Saturday, February 27, 2010

Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head


While this isn't officially part of my "Stories in Gaming" series (which I shall be delving into soon), this game comes at an apt time.  Truly, Heavy Rain emphasizes the story in ways few games try.  Just consider that the developers are calling it "Interactive Drama", and you'll see just how important the plot is to them.  I just wrapped up my first playthrough of Heavy Rain, and I have to say it could stick with me for a while.

Heavy Rain was developed by Quantic Dream, whose prior work was the very good, yet admittedly flawed Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit, if you're in Europe) Heavy Rain is very similar to Indigo Prophecy, what with its multiple storylines, moral choices with deep impacts on later events, and a heavy reliance on Quick Time Events.  Yet where Indigo Prophecy often stumbled, Heavy Rain manages to pick up the baton and race boldly to the finish line, offering a strong and impactful story with memorable characters and choices that really make you feel their weight and get you to ask, "Did I do the right thing there?"

As I said before, Quantic Dream is billing this as "Interactive Drama", which is really just a fancy term for "Adventure Game".  You spend most of the time wandering around the different set pieces, looking for clues and items to progress the story.  Although, unlike most adventure games past and present, you won't find yourself wandering for ages and getting stuck on puzzles.  No, if you get stuck in Heavy Rain, you'll probably end up dead.  Or worse, getting someone your character cares about dead.  Luckily, you don't really get stuck in this game.  The scenes are very confined to the moment, and it's usually pretty easy to figure out where you're going next.  When the action heats up, you'll get thrown into one of the interactive cutscenes (better known as Quick Time Events).  These are frantic, adrenaline fueled affairs, as the chaos on screen means you have to pay close attention if you want to hit the right button on time.  I found myself caught up in the moment and on the edge of my seat during the action scenes, only leaning back and breathing easy when they were over (and usually chuckling while saying, "That was pretty cool").

In truth, the gameplay mechanic at the core of Heavy Rain is that often lauded feature of "Moral Choice".  Throughout most of the game, I was having to make choices that I could tell would have a serious impact on how the story played out.  Should I kill this character?  Will he be important later on?  Will this lead to one of my character's deaths?  Will I regret doing this later?  Really, its almost never clear if there's a "right" choice.  I just made the choice that seemed appropriate at the time, and what I thought was appropriate to what I knew about the characters.  Now that I've finished the game, I can look back and see that some of the other choices could have a very different impact, and that maybe I didn't know a couple of these people as well as I thought I did.  I'll be interested to go back and try some other things with the game and see how it plays out, as apparently you can let some of the playable characters die early on in the game.  I might wait a while before doing that, though, as I want to let the story stand the way it is in my mind right now.  And that shows the strength of the story in the game: I feel like it was my story.  I made the choices, and the consequences were mine.  If you go and play Heavy Rain, you will likely see some things I never did and vice versa.  The only thing I can compare it to right now is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and that's high praise if you recall my review.

Regardless of how you let it play out, the story in Heavy Rain is a very dark one, and does not shy away from mature subject matter.  It revolves around the Origami Killer, a serial killer who targets children.  They disappear, and a few days later their bodies show up, drowned, with an origami figure in their hand and an orchid on their chest.  And believe me, it gets darker from there.  You'll encounter a number of different characters, some of which you'll be fond of, and others will give you chills.  And of course, there are your main characters, who you will take control of during the game.  There's Madison Paige, a photographer who suffers from insomnia.  There's Norman Jayden, a young FBI agent with high tech equipment, and a mysterious addiction, who's been assigned to the case.  While both of these characters are great and I was invested in seeing their stories play out, it's the other two characters that really shine in my book.  First there's Scott Shelby, the former cop turned Private Investigator who's looking into the Origami Killer affair.  I really liked Scott the best for most of Heavy Rain.  I found him to be really likable in most of his segments, and he seemed like the most realistic and developed of the characters.  I credit this largely to his superb voice acting and animation.  He's probably the most believable looking character in the game.  The "Uncanny Valley" shows its face a lot in this game, despite how gorgeous the graphics are most of the time.  Yet Scott Shelby often made me forget he was a video game character, even though he was talking to characters who made you look at them think, "What is going on over there?"

But of course, there's the final and most sympathetic of the characters: Ethan Mars.  Man, did I sorry for this guy throughout the game.  Every character goes through some kind of awful trial, but this guy has it the worst by far.  You start out as Ethan at the beginning of the game, and the tutorial has you roaming his beautiful home, spending time with his happy family, and enjoying the world around him.  I actually found this to be one of the most horrifying moments in the game, mainly because I'd seen the trailer.  I knew that bad stuff was going to happen to him.  And the more awesome his life seemed at that moment, the more I knew some horrible, HORRIBLE stuff was coming his way.  But wow, I didn't even know the half of it.  By the end of the game, the character model and voice acting did a great job of showing just how beaten and broken he was at that point.  You see, the tagline of this game is "How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?"  It's talking about Ethan.  His son is the latest victim of the Origami Killer, and Ethan goes through some brutal stuff to try and save his life before time runs out.  The heaviest and most draining choices come when you're in control of Ethan, and you rarely have a lot of time to ponder what you'll do.  It's very effective, and made me wonder if I'd have the strength to make the same choices in real life.  I hope I never have to find out.

I only have three real complaints about Heavy Rain.  First, the movement.  When you're able to move your character around, you have to use the R2 button to move forward and use the left stick to steer.  I understand the concept and reasoning behind this, but it often lead to clunky movement and some really frustrating moments.  There's a point where I was crawling through a duct, and the character would not turn to save his life (which was on the line, by the way).  Normally the controls weren't an issue, but that moment kind of got me mad.  Second, the voice acting.  For the most part, the voice acting is excellent.  But whenever a kid got on screen, it was just terrible.  I don't know if they got real kids or people pretending to be kids, but whatever the case was, it just ruined the moment for me.  They didn't sell me at all that these were real kids, and there was almost no emotion in any of them.  Thankfully, they aren't on the screen for long.  Yet, when the main plot revolves around saving one of these horribly acted children, it doesn't really make you invested in the deed.  Really, I just wanted to save the kid to give poor Ethan a break.  The final complaint?  Nobody in this game seems to know how to pronounce "origami" properly.  They use the short "a" rather than the long "a", which really started to grate on me after a while.  I could understand the hardened cop getting it wrong.  He's a jerk, so I can see him saying it wrong cause he just didn't care.  But every character seems to get it wrong!  Was there no one on staff who realized how you're supposed to pronounce that word?  Really?

Despite these few flaws in the game, it still stands out as an exceptional piece of storytelling.  The fact that you can direct how the scenes play out, and knowing they'll have an impact on later events, really gets you invested in each interaction.  Imagine if each time you watched a movie, it was a different version than the one you saw before.  That's what you get with Heavy Rain.  This is a dark yet moving story that made me think about the characters and what they were willing to do to stop a killer.  It's definitely a game that will stay on my mind for a while.  If you have a PS3 and have a love for adventure games, or just gritty and emotional drama, I highly recommend you give it a try.

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