Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3
Interactive thriller is remarkably brave, but only periodically thrilling
The videogame industry has been outgrossing Hollywood by a “Gerry Brookhymer who?” kind of margin for years now, but game developers can’t stop using motion pictures as the benchmark for their own visual-presentation and storytelling endeavors. To the point that, in game marketing, the word “cinematic”—though qualitatively neutral—is now assumed to be interchangeable with modifiers like “mind-blowing” or “amazing.” I don’t get the sense that many gamers have bothered to question this logic. It’s true that both games and movies are capable of delivering impressive visuals and spinning compelling yarns, but they have important, fundamental differences.
There’s a reason why the auteur behind a film is called a “director.” Directors don’t just sit in snazzy folding chairs and blurt out “action” and “cut.” They’re micromanagers, in the best possible way, orchestrating exactly how audiences will experience a film, down to the most arbitrary-seeming background details. With games, however, due to the medium’s interactive nature, developers are forced to cede a huge amount of this control to players in terms of how a game’s world and narrative will be experienced. This facet of player choice in videogames presents an entirely unique set of problems for interactive storytellers. French studio Quantic Dream’s latest project Heavy Rain stares down this challenge with admirable unflappability.
More than any other game title to date, Heavy Rain positions itself as an interactive movie. A promotional poster released on Quantic Dream’s website goes so far as to list the game’s characters in precisely the spot where you’d expect to see names such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts or George Clooney. The main image consists an origami bird with its pointed paper legs soaked in blood. The poster’s teaser cutline reads, “How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?”
Heavy Rain’s plot revolves around an investigation into a string of murders carried out by the so-called “origami killer.” In the vicinity of each victim’s corpse, police have discovered a head-scratching calling card—a small, origami paper animal. Instead of controlling one person the entire game, there are four main characters that you alternate between, depending on the chapter. The typical thriller-movie archetypal roles are all covered here—the grizzled detective, the intrepid journalist, the bereaved parent and the cucumber-cool FBI agent.
From the moment you’re confronted with the lashing rain of the title screen, it’s clear that taut atmosphere is not going to be in short supply. The game cribs a few notes from PT Anderson’s Magnolia—hands-down, the best movie about inclement weather ever made—opening each chapter with the time and location information, but also, when appropriate, the number of inches of rainfall. Just like in Anderson’s masterpiece, the game’s weather functions throughout as a barometer for the characters’ mental wellness at any given time. While the device may be subtle as a sledgehammer, it’s suitably agitating all the same. In the opening chapter, we meet architect Ethan Mars. He’s stubbly-faced handsome, wealthy and has a picture-perfect family life—pretty wife and two well-adjusted sons.
I realize the game needs to help us get acquainted with its context-sensitive control scheme, but do we really need to help our protagonist urinate, shower, shave and get dressed? I felt like a first-year nursing student doing rotations in an old-folks home. Wiggle the right analog stick in the direction notated onscreen to open Ethan’s closet door, wiggle it in a different pattern to grab your shirt, hit this button to pull it over your head. Over the next 20 minutes or so, you’ll putter downstairs, drink some orange juice, partake in a toy-sword duel with your kids in the backyard and have a sexy-time overture shot down by your errand-preoccupied wife. Some male players will be left wondering when the escapism kicks in.
That being said, real life is frequently mundane and there’s an oddly potent kind of identification that begins to develop between you and the characters after you’ve followed them step by step through some of these tasks. Simply by peppering in these unvarnished moments of human ritual, Heavy Rain marks a watershed moment in gaming that could forever change how interactive stories engage with players' emotions. The template is miles from perfect, but it’s one worth building on.
In terms of gameplay, Heavy Rain’s closest stylistic relative just might be adventure/puzzle Flash game (a.k.a. mouse-click everywhere until something happens) in the ilk of Jakub Dvorsky’s critically adored Samorost series. Heavy Rain eases the frustration by letting you know when you can interact with something in your immediate vicinity using visual prompts. The game rewards your exploration of the environment in a measured, incremental fashion.
Just as you start getting fidgety, the game arrives at a pivotal mall scene in which your wife asks you to keep tabs on your son Jason. (Things are about to get interesting.) And soon the recurring dreams will start in which Ethan finds himself holding origami models. And the victim corpses will pile up higher. Pacing leans toward agonizingly measured, but the level of suspense whipped up by Heavy Rain’s crime-noir storyline can take some of the credit. If nothing else, Heavy Rain deserves major kudos for confronting its characters with emotional dilemmas that go far deeper than whether to kill a mutated Nazi with a frag grenade or a laser cannon.