Heavy Rain offers intense, story-driven gaming experience

Skills: Writing

Originally published in The Gateway
March 9, 2010

Let’s get one thing straight: Heavy Rain is not an action game. It’s not Halo, or Uncharted, or even Mass Effect; Heavy Rain is, for all intents and purposes, an interactive drama

That factoid is likely enough to alienate a large demographic of core gamers, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from playing it. It’s a game that follows in the footsteps of stories like Shenmue and Indigo Prophecy and presents an engaging thriller about a mysterious serial killer, and the lengths that some will go to in order to save the ones they love.

It’s difficult to go into great detail over the game’s plot without entering into spoiler territory and ruining key elements of the experience. But the facts are these: in an east coast American city, a serial killer known as the Origami Killer is on the loose, kidnapping and drowning adolescent boys, leaving cryptic clues and calling cards to their whereabouts. Four main characters — including the father of the latest kidnapped boy — embark on their own investigations, slowly unravelling the killer’s mysteries and crossing paths as they each get closer to the truth.

Written and directed by Quantic Dream mastermind David Cage (who in addition to Indigo Prophecy can also claim Omikron: The Nomad Soul in his pantheon of narrative games), Heavy Rain is a far shot away from most hit titles to grace the PS3’s library so far. It’s a game that’s very theatrical in its presentation, and to a casual spectator, may seem to have more cut scenes than actual gameplay.

But Heavy Rain’s goal isn’t to present players with the repetitive-but-simple mechanics found in most games. Instead, it tells a story, allowing the player to direct the action through a series of quick-thinking decisions, acted out through reflexive button pressing. It may sound like the dreaded “quick-time event” used by so many similar titles as lazy tension builder, but the way in which the control scheme is implemented makes perfect sense in the spirit of the narrative. Some actions simply require pressing a button at the right time to make your character dodge a hazard. Other, more complex actions call for a more awkward combination of presses. But it’s not just a matter of catching a ball versus catching one’s footing on a slope; rather, when a character is under intense situations of panic and duress, keying in the right combos becomes even more difficult, making the player feel a part of this stress.

It’s this immersion that plays a huge factor in Heavy Rain. Through a mix of theatrical presentation, skillful writing, and clever design, the game’s characters become an extension of the player, and you’ll feel directly responsible for the consequences of your own actions. Early on, it’s easy to understand the mortality and humanity of the game’s characters — these aren’t bulletproof superheroes, but regular people who can and will die if you make a poor choice. Accepting these outcomes is also a part of what makes Heavy Rain’s immersion so engaging. The choices you make now will affect the direction and outcome of future events; there are no reloads or mulligans here.

Depending on your actions (or inaction in certain cases), the plot can take very different directions from one play-through to another. With seven key endings and over 30 miniature epilogues, Heavy Rain can play out as a tense and rewarding thriller in which the Origami Killer is caught and the victim is saved, or as a tragedy where some or all of the characters die, and the killer gets away. The choice is seemingly up to you — although Heavy Rain knows that the best narratives make the players simply feel like they’re in control when they’re really not.

Because of this design, the game treads a very narrow path between a passive film-watching experience and an active gaming experience. While it’s usually to the game’s benefit, a few concepts are unable to span that gap and don’t transfer as easily between the two disparate media. Certain actions taken early in the game will cause indirect consequences later on, and while they mesh together for the most part, some minor plot points can overlap and clash if you’ve played the characters in unconventional and conflicting styles. None of these are severe enough to entirely ruin the enjoyment, but for a game that’s so heavily focused on its tight storytelling, any plot hole will stand out like fingerprints at a crime scene. Additionally, while the primary endings are thrilling and well-told, each mini-epilogue is linked to a very specific plot point, and when strung together at the end of the game, they lack cohesion and feel somewhat tacked on.

Voice acting is another make-or-break factor in Heavy Rain. Many of the game’s actors are French, and while most do a passable job at conveying emotion in English as a second language, some sound like a low-budget dub on a bootlegged B-movie. The children are especially cringe-worthy — while Heavy Rain’s foreign aesthetics are charming in some areas, hearing kids who are supposed to be American speaking with a distinctly Parisian accent kills a lot of those scenes’ believability. But if the voice-overs prove to be too distracting, it’s easy enough to switch to the original French dialogue with subtitles.

Heavy Rain is the kind of game that will achieve critical acclamation and a cult following, but will not sell as well as other blockbuster titles. But if you have even the slightest investment in a game’s narrative — even if you cried at the end of Halo 3 — then Heavy Rain won’t disappoint. Buy it, fall in love with it, and ask why more games don’t tell their stories as well as this one does. If the industry is listening, Heavy Rain is sure to set the new gold standard on how a game should be presented.