It’s been said many times before, but video games are slowly beginning to blur the lines between interactive experiences and movies. They are evolving at a terrific rate, possibly more so than any other form of media in existence today. Pretty soon, the biggest releases will be treated to their very own red carpet premieres; the vain, perfectly manicured celebrities of the video game development world queuing up to play the latest Dance Central release with Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt. Okay, so maybe that isn’t going to be happening anytime soon, but my point still stands. Games and movies are converging and Heavy Rain may very well be the best example of the “Goovie” subgenre yet.
Fortunately, Heavy Rain is not the first example of a video game/romantic comedy crossover. We must still wait a while for this diabolical marriage of things to happen. The creator David Cage has instead decided to carry on the theme of death, despair and darkness found in Quantic Dream’s previous release Fahrenheit (called Indigo Prophecy in the USA), adding in a little child abduction for good measure. It’s a risky subject for a video game to tackle, but it proves itself up to the task, approaching it with a sensitivity and maturity equal to any film.
The story begins with Ethan Mars enjoying his son’s birthday party at home with his family. He lives with his wife and two young boys and everything in his life seems to be going very well. This all changes though when Ethan loses track of his older son Jason at a shopping mall and he is killed in a tragic car accident. Despite diving in front of the car to try to save him, Ethan blames himself for Jason’s death and falls into a deep depression, estranging his wife and remaining son in the process. Things all come to a head though when Ethan blacks out whilst taking his younger son Shaun to a playground. He awakes to find him missing with all signs pointing towards Shaun having been kidnapped by The Origami Killer – a serial murderer who abducts young boys and eventually drowns them in storm drains.
As I said, it’s heavy stuff. Luckily, the burden of finding Ethan’s missing son is divided between three other playable characters: Scott Shelby (the thorough private investigator), Madison Page (the conscientious photojournalist) and Norman Jayden (the junkie FBI agent). Each one of these characters has their own reasons for being involved and offers a unique perspective on the case, breaking up the pace and avoiding focusing exclusively on the depressing Ethan sections.
The story of the game may be a on a par with the fleshed out nature of film scripts, but it’s the gameplay that really brings home the “interactive movie” vibe. The whole thing literally feels like a massive quick time event with the player only really getting involved when it’s time to buckle a seatbelt, swallow some anti-depressants or duck under an electric fence. It really is bizarre when you think about it, but this game has no standard control scheme whatsoever. You get the feeling that every scene you go into could ask you to do something new with your six-axis or PS Move controller. There was a time whilst playing when I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had to hop on one leg whilst moving the analogue sticks in opposite directions and massaging a monkey in order to open a door. The only benefit of this set-up is that it makes the game feel quite unlike anything you’ve played before. Unfortunately though, it also serves to make the gamer feel completely abstracted from the action.
It’s a shame really, because the actual events you get to play through are some of the most memorable I’ve experienced in this console generation. It all starts a little slowly at first with Ethan helping Shaun do his homework, Jayden playing office politics with a douchebag police Lieutenant and Scott Shelby questioning a prostitute in a rundown apartment block. Pretty soon though, you’ll be travelling against high speed traffic on the wrong side of a highway, using high-tech gadgetry to investigate murder scenes and pursuing suspects through seedy nightclubs.
The whole thing feels like a properly-paced action thriller, but one that you can actually affect the outcome of. Choices you make in the game will lead you to a multitude of possible endings, most of which involve grim outcomes for our protagonists. What is more, you will actually care about what happens to these characters. I actually wanted to make sure that they survived until the end and that Shaun was saved. This story shocked and surprised me with its twists and turns, but most importantly it invested me emotionally.
Of course, the plot wouldn’t have much emotional impact without effective visuals. Whilst the cinematography isn’t quite on a par with Scorcese’s best work, it certainly holds its own and can actually be compared to the storyboarding techniques used in most run-of-the-mill action thrillers. Cameras hover over the shoulder of characters as they talk to each other, possible conversation topics swirling around their faces with their corresponding button prompts, all contrasted against a muted pastiche that fits perfectly with the downbeat subject matter. In desperate situations these prompts actually begin to quake with urgency, adding to the high tension feeling and sometimes rushing the player into selecting actions. The facial animations, whilst not quite being on a par with things like L.A. Noire, also add a lot to proceedings and convey emotions convincingly.
All of this emotional upheaval is capped off by a truly haunting soundtrack that is, again, completely in keeping with what you would expect from a triple A blockbuster. Ethan’s pain is underscored by soaring string sections and melancholic pianos, whilst thundering timpani and crashing cymbals provide some air punching interludes on the rare occasions that things are going well. This is all complimented by realistic sound effects of snapping bones, colliding cars and booming gun barrels that give the events playing out on screen a definite weight.
Heavy Rain is not a game that I have any difficulty in recommending. It offers excitement, emotional investment and a genuinely cinematic experience. What makes it so unique though is that it is one of the first of its kind: an interactive movie that allows you to choose your own ending. Sure, it does have some things wrong with it. The control scheme, for one, almost makes Heavy Rain impossible to classify as a game. It’s so inconsistent that it almost removes you from the story, forcing you to continually change your play style. If you can get past this though, you will be rewarded with a genuinely revolutionary gaming experience. Trust me, it’s worth it.