Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3) review
"It almost seems unfair to criticize Heavy Rain for not being a legitimate game since, to its credit, it never claims otherwise. Quantic Dream have been pushing it as an “interactive drama” since day one, and a trophy you earn early on during the story even labels it as such. As a well-documented traducer of the adventure genre as a whole, it’s a little weird that I even bothered to play Heavy Rain in the first place, considering that my biggest complaints about the title (namely, t..."
It almost seems unfair to criticize Heavy Rain for not being a legitimate game since, to its credit, it never claims otherwise. Quantic Dream have been pushing it as an “interactive drama” since day one, and a trophy you earn early on during the story even labels it as such. As a well-documented traducer of the adventure genre as a whole, it’s a little weird that I even bothered to play Heavy Rain in the first place, considering that my biggest complaints about the title (namely, that any semblance of actual gameplay seems included more out of obligation than priority) I’d been anticipating anyway. The only reason I ultimately took the time to play it was because, despite my burning hatred for the genre, I’m genuinely interested in seeing the potential of gaming as an interactive storytelling medium, and that’s Heavy Rain’s claim to fame. Adventure games are tricky; they can make a strong case for the medium’s storytelling capabilities, but it’s all too often at the cost of the very foundations that make gaming what it’s supposed to be.
So while the fact that you have to hold R2 just to walk seems like something worth harping on –were you afraid a more conventional control scheme would make Heavy Rain feel too much like an actual game, Quantic Dream? – I knew perfectly well what I was getting into here. Instead, then, let’s discuss Heavy Rain as an interactive narrative, and why it fails at that, too.
Heavy Rain is a gritty murder mystery concerning the identity of the notorious “Origami Killer,” who murders young boys, only operates during rainfall, and leaves an origami figure at the scene of every crime (although the last two points don’t really get along, because wouldn’t the paper get soggy?). Players control – and I apply that word as loosely as I can – four different characters whose lives become entangled in the heat of the latest case. Ethan Mars is still recovering from the death of one of his sons a couple of years ago when his other son gets kidnapped by the Origami Killer. Chubby detective Scott Shelby is one of the people investigating the case, as is FBI agent Norman Jayden, who’s equipped with a pair of super-advanced sunglasses and a hilariously awful Noo Yawk accent. Finally, there’s a female journalist named Madison Paige who shows up from time to time and then disappears when she realizes she's not as important as the other three.
The extent of the whole “interactivity” thing that gaming is supposed to be based around is limited to slowly and delicately walking your characters from one piece of exposition to another, and then participating in a nearly endless string of quick-time events once the cutscenes fire up. Nearly every action your characters perform – whether you’re opening a drawer or taking a drink or whatever – requires a swivel of the right analog stick, and conversations often can’t continue unless the player hits one of the face buttons to select a phrase or tone, thereby sending the exchange in the direction they desire. The idea is ultimately to tell a linear story that’s dependent on player participation, and that is ultimately shaped by the player’s choices and actions.
Heavy Rain’s play time is spent switching between the four protagonists, each playing a vital role in exposing the Origami Killer. Whatever the unique circumstances of each individual play-through – and there are plenty of ever-popular “moral choices” in which to engage – this is still a linear process. Characters find the same clues in the same order, and the identity of the killer always remains the same.
That’s okay if Heavy Rain’s magic is in the fine details, yet for all of the game’s hype over having long-running consequences for all of your actions, I never picked that up. Early in the story while playing as Jayden, I had the option to shoot a man who was threatening the life of my partner. I did it, and was treated to a brief shot of Jayden (who had never killed anyone before) looking awestruck over what he’d just done. In the next scene, the two are in a car, and Jayden’s partner tells him that killing is something that only gets easier… and then the matter is dropped and never brought up again. It’s one of only two or three incidents in the entire game when you’re given the option to kill someone when you don’t necessarily have to; shouldn’t it be more effectual to the characters and events than this? All of the big moral choices are treated in similarly episodic fashion, where the writers dwell on the consequences of your actions for a brief moment before dismissing them and moving on. Since the plot will more or less always go in the same direction, all you’re ultimately doing is determining who lives or dies during the big finale.
Didn’t Mass Effect 2 do something awfully similar a month earlier? Come to think of it, isn’t this generally what BioWare have been doing with all of their games since the last console generation? Yes, it is. The difference is that their games have the additional advantage of being deep and immensely enjoyable even when you brush aside anything remotely plot-related. If interactive storytelling is truly the only trick up Heavy Rain’s sleeve, fine, but you had better make sure you do it damn well, especially if you’re going to forsake the notion of gameplay in the process. Yet for all of the hype over Heavy Rain offering consequences for your actions, it’s telling that other, more complete games have done the same thing – and earlier – without even trying. You can see why I’m not impressed by this argument.
And while Heavy Rain’s plot is told with style (this 24 fan digs the excessive use of split-screen), the sad irony is that something like Dragon Age is infinitely more an interactive narrative than a game like Heavy Rain will ever be, since you’re given constant control over everything your character says and does. Nothing ever changes your characters’ motivations or mindsets in Heavy Rain, no matter how you choose to present yourself; if anything, far more rests on your ability to complete the countless timed button prompts. Two major characters died during the finale of the game I played, but only because I failed a couple of last-minute quick-time events, and since there is no "game over" screen, dead is dead in Heavy Rain. My failure had nothing to do with the choices I’d made prior to the ending, unless that was karma coming back to bite me in the ass. If anything, I’d made quite a few questionable decisions, yet things seemed to be working out well regardless. How is that interactive storytelling, if my (presumably correct) decisions can be made moot in an instant if I fail some stupid, arbitrary reflex test?
I guess you could make a case for the quick-time events themselves being a product of immersion, and that’s occasionally true. Ethan’s part of the story involves being put through various tests of motivation left by the Origami Killer (usually involving moral dilemmas or self-mutilation), and these sequences comprise Heavy Rain’s best moments. The game’s most brilliant sequence has him racing five miles down the wrong side of a highway, with the player jerking the Sixaxis every which way to keep him alive. It’s a riveting scene, precisely because we’re not given full control. We’re gamers; we’d feel comfortable if we had full control. Ethan is just an ordinary man, and our panicky movements mimic his own fear. Later, there are a few scenarios (all curiously involving a central character trapped inside of a car) that have genuine life-or-death consequences if the player doesn’t exercise quick thinking and quicker action. I hate to use this old cliché, but these scenes quite literally had me on the edge of my seat.
But they’re the exception, not the rule. Even putting aside issues with the quick-time events’ functionality – button prompts are too often obscured, shown from awkward angles, or too fuzzy to read properly – they rarely feel like anything more than an excuse to justify Heavy Rain’s existence as a game rather than, say, a movie or a miniseries. Every trivial task, such as when a character needs to pull something out of his pocket, is assigned an arbitrary tug on the right analog stick, and in most cases the cutscenes can’t even continue until you execute them correctly. This isn’t interactivity; all I’m doing is giving the story permission to continue. It’s like I’m operating a projector that requires a reel change every few seconds.
The game’s fans cite the quick-time events as immersive, yet for me they had the exact opposite effect: They constantly pulled me out of the experience. You immerse me by giving me mechanics. Heavy Rain has no mechanics. Its action scenes, for example, are nicely shot and choreographed, but as they're unfolding, I'm off in another room playing Simon Says. You immerse players by giving them a direct role in the action, not by repeatedly shouting, “Hey you! Hit this button on that controller which is in your hands!”
Heavy Rain is already notorious for getting off to a painfully slow start – the bulk of the prologue is spent performing everyday tasks like taking a shower and setting the table – but the story does eventually get good. I give the writers credit for coming up with an answer to the central mystery that took me by complete surprise, and for giving the Origami Killer motivations that are logical, yet somehow also completely insane. I keep telling myself that if Heavy Rain were to be made into a film, by removing the pretentious quick-time events and cutting out all of the needless filler, it would be a much better fit. But even then, it wouldn’t be a great movie. It’s still a murder mystery, and how many of those have we seen? It’s got a good plot, sure, but hell, just last week I saw a little Korean movie called Mother that had more red herrings, presented an even cooler “big reveal” and explored more interesting complexities of human nature. We need to stop pretending that anything here is at all out of the ordinary.
So it’s a game that isn’t a game, an interactive drama that’s no more interactive than numerous other (more entertaining) titles, and a storytelling experience where the story isn’t good enough to justify all of its other grave missteps. I rented Heavy Rain hoping it would turn my abhorrence for adventure games upside-down; instead, it simply exemplifies everything I hate about the genre.
P.S. Heavy Rain is supposedly set in Philadelphia. Well, I live in Philadelphia, and that is not Philadelphia. Good day.
If you enjoyed this Heavy Rain review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!