Metal Gear Solid 4. The point is, just like in real life, you have the ability to play a situation the ‘wrong’ way. And because of the level of emotional investment you place in these characters, chances are you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure they don’t end up hurt. The psychological effect of this is ingenious—choices in Heavy Rain carry real weight, and threats to your mortality are panicked, harrowing experiences. There are no checkpoint restarts here.
Heavy Rain’s most important fulcrum lies in its narrative, however. The game is split up in a series of chapters that flow (more or less) in a strictly linear line, and generally alternates characters between Ethan, Scott Shelby, a private investigator; Madison Paige, a reporter; and Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler called into to investigate the latest in the series of murders perpetrated by the Origami Killer, all of whom become gradually more involved and connected to each other. For the most part, the plot is well-written and executed, although things will occasionally pop up without much explanation (Jayden’s futuristic Added Reality Interface glasses, which he uses for forensic purposes, seem an especially odd sci-fi element for a story set in 2011). The story, taking elements of Seven and Saw (which, let’s face it, is just a poor man’s Seven to begin with) has some minor imperfections, and has a few plot elements which may or may be explained, depending on your actions. But the human approach he generally takes over that of a stereotypical thriller keeps things both interesting and thoroughly engrossing.
Oddly, Quantic Dream relied almost entirely on European actors doing American accents, which could have derailed the entire game had the voicework been poor. The result is that occasionally an unintended accent slips through here or there, though such instances generally are confined to minor characters. Despite a cast of (to western audiences) unknowns, the acting here is generally top notch, with the major players all delivering expert performances (the game's somber score is also excellent). In particular, Pascal Langdale and Sam Douglas (playing Ethan and Scott, respectively) are worth noting for their natural qualities. The high quality of the game's production values is uniform, in fact. Quantic Dream has been working on Heavy Rain since 2006, and it shows, particularly in the amazingly rendered detail seen in the character models. The game’s numerous sets are also well designed (although their linearity often makes the levels feel like walking around a movie set), but the environments themselves remind us of the misery that's buried deep in the characters, plot, and setting. Even in all of its moodiness, the first time you see the thick dust hanging in the air of an abandoned, dilapidated apartment building, you’ll know this one's something special.
Like Indigo Prophecy before it, Heavy Rain is what you might call an imperfect masterpiece. While there’s nothing as patently ridiculous here as Indigo’s attack of the giant invisible inter-dimensional space fleas, Cage still likes to cull oddities, however small, into the narrative space, making some of the game just a little wonky at times. He also occasionally fails to affect the right emotive response in a scene, such as when Madison is forced at gunpoint to strip for a sleazy club owner. And although I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, let’s just say that you can’t always entirely trust Cage, either. Still, if he can deliver a game whose narrative focus is on emotional connection, and is ultimately about love (which he has), a few incidental tangents are acceptable. Missteps or not, Heavy Rain’s legitimacy to the medium is a commentary against the often too-myopic approaches to game design—a quality that should be both recognized and lauded.