A Unique and Heartrending Experience
It’s hard to pin down what exactly Heavy Rain is. It’s certainly not a game in the traditional sense. It’s not enjoyable to play and its controls are awkward and unintuitive. You’re more often a passive spectator than a player. You only select dialogue choices and complete rapid-fire quicktime events. And yet, I was glued to my seat for this ten-hour experience. Heavy Rain attempts and succeeds to blur the line between cinema and video game, creating an emotional experience unlike any other game.
Heavy Rain is an interactive drama game from David Cage. Interactive dramas differ from other video games for two reasons: an emphasis on plot and character development, and the claim that your choices have consequences. Heavy Rain claims that your play style affects the ending of the game and which characters live or die. This emphasis on choice and consequence as well as well-developed and realistic characters, make Heavy Rain an exceptional game, despite it’s archaic and clunky controls.
Heavy Rain centers around Ethan Mars. Ethan Mars is a loving and dutiful husband with a wife and two young boys. Everything is going swimmingly for Ethan, until his youngest son is struck down in a tragic car accident. His perfect life now shattered, the game jumps forward several years. Ethan is separated from his wife, disconnected from his remaining son, and undergoing therapy because of a severe head injury from the accident. Unexpectedly, Ethan’s remaining son is kidnapped by the Origami Killer. The Origami Killer is a serial killer, who kidnaps young boys during periods of heavy rain. His victims are always found dead with a small origami figure clutched in their hands.
The game becomes gripping at this point. The story now revolves around catching the Origami killer and rescuing the boy. Three new characters are introduced and involved in the hunt for the boy. Madison Paige is a reporter haunted by insomnia who becomes close to Ethan. Scott Shelby is a P.I. hired by the families to conduct his own investigation into the Origami Killer. Finally, Norman Jayden is a special FBI profiler called in to aid the investigation.
The game seamlessly switches between each character. Each chapter, you play as a different character. Ethan is being taunted by the Origami Killer and must prove himself in various ways to gain clues about his son’s whereabouts. Madison Paige is looking for the Killer so she can break the story first and finally become a respected and famous journalist. Jayden struggles to work with his brash partner and battles his own private addiction to some futuristic drug. Shelby looks for the Killer to deal with his own personal demons from the past.
Ethan’s storyline is by far the most compelling. Heavy Rain asks how far you’re willing to go to save someone you love, then really makes you prove it. The most memorable of Ethan’s trials is when the Killer demands him to remove half of his pinkie finger. My heart leaped into my throat when the cold voice over the phone gave its demand. I spent several agonizing seconds, my blade quivering over my pinkie, before holding down the button and making a sawing motion with the controller. Even though it was happening on screen, it felt painfully real. My face was contorted in a permanent grimace as I watched Ethan saw through flesh and bone, until the section of finger finally, mercifully comes off. I still shudder at that memory.
The involvement of the other characters in the story is entirely up to you, the player. Because I’m a recent father, I felt really connected to Ethan, and less so to Paige or Jayden. As a result, Paige and Jayden were barely involved in the story; and Ethan and Shelby took center stage. I accidentally killed Paige off while trying to escape a fire, and Jayden overdosed off-screen because I failed to flush his drugs in time. However, on my next playthrough, I managed to keep everyone alive and had a completely different and more fulfilling story. The knowledge that your choice may lead to a character’s death makes every decision, even smaller ones, have weight. I spent much more time fretting about my choices than other games that have offer important dialogue choices, such as Mass Effect.
The story is the most intriguing and compelling part of Heavy Rain, despite a terrible plot twist at the climax. However, the game is substantially held back by its gameplay and controls. In Heavy Rain, you have to hold down a button to walk. Even factoring in that the game is now five years old, that’s incredibly outdated. It’s frustrating to have to hold down a button almost the entirety of a game and constantly breaks the flow and immersion. Also, the fixed camera angles are insufferably bad. I lost count of how many times I walked through a door and then back through it again accidentally because the camera suddenly shifted without warning.
The gameplay is at best bi-polar. You’re either selecting dialogue and then watching as the character says it aloud, bumbling through a room looking for clues, or your mashing your buttons in time to the symbol on the screen. It’s like watching a slow, tense, movie, then suddenly switching to Guitar Hero. The gameplay is jarring and the QTEs add stress because failing a QTE might accidentally lead to a character dying or something negative in the story. The gameplay is bearable during your first playthrough because you’re invested in the story and want to see it to its conclusion. But, the gameplay grates on the nerves your second playthrough. Since you already know the story, the atrocious gameplay comes even more to the forefront.
Truthfully, there isn’t even much point in replaying the game. Yes, your ending will be slightly different, but they’re cosmetic changes instead of substantial ones. I was expecting the secret villain to change each game depending on my choices. But no, the villain is the exact same no matter what. What’s the point of replaying a who-dun-it if you already know who did it? It’s not worth seeing almost the exact same thing for 95 percent of the game, just to have a slight dialogue change at the end.
Despite the bad gameplay and controls, you should absolutely play this game if you haven’t already. Not only because it’s critical and commercial success has led to an increase in popularity for other interactive drama games, such as Until Dawn, and Telltale’s: The Walking Dead. But because of its focus on tough subject matter, as opposed to most AAA games that simply boil down to generic shooters. Yes, there are other non-interactive dramas that deal with loss, like Max Payne or God of War. But in those games, the loss is just a plot justification to enable you to murder hundreds of enemies without moral dilemma. You don’t feel uncomfortable about shooting the criminals or the big baddie at the end because he was in some tertiary way connected to your loss. But those games don’t take a magnifying glass and zoom in on your character’s emotional pain. Heavy Rain does this to an uncomfortable degree. When you flash forward after your youngest son’s death, the whole next chapter consists of an evening between you and your son. No shootouts, no car chases, no puzzles, nothing. Your teenage son is sullen and sulky. He doesn’t talk and doesn’t want to do his homework. The estranged father worries about his son, but has no idea how to make him happy. The scene becomes a guessing game as you try and figure out how to make your son happy. What does he want for dinner? Should I make him do his homework? Playing as the father character, you have lots of ways to try and engage your son through the evening. But he only gives one word responses and for the most part seems sulky. And unless you do every little thing right, the scene ends with your son yelling at you angrily before going to bed. All this is realistic behavior for a depressed teenager and his estranged father.
Scenes like that separate Heavy Rain from other games. Rather then descending into a generic revenge game, Heavy Rain takes time to allow the player to emotionally invest in the characters. When the other son is abducted, I want to rescue him. Not only because the game requires me too, but because I am invested emotionally in the wellbeing of my son. These kinds of scenes make rescuing the abducted teenager synonymous to repairing our fractured relationship. Even though these plots are archetypes in video games, small scenes like this elevate the plot beyond the norm and make the players emotionally invested.
Heavy Rain is a classic game well worth your time. Even though the controls are clunky and there isn’t a lot of replay value, the story is gripping and memorable. Similar to other fantastic classic games, such as Dark Souls, you will remember your first playthrough vividly, even years after you’ve played it. Heavy Rain‘s questions hard look at choices and consequences will make you look hard into your soul. How far are you willing to go to save someone you love? What price are you willing to pay to save someone else? Heavy Rain forces you to delve into your psyche and answer questions you’ve never faced before.