The sun and the (Heavy) Rain

There’s fairly broad agreement that Sony/Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain was one of the great games of 2010. awarded it “Game of the Year” for PS3. It was a finalist for PS3 Game of the Year on Spike TV’s Video Game Awards. (It lost to God of War III, but c’mon, this was Spike TV.) Tom Bissell included it on his list of his 10 favorite games of 2010. (I’m allowed a self-plug every now and then.)

Since I’m not sure that I played 10 new games during 2010—I definitely didn’t play 10 games that came out during 2010—I have the luxury of not having to decide whether Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption was a better game. It’s probably safe to say that I expect to play Red Dead Redemption more often in the future. I still have a boatload of trophies to get; I could spend hours playing poker, especially with the downloadable addition that lets me play with real people; I’ve barely touched the Undead Nightmare expansion.

But for all that, Heavy Rain is the game that I want more new games to be like.

Heavy Rain is not a perfect game, even in the places where it is strong. As video games go, the story is incredible, engrossing, but not (in absolute terms) revelatory. It’s a pretty good detective novel and not For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is the first game I’ve played that takes advantage of the possibilities of narrative quietude. The opening chapters are often described as “slow” in reviews—my own wife used the words “boring as hell”—but they serve to give the player the beginnings of an emotional investment in the main character, Ethan Mars, and his relationships with his family. The sunny tone directly contrasts with the darkness and rain that consume the rest of the game.


Even more than that, the game asks you to care about the mundane, day-to-day life of the main character—that is to say, his happiness and not just his desires. Heavy Rain asks the player to do very un-game-like tasks: Get dressed. Set the table. Play with your kids. The game defers narrative progress for what feels like a substantial period of time, not just for a tutorial (although the opening chapters are undeniably that), but to ask you to live Ethan’s life for a little while. The game asks you to trust that the things that you do will matter later, and they do. Not quite in the way promised on the box (“Your smallest decisions can change everything“—a promise I’m not sure the game lives up to), but because when you’re rushing to find your son before he drowns in slowly rising rainwater, you’re not just trying to save a collection of pixels. You’re working to save the boy you played with in your backyard during better times.

And you do some dark things to get there.

Most reviewers have rightly praised Heavy Rain‘s “no game-over” mechanic, where the game simply continues to progress regardless of “bad” or “wrong” choices, up to and including those which lead to the deaths of one or more of the four playable characters. Of course, this mechanic isn’t exactly an innovation. Maniac Mansion used it back in 1987.

Dragon's Lair

Dragon's Lair blew your mind 30 years ago. Don't deny it.

Similarly, while the context-sensitive quick-response actions the player uses to interact with key events are perfectly suited to the game, and somehow make more sense, for example, in a fight scene than the more standardized button-based inputs used by most games. For example, in Red Dead Redemption, the L2 button draws your gun from its holster, and the R2 button pulls the trigger. All the time. In Heavy Rain, the game might ask you to move the right joystick slowly downward to put a plate on a table, or press and hold a specific series of buttons in order to climb on to a ledge, but in either case the inputs only work when the screen asks for them, and they have to be performed in the correct manner—quickly, gently, all at once—or the action fails. This is, of course, a more refined version of a quick-response game like the 1983 Dragon’s Lair (which, incidentally, was re-released this year for the Wii).

In another context, I’d love to argue about how interactive Heavy Rain‘s overarching storyline really is or isn’t. I’d happily complain about the one moment where the game betrays its narrative structure—a character does something that you’re not aware of, and the game, in effect, lies to you about it. I’d really enjoy hearing from people what sort of replay value people found from the game, especially in light of the discovery (which kind of surprised me) that the game’s principle designer really thinks that players should only play it once. But here what I really want to say is that Heavy Rain is a game that needs to be imitated, and well.

Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.

3 Responses to “The sun and the (Heavy) Rain
  1. Gil says:

    I definitely enjoyed my first playthrough. Honestly I think that one playthrough is all that’s really needed. Each subsequent playthrough (to get my platinum) became more and more tedious and boring. I enjoyed the overall story and gameplay. It is very similar to Indigo Prophecy which Heavy Rain takes heavy cues from. It’s very obvious that they were from the same developer even if you had no idea of it.

    The title of interactive drama fits quite well. It’s more of a movie that you interact with as opposed to a game that has cut scenes. It was actually quite refreshing to take the game slowly rather than trying to force my way to the end like in most games.

    My main gripe with the game though (hope I don’t spoil too much) is that the plot twist didn’t really make sense to me. You play 4 characters in the game and you really get to know them. It seems like at the end it all falls apart. Characters weren’t exactly who you thought they were and your choices through the game didn’t make as much of an impact on the end as you thought they would. I especially didn’t like the choices for Jayden the FBI officer. It always seemed like his choices were between two extremes and at the end it really didn’t matter if you played the good cop or the bad cop. Anyway I still think it’s a game that any PS3 owner should experience. It just shows that not all games have to be shooters or intense RPGs.

    I’d have to say that overall I enjoyed this game. It was a good game even though I enjoyed Indigo Prophecy much more. I question if this game was as great as the reviews were.

    • Gavin Craig says:

      I think it’s definitely the case that Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain point in a particular possible direction for a genre of video games rather than that they serve as the ultimate (and best possible) endpoint of those possibilities. I’d love to give the game a try with the Move, and see if that helps with some of the limitations of the controller you cite. (I’ve said before that Heavy Rain on the move seems like the kind of game that the Wii has been waiting for.)

      Still, even on the console controller, I thought the game made good use of the analog functionality to really pay attention to how you perform an action, which is something I don’t get a sense of from a lot of games.

      You’re also correct that the characters really aren’t built/written equally. Jayden and Madison are pretty flat. Only Ethan and Scott have any real depth, and how well that works depends entirely on whether or not the player is willing to buy into the game’s big reveal (which I’ll try not to spoil here). I was willing to go with it, but it does mean that the game outright lied to the player on at least one occasion, and that’s a problem.

      I’m actually expecting the UPS man to drop off my copy of Indigo Prophecy today, and I’m really looking forward to it. Thanks for commenting. :-)

      • Kevin Mattison says:

        Gil, I think that you’re both right and wrong when you say that the game’s characters “weren’t who you thought they were” in the end. With the exception of the one character (You know the one) Gavin mentioned, who the game blatantly withholds information on, most of the characters felt pretty organic to me. That’s not to say that some weren’t thinner than others, but I really feel like Heavy Rain did a nice job of allowing you to “create” the character in your mind, given that there were only a few outcomes possible for any given decision. At some point I stopped thinking “What would I do?” and started thinking “What would Ethan do?”

        This, of course, is where the game fails as well. The aforementioned lied about character technically doesn’t work because you’ve been making decision based on who you thought the character was and not who the character really is. In the end, this made a few of the decisions I made with that character harder to rationalize.

        Perhaps I got lucky, but the ending I got for Jayden closed things out quite nicely for such a minor character.

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