Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
There is something wonderfully ordinary about the opening of Heavy Rain. It presents scenes that fly in the face of the clichéd imagery touted by the likes of the Daily Mail and those worried that our industry is the cause of all today’s ills. Equally, the sheer lack of the spectacular may cause those who are not au fait with David Cage’s and Quantic Dream’s vision to question just what they have agreed to play.
As the curtain rises to a gentle piano score, we are treated to views of a bedroom. Taking in the family pictures, the view through to the garden and general tranquillity of the homestead, the camera settles on Ethan Mars. An architect and a father of two he has an important job to do today, that of getting ready for his son’s birthday party.
Wandering around in a pair of trunks, you guide Ethan through his house, showering, shaving and dressing so he’s good to face the world. Each action is entirely context sensitive and dependant on the task at hand. Walking up to a wardrobe and you’ll be asked to flick the right analogue stick out and back, mimicking the motion your arm would make in the same situation. In the bathroom, pushing the stick down to pick up your razor will then see you asked to move in slow sweeping motions to pull it gently across your chin. In contrast, drying yourself off with a towel is achieved with vigorous movements of the six-axis. It may sound hackneyed but each makes sense in situ.
Throughout the house action indicators appear as you wander by and are setup to familiarise you with these mechanics; chores need doing, children entertaining and a wife requires helping. If the initial openness is a little too daunting, holding down the left trigger gives you an insight into the character’s mind. Choices will orbit them and can hint at just what their current priorities might be.
For me these initial steps into Heavy Rain were some of my most memorable. There is an unassuming nature about the task at hand and embedding yourself in Ethan’s world is one that needs to be savoured rather than rushed for all too soon his happiness is shattered. After witnessing the events that lead to this first hand, we return to find Ethan separated from his wife and trying to do the best by his son.
From this point onwards the strength of Heavy Rain emerges: choice. How would you take the breakdown of your marriage? Would you give in, grab a beer from the fridge and settle down to watch cartoons, drinking until the dead of night? Or would you reach instead for the orange juice (giving it a six-axis shake, first), help your son Shaun with his homework, packing him off to bed at a reasonable hour? This is no black and white however, just shades of grey all made up by many individual choices. Maybe a combination of beer and homework could work, but that’s your call on how you want to shape his world.
Ethan isn’t the only character featured, three others also introduce themselves. There’s Scott Shelby, a private eye who suffers from asthma; Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler with a drugs problem; and Madison Paige, a journalist suffering from chronic insomnia. Each with their own frailties, their stories are woven around the overarching theme of the Origami Killer, a serial killer who drowns his victims in rain water and leaves an origami figure calling card. For whatever reasons, all four playable characters will lead you down a trail that they hope will unearth this killer.
Shelby, overweight and with breathing problems, may not seem the heroic sort but within minutes of meeting him I had managed to get him into a fight chivalrously, protecting a young woman. It played out like an elongated quick time event (QTE), a series of buttons flashing up onto the screen indicating the need for Shelby to punch, dodge or kick his assailant. This is no short burst either as the sections can go on for minutes at a time, all the time your eyes will be darting about looking for indicators to appear on hands, feet or by certain objects as they are dragged into proceedings.
Initially I felt as though the QTEs were injected as a way to keep the player attentive during what would otherwise be dead playtime. What changed my mind was the realisation that, like your decision making, the outcome had real consequences. From losing the faith of a contact to the death of your character, it focused the mind: missing the next button might mean losing a huge chunk of the story.
As an extension, the stressful situations in which you place your characters are reflected back to you through the use of the controller. Basic actions or reactions generally require the odd stab at a button, for instance a punch or taking a swig from a drink, but as pressure and urgency mount you’ll be asked to hold or hit more and more buttons. Dragging someone, for instance, might involve depressing the two triggers, as if each were an arm, and hammering X to simulate the strain and haul them towards you. For the utmost tension the series of buttons will contort your hand. Under a time limit, heart racing, the pad ended up at strange angles as I scrabbled to keep all four buttons pressed firmly down and everyone onscreen alive.
These situations will test your knowledge of the six-axis’ layout, but for people not so well versed it’s worth noting a difficulty setting can be adjusted if you don’t want unfamiliarity getting in the way.
The story was what drove me forward; a murder mystery where you help guide the investigation. With the FBI profiler determined to piece together the evidence and a journalist sticking her nose in to eek out the tiniest of details, you are able to feel a tangible part of closing the net on the Origami Killer. Though Madison uses traditional methods, Norman comes equipped with a piece of high-tech kit known as ARI. Effectively augmented reality goggles, it allows him to identify and analyse evidence as if in a virtual reality simulator by sending out a sonar pulse from his glove. Although farfetched it did streamline its investigative approach and the alternative of shuffling round on your hands and knees, combing blades of grass would by too tedious for words; plus, next to the absurdity of Fahrenheit it is barely worth noting.
The narrative flicks back and forth between the four main characters, showing their journeys which occasionally cross over. Each make choices on the way they behave, react and conduct themselves and it was that I was making my mark on the tale that made me feel unerringly linked with the outcome. This wasn’t just their story but mine as well; I was the fifth character stamping my individuality on proceedings.
The nature of game affords Heavy Rain a very cinematic feel. There is no direct camera control, instead you can choose from a series of camera angles, allowing the director to compose each shot and making sure it never strays too far from his vision. At times this will combine with a 24-esque series of picture-by-picture shots as you are shown others’ actions as you go about your business.
All of the digital actors are of a very high quality with stunning facial modelling. For the main characters, the standard of animation throughout is very natural and barely falters across the entire duration of the tale, whilst the accompanying voice acting matches that standard. Supporting cast members don’t seem to have had as much love lavished upon their polygonal hides and it’s disappointing to see occasionally amateurish voiceovers breaking the spell. This is rare, though is even more jarring when it does occur.
What lets the overall polish down more is the control you have over movement. Rather than operated directly from a stick, the right trigger must be held down to walk. Whether this was to reduce cases of accidental shifting I am unsure, but your steps are so heavy as to make precision movement frustrating. When actions can only be performed in a certain spot facing, moving your actor into position is tantamount to stopping an oil tanker on a ten pence piece; very reminiscent of the original Resident Evil.
However, that alone can not spoil what is one of the most engrossing experiences yet to grace a console. Heavy Rain is the Choose Your Own Adventure book of the new decade, where each action you take or fail to take can have consequences. Some may be vast, others not so, but the way everything pans out is directly resultant from your actions and judgements.
Having reached the conclusion of my own narrative, I am very reticent about playing Heavy Rain through again. I have shaped my world and made a number of judgement calls, whether through gut instinct or heavy consideration, that I feel reflect my personality. To go back and simply see what would happen if I went against those decisions I think would cheapen my experience. For this Choose Your Own Adventure I didn’t leave my finger in the previous page just in case a dragon was about to eat me.
Some may be put off by the setting or themes but the entire production is like taking part in a series of 24 or an ITV1 Drama special. As a game it is unconventional but as a piece of interactive fiction it is currently without equal. I can envisage Heavy Rain drawing in non-gamers who had previously tutted and walked on at the mere sight of a joypad, if only to watch, gripped, whilst you extract yourself from another tight spot.