Quantic Dream is a name that you’ll be familiar with if you’ve been a long time reader of this blog but outside of that you’d be hard pressed to find those who knew of them. Much like Ninja Theory, who were thrust into the limelight for being one of the reasons to buy a PS3 on launch day (and subsequently faded into the background as quickly), they have specialized in creating games that focus less on the actual game play itself and more on the characters and the roles they play in the story. Such games blur the lines between themselves and more traditional forms of video entertainment, which has drawn the ire of many a game critic. Still the genre of cinematic gaming¹ has proven itself to be extremely viable with many dedicated fans like myself lapping up every offering that any game company puts forth. With one of these such titles under their belt you can understand my excitement when Heavy Rain was announced, and my elation when I finally sat down to play through it.
The menu screens of Heavy Rain are rich in a sense of foreboding, with a noir like feel to them. It then comes as quite a shock when the opening scenes turn out be quite the opposite with bright colours and your character showing a healthy amount of contentment for his life, family and an overall appreciation for the world around him. As with any classic tragedy we know the man with everything has everything to lose and the focus of the game is very much centered on this.
The inital scenes are, as always, the tutorial for the game. Initially I felt the controls were a tad awkward as they’re different from your usual 3rd person affair. To walk you have to hold R2 and then steer your character with the left control stick. Additionally you have little control over the camera save for being able to switch between some pre-determined camera angles. Granted its no where near as bad as say Resident Evil which often had dreadful angles that hid details from you and from a design point of view the decision to lock the camera is solid, so no points lost there.
Combat and other challenges take an advanced form of the much dreaded quick time event. With a game relying so heavily on the story (and by consequence linear game play) Quantic Dream really out did themselves when it came to engaging you at the right times. Some of the events had me playing two handed twister with the controller which sounds like a cheap way to make you panic but the implementation is nothing short of flawless. Many of the scenes play out in drastically different ways should you succeed or fail at the button mash at critical times, something which will ensure that conversations over your Heavy Rain experience will be wide and varied.
Heavy Rain is set in the near future and Quantic Dream has taken this as an opportunity to give it a slight sci-fi bent. One of the story lines, a FBI investigator, utilizes a pair of sunglasses and special glowing glove with a Minority Report like interface to gather and analyze evidence. Additionally a scene with another character in a psychiatrist appointment has what appears to be a CAT scan being done with nothing more then a slim slab of metal on their forehead. Whilst it may be a minor point in the game overall it helped keep the pace of the game whilst ensuring that the hand waving over certain plot points was kept to a minimum.
Unlike Fahrenheit before it, which allowed you to choose which character to progress the story with up to a point, your experience within Heavy Rain is completely controlled by the decisions you make with each character during their scene. This has a much more organic feel to it as the story flows consistently with the story arc able to stretch from beginning to end without any odd disjoints in it. Fahrenheit had a few moments that were absolutely unnecessary to the overall plot or individual character development which I attribute to the choice you were given when progressing a certain character.
Heavy Rain’s scenary is one of complete normality. Almost every section of the game plays out in normal settings with extraordinary circumstances. It’s done as to contrast the banality of everyday activities, such as doing your teeth or simply looking at yourself in the mirror, with the extremes each character will be pushed to in order to achieve their various goals. After visiting so many lands of fantasy recently it’s been an oddly refreshing experience to be pushed back into the (almost) real world.
This is greatly helped by the fact that 95% of the achievements in Heavy Rain are hidden from you (although you’re really just a Google search away from finding them) and the only time you’ll know you’ve got one is when the loading screen appears. It might sound like a small thing but there’s nothing worse for immersion then having a “Trophy Unlocked!” message appear along with its associated sound coming along right in the middle of a scene.
As for the story itself? Completely and utterly engrossing. I’m not usually one for murder mysteries (they’re in the same category as horror for me, entertaining I won’t go out of my way for them) but chasing the Origami Killer through 4 different sets of eyes throughout the game makes for a complex and twisted story that had me guessing right up until right before the ultimate climax. Whilst it had been said before that at any point any of the characters could die (and I can see their point to, there were many close calls in my play through) I managed to keep them all alive throughout. You’d think this would bring me the ultimate closure on the whole ideal and whilst the story does wrap up quite well I still wonder how it would have gone had I made one decision differently, or if one of the characters died before a critical point.
Additionally Heavy Rain hits on some very mature themes that other games have been struggling to showcase properly. I’ve lamented in the past that for all the game industry’s trying at putting sex into games they always seem to make it a reward for clicking the right buttons rather than an expression of deep emotions. Heavy Rain on the other hand mirrors a similar scene to that found in Fahrenheit, with two people in desperate situations falling for one another. Whilst I won’t comment on how it all turns out (your choices will decide that) it’s good to finally see a game that views sex as something that is as quickly forgotten by the characters in the game as it would be by the gamer looking for a cheap thrill. The long lasting impact of such emotional involvement is deeply apparent in the way both characters react to each other afterwards adding yet another layer on an already complex relationship.
My game developer buddy wouldn’t let a conversation about Heavy Rain go by without mentioning that his trusted reviewers have stated that the game will start lying to you at certain points. Now that I’ve actually played the game (yes I’m calling you out on this :P) I can see what he was getting at but realistically it was at one point (well two, but the second isn’t an outright lie so much as it is just a cheap way to keep you guessing) in the game and had the scene been shown to you it would not only be confusing but also ruin the remaining game. Critically the game he worked on reviewed quite similar to Heavy Rain. However it would seem that the gamer community as a whole rejected that viewpoint with it garnering a rather embarrassing user score. The often sighted problems weren’t so much the complaint of the game lying to you, more the user critics level their eyes squarely on the plot citing its predictability and numerous plot holes. The score is misleading though as the reviews are ones of extremes with players either loving it or hating it.
I disagree with many of the criticisms as they seem to either come from a player base the game wasn’t levelled at (I.E. not the frat boy crowd that lapped up MW2) or forms of hindsight bias. The first lot of users will have come across Heavy Rain due to the hype it recieved, not for a following of the genre. Ask many of those who find fault in it if they had played Dreamfall or Fahrenheit and you’ll often get blank stares as few would have even heard of either of those titles. The second lot are those who probably pride themselves on not being easily fooled or after finishing the game look back on it and remember (quite wrongly) that they picked up on every hint and knew the outcome well before it was revealed. Had they wrote down who they thought the killer was after every scene I’m sure we’d see a completely different picture.
Heavy Rain is one of those games that has successfully managed to demonstrate that games are ready to become a mature medium for any story that would have them. I spent many hours on the edge of my seat hungering for the next scene or scrap of detail that would bring me that one step closer to knowing the truth. Each of the characters are uniquely themselves yet still shaped by the way you want to play them. In the end this makes Heavy Rain a unique experience for all of those who play it and will serve as a turning point in games as a storytelling medium.
Heavy Rain is available exclusively for PS3 for AU$108. Game was played on the PS3 on the hardest difficulty with around 10 hours of gameplay total with all characters alive at the end.
¹I have to make the point here that what I call cinematic gaming seems to be drifting away from what the industry thinks this term means. Today a cinematic game could very easily refer to something like Modern Warfare 2 which has a very Hollywood-esque feeling to it yet falls into the category of a FPS. For me cinematic games will be the ones that are only a few steps away from actually being a movie, despite whether or not they actually feel like one.
I picked something up yesterday, something looking suspiciously similar to this:
Yeah I think you can guess where I’ll be spending a good chunk of my weekend, firmly welded to the couch while I bathe myself in what is going to be one of the most enthralling cinematic gaming experiences to cross my path. The fact that the guy I picked it up from at EB asked me if I had played Fahrenheit shows just what kind of a following this game has and I’ve deliberately steered clear of any news or reviews of the game, lest they ruin my experience.
Now it’s one thing to get excited over a game due to the hype buildup or developer loyalty but, for me at least, Heavy Rain is in another category entirely. That’s not to say it’s the most excited I’ve been about a game, far from it. I was much more jittery when it came to picking up the Mass Effect series of games or even the first World of Warcraft expansions. No, there’s something different about this game that is tickling a part of my brain that I don’t think a game has ever triggered before, and that in itself is saying something.
I can probably put this down to the Four Days online experience that Quantic Dream put on. Basically it was a prologue to the game and involved putting you in the shoes of one of the characters of Heavy Rain who was investigating a murder. It played out over 3 days of each week for 3 weeks and to be honest the first one came and went with me barely giving it a second look. However things started to get interesting when the second one came along.
The event started with a series of interactive Youtube videos that put you on the other end of a 911 phone call. The idea was to keep her on the phone as long as possible so you could extract information about what she saw. If you do it right you’ll be sent to another website with a grab bag of evidence from the crime scene which contains various photos other bits of info. What drew me in at this point was a link to a Twitter account, and this is where things got a bit crazy.
It just so happened that I got the evidence package late at night and decided to check out the account to see if there was anything on it. Amazingly right as I was going onto the website the person behind the account started to answer questions about what he saw that night. Queue 3 hours of me furiously sending questions to him and refreshing the page, desperately hanging on for every little bit of information I could drag out of him. I went to bed before the whole event finished but as I drifted off to sleep my head was filled with even more questions that demanded answers and I spent the next day on the edge of my seat waiting for the mysterious character to return.
The next day saw me selecting the 4 most appropriate pieces of evidence from the crimescene to be submitted for further investigation. After a few attempts I got it right and was rewarded with a code for an early copy of the demo. Not wanting to spoil anything of Heavy Rain I filed it away and waited for the next challenge to begin.
The last challenge in the Four Days campaign wasn’t as enthralling as the one that preceeded it. Basically it was just looking at Facebook fan pages and figuring out who best fit the data. It was kind of spooky when I got an email out of the blue from another person who was apparently working the case for her own reasons, and the page she linked to instantly identified her as one of the characters right out of Heavy Rain. I still spent some time reading all the profiles but that initial buzz I felt from staring at SleeperInTheSun’s Twitter feed was a distant memory.
Despite the climax being somewhat disappointing (although the trailers that followed were amazing) it made me step back and take stock of the emotional responses that this little meta game invoked. Fahrenheit was one of those games that drew you deep into the story and its characters, even to the point of stretching the definition of what constituted a game (My game developer friend Tim doesn’t let me call them games, only interactive movies). Heavy Rain made no secret that it’s striving for an emotive experience first and gameplay second which has drawn some harsh criticisms from more traditional game reviewers. So far every one of the cinematic games I’ve played have been experiences I’ve savoured like a fine wine and if the small tidbits of Heavy Rain that I’ve indulged in are anything to go by this will be another fine addition to my shelf.