GameSpite Journal 11 | Heavy Rain

Quantic Dream / Sony | PlayStation 3 | Feb. 2010

I’ve never quite understood what could drive a person to hate a video game. Being disappointed with an overly-hyped game? Absolutely. The Metal Gear Solid series used to be one of my favorite franchises, but its fourth installment was one frustration after another. Disliking a game because of shoddy play mechanics or a laughably absurd plot? Sure! I have stopped playing countless games because for these very reasons, though never with absolute malice. But outright hate? It seems counterproductive; why waste energy hating something so innocuous as a video game?

Why, then, does the very mention of Quantic Dream’s 2010 hit Heavy Rain fill my heart with such pure, unadulterated rage? Why was I shaking my head with disgust while I played through the game for a second time, knowing what to expect?

Perhaps it was simply due to the overwhelming amount of hype Heavy Rain generated years before its (or even the PlayStation 3’s) release. From the outset, Heavy Rain was positioned not as a game but as an “interactive drama.” This has always been the goal of David Cage, the founder of Quantic Dream as well as the writer and director of Heavy Rain. The company’s previous title, Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in North America) attempted to marry user input and narrative, creating a wholly unique cinematic gameplay experience. Unfortunately, the results left much to be desired. The gameplay was often reduced to frustrating Quick-Time Events (QTEs). The plot, initially an intriguing murder mystery, quickly devolved into a mess of time travel, a renegade artificial intelligence, and one of the most cringe-worthy sex scenes in video game history.

Heavy Rain was to be Cage’s magnum opus, the game that finally realized his dream of the cinematic narrative masterpiece, one that made Fahrenheit’s lofty yet unrealized vision a reality. Originally shown at E3 2006 in the form of an ambitious tech demo simply titled The Casting, Heavy Rain’s cinematic aspirations were apparent long before the game was shown in a playable form. The Casting was a fictional casting call for a virtual actress (who would later appear in game proper) and demonstrated the impressive engine that would be used for Heavy Rain. This was at the dawn of gaming’s HD era, and the facial expressions of the digital actress were incredible, offering a then-unparalleled level of detail and expression. With this technology as David Cage’s disposal and his declaration that the game’s plot would have none of the supernatural mumbo jumbo contained in his previous work, Heavy Rain was poised to be a landmark release for the PlayStation 3, a red-etter day for the merger of gameplay and story.

Did Heavy Rain provide the catalyst for an evolution of the medium? In a word: No. While graphically impressive, Heavy Rain has a train wreck of a plot. The game follows four characters whose journeys intertwine during an ongoing murder investigation of the Origami Killer, a sociopath who kidnaps and drowns young boys. There’s everyman Ethan Mars, distraught over the death of his son and the kidnapping of his other son by the Origami Killer. Norman Jayden is the hotshot FBI criminal profiler investigating the Origami Killer with a drug addiction. Scott Shelby is the stereotypical disheveled, overweight private detective independently investigating the Origami Killer. Rounding out the cast is the requisite sexy female lead, in this case photojournalist Madison Paige.

Graphically, the characters in Heavy Rain remain impressive, though the luster of its once-revolutionary facial graphics have worn away with the advent of more revolutionary methods, such as the impressive MotionScan technology seen in L.A. Noire. Unfortunately, Heavy Rain suffers from the “uncanny valley” problem seen in many “realistic” games, and the character’s cold, dead stares are distressingly haunting.

Far less impressive is Heavy Rain’s sound design, specifically the voice acting. Despite being ostensibly set in the United States, the various voice actors are obviously not of American descent, and in some cases do not speak English as a first language. The result is an embarrassing mishmash of faux-American accents with no regional consistency. Accents frequently fluctuate from a stereotypical New Yorker to Bostonian to generic Midwest, sometimes within the same character. The cast can’t even decide how to pronounce the Origami Killer’s name; during my brief replay, I heard it pronounced as origami, origamey, and origeymi, and I’m sure there were a few others. I have been told that the game’s voice acting is better in French, but honestly, shouldn’t have to change the voice acting to a language that I can’t understand because the English voice work is so medicore -- especially when the setting of said game is in the United States to begin with. Frankly, a game that prides itself on being such a cinematic masterpiece shouldn’t have voice acting on the level of a survival horror game from the late ’90s.

Of course, these issues could be overlooked if the game’s overall narrative was excellent. After all, if an “interactive drama” is to be successful, the plot must be the focus. Unfortunately, the plot of Heavy Rain is its greatest weakness. The crux of Heavy Rain’s story is that Ethan’s son Shaun is kidnapped by the Origami Killer. The killer forces Ethan to complete a series of increasingly sadistic tasks in order to save his son from drowning. While the premise sounds interesting, albeit derivative, in practice it is a convoluted mess of plot holes and head-scratching logic. While these problems litter the game, two such instances demonstrate the complete lack of logic in Heavy Rain’s story, both involving the identity of the Origami Killer.

First, a significant plot point relies on suspicion that Ethan is suffering from some kind of dissociative identity disorder. Ethan loses consciousness throughout the game, including early on when is son is kidnapped. After his son is kidnapped, Ethan awakens with an origami figurine in his hand, fueling the suspicion that Ethan is, in reality, the Origami Killer. While this would have been an unoriginal twist, it turns out that Ethan is not the killer, and that the entire fugue state/origami figurine was simply a red herring. Only…there is absolutely no explanation of how Ethan came to possess an origami figure. None. This isn’t simply a minor discovery used to throw off the player, it’s a major point in the plot, fueling an investigation that results in the police pursuing Ethan as the Origami Killer. In an interview, David Cage dismissed the criticism of this glaring plot hole, comparing his work to Hitchcock, identifying Ethan’s senseless origami figure as a MacGuffin and essentially saying that he does not need to explain this significant gap in the plot’s logic. Not only does Cage misunderstand the concept of a MacGuffin, he relies on outright lies rather than clever writing to hide the identity of the killer.

The Origami Killer’s true identity is the other major problem with the game. After hours of investigation, Heavy Rain’s big reveal is that the twisted child murderer is Scott Shelby, the asthmatic detective who as a child watched his brother drown while his alcoholic father did nothing to help. Much like everyone else in Heavy Rain, this could have been a brilliant, shocking twist if handled by a talented writer. Instead, the reveal is clumsy, dull, and confusing. Throughout the game, Shelby investigates the families of his previous victims as well as a copycat killer, obtaining evidence from each of his crimes in order to ultimately destroy anything linking himself to the murders. While this alone raises many questions (why have the families of the victims been withholding vital evidence to the case?) the truly disappointing part is that, once again, intelligent writing goes ignored in favor of cheap tricks to keep the player guessing. One of Heavy Rain’s features is the ability to “hear” what the current playable character is thinking at the press of a button, and oftentimes Shelby’s thoughts are simply incongruous to those of the serial killer. Even more insulting is the realization that Shelby also killed the owner of a clock shop in order to cover his tracks, and this killing occurs off screen in one of the very few instances where the game takes control away from the player (the camera focuses on an NPC during the murder.) I was hoping that by going back into Heavy Rain armed with the knowledge of the true killer’s identity I would pick up on some subtle hints, but instead I was just as annoyed as I was when I first discovered Shelby’s true identity back in 2010. Much like Ethan’s “MacGuffin”, the reveal of the Origami Killer’s true identity is a cheap twist that demonstrates little respect for the player, and renders the overall plot worse as a result.

While these were the two major plot points that I found particularly dreadful, I found a multitude of other issues with the game’s story as well. Numerous times in the game, a character will react to information relating to another character despite the fact they should have no knowledge of the situation. For example, late in the game Madison discovers the name of the Origami Killer, her reaction is one of shock and horror. Only…she has absolutely no idea who Scott Shelby is and why the revelation should be shocking: They have never met. This occurs more often than it should, as if the writers frequently forgot who knows what, and whether said information is known solely by the player.

Speaking of Madison, I consistently felt uncomfortable while playing as the photojournalist. Her first section involves a gratuitous shower scene (which is much, much longer and more explicit when compared to a similar scene at the beginning with Ethan) followed by an extended scene in her apartment where she is chased by burglars while in her undergarments. From here, Madison strips for a sleazy club owner, is tied to a table and almost brutally murdered by a deranged doctor, and involved in an awkward sex scene with Ethan, not unlike the sex scene previously mentioned in Fahrenheit. I’m not one to point out sexism in videogames, but Madison’s entire story arc is embarrassing, and she often seems to be more of an object than an actual character.

Strangely, the one aspect of Heavy Rain that I didn’t hate was gameplay, or more specifically, the Quick-Time Events. The QTEs in Heavy Rain are among the best that I’ve ever experienced, which is good considering they make up the bulk of the actual gameplay. Unlike QTEs in many games, where the control prompts bear little to no resemblance to the action occurring on screen, the QTEs in Heavy Rain are relevant to the on-screen action. Need to light a match? Flick up the right analog stick. Frantically trying to steer a car to the left to avoid oncoming traffic? Rapidly press left on the analog stick. More complex actions require more complex button combinations, to the point where you may need to hold down five separate buttons in order to, say, make it through an electric fence. Not only are these Quick-Time Events challenging and unique, they are presented in an engaging manner. My personal favorite: during one particular gruesome challenge, Ethan must cut off one of his fingers to appease the Origami Killer. To do so, Ethan must take deep breaths in order for the icons on the screen to shake less, and the entire situation is framed in a way to maximize tension. It’s an excellent scene, and far better than most QTEs in other games. Sadly, even the most intricate and engaging QTEs are by their very nature limited, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only going through the motions, so to speak.

I’ve spent a great deal of time complaining about Heavy Rain, but ultimately it wasn’t a wholly terrible experience. So why do I hate Heavy Rain? Looking back to my original reaction in 2010, it’s not so much that I hate the game as I do the reaction to it. Heavy Rain was met with overwhelming critical praise, with many esteemed gaming journalists proclaiming it to be gaming’s equivalent of The Godfather, a game that would redefine videogames with its superb narrative and presentation. This was very different from my experience! How could everyone think that this of all things should represent the potential of the medium? How could a game with a narrative as original and engaging as a made-for-TV murder mystery demonstrate the intellectual potential of a videogame? In the end, it’s not Heavy Rain the game I detest, it’s Heavy Rain the critical masterpiece. Is that fair? Probably not. But if Heavy Rain truly represents the future of the medium, I’m not looking forward to it.

By Matt Williams? | July 11, 2012 | Previous: Grandia III | Next: King's Quest: Mask of Eternity