[8 April 2010]
I’ve written three thrillers, novels with complicated plots that relied in part on big reveals at the end of the stories. Because I know so much is riding on those final revelations, one of the first things that I do is give early drafts to friendly readers and quiz them mercilessly about any plot holes. Did anything not make sense to you? Were the surprises satisfying? Are there any huge, glaring plot holes? What the hell is wrong with this thing? I always get some useful feedback. Outside readers see things in the text that I didn’t. Likewise, I’m often confronted with the fact that I’m thinking with a whole different set of assumptions than my readers are, mostly because I tend to know the ending well before I’ve written it. For me, the logic of the story has to hold together at every stage or it all just falls apart and I get angry.
For a large portion of Heavy Rain, I was angry. I think that the gameplay is fun and innovative and builds tension well. I think that it does a great job of splitting the narrative among different characters who are each distinct enough that their perspectives on the hunt for the Origami Killer are all different and interesting. There’s a lot to like and admire about the game’s structure. And when all was said and done, when all the secrets were revealed, I thought it was okay. The big, huge reveal at the end was one of the few plot points that really worked for me, and if you’re only going to have one plot point that works, they picked the right one. I was surprised, it made sense, and it made me rethink much of what I’d seen in the story up to that point. These are textbook examples of a good surprise ending. If only I hadn’t been yelling, “Why are you so stupid?!?!”, at the screen so much on the journey to those final scenes.
I’m going to verge into spoiler territory after this paragraph. I won’t give away the ending (because that works), but I am going to bitch and moan and kvetch about some other big plot points. Before that though, I want to rail against the cliches. I have a very low tolerance for cop show cliches, but I have a relatively high tolerance for video game cliches. I don’t bat an eye when a video game gives me the same tired justification for an escort mission or sets me in pursuit of some megalomoniacal demon bent on devouring the universe or includes an amnesiac for a protagonist. Okay, I’m tired of that last one, but in general, I’ll go along with the story, dismissing it when it’s cliched but not caring if the rest of the game is fun. But Heavy Rain is all about its story, and so the angry cop who won’t play by the rules and the inter-jurisdictional posturing and most of the rest of the cop stuff just really turned me off.
But even worse than the cliched way that the cops behaved was the inexplicable way that some of the other characters acted towards the cops. SPOILERS from here on out, albeit not super detailed ones. Ethan. He’s having a bad time of it. His son is missing. He gets a box of origami figures from the killer who has his son. He doesn’t take this box of clues to the police. That’s crazy, but at this point, Ethan is also clearly kinda crazy, so I’ll buy it. But you know what’s crazier? He only opens the origami figures one at a time. What?!?! Clues from your son’s kidnapper and you read them one at a time? There was only one possible explanation for that kind of behavior, and that is not how this game ends, so no. That’s pure crap. You know who could’ve helped decipher those clues, track down the source of those files, and done some detective work? The freaking cops. I mean, with days left before the kid drowns, he knows that his son is being held in a storm drain that’s open to the sky. If the cops mobilized, they could probably search every single storm drain in the city in 24 hours. Problem solved, kid saved.
And then there’s the overwrought, manipulative nonsense that is Madison Paige’s story arc. This was a character that clearly only had about half of the plot purpose as the other characters did, so they filled the rest of Madison’s tale up with added drama as pure padding. Right from the beginning I felt the rage that when an otherwise dramatic, life threatening action sequence turned out to be just a dream. Just. A. Dream. Three words that should be banned from video games, novels, movies, and every other medium. Madison has a later even more horrifying sequence that’s not a dream, but it’s stupid. You know what strains credulity well beyond the breaking point in a serial killer story? When you have a second, even worse serial killer who is also out there killing people and whom our heroine happens to run into. The whole time that we played this sequence, my friends and I kept saying, “dumb, lazy, dumb,” over and over again. Or maybe it was just me talking loud enough for all of us.
This probably all seems like nitpicking to people who love the game more than I do. But these are big plot holes and lazy storytelling. The worst part is, they wouldn’t have been hard to avoid. None of the things that are bad in the game are at all necessary to pull off what is great about it. A little more care, a little more thought, and some of that inventiveness that Heavy Rain shows elsewhere would’ve gone a long, long way to making me enjoy the whole experience from beginning to end. Instead, with the crappy voice acting and controls coupled with such flawed storytelling, I can’t recommend it without reservation. Really, it was the end twist that won me back over, but I can see people hating this as well. All that said, I’m glad to have experienced Heavy Rain, and I’m also just fine with the fact that Writer/Director David Cage says that he doesn’t want to make another one.