Thursday, March 18, 2010

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain is certain to go down as one of the most talked about titles of this generation. If it is an "important" game, it is important for the way it moves cinematic videogames forward a few necessary steps. It is not the be all, end all of videogames; not the future for/of all videogames. But it is fascinating and often brilliant as an experience; as a videogame, especially one asking $60, perhaps less so.

Heavy Rain takes obvious inspiration from films like Se7en, certain police investigation procedural TV shows, as well as suspenseful thrillers of all types that involve life and death, chase sequences, and dramatic interpersonal conflict. But there's also a subtle noir and European art film influence going on, something compounded by the game's brilliant opening credits. At any rate, Heavy Rain switches the player between four characters: a father dealing with the loss of one son and the kidnapping by a serial killer of another; a FBI agent with a drug problem on the killer's trail; a private detective with asthma after the same killer; and a female reporter/photographer who, intentionally or otherwise, gets mixed up in the whole thing. The game does an excellent job of moving at appropriate times between the four points of view, and is especially interesting for the way its plot can branch dramatically depending on your actions. Any or even all of these characters can die and the game will go on, which is something I don't think any game has ever done before. There's no "game over, try again"; it just goes on without him or her. I stuck with this concept even though it meant one of the main four died. I never went back to re-do sections if they didn't turn out how I wanted, and this gave me a huge sense of "ownership" over the narrative. I found myself making the kind of decisions I would make, or that I think the characters would, rather than the ones I thought would be the most funny or dramatic like I do in other games. At the same time, I felt true empathy for the characters, which is something that's never happened to me with a game before. They were believable--or just believable enough--and, while often toeing well worn cliches, worked well. Even the death and subsequent ending for one of the four in my playthrough rang as true, intentional, and satisfying despite the fact in any other title it would have been considered a "bad" ending that I got through not playing right.

Heavy Rain's gameplay is mostly where it runs into some problems. I actually do like all of the QTE/timed button presses and motion control stuff, since I think this game does it better than anyone else. The button prompts organically appear where your eyes
would be focused, and Quantic Dream have masterfully corresponded actions in the game to things you do with your hands. For example, to open a particularly rusted sliding door, you have to thrust the controller sideways in one rough, clipped motion. To, say, wrestle with another character for a gun or knife, you have to pound on a button and keep up on top of further prompts until your fingers become just as exhausted and confused as the character does. But for as far as the game goes toward wherever cinematic videogames are going, it still holds on to some obvious gamey tropes that take the player out of the experience from time to time. The awkward way you walk around (hold down R2 and "steer" with the R-stick while controlling your head with the L-stick) becomes second nature after a bit, but will still cause you to get hung up on objects in the way that someone in real life/a movie wouldn't. Moreover, you can purposefully fail a simple task over and over, leading to such comical situations as characters starting to open a door but giving up and closing it, over and over. And while this may just be because I was playing on the default difficulty, there were a few of those tense timed button press sequences where I felt cheated due to split second timing or poor implementation. I even killed a non-main character on accident during my first playthrough because I hit the wrong button...

Presentation-wise, Heavy Rain earns a lot of points for its expertly crafted camera angles and interactive cinematic sequences. Rather than having static characters stand and stare while talking, you can move around and lean on things or pick up objects as someone would in a movie or real life. There are a few very tense or very emotional sequences in the game that are pulled off with a cinematographer's eye for framing and pacing. In fact, there's a particularly gut wrenching scene toward the end where the female reporter visits an elderly woman with Alzheimer's: a sad, bittersweet scene about memory, love, and life that was aided by the game's often understated, classy score. Unlike recent titles like Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain's characters are very life-like
and mostly avoid Uncanny Valley territory. The eyes and mouths are still not quite right, but the motion capture and voice acting are extremely proficient barring some strange almost-accents: the FBI agent has a slight Boston thing going on, and the mother of one of the serial killer's victims, Lauren, is clearly a French woman trying to sound American and hide her accent at the same time.

Other than the issues explored above, my two lasting problems with the game are its price and its lasting impact on the videogames medium. I happily paid $60 for the game, and don't feel that my money was wasted in any way. Heavy Rain is an utterly unique, moving, and thought provoking game that justifies its expense immediately to anyone who's into this sort of thing. But for most people, it'll be a hard sell. Though I am replaying the game and making very different choices, I have looked online for the different ways the plot can branch, and the ways the ending can play out, and I really do think this is a one way trip. It's so much more interesting to have your own canonical version of events and compare/contrast with others, which is something the game's director, David Cage, controversially meant when he said something about how he hopes people only play the game once.

Heavy Rain certainly isn't for everyone, and even I will admit that it's sub-10 hour length makes the $60 price tag a bit of a sticking point for those who are interested, especially in light of concurrent titles like Final Fantasy XII which offer dozens more. But there is a true quality vs. quantity balance to the game's sub-10 hour play time that bears mention, since, like Portal, it was the perfect length for what it was trying to accomplish, and was some of the best 10 hours I've ever spent with any game. Anyway, if you still can't quite take the leap of faith on this game, there's always renting it. As for the issue of its lasting impact...I suppose what I really mean is, how well it's going to age. In many ways it feels like the important next step, or series of steps, for cinematic videogames...but that also means it is arguably destined to end up an awkward middle child between older titles like Metal Gear Solid and whatever else is coming in the future.

I would wholeheartedly peg Heavy Rain as an important, interesting title that anyone who takes videogames seriously--as an art form or otherwise--should play. I hate kids, yet I felt every tinge of terror and grim determination for what the main character goes through while losing one son and later having to go through hell to save the other. I have also never felt so tense and on the edge of my seat with
anything as I did during many of the game's "action" sequences, from escaping the clutches of a creepy doctor to escaping a burning apartment building to making split second decisions that will determine whether people live or die.

The promos and media surrounding the game ask: "how far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?" Heavy Rain itself will ask that question in increasingly gruesome detail as its story progresses: would you hurt yourself or others? Would you break the law? Would you kill or be killed? I never thought that videogames would have the courage to not only ask me that question but make me really relate such topics to my own life, but here we are. For all of its sometimes clunky gameplay and not-quite-there look, Heavy Rain deserves five stars for the things it made me think and feel. If that isn't art, if that doesn't make it the videogame equivalent of movies and books that do the same, then I don't know what is.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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