I’m several hours into Heavy Rain now, and I’m throughly enjoying it. There are some flaws here and there but generally the whole thing is amazingly well done, and unlike 99% of other games on the market today. I’ll post a lot more about it when I finish.
Playing Heavy Rain got me thinking about the Inversely Suspicious Character Problem. I just made that phrase up; maybe there’s a formal way to describe this literary problem. The Inversely Suspicious Character Problem is an issue that plagues all types of mysteries, but is particularly damaging to whodunits. I define the problem as follows: Regardless of how dramatically suspicion is cast on a particular character, an astute reader will tend to suspect the most innocent character. Another way to say that is: mysteries authors that design their stories to surprise the reader by revealing the evil-doer at the very end must take steps to ensure that the criminal is beyond suspicion up until the last moment. If the reader already suspects a character and their suspicion turns out to be correct, the surprise is lost, so the author must work to mislead the reader. But a reader who is familiar with this sort of mystery avoids jumping to the obvious conclusion and instead simply looks for a character who seems to be entirely free of taint; this character is most probable to be the real criminal at the end. This doesn’t really take any brain power, and so it’s not as rewarding as deciphering the mystery given the clues that the author provides, and the result is that the surprise ending loses much of its punch.
Different authors deal with this problem in different ways. One way is simply to introduce so many characters that many end up being incidental, hopefully making inductive selection of the real culprit difficult. But even then, the author runs the risk of annoying the reader when a character who has absolutely no bearing on the story takes the blame. Criminals who turn out to be characters who were introduced early in the work and then quickly discarded (see: any given Scooby-Doo episode), or even worse, characters who enter the story only at the very end, are infuriating to readers because the clues that they’ve been mentally tracking over the course of the story turn out to be worthless.
Another approach is to avoid the problem entirely by revealing the criminal early in the drama and then making the story focus on the detective who figures it all out. Columbo works this way, and it’s quite satisfying. Other authors reveal the criminal but then provide the reader with a different problem, such as how the crime itself was committed (and indeed, in many locked-room murder mysteries the actual murderer is much less important than how they did it). In The Hound of the Baskervilles, as in many other Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle casts doubt over everybody by using an obviously unreliable narrator (Dr. Watson) and integrating the secret movements of the Holmes into the set of clues presented to the reader. This is genius because when it is revealed that Holmes has been working on the case in secret, many of the unresolved loose ends suddenly resolve themselves and the reader has a chance to make the mental leap to the real killer just as the story is about to reveal him itself, thus magnifying the surprise and satisfaction felt by the reader. Many Golden Age detective novels rely on a secondary character who jumps to all of the obvious conclusions before the reader has a chance to, thus focusing (sometimes deceivingly) the readers attention on a subset of clues. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has Captain Hastings, Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson, and there are many others. Sometimes the side-kick is just there to give the detective a reason to talk about the case.
Whatever the method, mystery authors who seek to surprise the reader have to do something to conceal their criminal without lying to the reader or holding back clues. But this very act of attempted misdirection is a way for the reader to identify the real enemy; whomever the spotlight of suspicion shines on the least is quite likely to be guilty. So there needs to be some extra step, some other sort of twist, to keep the story relevant.
My one complaint with Heavy Rain is that I’ve deciphered the killer after only a few hours of play. I had a pretty good idea who to suspect even before all of the principal characters had been introduced. You can see the game going out of its way to cast suspicion in certain directions, but I’m pretty confident that in doing so its creators have instead highlighted the real criminal. It’s not that the story or characters are poor, it’s just that this is a form with which I’m familiar and the regular tropes are all accounted for. Now, I could be wrong, or the game could get real tricky and feature multiple endings with different characters named as the antagonist, but probably the end will reveal the character whom I’ve suspected since the second hour of play. There are quite a few other loose ends to tie up that I have no idea about, so I’m hoping the end isn’t completely predictable, but now that I’ve fixed the killer in my mind there’s much less brain power needed to play the game. Hopefully I’m wrong, and the Inversely Suspicious Character will turn out to be just another red herring.
Final note: DON’T YOU DARE discuss the real killer in Heavy Rain in the comments. Not even with spoiler tags. As confident as I am in my selection, having the game spoiled for me would ruin all of the anticipation of finding out if my theory is right.