It’s a bit unfair to review Quantic Dream’s cinematic video game Heavy rain nearly three years after its release: other games have been released since that time and, of course, we’re currently in a post-The Walking Dead world, which pushed the envelope of what to expect from video game narratives. However, back in 2009, Heavy Rain was hyped as being the next step in bringing video games that much closer to film, heavily promoting its realistic depiction of human performances through motion capture and its usage of Quick-Time Events (QTE) which served to maintain its cinematic influences without breaking away into more “gamey” territory by giving direct control to gamers.
Heavy Rain begins with an idyllic scene: we’re introduced to Ethan Mars, one of four playable characters throughout Heavy Rain’s single-player campaign as he prepares for his son’s (JASOOOOOOON!!!) birthday party. This also serves as the game’s tutorial level as many of the game mechanics are used here. Players move characters via the R2 trigger and use the left directional stick to move in the appropriate direction. It works better than you might expect, but it is at times needlessly frustrating (a la Resident Evil’s tank controls) whenever you need to make a sharp turn or even walk towards a specific object: Ethan will sometimes walk toward the opposite direction or take too long to go through an animation. The L2 trigger is used to access the thoughts of each character, which serves as a helpful reminder as to what you’re supposed to be doing.
The other main component is the Quick-time-event sequences. Much like predecessor Indigo Prophecy, cut scenes are comprised entirely of QTE’s where the game will present images indicating which face button to press, using the right analog stick, or the trigger buttons in order to successfully do tasks as simple as picking up an object or as complex as engaging in one of the game’s many fight sequences. Some might find them overly redundant as the game uses QTE’s for even the most mundane things, such as making breakfast, but I think it does help in making sure gamers remain engaged as these QTE prompts come randomly.
Of course, there’d be no video game if a tragedy didn’t occur (or else, Heavy Rain would be the happiest film noir ever made) and soon enough, JASOOOOON is killed, setting the tone for the rest of the game and bringing us back to Ethan two years later, who has since become disheveled, divorced, and suffers from random blackouts. As if Ethan wasn’t already in a tight spot, his other son (SHAAAAAAAAAUN!!!) is missing, and believed to have been kidnapped by the Origami Killer, a serial killer who has been drowning young boys and leaving their bodies with a single origami figure. From here, the game slowly introduces us to the other playable characters: Scott Shelby, a private detective; Madison Page, a journalist; and Norman Jayden, an FBI Agent. Each character slowly uncovers clues as to the identity of the Origami Killer.
Throughout the game, players are given the ability to choose how they want to deal with specific circumstances; events can change drastically depending on those choices. Actions made during a specific character’s play through can determine who lives or dies and completely change how the game ends. It makes for some thrilling moments as the specter of death constantly hangs in the air.
Graphically, Heavy Rain is still a good-looking game. Wearing its film-noir aesthetics on its sleeves, the game is filled with world-weary environments; rain spots nearly every single part of the game (It always rains in Noir City) serving as an extension of the characters’ state of mind. More importantly, the game understands the language of cinema. When the game works best, it understands how to get into the player’s head, creating agency simply through presenting certain camera angles and the (at times oppressive) musical score. At its best, Heavy Rain does feel like a well-produced film.
The character models are extremely detailed with their own various facial tics and postures that make them feel like individuals alive in their own world. Quantic Dream was clearly proud of how the game looks, and oftenHeavy Rain will feature close-ups of its central protagonists to show-off the emotional impact of the game. However, as the game approaches reality, the limitations of the tech make for moments of “unreality:” it’s hard not to ignore those dead, soulless eyes that imply mere imitation of human qualities. Sometimes mouths move in strange ways, or at times, not at all; and NPCs serve to show how artificial Heavy Rain’s heavily detailed environments ultimately is, sometimes clipping into buildings or each other. Even the sight of two identical-looking models is enough to take you out of the experience.
Though that’s not all Heavy Rain’s fault and even the worst technical slip-ups can’t entirely mar a quality gaming experience. What I can blame Heavy Rain for is the awful voice acting; there’s a reason why that clip of Ethan running around screaming “JAAAAAAASON!!” is infamous—the voice acting range from bland to humorously bad, with the actor for Ethan being the worst. Which is unfortunate since Ethan is put through the most trauma as he is forced to prove his love for his son in increasingly dangerous ways. But it’s hard to take in what’s going on when I’m too busy giggling over his accent slipping in and out as he talks.
All this leads to the most problematic thing about Heavy Rain: the narrative eventually stumbles all over itself. The game starts out strong with Ethan trying to find his missing son and sets up an interesting mystery-plot regarding the origins of the Origami Killer, but it quickly falls into B-grade silliness which serves to cheapen the experience. The Walking Dead works so well because the game derives emotion and tension entirely from the interaction of its protagonists. Heavy Rain routinely throws spectacle after spectacle that serves only to gain a shallow emotional response: a moment that forces you to choose whether to spare or kill a man is instantly undermined by a previous chase sequence in which said man is manically chasing after you with a shotgun. The game is filled with moments like this that make the game ironically “gamey” than what was obviously intended. The final reveal operates purely in the M. Night Shyamalan “let’s just pull things out our ass” school of thought as the final plot twist is a complete betrayal of the choices that you have made during the game. It doesn’t really make any sense and it’s kind of insulting.
As a relic of a specific time in the Playstation 3’s life-cycle, Heavy Rain makes for an interesting look at how far video games have come in telling stories. But as it stands, Heavy Rain is an ambitious and gorgeous video-drama that unfortunately teeters into pure silliness thanks to ridiculous leaps in logics, a dumb plot twist, and some unintentionally hilarious voice-acting, keeping this from being the great piece of narrative that it so desperately wants to be.