April 18

Heavy Rain

Sony published and Quantic Dream developed Heavy Rain is one of the most unique “games” I have played in the current generation of Video Game consoles. And yes those are inverted commas around “game,” as shall be explained later in this post. Described as a “Psychological Action Thriller Video Game,” Heavy Rain has a very strong narrative and fantastic production values. Like Quantic Dream’s previous games, Omikron and Farenheit, Heavy Rain is an attempt to deliver strong adult storylines and themes in a Noir setting into a video game designed to appeal to an older and more mature audience. Interestingly, I feel that it more than succeeds in delivering strong emotional responses, despite actually having very little, if any, gameplay whatsoever. And it’s because of this that I find this game a fascinating one to dissect.
One of my favourite characters in the game, FBI agent Norman Jayden
Heavy Rain features 4 protagonists, Ethan, Scott, Norman and Madison. The plot centres around the abduction of Ethan’s son by the infamous “Origami Killer,” with the other 3 characters finding themselves entangled into the storyline and eventually, crossing paths with each other. Action switches between characters in a way befitting of a well-written novel or TV show. As one “episode” ends, we pick up action with another, and thus we learn about the story from 4 different perspectives and about the world of Heavy Rain from multiple viewpoints and emotional angles. A great effort has been put into motion capture and voice acting for each character and Quantic Dream and the actors they selected to play each major character in the game should be congratulated for creating totally believable characters in a very believable setting. This adds a lot to the experience of playing the game as you genuinely begin to feel for the characters and build a true emotional connection with both the characters and the game world.
An example of typical “gameplay” in Heavy Rain. A series of context sensitive actions that a player can make to impact the current set-piece.
Actually “playing” the game is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this game from a design point of view. You move your character around (when possible) via the Left Analogue stick. However, almost all action in the game takes place via a contextual series of QTE sequences. So for example early on you have to move the analogue stick left then right, then left again to simulate the motion of brushing your teeth. Or you might have to rotate the analogue stick in order to simulate opening a door. Thus you quickly realise that Heavy Rain is effectively one 6 hour long QTE, a series of heavily scripted events one after another with very little ability to deviate from a fairly linear path. In this sense, the game is very reminiscent of the 80’s coin-op title Dragon’s Lair, a game lauded for having Disney style levels of animation and production values, but boiling down to a series of single timed direction presses to trigger the next sequence necessary to proceed with the story.
A cult classic from the 80’s, Dragon’s Lair
Fortunately, Heavy Rain refrains from Dragon’s Lair’s infuriating style of killing the player off every time they put in an incorrect input into a scripted sequence. Usually most gameplay sequences feature a number of mini-challenges. This means that if the player fails to complete any of these given challenges, they are not punished immediately, instead they are given some respite. So for example, during one sequence, FBI agent Norman Jayden tries to interrogate a fairly hostile witness for some information regarding the Origami Killer. During this sequence, the witness turns on Jayden, putting his character in a potentially life-threatening situation. Over a series of QTE’s, the eventual outcome of the set-piece can vary from finding a lot of good information with regards to the killer from the witness, to things going completely wrong and Jayden being killed. And if he is killed, the story actually continues rather than making the player replay the sequence again. This is actually an excellent piece of games design. In order to serve up a believable psychological thriller, there needs to be real consequences for your actions. If you could just replay the game over and over until meeting some preset condition for the story to advance, the plot would have little effect. Additionally, any dramatic tension or emotional connection the player would experience would be lost, as there would be a break in the dramatic flow of the tale whilst the player tries to pass a certain point in the game.
One of my favourite set-pieces in the game, Norman Jayden confronts hostile witness Mad Jack, with numerous possible outcomes.
By allowing the game to continue, the dramatic flow is never lost and the experience is all the more real as a result. It means that instead of having one eventual outcome for the story, Heavy Rain has a plethora, depending on how many characters are alive at the end what decisions were made during the game. This means you can end Heavy Rain from anything from a super happy, put a glow in your heart ending, to a real gut-wrencher that makes you feel quite frankly, awful! The “challenge” of the game therefore (if there really is any) is to try and make the best decisions to get that happy ending, although the title offers some replayability by encouraging the player to go back again and make different choices so something else happens. And whilst this lasts, the game is interesting and the player’s curiosity is piqued enough to see what else can happen.
Of course all of this comes at the trade-off of traditional (and I would argue meaningful) gameplay. There aren’t any puzzles to solve, there aren’t scores of enemies that need to be killed, there aren’t any bosses to be destroyed. There is never an element of having an open area which you can leisurely take your time in to explore. It is simply moving from set-piece to set-piece, one after another. This is why it’s easy when playing to forget you are playing at all. It’s often just like watching a film or TV show with you simply along for the ride. Whilst you definitely build an emotional attachment to all of the characters, you never feel that *you* are that character. Your choices are always forced from a series of options and there is no way to tackle a problem the way you want to. In some ways this makes the game feel like a 90’s graphic adventure such as Monkey Island, but those games made up for their linearity by featuring a strong sense of puzzle solving and world-exploration. Heavy Rain does not.
I can’t help but feel that Heavy Rain would have been far more successful in this format.
To it’s credit the way this game has been designed makes it really accessible and enjoyable to even complete novices. I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation where a family member or loved one watches what we are playing and tries to understand what is going on. Heavy Rain is a brilliant game for getting someone in that position behind the wheel so to speak and letting them enjoy a game for themselves. I think there is most definitely something to be said for this approach of games design, particularly as Heavy Rain has such as compelling narrative and deals with such a strong subject matter. This is not Wii Tennis or a tap-tap-tap Farmville style game, this is an adult story being told with gorgeous HD graphics and does offer something that a traditional film or TV could not in it’s multiple endings.
However, for all there is to be lauded with Heavy Rain, there is an awful lot that can be put against it. In the cold light of day there really isn’t any real gameplay or challenge. This is not a mechanics based game and in fact offers nothing really in terms of twitch, strategic or logical gameplay. This often makes the game boring to play and you’d often rather actually be watching Heavy Rain the motion picture as opposed to being distracted with meaningless QTE sequences to advance the plot. For every thrilling sequence such as driving a car down a busy highway in the wrong direction, there is something utterly trivial and meaningless such as opening a fridge door or brushing your teeth. It often feels like you have to go through too many remedial tasks to get to something exciting. And whilst this does add even more tension to the dramatic sequences, it’s a real put off whilst on the journey to get there.
Another big problem this title has it’s its length. Finishing the game takes around 6 hours, and whilst this is usually a good target to aim for, with Heavy Rain it feels really long and drawn out. I would liken it to watching a movie in that even a really, really good one rarely lasts over 3 hours. As most publishers normally target 6-8 hours as a playthrough time that a potential customer will muster at a minimum, Heavy Rain’s plot feels dragged out and ponderous at times. It’s pretty obvious that the same story could be told in probably half the time and have twice the emotional impact as a result.
I think this game is a good example of showcasing a famous game design argument. Is story more important, or is the gameplay? I am firmly in the camp of gameplay, and although I appreciate a great story as much as the next guy, that story has to be supplemental of the game play, not a replacement. Heavy Rain, despite having a few noticeable plot holes, has a great twist and if it were a movie, would probably be a pretty good one. But that’s precisely what it should have been – a movie. In it’s current guise it offers next to zero gameplay and little to no replay value. In fact if ever there was a title I could recommend as a rental, this one would surely be it, because after one consumption, you really are done with it.
Can this really be considered gameplay?
And that is another reason why having gameplay is so important. A DVD costs approximately £10, and after watching the film you might get a few extras such as “the making of” or “behind the scenes,” but that’s it. A game on the other hand usually costs about £40, but as a trade-off, can offer hours and hours of gameplay. Some of my favourite games I have sunk literally hours and hours of time into, and I have done willingly and knowingly, because I know those games are FUN to play. Heavy Rain though a great tale just isn’t fun in the same way (or at all, really) and thus is not in my definition anyway, a game. In fact I think the term “Interactive Movie” is probably a far better description of what this title really is.

Overall though, this is a game that everyone should check out at least once. It’s just so different to anything out there. The emotive response and performances given by the actors in this title are truly game-changing, and really I’d like to see that level of production in every AAA title, as it only adds to the immersive experience a great game can provide. Personally, I hope that this type of “game” does not become the norm, as I am much more in favour of games that are high on the fun factor. Games such as RE4 and DMC3 are some of my favourite games of all time, but one thing these games both have is a really fun core engine at the heart of them. In fact the Mercenaries mode in RE4 and Bloody Palace mode in DMC3 are probably my favourite things about both games, as both are modes where it’s engine and what can be done with it that take centre stage, instead of a plot written by somebody else. However, although I do not want to see this style of game become the norm, I would like to see a few more titles in this mould. In fact I would love to see what Quantic Dream follow heavy Rain up with.