6 June 2012

The Merits Of Heavy Rain

It rains a lot in Scotland. A lot. Especially on the west coast, where I live. So, a game where it rains for several consecutive days is kind of heartwarming and homely, in a bizarre "misery loves company" kind of way. Over the past two weeks, I played said game - Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain - for the very first time.

Incidentally, over the past two weeks, Scotland experienced some of the warmest, brightest weather it's seen in decades. So, while everyone else in Scotland was outside enjoying the only sunshine we're likely to get this year, I was indoors, with the curtains closed, immersing myself in a sombre game of serial killers, heart-wrenching emotional maelstroms, intense moral dilemmas and gloomy weather. But hey - there were a lot of moments in Heavy Rain that made me thankful I wasn't out enjoying the summer!

This review contains SPOILERS under the cut!

ARI. Seriously, how cool was ARI? Sure, it looked like it was "heavily inspired" by the Precrime computer system in Minority Report, but even then, the tweaks Quantic Dream made to it were groovy - I'd've been happy if the whole game revolved around ARI, truth be told. I particularly loved the backgrounds you could give the system when Jayden used it in the office - especially in the ending where Stereotypical Bad Cop came in and put them on and found himself transported to another world. It was also interesting that Jayden started seeing the ARI overlays even when ARI was off - a theme explored in more detail throughout the Assassin's Creed franchise. The segments of the game where you had to review clues in your office with ARI were also great, and I think Heavy Rain could have benefitted from including more of them - the fact that you could miss or misinterpret clues was also a really nice touch. And the creepy bartender fellow? It's a reference to Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of "The Shining". Nicely done, David Cage.

Mistakes Have Meaningful Consequences. In Heavy Rain, making a mistake does not immediately result in a game over (well, most of the time...). Instead, mistakes have consequences. In the scene where Ethan has to choose which address to go to to find his son, it's entirely possible to pick the wrong one, and not be forced to go back until you pick "the right one" - the ending the player gets is changed accordingly, which is fantastic. Similarly, many of the main characters can die at certain intervals if the player isn't careful, but the game continues on, and the ending, again, is changed accordingly. This is great, because it feels like the player is actually responsible for the ending they get; they don't have a simple binary choice of "good ending" or "bad ending".

Impressive Visuals. (Yeah, the above image is Concept Art, but we'll get to that). There's a lot of attention to visual detail throughout Heavy Rain. This is really pronounced during the loading screens where you get to see a close-up of the character's faces, right down to slight blemishes, stray facial hair, eyelashes and all. In-game, the characters show a lot of emotion through their expressions: Ethan's wracked frowns, Shelby's mild, unassuming gaze, for example. Sometimes this backfires - when Ethan smiles, it looks strangely contorted and uncanny-valley-ish. The way the characters move is also very realistic, with special consideration given to cinematic cutscenes - with the occasional awkward jarring slip-up. The level designs in Heavy Rain are also fantastic - especially Ethan's psychiatrist's office (above), which is an amazing fusion of religious imagery with psychiatric motifs - it looks even more impressive in the game, and it's a damn shame we only see it twice.

Inner Monologue For Clues and Characterisation. With the press of a button (well, the holding-down of one button and the press of one of four buttons), you get to hear the character's innermost thoughts during most scenes - in game, this is done primarily to add a little characterisation, but also serves to clue-in the player, by having the character voice what they think they need to do in certain circumstances, or by drawing the player's attention to the fact that other options may be available. For example, in the scene where Ethan is given the choice to sever one of his fingers for a clue to his son's whereabouts, there is a saw nearby that is most likely going to be the player's first choice for the ersatz self-surgery - however, listening to Ethan's thoughts indicates that he should try to find something that makes a quick, clean cut, and that he'll have to find some way to disinfect the cut afterwards - which can lead the player to finding a) a kitchen knife (which makes the unpleasant scene slightly less squick-inducing) and b) finding a steel rod that Ethan can use to cauterize the wound. Doing so results in a Trophy for your troubles. This is a great, in-game/in-universe way to give clues to players without having an intrusive help box being overlaid on the screen, and it resonates well with the rest of Heavy Rain's UI-lite, character-focused gameplay.

Something To Do During Loading. Admittedly, this was only really done at the start of the game during the first install/loading segment - the game actually teaches you how to make an origami crane using a piece of card in the box! Actually giving your players something to DO during a loading screen is a great way to prevent the little bouts of boredom between two scenes - endlessly cycling the same 20 sentences about the world lore gets very dull very quickly (Dragon Age, Skyrim - I'm looking at you). And while the loading screens after this point only featured the character's faces close up (with those stock phrases), even that was a neat addition - there's something entrancing about watching another person moving and looking about - even if it is a virtual person - that can take your mind off of how much you'd wish the game would load faster. 

Integrative Approach To Design. Some critics and theorists decry what is perceived as an over-reliance on terms and models borrowed from cinematography or literature in games, and are quick to point out that games are categorically not the same as films or books, and thus deserve their own unique nomenclature and taxonomy. Some reviewers of Heavy Rain have also pointed out that the game behaves more like an interactive film than a traditional videogame. Nevertheless, the use of cinematic grammar in Heavy Rain (which was also prevalent in Quantic Dream's previous title, Fahrenheit [also known as Indigo Prophecy]) is proof enough that people involved in game design can, in a sense, have their cake and eat it too - they can use methods and models from outside the sphere of game design proper, as well as methods exclusive to videogames.

Heavy Rain has a lot of fantastic ideas: it goes some way to show that the "videogame as an artform" movement is not only feasible, it's already well underway. As a stand-alone game, Heavy Rain is enjoyable - flawed, but enjoyable - and I think it deserves its status as a step on the ladder towards videogames being held in the same high esteem as literature, film and visual art.

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