Old news, but the PS3 game Heavy Rain is amazing, fully deserved of its recent slew of BAFTA game nominations. The tag ‘interactive movie’ is usually a bit of a turn-off for gamers but, for me, Heavy Rain was a sublime experience; a cinematic story that seemed to flow perfectly from each button-prompt that I either completed or spectacularly failed. Because the story unfolded thanks to my own successes or failures it felt incredibly involving, like I was creating the story as it happened with an ending that only I would see because of how I’d played. I’m sure that’s unlikely given the limitations of a videogame but it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to having serious control over the outcome of a linear story within a game. It’s a testament to the writers and programmers that I was left both elated by the end of the game yet troubled, I’d ultimately saved someone’s life but I’d also lost two of the main characters along the way.
I’ve followed game developers Quantic Dream since they released Nomad Soul back in 1999. They also released the crime thriller Fahrenheit and both games were great but still felt like games. Fahrenheit was a compelling story but felt ‘on-the-rails’. Failure to escape a particular situation meant you had to go back to the beginning of the same scene and try the button sequence again. By comparison, Heavy Rain is a huge leap forward. While playing, I never had to go back and re-do something. Obviously you could if you wanted to but the game constantly moved forward and I was more than happy to let it. So my decisions, my abilities, dictated the story I was watching and meant I was much closer to the characters than I would be in a movie. In a film, the director is in control and it’s their own personal vision I’m watching. In Heavy Rain, I’m the one making split-second decisions for the characters, meaning I’m the one responsible for what happens to them.
The story itself is nothing ground-breaking. In a Fincher-esque city a child murderer is on the loose – the Origami Killer – and you take control of four protagonists who have the potential to uncover his true identity; Ethan – the father of a boy who is missing, Madeline – an insomniac journalist, Scott – a PI on the trail of the killer and FBI agent Norman who’s working with the police. Each character has their own personal problems and are approaching the case from different angles. How you play the game determines which one is the real hero. For instance, Ethan is the most desperate and the Killer has given him a set of Saw-like challenges to prove how much he loves his son in order to prevent his death. But he also has blackouts and the police suspect Ethan himself is the killer so you’ve got to stay one step ahead of them as well. Failing to do so means being locked up and leaving Ethan completely helpless in saving his son.
The greatest success of the game is how much creator David Cage gets you to care about the characters in the first place. This is helped largely by the doom-laden score and fantastic motion-capture graphics but it’s really down to the realistic and emotional scenes Cage gets you to interact with. The game is a slow-burner, many early episodes are ponderous with nothing much happening except they get you as player to reflect on a character’s disposition. There’s a heart-breaking scene at the beginning where Ethan has to look after his uncommunicative son who just wants to watch TV while you cook him dinner and try and get him to do his homework. Ethan is still guilt-ridden over the death of his other son and this boy just wants love from his father, yet in the same room they are unable to express their feelings. In filmic terms it sets-up the themes of the overall story but as a game experience it’s incredible, as a player you can literally sit there and run out the clock or try and get Ethan to entertain and engage with his son.
As the story gets rolling there are bigger and bigger set-pieces. Quantic Dream aren’t afraid of crowd scenes which are put to great effect in this particular game. There’s the usual chase through the subway but made more exciting because you’ve got to chose your route through the busy platform and push past people. What’s terrifying is that putting one button wrong could mean the end of this particular plot. The game seems much more forgiving early on but as the stakes get higher just missing one move could end a character for good. There’s a tremendous weight of responsibility throughout, especially after I discovered just how easy it was to lose. Through my own stupidity I led one character into a horrible situation that I wasn’t able to save them from and they were suddenly brutally murdered before my eyes as I’m cursing my prematurely aged fingers, left with their dead eyes staring accusingly at me. And it’s not like a movie where their death might have been a noble sacrifice, in my Heavy Rain none of the other characters would know of this particular person’s tragic death.
I’ve heard that Heavy Rain has been optioned to be made into a film but I fail to see the point. As serial killer stories goes the game does come up with a compelling backstory as to why the killer became a killer and it has a gut-punching twist as to their real identity, but in a film it would be easy to fall into the typical serial killer format and completely miss the layers the game has to offer. At the end I had saved the day but only partly, it came at a huge cost. Despite the action scenes the game felt like Fincher’s Zodiac more than anything, a network of characters that either failed or succeeded (mainly failing thanks to me) and it felt like the story never quite resolved. This isn’t a criticism but a niggling feeling that keeps you thinking about the characters long after the game has finished. I would like to play it again, to see the different outcomes, but the first time round was so involving, draining almost, that it felt like that’s the only Heavy Rain story I’ll know. Seeing something happen differently would be like watching someone else’s edited version – as would be watching the adapted film.