Five Inches and Rising
Heavy Rain is a watershed moment for adventure games, combining familiar experiences into something that becomes remarkably fresh. And yes, "watershed" is a terrible pun.
Published: February 10, 2010
Like all the different shaking, button mashing and cramped digit gymnastics, these moments where you have direct control over your characters, and they become increasingly complex as the game goes on. By the time you've finished things, what first felt a bit like a cheesy "push the flashing button!" moment becomes an opportunity to see where it all could have gone differently. That's because, in most cases, failing one of these frankly brilliantly choreographed sequences won't mean a Game Over like they do in other games.
Often time they'll mean a dramatic shift in the tone or direction of the storyline, but just as often they deliver multiple ways of accomplishing the same (often lengthy) action sequence. Some blow can have longer-reaching effects on speed or mobility, which in turn can affect things later on down the line -- or even very shortly after the conflict.
Most importantly, though, the icon-driven sequences are fun -- and not just in a quick reaction time test sort of way. When playing the game early on, for instance, you're asked to climb a hill and have to first learn the whole process of holding down buttons while new ones are added. You feel like you're struggling to get up this hill, and when you finally do, you're treated to one of the most moody shots in the game, plus some valuable info.
And it's not as if the game ever punishes you for playing with the difficulty; you can progress just as far and see the same sequences no matter which of the three difficulties you opted for. The hardcore can get their twitchy challenge while newcomers will simply press things that make them feel like they're powering the individual actions of the characters on screen (because, well, they are). That you can flick this setting to anything you want at any time should go a long way to helping ease the fears of those who were never good in the do-or-die Quick Time Events of games past.
There's been plenty of discussion about the creativity of this style of gameplay. So what if you're just pushing some icons the pop up on the screen? QTEs are dumb and they're just frustrating, not fun, right? I won't flat-out deny that there are "aw, crap" moments in Heavy Rain where failing a surprise moment where you have to jump on the controller doesn't hit you with pangs of regret and the urge retry the chapter (the game almost constantly auto-saves at major points, so you can jump back in often right where you left off, so replays of a sequence usually mean having to start from the beginning of the chapter). These, however, are more like conditioned responses. It's the situations where these moments crop up in rapid-fire sequence that are so impressive -- and I don't dare spoil a single one for you. You'll have to trust me when I say the old idea of a QTE has been completely re-imagined, and while it's not fundamentally new, the graduation above other versions of the same mechanics is readily apparent.
That's actually something you could say about Heavy Rain as a whole. I think, once the game has been played through by enough people, that there's room to discuss its accomplishments and shortcomings as one would debate other art forms -- something I've rarely if ever said because most experiences are fairly similar. There are no elements here that don't feel at least influenced by other auteurs, but at no point does Heavy Rain forsake that inspiration. It holds steadfastly committed to presenting an interactive version of those moods and feelings you've probably already experienced at one point in time. Perhaps that's its secret for making everything feel so engaging: these aren't new feelings, they're oft-times familiar ones -- and they may not be feelings you particularly enjoy.
It's something that the game does exceptionally well. Like sitting through one of the gore moments in a Se7en or SAW, you're essentially forced to at least confront some seriously grisly stuff, except here you often have to carry out the actions. Even simple stuff drives the character into the moment and because you have control over them, those creeping feelings of loss, of paranoia, of fear, of anger, of confusion, they bubble up to the surface with every step your on-screen character makes. That's something I've never been able to say about another game because they're often far more passive experiences. The combination of unflinching set pieces and the fact that you'll have to guide even the most basic option is what sets Heavy Rain apart from other adventure games.
Yeah, that's right, I said adventure game. That's what this is, despite what you may have seen in leaked videos or gathered from impressions. There's still a decent amount of puzzle piece fitting to be done, though the actual detective work moments are fairly brief (and may be where some get stuck initially). Yes, you'll have to get into a couple absolutely amazing knock-down, drag-out fights, but there'll be moments of careful inspection and deduction to play out in turns too. And when they happen, thanks to FBI profiler Norman Jayden's VR glasses and glove, they can be absolutely breathtaking, they really can.
The other characters, insomniac journalist Madison Page, private eye Scott Shelby and mourning architect Ethan Mars (who lost his eldest son in a car accident and is now trying to find the other one before the Origami Killer strikes again) all have their own moods, tones and pacing. With the exception of Ethan's early parts of the game, none of these feel like they drag or are unnecessarily melodramatic. It's only because of some unfortunately alien-sounding cadences and monotone delivery that those early chapters are so at odds with the rest of the game -- well, that and the fact that nobody can apparently pronounce "origami" properly.
If you've played any of French developer Quantic Dream's games in the past, this may not come as a huge shock. Despite only having made two games in the past decade or so, it almost seemed if they were terminally committed to over-reaching; trying to push things so far that the technology at the time (or, dare I say, the sheer artistic might needed) just couldn't properly convey the attempt. In Heavy Rain you will see a clear graduation of concepts established in those first two games, but also the measured hand to know when to hold back and where to try to lay on the gas a little. The result is a game that is infinitely more well-met in terms of both the underlying technology and the scope of the storyline attempting to thread through it all.