Heavy Rain: Interactive Drama at it’s Best

I recently decided to go back for a second playthrough of Heavy Rain, primarily with the goal to *finally* Platinum it – and I’m so chuffed I went back.  A year and a half later and the experience still feels as fresh and engaging as it did the first time.  I’ve definitely fallen in love with it all over again!

When I first got told about this game about 6 years or so ago, it definitely peaked my interest from the get-go.  And back then I wasn’t into games at all really so that’s saying something.  In those early days there wasn’t too much mention of the story or what it was going to be about, but it was more a reveal of what kind of game this was going to be, gameplay-wise.  Quantic Dream, the developers of the game had big plans and hopes for Heavy Rain because it was going to be pioneering a new genre in games – the “interactive drama” as they coined it.

Let me start by giving a brief synopsis of what Heavy Rain is all about.  Don’t worry, I’ve kept it spoiler-free, should anyone feel encouraged to play it after they read this post (I hope so!).

The story spans over several days in October 2011 in a city somewhere on the east coast.  The location is never mentioned in the game but there are several clues throughout the game that suggests it is set in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.  You play 4 characters at different stages in the story – Ethan (a father and an architect; he is the main protagonist), Norman (an FBI profiler who suffers from drug addiction), Scott (a private investigator) and Madison (a chronic insomniac).  There is a serial killer on the loose – the Origami Killer as he has been labeled by the police – whose modus operandi is to kidnap young boys during the rainy fall season.  The victims are found dead several days later in a remote location, always with an orchid on their chest and an origami figure in their hand.  Ethan’s son, Shaun, disappears and the police soon link his disappearance to the Origami Killer murders.  Meanwhile unbeknownst to the police Ethan is being contacted by the Origami Killer himself – he has to undergo different “tests” in order to gain clues to the whereabouts of his son.

The underlying message throughout the game is simple: How far would you go to save the one you love?  The game has a very strong moral compass – every action and decision bears consequences that will not only affect later scenes in the game but the overall narrative arc; ultimately all your decisions, what you did or didn’t do, how you reacted, who survived and/or didn’t – will impact how the story ends.

As you play each character you have the opportunity to react and respond differently in different situations.  In conversations you can choose to be reasonable or aggresive, to forgive or to reject, to come clean or to lie.  During the majority of these scenes you can gain access to the character’s thoughts which could help/affect your decision.  In the faster paced action sequences, you do not have direct control of the character but instead you have to be prepared to respond to a quick succession of button prompts (“quick time events”, for you gamers out there!!) in order to get through the scene – in some of these scenes, failing too many times could result in that character’s death.  The prompts are not just you mindlessly button mashing but also makes use of the PS3’s motion-sensitive controller.  For example, choosing to kick down a door could involve you physically moving the controller to mimic that very action.  It was these prompts that I found particularly engaging as it increased the player’s involvement to the action on screen.  What I found effective as well was, in scenes where the character is in a stressed or panicked situation, the button prompts or options mirror the character’s feelings – they appear shaky and blurry onscreen which makes you, the player, become equally stressed and panicked as well.

To have a better understanding of what I’m going on about, the below video is the first trial that you can choose to have Ethan do.  I think among all the action sequences that are in the game, I “enjoyed” this one the most.  It was the first time in the game that I actually felt completely immersed and connected to what was going on onscreen – I had invested in Ethan by that point and so how you see him in that sequence, that’s exactly how I was too – I remember feeling absolutely terrified for my life; my heart was pounding out of my chest and there definitely was some screaming and swearing going on too!

*Thank you to MahaloVideoGames for the video

What I find most interesting about this game is that it does not play like your usual shoot bad guys/ drive fast cars/ jump from platform to platform/ save the damsel in distress type games.  Instead it is meant to feel and play out as closely to reality as it possibly can do within the rules and universe of a game.  This is best illustrated through what I think is the game’s unique “selling point” – and that there are no game overs which then require a replay.  So like if in a particular chapter you stuff up too many times and wind up getting killed, instead of the scene ending with a “Game Over” forcing you to repeat that sequence, the story just carries on without the character.  Any contributions that character had to the plot will now become null, and will of course, affect the progression and ultimately the conclusion of the story.

Most if not all games are designed to encourage replayability and Heavy Rain is no exception: there are literally countless ways you can play out the story.  There are multiple options for most choices and actions that could branch out to many different narrative threads – the possibilities are seriously endless.  One of the trophies in the game is “See all endings” – it took me awhile but I finally got it; there are seven different endings with seventeen various epilogues spread out between them.  However with each ending there could be multiple ways of getting to that ending. (I know this because I tried!)

Interestingly enough though, David Cage, the CEO of Quantic Dream who also wrote and directed the game doesn’t actually encourage replaying the game.  In an interview with G4TV he said “I would like people to play it once…because that’s life. Life you can only play once…I would like people to have this experience that way.  I’m fine with [reloading to avoid a bad result], but the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it’s going to be your story. It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decided to write…I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it.”  I doubt many, if  any, gamers heeded to his advice (I certainly didn’t!) but what he said definitely rings true to the spirit of the game and what it’s all about.  As I said earlier, I definitely get the sense that the game is made to play as close to reality as possible.  Echoing his words, in life there are no second chances and so good or bad, you have to live with the choices you make – and that is what you constantly get faced with throughout the game: tons of decision-making.  It sounds tedious when put like that but it really isn’t.

As brilliant as the game is on so many levels, it does have it’s faults too.  Controlling the characters can sometimes be a tad awkward (R2 to move, left analog stick to control the direction – not just the left analog stick which is the standard) and at certain times they do seem a little robotic in their movements, in particular when you change the direction when the character is walking.  In terms of facial performance, for the most part it was pretty spot-on however I felt that this seemed to only be largely limited to the 4 main characters; the more minor characters (namely Lauren Winter, for me personally) tended to have a very deadpan look in their eyes and often just a lifeless expression on their face regardless if they were happy, sad or angry.  This was a bit disappointing considering overall the game visually looked stunning and very realistic.  Another negative for me was some very obvious plot holes towards the end of the game.  Again, very disappointing especially considering the game’s main strength is it’s story.  I’m uncertain as to why this wasn’t picked up on but giving them the benefit of the doubt I can only hazard a guess that assuming all bases had been covered, what must have happened was when cuts were being made to manage the length, some important facts and information may have gotten lost along the way but not removed entirely – and so plot holes are born.  Pretty careless but hey, happens all the time – in movies, especially.

Flaws aside, I do feel that overall Heavy Rain‘s positives far outweigh the negatives.  In my opinion Quantic Dream did manage to achieve what they set out to do and that was to create a unique, first-of-its-kind, gaming experience – a psychological thriller with a strong narrative and underlying moral theme, in the form of an interactive drama.  The “mood” and feel of the game is masterfully executed through the gray color palette of the world, the sombre and haunting soundtrack and the well thought-out characters that complement (and sometimes contradict) each other.  The actors who were cast all performed brilliantly (they all did both the voicework and motion capture); in particular the ones who play the 4 main characters.  Pascal Langdale, who played Ethan, perfectly embodied the character, in my opinion.  He definitely breathed life into Ethan and made him feel like a real person, not just a character I was playing in a game.  I felt emotionally connected to Ethan from start to finish; I felt his fear, I understood his guilt – often I found myself getting so immersed in the experience that it didn’t feel like I was playing a game anymore.  It’s amazing that you can feel like that for something that is in essence completely virtual.

It is this feeling that I hold on to and why subsequently I think Heavy Rain is simply a fantastic game.  Again, it is far from perfect – it’s fairly buggy and definitely has room for improvement but for what it stands for and sets out to do – it is brilliant and in my VERY humble opinion, an important pivotal game in the gaming industry.  Games should always attempt to challenge or break down boundaries as it is still (sadly) the underdog among the different sources of entertainment, and Quantic Dream did just that with Heavy Rain – proving that games can be more than just “saving the princess” or shooting enemies left, right and center; games can also be incredibly interactive and highly engaging – it can involve moral decisions and invoke an emotional experience that you would (prior to this) normally possibly only ever akin to real-life situations.

So, if you have a PS3 and have not yet played Heavy Rain, you really need to!!  ‘Nuff said.   I think I have sung it enough praises, I will let the game itself do the rest of the talking…

Whimsical Banana rates Heavy Rain: 4/5 Bananas!

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