I finished Heavy Rain last week. Despite director David Cage’s insistence to the contrary, Heavy Rain isn’t really a horror game. It’s a thriller, or maybe mystery-suspense; if it were a film, it would live in an adjacent, but clearly separate section from the horror flicks. So, being a not-horror game, I’m not going to include it in the database here. It is, however, quite good, and like Quantic Dream’s earlier effort, Indigo Prophesy, readers of this site will probably find a lot to enjoy.
Heavy Rain is a pretty high-profile game, so I’m going to skip the paragraph where I tell you what the game is about and how it works. You already know that it’s a cinematic narrative that plays out from multiple perspectives and features a branching story line and a whole crapload of endings. And I’m sure that you’re aware that the control scheme is a mixture of Type C controls and Quick Timer Events. And the plot is about a guy trying to save his son from a serial killer called the Origami Killer. You know all this already, so consider this paragraph skipped.
I really enjoyed Heavy Rain, but I was also somewhat disappointed with it. It’s everything that I expected it to be, and yet, somehow, it felt a tad flat. I mean, the game itself really works: the art and graphics are phenomenal, the acting is good (I played in French with English subtitles, which was neat), the story is interesting, the branching gives the game decisions real weight, and the quick timer events actually work pretty well. There are some problems (some of the QTEs are pretty much impossible to pull off with a time limit, the movement controls lack a lot of precision, and the plot has some major gaping holes), but none of them really damage the experience. I think my problem with the game is that it represents such a huge effort to create an interactive story, and while it succeeds in so many ways, the actual story itself was somewhat predictable. It’s like the game graduated from all the pedestrian implementation flaws that drag other games down and ran instead into the much more complex problem of actually having competent plot.
I think that where Heavy Rain is most successful is in its use of camera work and character development to make game play decisions feel like they really matter. Knowing that if I mess up a branch I cannot go back, and also getting to know the characters enough that I want to play them in character had a huge impact on the value of the plot. This is also something that other genres have a really hard time with because they have to balance “story parts” with “game parts.” In Heavy Rain, it’s all the same mode.
So really, I have nothing too negative to say about this game. The few missteps are more than forgivable; this game design takes so much risk and pulls it off so well that a few misses here and there are hardly important. You should go run out and get this game right now.
Though the game itself is interesting, I also find it fascinating to see how other gamers respond to it. A lot of folks I know had a very negative response to the early part of the game, in which nothing particularly exciting happens. This section exists to define the main character and make his motivations for the later parts of the game seem plausible, and I personally had no problem with it at all, but some people I’ve spoken feel that any time spent playing a game in which exciting, extraordinary things are not happening is time wasted. They see the game as an action game waiting to happen, a constant tease that leads you on, promising to become a thrilling, button-mashing experience, and then just never does. “And when they get to the combat,” one friend laments, “it’s all goddamn QTEs!”
Me, I see this game as the ultimate evolution of the Adventure genre. Back when it was the Text Adventure genre, we had paragraphs of text to explain the situation, and then a passive blinking cursor to input commands. The major game play mode was exploration; look at this, examine that, try going over here. The genre graduated into the Graphic Adventure sometime in the late 1980s, and in those games there was still a lot of text, and still a lot of exploration, though mostly performed though point and click. We dropped the prefixes sometime in the ’90s, and Adventure games split into a couple of different groups (including a branch that eventually became Survival Horror), but the common traits have remained the same: heavy focus on plot and exploration of the environment. In Heavy Rain, plot is communicated via cinematography and spoken dialog. Exploration is still a major part of the experience, though the method involves hot spots littered throughout the environment and some QTEs. So to me, this is sort of a mid-90’s Adventure game with all the dials turned to 11 and cinematography and branching content sort of grafted on the top. And as Adventure games go, this one is one of the most action-packed I’ve ever played.
Part of the reason people are drawn to horror games, I think, is that they require some sort of narrative focus to effectively build tension. I think a lot of horror gamers, myself included, might be more interested in games with good, well-told stories than games that happen to feature ghosts and demons and flesh bag monsters. If you feel like you’re in that camp, give Heavy Rain a try.