Since 1999, French musician and videogame designer David Cage has created only 3 games – Omikron: The Nomad Soul, Fahrenheit (a.k.a. Indigo Prophecy in the US), and Heavy Rain. Besides the fact that all of these have a plot centred around a serial killer, a common element that runs through Cage’s work is high quality, compelling stories, and a game mechanic where players’ choices affect the outcome, with each iteration making massive improvements over the last.
Despite general critical acclaim and achieving cult-status amongst gamers, one of the biggest criticisms of Fahrenheit was its ridiculous deus ex machina ending (which I won’t give away here, ‘coz it’s still worth going back to play if you haven’t already). Cage learnt his lesson well, because Heavy Rain a cinematic tour-de-force from start to finish, and will most likely turn out to be a significant turning point in interactive storytelling. I base this claim on the fact that my wife Jenny sat through 10 hours of watching me play, totally engrossed – pretty major for somebody who otherwise has absolutely zero interest in gaming.
It’s impossible to say much without giving away the storyline, but the game gives most Hollywood scripts a run for their money. Ethan Mars is a father already having difficulty coping with the loss of a son in an accident 2 years ago, when his other son Shaun is kidnapped by the “Origami Killer”. In the quest to find the culprit and save Shaun, we’re also introduced to: Madison Paige, a journalist; Norman Jayden, an FBI agent; Scotty Shelby, a private detective; and a large supporting cast. In the whole time throughout my first run of the game, the suspense and tension never let up, and the twists and turns kept coming right through to the very last moments. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that many movies fail to deliver this in their mere 2 hours.
The “acting” is lifelike and realistic, having been created using motion capture techniques, although occasionally you do get the uncanny valley effect where they look somewhat artificial and creepy – particularly for bit-part roles. There’s also plenty of what Jenny calls “the treadmill”, where characters walking up against a wall continue to move as if they are still walking, but go nowhere. As a seasoned gamer I’d never have noticed this if she hadn’t pointed it out. Otherwise, the graphics are as real as you’re ever likely to see, and both characters and scenery are amazingly detailed.
Besides the story and the graphics, another major improvement that this game has over Fahrenheit is in how the “quick time events” (button presses during action sequences) no longer appear in the dead centre of the screen, obscuring the action and forcing the player’s focus away from the action. Instead, indicators appear near the action itself – throw a punch, and the icon appears next to – and moves around along with – the character’s arm. It both looks and feels intuitive, as well as greatly contributing to the immersion – like when the character is agitated or nervous the icons will twitch and quiver, or when the character is confused many thoughts will be swimming around his or her head.
The other thing that bears mentioning is that there is no way to save – it automatically locks in your progress as you reach certain milestone events, which means no going back if you did something you regret. This forces you to think through decisions very carefully, because if you make a mistake you can’t simply reload (to a certain degree anyway. You can restart the scene again if you’re quick enough to catch it before the next automatic save point). Just another way that the game forces you to build an emotional commitment to the story (in a good way).
This isn’t gaming like you remember it. It’s very adult, containing graphic violence, nudity coarse language and strong adult themes. I’m not talking about the stylisted graphical violence like that of the God of War series for example. Because these are realistic events happening to realistic people in realistic settings, they hit much closer to home. Jenny even thought that because of the player involvement, some who are susceptible might even suffer vicarious trauma when things happen to their on-screen alter-ego. This isn’t something that cinema will ever have to deal with, because there’s always a clear distinction between the movie and the audience.
There’s an easy segue here into the discussion about both whether video games are art as well as the relationship between video games and real-life violence, which only goes to reinforce my earlier point about why I believe this game will play pivotal role in the history of the medium. Those aside, Heavy Rain is a truly exceptional experience that anybody in any way serious about gaming must not miss out on.