A simple question is posed while playing Heavy Rain: How far will you go to save someone you love? But the game offers so many more questions than that little tug on emotions. How can you truly care about imaginary characters in a videogame? How can nearly every step of your gameplay experience impact the game’s narrative? How do we envision real life actions in a game? But the biggest question presented by Heavy Rain is how do we play videogames now, and how will we play them in the future? After playing through and completing Quantic Dream’s narrative masterpiece, we are left contemplating these very questions. As we look back on our experience playing the game, and the questions and thoughts it presented, all we can say is “wow.” It’s not flawless, of course, but since very few games can leave this sort of impact, we are confident Heavy Rain is a game that will be remembered and talked about for a long, long time.
Heavy Rain is a PlayStation 3 exclusive developed by Quantic Dream, the French studio that brought us Indigo Prophecy (known as Fahrenheit outside of North America), released on last gen consoles. Like Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain focuses on interactive storytelling through onscreen button triggers. Heavy Rain’s primary focus is on the story, or better yet, how the story is told. It’s through these onscreen triggers that the characters you control take action and make decisions.
The story in Heavy Rain is that of a serial-killer murder mystery. When a young boy, Shaun Mars, goes missing, the community is in horror as it appears he could be the next victim of The Origami Killer. This serial killer is responsible for the death of eight boys – kidnapping them from public places, drowning them in rain water, and leaving an orchid on the chest of the victim and an origami figurine in the boy’s hand. These murders have been taking place for more than three years, and while hundreds of suspects have been interrogated, no arrests have been made. To help catch the killer, the local police call upon an FBI profiler, Norman Jayden, who is outfitted with an experimental tool called Added Reality Interface, abbreviated ARI. With this tool, he can collect and analyze evidence and videos in a sort of virtual reality.
Neither the police nor the FBI agent are alone in searching for the serial killer. Scott Shelby, a former cop turned private eye, has been hired by the victim’s families to find the killer. He has a great sense of humor for someone who works with the victim’s families, but he’s also rough around the edges and not afraid to use brute force to obtain necessary information. Before we go much further, we should make sure you know we will not spoil the story, so don’t worry about any major spoilers being revealed.
The missing boy’s father, Ethan Mars, is an architect who lost his ten-year-old son Jason in 2009, literally. Ethan tried to save his son’s life after he wandered off at a mall. Jumping in front of the car that ultimately killed Jason put Ethan in a coma for several months, and had long lasting mental and emotional impacts on the man. The other main character, Madison Paige, is a photographer suffering from a serious case of insomnia. Sometimes, the only way she can find peace and rest is by staying in hotel rooms. Her connection with the story, The Origami Killer, and the rest of the case are revealed after a couple hours of gameplay.
You take control of all four characters in Heavy Rain. So few games balance the development of multiple characters, but Heavy Rain does it perfectly. It’s these characters that you care about and root for throughout the game. One scene you’ll play as Ethan, preparing for his son’s birthday party, and in another scene, you’ll play as Madison, erotically dancing to catch a special someone’s attention. There are moments you’ll play as other characters, but it’s always in a very limited way. All four main characters have their ticks and quirks, and while none are perfect, you’ll find compassion and affection for each one. Few games provide that genuine interest and care for a character in a videogame, but Heavy Rain figured out how to do it well.
We use the term play pretty loosely when speaking about Heavy Rain. You use various onscreen buttons and motion prompts to perform actions. If you want to open the fridge, watch the onscreen indicator as you approach it, use the right analog stick to perform the specific action represented on screen, and watch as your character swings open the refrigerator. That doesn’t mean action sequences are missing or boring. In fact, because of how the game’s story unfolds, and how you are required to follow the onscreen indicators, the action is seamless and fluent. The onscreen indicators usually twirl around where ever the action is taking place. Need to shoot a bodyguard, watch the X pop up in front of him, and tap it on your controller before time runs out. Hold down different buttons to make your character climb a wall or stand up after falling.
This same button sequences work with dialogue. During a conversation, you’ll usually have four different options floating around your head – corresponding to the buttons on your controller. The more stress, anxious, wounded, scared, or whatever other emotion your character is dealing with, the faster these dialogue boxes spin around your head, and the harder they are to read. This control scheme works quite well for the style of Heavy Rain. There are some problems with the controls and onscreen prompts. For instance, sometimes your character will stand in the way of the onscreen button prompt. You can usually change the camera perspective to see what you have to do, but that slows down the pace of the story. Another problem we found with the button indicators comes when button options are blurred because you are nervous or frazzled. Sometimes it’s unclear what you are actually supposed to do – hold it down, tap it fast, or just press it. We were also frustrated with the walking mechanics. It’s not always clumsy, but when it is, it’s quite noticeable and draws attention away from the compelling story.
The game is linear, but not in a traditional sense. There are definitely things you have to do, but your actions have an impact on the story – if only revealed through dialogue. The game will go on without you if you forget to do something or you make a mistake. If one of your main characters dies, you will not get a gameover screen; you will just miss details that would have been revealed later in the game. This is an incredible concept and one that works quite well. You probably won’t notice this until you play through the game a second time, but it’s truly fascinating playing a game that has no mistakes or wrong decisions. Since there are no checkpoints, you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat the entire game, excited to see what happens next, and cautiously making your decisions and action as to not spoil the story (although, you can’t really spoil the story, but you can change the way the ending is presented).
The presentation is some of the best in recent games. The graphics, dialogue, music, and animations are top notch. The game has a Film Noire feel, with just about everything blanketed in thin black hues. Lighting is critical, casting shadows on characters’ faces and illuminating otherwise dark alleys. The only complaint we had with the graphics is that some of the stationary details, say TVs or paintings, are not all that detailed or realistic. Similarly, while the animations are extremely fluid, there were several occasions that the characters’ hands never seemed to fully grasp objects – guns, a remote control, a beer bottle. Kissing looks a bit awkward, but it’s certainly better than most games. The dialogue is very natural and feels like a big budget Hollywood script. It’s really some of the best writing we’ve seen in videogames.
Heavy Rain is rated M for a very good reason. If this were a movie, it would be rated R. There is plenty of swearing, nudity, sex, violence, and disturbing themes. For gamers, this isn’t anything new as we’ve all played games that have plenty of gore and nudity. But since Heavy Rain looks so real, and pulls at your emotions, everything feels so much more impactful and meaningful. Tears in a character’s eyes are intense. The scenes of nudity are not inappropriate, and in fact they flow so well it’s almost unnoticeable.
There was a moment during our time with Heavy Rain where we forgot we were playing a videogame. As The Origami Killer was revealed, our jaws dropped in astonishment. We had spent the past eight to ten hours trying to solve the mystery, and the game beat us to the punch. Playing through the closing sequences, we were quickly reminded that this is in fact a game. Through fast-paced action sections, dramatic reunions, and incredible revelations, we were thrown back into the world of Heavy Rain. As the credits rolled, all we could do was say “wow.” We are well aware that this game is not for everyone. If you only like games where you kill monsters, throw grenades, or defeat epic bosses you won’t find much interest in Heavy Rain. But, if you are willing to take a risk, and try a new approach to gaming, we think you will be greatly rewarded. Even though it’s only February, Heavy Rain will easily make the list of best games of the year. We can’t wait for you to play through the game and see how it all unfolds.