Come rain or shine or more rain.
Heavy Rain makes critics feel important. We don’t really need to give any more attention and hype to triple-A titles like Mass Effect 2 and Bioshock 2 – their reputation precedes them and their marketing teams know what they’re doing (we hope). However, even though Heavy Rain has the Sony giant as its publisher, it also has – much like Quantic Dream’s last title Indigo Prophecy – that flavor of psychological new-wave game-redefining experimentation that most players have, understandably, yet to acquire a taste for. And it’s our job as critics to make sure that you don’t run away from games that just might change your mind about what games are all about. Heavy Rain is art, and by all means, you should take a look.
[image1]To understand Heavy Rain, you must first understand Quantic Dream’s minimalist, cinematic gaming philosophy, which replaces the oft-quoted mantra of “games are supposed to be fun” with the better, more inclusive mantra of “games are supposed to be entertaining”. Don’t expect a thrill ride packed with bullets, explosions, and wise-cracking one-liners, or the common adventure title where you jumble seemingly random items that somehow become solutions to a Rube Goldberg puzzle. Nor should you expect a movie with rudimentary audience participation, though Heavy Rain seems to starts out that way.
Instead, think of Heavy Rain as a full-on reality TV program where you are in control of four everyday people who don’t know each other and are thrown into extraordinary circumstances – an architect and father of two boys, a pudgy private detective, a soft-spoken FBI profiler, and a female journalist (who all shall remain nameless in this preview because the script is more effective that way). Just by going through the handful of opening scenes in the preview build, each person eventually finds themselves entangled deep in the mystery of the enigmatic Origami Killer. How the mystery is solved depends on whether they survive; if one of them dies, the game doesn’t end, but the ending you receive – let alone any future scenes thereafter – will likely have a missing piece to the puzzle.
But as much as the murder mystery is the fulcrum of the story, the spotlight shines equally on the mundane, actions that usually don’t receive much notice and would normally be edited out in a, err, “normal” game. Turning on a music player, getting a quick drink from a water cooler, lowering the window blinds, and tucking a child into bed all don’t sound too exciting or important, and you would be right. The point, though, is to emphasize that these are everyday people, not “characters” who have outrageous personalities and quirks for dramatic, marketable effect, and to create highs and lows between routine decisions and those that can decide life or death.
[image2]Context is what matters, and nothing highlights this more than the simplicity of the control scheme. If you can interact with an object or if a quick-time event occurs, an icon with a simple instruction appears. Apart from directing a person with the left analog stick and holding the R2 button to walk (odd, I know… it’s meant to make actions deliberate, but it’s still odd), there are only six actions you need to know: move the right analog stick in a specific direction, move it slowly, move the PS3 Sixaxis controller in a specific direction, press a face button immediately, press a face button repeatedly, or hold down a button or a sequence of buttons in succession. That’s it.
What each of these actions means depends on the situation, but they frequently put you into the experience, whether that’s dodging an oncoming car, tracing a house on an drafting table, brushing teeth, or analyzing a body for DNA with state-of-the-art detective glasses. This becomes even more apparent when you’re in an action sequence where you are bombarded with a flurry of quick-time events. And thankfully, focusing on the screen for the prompts doesn’t tear you away from what’s actually happening.
Unlike other titles that explore plot branching, there are only a few dialogue trees. You can hear your character’s thoughts at any time, but as far as decisions are concerned, actions speak louder than words. Though some actions might seem meaningless at first, they may have far-reaching consequences later in the story, especially on which ending you discover. Moreover, the game auto-saves without any save points, other than a chapter system that allows you start a new game at a specific scene, so the weight of your actions cannot be lifted easily.
[image3]At the same time, many cinematic techniques come through – how a scene is shot, where the light is coming from, the composition of the scene, and the color palettes and filters. Heavy Rain asks how deep the film medium and the interactive medium can intersect, and so far, the result is detailed and beautiful. Just the motion capture technology and the title screen alone – a pitch-black cross-section of alleyways drenched in the downpour of a night thunderstorm with a single lamp from above that hugs the side of a wall – speak wonders.
Heavy Rain states the understated by going back to basics. Its focus on quick-time events and simplistic controls may not seem progressive, but it falls in line with Quantic Dream’s artistic vision. Who knew that a game about everyday people for everyday people – the difficulty settings are Gamer, Casual Gamer, and Non-Gamer – could be so… new? Even if you come to reject everything that it tries to do, Heavy Rain is a game that needs to be played. And well, if you don’t play it, I will start making paper cranes.