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. IGN.com 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.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.