US: 23 Feb 2010
In one chapter in Heavy Rain, two characters pull guns, and I’m suddenly in a standoff. I can just shoot the guy, but I don’t want any unnecessary death on my hands. I try to talk him down. I’m calm and stern, I appeal to his psychosis, but I have no idea what he’s thinking, and every time that the camera zooms close to the gun, I expect it to go off. His finger twitches, his hand shakes. My partner yells at me to shoot him, but I don’t want to . . . but he’s a nobody, why protect him? I should shoot him. I have to. But I keep talking, I don’t exactly know why. I want to believe this can end well, that I can save people. Not this time though, this time someone dies.
But then he lowers his gun. I finally blink and breathe and realize that I’ve been gripping the controller harder than I ever would when playing a shooter. This single moment is easily one of the most tense, most nerve wracking moments of any game that I’ve ever played. Choices have such weight that every dramatic moment is made more intense, and I have no idea where the story will go, so the potential consequences are unknown.
Yet even though I can’t predict the story in Heavy Rain, I’ve played enough “branching narrative” games to know that in too many cases a choice will always lead to the same consequence, just down a different path. At times, this feels like an uncomfortably accurate description of Heavy Rain, but it is true to a degree. Heavy Rain has a story to tell, and it’s going to tell it so the framework of the story will always be the same. Events will always happen at the same place, at the same time, and separate clues will lead each character to the same final location. However, the game doesn’t use this convergence as a cop out, as a way to hype choice while offering little consequence. Any good murder mystery has just one answer, and the identity of the killer doesn’t change depending on your actions. It makes sense that different clues lead each character to the same conclusion. The mystery genre complements this kind of branching and converging narrative.
However, that is not to suggest that this game is linear in any way or that your choices don’t really matter. In fact, the true power that we wield over the story is not apparent the first time through because each chapter flows seamlessly into the next. Choices and consequences build on each other, creating a domino effect that makes it hard to imagine any chapter playing out differently. It’s a testament to the writing that the ending still feels natural regardless of whether all of the game’s characters are alive or just one is.
As I play through chapters again, I see just how malleable the story really is. The game strikes a good balance between player and authorial control. For example, at one point a character had to go through a trial, and I failed. I was certain he was dead, but the next scene showed him crawling away to safety. He couldn’t die at that point, no matter what I did. However, while the character lived, I missed out on a key piece of information that came back to bite me later on. Also, as I neared the end of the game, one chapter found me particularly strung out, and in a single panicked moment of confusion, I missed two button presses in a row, and a character died. That’s all that it took—two buttons. The death was a shock, and afterwards, I didn’t just feel sad, I felt guilty. This death was on my hands. It was a stupid mistake, and if I was concentrating harder, I would have succeeded. It’s telling that the first thing that I did when I finished the game is go back to this chapter to try and save the character.
These characters are the greatest success of Heavy Rain, and it works some impressive feats of character development. Ethan Mars, Scott Shelby, Norman Jayden, and Madison Paige are a diverse and highly likeable group of people who go through terrible things. The game takes its time introducing them, moving at a pace that is slow for games, which usually explain all story elements in the first half-hour, but it’s a pace that feels natural here. Once major events are set in motion, the pace increases, every chapter pushes the plot forwards, paths begin to cross, and there’s no good stopping point.
One such feat of character development lies in the controls, which have been a source of controversy since the game was first previewed. Your interaction with the world is limited to only objects with a controller prompt hovering next to them, but the constant presence of this UI actually works in the game’s favor. We can only do what the character would do in that situation, actions that they would never consider aren’t even possible. This kind of interface helps us bond with them because we get such an intimate look at their thought process, It helps us think like them, helps immerse us in their personality until we (as an outside player) cease to exist. There is only Ethan, his thoughts and wants are mine.
Yet even as the game creates this bond between player and character, it holds information back from us. A couple of characters have ulterior motives that we’re unaware of in the beginning. When we first play as them, we assume their motivations and make decisions based on those assumptions, but when it’s revealed that our assumption is wrong, the choices we made still make sense. Those actions were still in character, even if the motives behind the actions were different. The game manages to have its cake and eat it too by making us think that we know this character, then revealing a secret truth that proves that we don’t in such a way that doesn’t diminish our past actions.
Taken together, these gameplay and story elements made me truly care about the characters. I wanted to help them, but most of all, I wanted to protect them. I knew that they could die, and I didn’t want them to. There were days when I couldn’t bring myself to play the game, not because I didn’t want to, but because I knew something bad was going to happen to these people, and the easiest way to protect them was to not play. When you turn on your system, there is an implicit understanding that you’re putting them in extreme danger, and danger seems to follow them everywhere. At times, it can feel uncomfortably close to supernatural, as the killer seems to be everywhere at once, like he’s stalking them. But when the truth comes out, everything makes sense. This is no supernatural killer, just a very clever one.
There are several more things that the game excels at. For instance, the choreography of each fight scene. It’s obvious that these people are not professional fighters. They scrounge up any random item that can be used as a weapon, a chair, a headlight, a broken TV, and it all works. These are street brawls for your life, and the choreography reflects that. The music is haunting, sad, but not depressing, and able to evoke just a glimmer of hope. Finally, Heavy Rain has what is easily the best install screen of any game on the Playstation 3.
However, the game is not beyond fault. While the four main characters and most of the supporting cast are well acted, whenever a child appears on screen his voice will make your ears bleed. It’s another testament to the game’s writing and ability to immerse me in the character of Ethan that I actually felt compelled to save his son instead of simply killing the boy to shut him up. It probably helps that he doesn’t have many lines to begin with.
Also, for as good as the story is, there are a couple of big plot holes. One is forgivable and forgettable as it can be reasoned away with some effort, but the other is just insulting to players. It’s nothing more than purposeful misdirection, and it creates a sub-plot with no resolution, raising questions with no intention of answering them. It’s a direct contradiction to everything else that the game accomplishes with story, and Heavy Rain is made less for it.
Yet these shortcomings fail to destroy my connection to the characters. Even now, part of me wants to go back and test the various ways to kill them, but another part of me still doesn’t want to see them get hurt. That fact alone compensates for any number of plot holes and annoying kids, but that’s a very personal connection. Your experience with Heavy Rain depends heavily on how you approach it. A game critic once said, “immersion is a choice,” and nowhere is this more true then in Heavy Rain. There’s massive potential to grief the game, and if you go into it intending to screw around, then you’ll have a fun time creating absurdity out of the ultra-seriousness, but you won’t love it. This game demands that you do more than just “show up,” it wants you to immerse yourself in the characters, to think like them, and to ignore your own wants and desires in place of theirs. If you’re willing to do so, to give yourself over like that, you’ll experience a game unlike any other.