[game] heavy rain: now wash your hands
March 2, 2010
Heavy Rain piqued my interest as soon as it was announced, not least because it was hyped by creator David Cage as the first true fusion of cinematic and interactive experience. That’s the kind of claim I can’t help but put to the test myself.
On the basis of one (unsuccessful – I love playing games, but I know I’m not very good) playthrough, it probably comes closer than anything else to date, but it isn’t quite there yet.
Essentially a modern-day jeu noir, owing significant stylistic and structural debts to David Fincher’s Seven, Heavy Rain puts you in the shoes of a number of protagonists trying to piece together the identity of the Origami Killer before his latest victim – the son of one protagonist, Ethan Mars (pictured above) – is dispatched.
The underlying story is strong (New Line Cinema has optioned the movie rights), and its exposition in the game – once it gets going – is well-paced, coherent and carries you along with it; some moments bring genuine emotional tension or release.
Presentation is stunning, particularly visual production design and character rendering. Sound design and the Hollywood-style score add to the atmosphere, though they occasionally teeter on the brink of cliché.
The control scheme – based on using your buttons, sticks and accelerometers in a variety of sequenced, timed or simultaneous combinations – works incredibly well, particularly in the more emotionally intense sequences. Bonding with your son in the park, being attacked by mystery thugs or trying to escape a submerged car were all, in their different ways, moments when the fluidity and fit of the control scheme helped shift your perspective from third to first person.
Performing an action that in real life requires a combination of balance, precision and dexterity requires the same of you in the gameworld, with your fingers playing their own game of Twister as the required button sequence is revealed. The method of access your character’s thoughts or dialogue options is similarly straightforward, if less analogous.
Developer Quantic Dream deserves a lot of credit (and none of the sniping some gamers have directed at it) for the thoughtfulness and genuine innovation they have brought to gameplay mechanics in what is a new kind of story-driven interactive experience.
What’s nearly right
Characterisation and dialogue
Heavy Rain‘s scripting and voice acting is among the best modern gaming has to offer, so it seems unfair to bracket characterisation and dialogue in a ‘nearly right’ category. The trouble is that although by gaming standards it does a great job (voice acting is generally top-notch), by the standards it sets for itself – perhaps the aforementioned Seven, or Dexter – it doesn’t quite cut it.
Whether it’s the inevitable – though thankfully not frequent – script howlers (“It’s a painkiller. It’ll help reduce the pain”) or the dialogue unfolding in an illogical sequence, presumably because you haven’t performed actions in the order the game script anticipated, the spell Heavy Rain deftly casts as you guide the unfolding story is unfortunately broken from time to time.
The best games have begun to showcase characters and scripts that match the standards set by high quality genre pieces (the Uncharted series, for example) – where characters’ motives are transparent, where established stereotypes are a welcome part of the fun.
Heavy Rain demands so much more of its characters. While it can’t quite meet those demands, it comes close – private investigator Scott Shelby in particular has a depth seldom seen in games – you have to feel optimistic that the games will match the best in linear drama sooner rather than later.
My first playthrough of Heavy Rain took just over seven hours. That’s one long movie, but the latter five or so hours pull you along with a skilled manipulation of your sense of pace and exposition that most Hollywood writers would be proud of.
The first hour or two, however, were tedious. Of course, they serve as scene-setting for both the characters (principally Mars) and plot, and as a tutorial for the control scheme used to such great effect later on in the game. But, in dramatic terms, an hour and a half of preamble is a lifetime and the relearning, via the control scheme, of mundane tasks like opening the fridge or setting the table makes you fear that the tedium-to-excitement ratio in the game is going to skewed the wrong way. It isn’t, but the game designers would do well to get to the heart of the narrative more quickly next time.
What’s not right
The one clear-cut WTF element in the game is FBI profiler Norman Jayden’s holographic virtual reality evidence gathering and case file technology. Everyone else in the game is using present-day tools and devices but, based on his glasses/gloves combo, Jayden seems to have been seconded from Tom Cruise’s Minority Report unit. Lazy writing seems to be the only possible explanation for this.
So is it a game?
There’s been a lot of debate about whether Heavy Rain can be called a game. Without question yes, it can. But it genuinely strives be a new kind of gaming experience. As a brave and largely successful attempt to bring the dramatic and the interactive together it deserves the support of all PS3 owners that can comprehend entertainment beyond beat ’em ups and first person shooters. Highly recommended.
Finally, a plea for help. I consider myself a civilised kind of guy, but I can’t for the life of me get any of the male characters to wash their hands properly after going to the toilet. Not a challenge I was expecting, but I won’t feel I’ve truly completed the game until basic hygiene is observed…