Spoilers for Heavy Rain, which probably isn’t a problem, given that the game came out in 2010.
There’s a lot I could criticise about Heavy Rain. The voice actors’ performances are inconsistent, the dialogue occasionally laughable, the writing at times tone deaf, the camera angles and controls can be maddening. But if I had to pick one thing as Heavy Rain’s most admirable trait, it would have to be this: its ambition. Think about what passes for character progression in most games. Or storytelling, or cinematics, or narrative tension. Heavy Rain towers above most games in this regard. This game tries to provoke so many emotions in the player, emotions that most games don’t even consider.
Take the scene that I’ve just finished playing, for example. I control a young woman, Madison, who’s taken it upon herself to investigate a crime. I knock on the door of a man Madison wants to learn more about. The creepy old man invites me in. He’s clearly no good. He offers me a drink. I take it and immediately regret my decision, as I realise that this is a game, and the choice to take a drink might also mean drinking the drink. The man turns his back to me and I can’t see if he’s added a little extra into my wine. Thankfully, the game gives me a separate option to drink what he’s just poured, a choice that I ignore. As the man talks, I realise that–in real life–I’m squirming on the couch. I have a feeling of dread. Dread is an emotion rarely produced by gaming, but it’s intensely present here. I’m reminded of that horribly tense scene from Zodiac where Jake Gyllenhall’s character arrives at a house to gather information on the Zodiac killer. There he realises that the man he’s talking to may in fact be the killer, and there’s plenty of tension until the scene ends. Even thinking about that scene right now, my shoulders are tensing up. That a game can evoke even a fraction of the same feeling some of David Fincher’s best work does, shows how well designed Heavy Rain is.
I keep coming back to a comment I’d made before about Heavy Rain: that its developer, Quantic Dream, simply have different ideas of what a game can be than their counterparts. It’s fresh and quirky and original and, again, ambitious. It’s also best appreciated by veteran gamers. Those new to gaming could easily enjoy it, but those of us dulled by the standards and tropes of most other games can find a startlingly different take on what we normally get from our hobby. Even those of us who played Quantic Dream’s previous titles, Fahrenheit, had probably forgotten the unusual and ridiculous stuff that happens in their games.
I love, love, love Heavy Rain’s divergent gameplay, that parts of the game can pan out in a number of ways. But it’s KILLING me not knowing how decisions I’ve made are affecting the outcome. I’m conditioned by other games to expect my input to result in a binary, pass/fail result. Not here. Here the game goes on, with nary a hint that a different tactic could’ve yielded another result.
My first memory of this happening was when I controlled private investigator, Scott Shelby, who was in a newsagents when it was robbed. As I tried to sneak up on the robber, I bumped a bottle on a shelf, failed to corral it, and it smashed to the ground, alerting the robber to my presence. Now, the whole divergent gameplay concept could all be a lie, Heavy Rain could be programmed so that I would alert the criminal no matter what. I doubt it though, there were different aisles I could’ve approached along. There was a prompt to catch the bottle, I just failed to register it in time.
When this happened I just smiled at the idea of the scene playing out differently. But later, controlling Ethan, I tried to manoeuvre through a power plant. After failing many times to climb through electrified lines, the game took over. Instead of failing and restarting as in most other games, I was shown a coward’s way out (a side door with ‘coward’s’ literally written on it. Subtle). The game moved Ethan out of that door, at which point then level ended and the next one began.
What would’ve happened if I’d succeeded? I want to know. There are a few ways to find out:
restart the scene quickly before the autosave kicks in
replay the entire game (and still run the chance that I fail that same point again)
read the forums
With the backlog of games I have, I won’t play Heavy Rain again, as amazing as it is. So I’ll take to the forums.
Later in the game I controlled FBI guy (I can’t remember his name). He holds a dangerous criminal at gunpoint, one who had already tried to kill me. FBI guy has an attack, caused by his drug addiction. I have a chance to take the drug and get straightened out, but I fail to do so and danger guy attacks. Soon I’m tied up in a car above a car crusher. The game gives me three different options to try to escape. Two don’t seem to help, the other might, but I repeatedly get the movement wrong (moving the controller up gently at a 45 degree angle). FBI guy is crushed to death. Maybe he would never have survived the level, no matter what I did. But I get the feeling he might have. And that blows my mind. Quantic Dream must’ve put so much into this game, knowing that a lot of players would never see their hard work. This game’s incredible.
Before Heavy Rain was released, I read an article from a games journalist who got to play a demo version. I’m not going to search for that article, and I barely recall the details, but it mentioned the divergent gameplay. The writer probably played the level mentioned above. He walked into a building, got into a fight and was defeated. Given the option to reload and try again, he took it, and this time won the fight. He looked over at a member of Quantic Dream, happy with his success. The developer then pointed out that, had the writer taken a side entrance into the building, he could’ve avoided the fight altogether.
More games should be like this.