Fun fact: Occasionally, literature professors will pick up some medium of story after throwing tantrums about its inherent shittiness and realize they actually kind of like it. When this happens, they invent terms like “graphic novel” and “electronic narrative” to avoid that awkward moment where they have to fess up to reading comic books and playing video games. Everything eventually gains respect, even if only in a historical context–I personally hope to have fully decomposed and fertilized a nice, tall tree by the time music historians begin to discuss the Bieberesque Period. While “electronic narrative” may carefully disguise the term video game, those who discuss Heavy Rain tend to employ a second layer of euphemism, listed on Wikipedia as “Interactive Drama,” or in plain English, “Choose your own adventure.”
Heavy Rain, belonging to the serial-killer noir thriller genre, immediately you choose such adventurous things as taking a shower versus taking a piss, wandering around your kitchen like an idiot versus wandering around the backyard like an Alzheimer’s patient, or turning on the radio and finding the music obnoxious versus just leaving it off to save time. I suppose not every story has to begin in media res, but the opening to Heavy Rain just feels like someone wanted to apply an onslaught of quick time events to their daily routine. You might describe it as God of War without the emotional intensity, mythologically inspired story line, and fast-paced fight scenes, but I prefer to think of it as Goat Simulator without the goats. For the first few hours of the game, the most fun I had was while the game installed on my PS3, and the install screen said, “Psst. Look in the game box. I put some paper in it. Let’s do some crafts!” And by the time the game began, I had successfully made a macabre little origami…penguin? Seal? Something.
In the game’s defense–sort of–you really need to spend the first few hours of the game figuring out how to walk. Apparently, to make up for the lack of any real gameplay, the developer, Quantic Dream, decided to challenge the players by fucking with any sense of intuition in moving the character. Rather than the time-honored-and-beloved “tilt stick to move in that direction,” or even the eventually-tolerable-once-you’ve-played-every-Resident-Evil-game “press up to go forward and left and right to turn,” Heavy Rain opted for an original “tilt the stick to move character’s head in a seemingly random direction, then press and hold R2 to have their legs lurch forward in that direction without giving their torso any warning.” And if unintentionally spinning circles like a dog with Alzheimer’s who keeps forgetting that he wanted to chase his tail doesn’t sound like a stellar game, opening the menu to try to change the control scheme revealed both the helpful suggestion and the developers’ literary limits by suggesting I tilt the left analog stick to “orientate” my character.
Now that I’ve quickly scanned everything I’ve written, worried that I, too, threw in some boneheaded non-word somewhere, I can say that the story does get better later on, although I very nearly didn’t make it after the game glitched out three minutes in, removing any option to do anything except walk in circles. The opening half hour or so exudes such a stench of happy-perfect-American-family-dream that I might have fumigated my Playstation if the absurd cesspool of bliss didn’t telegraph the inevitable death like the Bat Signal in a subway tunnel. For a game that sells itself on its emotional impact, they may want to rethink the appropriateness of making their audience react to tragedy with relief and excitement for things to come.
As the player, you alternate control of four characters involved in the investigation of a child’s disappearance presumably at the hands of the origami killer, following each one as they do random, daily tasks like handing someone a business card, buckling their seat belt, helping their kids with homework, and changing diapers. Each character has their own stake in the plot. Ethan Mars has to sit through a series of discount Saw puzzles, Norman Jayden investigates for the FBI while struggling with some sort of drug addiction, and Scott Shelby follows his own P.I. instinct while presumably struggling with a donut addiction. Occasionally, they’ll follow leads and learn clues as to the identity of the killer or the location of the abducted kid. But more often, they’ll engage in high-stakes QTE fights with people that have no bearing on the plot other than to make you think the pacing has picked up. However, just as often they’ll fail to find any excuse for an action sequence, so to make up for that they’ll play tense, dramatic music. In every scene.
Having said that, I actually really liked the game. Despite stemming from the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure family, the choices run the plot together seamlessly. Walking toward a character might trigger a cut scene, while picking up an object you hadn’t noticed and then walking toward the character might have triggered something else. Often times, consequences make themselves immediately visible. Shoving the crime lord to the right versus to the left has the consequence of what side of the room he’ll fall. Some, like the diaper simulator, may have no apparent consequence. But whatever happens, you just have to live with that, which critics have reviewed as an innovative, yet unforgiving system. I wish more games would operate this way. “Slippy crashed on Titania? Well, we’ve got a job to do. Maybe we’ll pick him up later.” “Ouromov shot Natalya? Well, I guess I can hack Boris’ password myself.” “The giant angler fish ate Tidus? Good! Let’s move on to the tolerable characters now.” Heavy Rain’s decision-consequence system effectively means you can’t get stuck. Having spent an hour last night working on a boss fight in Resonance of Fate, giving up in anger well past my bed time, I can honestly say more games need this sort of system.
Modern expectations for thrillers demand a shocking twist ending, and while I’d much rather have dramatic tension than some schmuck introduced at the last minute, Heavy Rain tries too hard to impress you. Naturally, you meet the killer early in the game, introduced as just another character. Mystery writers have used that technique for a hundred years. But in a desperate effort to prevent you from guessing his identity, the character performs a number of tasks that–without revealing too much–make as much sense for a killer to perform as for a lion to hire a contractor to repair the fence at the zoo. The game even goes so far as to show you a scene that, in the dramatic reveal at the end, turns out to have played out completely different, despite having no reason for the player not to trust the narration. They even try to play up cliches, such as making you think Ethan kidnapped his own kid as though he had always wanted an odd number of fingers, but had to give himself a good excuse to hack it off.
Boiled down to essentials, Heavy Rain tells a good story, and the QTEs don’t get in the way too much, but in the end it feels like a handjob from a prostitute–sure, the resolution satisfies you, but you could have had more. And even if you like getting jerked around at the end, you know you have to wait a while before going back to try out the other endings.