For many years, there have been few moments in video games that approached the poetry of the best moments in cinema, art or literature, where emotions are more complex than a simple fight-or-flight response. Even games like Mass Effect
have wrapped the moral choices of their characters with shooter mechanics.
Finally, with Heavy Rain, we have a game that jettisons much of the tropes that games have relied on over the years, instead taking their cue from the reality of everyday life. It is an ambitious goal, though one that many people may feel is unnecessary for games. This review will attempt to address this belief.
In Heavy Rain, you control four main characters: a father, a journalist, a private detective and an FBI agent as they progress through a mystery surrounding a serial killer. There is no sandbox, and you are not free to roam. Indeed, this is a very linear story.
Before you consider this to be a negative, think about how much time you may have wasted in an open world game merely trying to find the next objective. Heavy Rain is a relatively short experience at around eight hours, but not a second of it is wasted time. Consider a game like Portal, which could be played to completion in two hours. Should that game have been longer? Most people would say no.
Having the narrative involve a serial killer implies a lot of police procedural work, and as the detective and FBI agent you do this, albeit in an inventive way. More unexpectedly are the simple actions that you perform to define your character, such as a father deciding which of his children to play with first. These actions described in print may seem pointless, but inhabiting these simple actions builds empathy between the player and the characters that no other medium can touch. This game is truly interactive.
Heavy Rain is also heavily steeped in morality. The game evokes the film Seven, where the murders put the story in motion, but in the end the film was about the moral choices made by the characters. While games like Bioshock have atmosphere to spare, it remains surrounded with a fairly standard first person shooter mechanic. Heavy Rain has no standard mechanics, beyond using the left analog stick to move and the R1 button to walk. Every other action is completely context dependent.
These controls mostly consist of timed button presses, not only using reaction time but also deliberation. To apply disinfectant to a wound, you have to move the right analog stick slowly. To throw off an assailant who is choking you, you must press one of the face buttons repeatedly.
The first action requires you to exercise as much care as the onscreen character, while the latter action builds a tension in your arm that is the closest physical sensation to the onscreen action possible with the controller. There is even limited motion control using the PlayStation 3 ontroller, with striking a match requiring a quick downward movement of the controller, just as one would strike a match.
While this might seem simplistic, French developers Quantic Dream manage to find endless inventive ways of obfuscating and changing up the controls to match the on-screen action. An impassable barrier in an environment presents you with a series of buttons that are physically impossible to press. As one character hangs upside down, the resulting button prompts are also upside down. When your character is scared, the prompts shake violently, but only enough to convey the intended effect. These are no simple Quick Time Response (QTR) events, as in Dragon’s Lair or Shenmue.
The interface can easily be sampled by playing the free demo available for download, but what the demo only conveys in a limited way is how the cumulative effects of the moral choices affect the plot in both overt and subtle ways. This is essential, because there is no “Game Over” screen in Heavy Rain.
Characters can and will die, and it is possible to complete the game as a tragedy with every character lying dead. As such, every choice carries enormous gravity, far beyond games with multiple save points. The story is always progressing. Never do you have to repeat a level over and over to continue.
Every action in the game carries significance.
Much of this may seem abstract. To reveal the best moments of the game would rob a player of much of tension and surprise. As such, it may seem difficult to see what the point of this game is. In the end, the point is not in what you do, but how you do it. It is atmospheric and contemplative, while also being visceral and tense. It runs the gamut of emotions in a way that most games only barely touch. But, in the end, if you enjoy gaming as a challenge of obstacles overcome, you may not enjoy this game.
Heavy Rain ultimately requires the same careful attention that cinema and literature demand. For those who devote their full attention to it, this game delivers a rich experience like no other. It is an unqualified masterpiece.