Finish the fight. A beautiful death. War, War never changes.
Slogans for mature rated videogames often play to one specific method of conflict resolution: combat. It's design 101 to set a challenge, empower us to overcome our aggressors, and finally receive gratification by means of victory. Halo 3, Assassin's Creed, and Fallout 3, the three games from which the above slogans are respectively pulled, all feature combat as their primary means of conflict resolution and, for all intents and purposes, backbone of the gameplay. Feeling powerful and kicking ass is an industry staple, but it's a poor way to tap into the more subtle aspects of human emotion. It's almost like every game is the equivalent of a Michael Bay film; all eye candy and zero identifiable soul.
How far will you go to save someone you love?
Heavy Rain is different. Different in the sense that it almost makes you wonder if David Cage and the rest of his team at Quantic Dream even bother with other videogames. While you occasionally engage in combat, more often than not you're dealing with fear, anger, lust, desperation, vengeance, depression, tension, and absolute distress. Heavy Rain covers ground rarely treaded by modern games and, while it occasionally stumbles, it manages to creation tension in places few games dare to go. More risks have been taken here than in any other high budget, first party offering in recent memory, maybe ever - and it absolutely deserves to be played by anyone with a passing interest in the medium.
Heavy Rain is a modern adventure game seen through the eyes of four different characters, each linked in some way to the serial murdering "Origami Killer." Scott Shelby, an aging private detective, spends most of his time visiting those close to killer's previous victims as he tries to pick up the trail. Norman Jayden, an FBI Agent, investigates potential crime scenes with the help of a cool, almost supernatural interface, ARI. Ethan Mars, an architect and father, is in search of his missing child while Madison Page, an insomniac journalist, seeks to aid him. Each are under your control at different points in Heavy Rain's interconnecting narrative.
Or at least they might be. If a character meets an untimely end and winds up dead, the game and the narrative will continue without their presence. While that might seem like a negative, failure states, (i.e. the points at which you think you did something wrong and maybe want to reload to a previous save file) aren't an intended part of the design. You don't necessarily fail as much as you change the way your character or the plot progresses; whether or not you pressed the right button sequence and what you chose to say or do could ultimately results in permanent consequence - though not necessarily positive or negative. It's what happened, and if what happened resulted in the death of an NPC, or even one of the four main characters, then that is your story.
And that's also what makes Heavy Rain mesmerizing. While certain actions (or inaction) ultimately won't take you too far off the tracks (something I only discovered during my second play through, it's quite an illusion), the scene-specific instances and choices can be widely divergent. After the credits roll you're not going to be talking about the main plot as much as you will the decision-specific instances in the game's collection of scenes. What you did, tried to do, or deliberately didn't do will shape and define your experience, and it provides excellent fodder for post-game discussion. Not unlike Mass Effect 2 or Fallout 3, I can imagine the sort "so what did you do when..." conversations bound to take place with friends or on public forums.
Don’t call it a quicktime-event.
One could expect the traditional means of player control to be similarly thrown out the window. Walking is done with moderate success by holding R2, which sets your character in motion, and the right stick - which steers him or her in a direction. In normal, walk around exploration you'll be prompted with flicks of the stick or Sixaxis to pick up objects, close drawers, or even go to the bathroom. Button prompts arrive in different combinations, orders, hold times, Sixaxis tilt, and even movement speed. Pointless endeavors are few, and generally everything you’re allowed to do, whether you realize it or not, has some intended purpose.
These prompts also factor into the dialogue system. Everything from your inner thoughts to what you choose to say will circle and whiz around your head, with the latter staying there until your window to say it expires. Your choices may start buzzing or getting fuzzy given how intense a particular situation is, which might ultimately lead you to feel as desperate as the character when you have to mash a button in a frantic attempt to save your skin.
It's also through the above actions that you can discover your characters. No one in Heavy Rain arrives with a back story, and, while some hints are given via a characters surroundings or inspection of personal belongings, their ultimate personality is left for you to decide. Jayden, for instance, is constantly butting heads with his local police partner. In most situations, you can either hold back and let your partner act like a maniac or try to reason with him and calm him down. Jayden also arrives with a pretty serious chemical dependency, and his choice of whether to use or not, and by extension his character and his fate, are in your hands. The other three characters follow similar means of development.
More often than not, your interaction leads you toward tense moments of conflict - and it’s these sections that most closely resemble a traditional "quick time event." A button will appear on screen, like next to a flying fist you need to dodge or a car steering wheel you need to jerk, and you'll need to react appropriately to complete the action in a short amount of time. QTE's were handled quite lazily in Quantic's last effort, Indigo Prophesy (which could also be viewed as a prequel of sorts for Heavy Rain), but they feel more confident this time around. It's still going to be intentionally uncomfortable in some more intense situations, but your suspension of disbelief is no longer disconnected by having to input a remixed Konami code every time. Input usually replicate the onscreen action as closely as possible, and it doesn't feel any more out of place than mashing X as to swing Kratos' blades or squeezing R1 to fire a gun.
If it seems like I'm speaking in vague generalities without actually citing examples. Heavy Rain is driven by discovery of finding yourself in places interactive entertainment isn't often willing to take us, and pulling back the curtain on those instances would rob the player of what I found so endearing. Heavy Rain broadcasts moments of overwhelming emotion through jaw dropping scenarios that makes the Modern Warfare 2's infamous airport scene feel cheap and pretentious, and it tugs at your heartstrings when it forces your characters through grueling and uncomfortable situations.
I'm a father, too (slight, very small spoilers until the next bolded point)
An early area with Ethan generated feelings of tension and uneasiness I previously hadn't perceived in a game; being a Dad. I was out in the backyard with foam swords playing around with my kids, and then I entered what I assumed was a button tutorial. I was tasked with dueling one of my kids, but I was conflicted because I didn't know whether to complete the button prompts and successfully finish what I thought was a tutorial, or be a good dad and let my kid get a few hits in. For years, videogames have been telling me that if I follow the instructions on screen, I will then be rewarded, but, in this case, that instruction conflicted with my impulse to try and not be a jerk father. I was taken aback, and completely swallowed by the fiction from an angle I never expected. And that was just the first ten minutes of the game.
In fact, most of Ethan's portion of the game is incredibly unpleasant and often depressing. What he's forced to do is backbreaking, and the unnerving actions he must perform to find his son were enough to give me pause and force me into taking a break from the game. The man gets beat to hell, and it leaves him physically and emotionally destroyed. If you're invested in the fiction and can feel the plight of the character, you're going to feel his conflict and sympathize with his 'at any cost' determination. Or maybe you won't, and maybe you'll elect not to participate in any of the dehumanizing situations he can't seem to escape. While some seemingly perilous situations will play out the same regardless of your QTE success or failure, you do have a considerable amount of control over the fate of Ethan, or any other character.
Moral choice is a hot feature in games right now, but the lines have never been more blurry than they are in Heavy Rain. You're constantly being slammed with intense circumstance, forcing you to act on what you think is right, what you think is necessary, or hastily out of pure desperation. Do you sit back and watch a store get robbed, or do you step up and hope to defuse the situation? Do you aid a man you hate when he's clearly going to die, or do you walk away? What are you willing to sacrifice? Heavy Rain has an expansive number of ending variations, and the variables for the ultimate endgame can be factored in very early on. In one way or another, you're going to have to answer for what you've done. Rarely has a game given such a great amount of consequence to the actions of its characters.
“I thought you were watching a movie”
Heavy Rain's most inviting characteristic is undoubtedly its presentation. The lengths to which Quantic Dream went to create their graphic engine (as seen in the unlockables "making of" shorts) really paid off, both in terms of mood and atmosphere. One would expect the cut scenes to be framed and shot like a movie, but the same also holds true for the bits where you're walking around. Character interaction doesn't suffer if you choose to move around, stand still, or sit in a chair - and scenes are often augmented by quick cuts and split screens to keep up the pace. The action is framed perfectly as well; finding your lost kid at the mall carries a sense of desperation enhanced by the slightly blurred visuals and seemingly endless sea of people, and trying to drive a car the wrong way down a highway comes with the sense of death-defying accomplishment made entirely possible by the rich presentation and meticulous attention to detail.
Care and precision have gone into almost every observable graphical and mechanical detail, which makes Heavy Rain's failings all the more glaring. While the music and sound effects are excellent throughout, the voice acting isn't up to par. Accents have the tendency to bleed through and make conversations unintentionally weird. The game is clearly set in the United States, but each character, save Shelby, speaks with an accent that ranges from vaguely off to completely overbearing. That's fine, there are plenty of French-born people speaking English in the United States, but it seems like they are deliberately trying to have "American" accents. It threw me off, and some of the line reading (see your aggressor and his delivery of the word "asshole" when Shelby visits Lauren's apartment) is flat out awful. I understand that the developers are French, but, in a post-Uncharted 2 world, merely passable voice acting isn't going to cut it.
Some lesser instances, such as an occasionally unclear prompt, got in the way as well. Early in the game I wanted to make dinner for my kid but instead I wound up going to the refrigerator and chugging a beer. That particular action was largely inconsequential, but down the road I ended up pressing some pressing poorly defined prompts that made my character react against my wishes. With the changing camera angles, it's easy to lose control of your character. This isn't necessarily punitive, but it breaks immersion to see Madison stumble in circles like an idiot when she should be trying to open a door. Lastly, my retail copy of the game was a bit buggy. Having NPCs walk through my character in a cut scene was excusable, but failing to load my save file and forcing me to restart from a previous chapter was disappointing. Still, these problems are minor and (hopefully) uncommon.
The highest compliment I can pay Heavy Rain is that it treated me like an adult. Far too often “mature” in a videogame means either senseless profanity, or gratuitous sex and violence and, while Heavy Rain certainly isn’t short on sex or violence, most of the time it’s presented in a way that treats the player with respect. Not unlike an R-rated drama, the mature subject matter is used to build and define its characters, not exploit them.