How do you best write a review for a game like Heavy Rain, where the plot and characters play such a pivotal part? Where the situations and your solutions are what matters most. Every example I could give you would be an unforgivable spoiler. Apart from this problem, I have been blessed to have already played through it. I have to fend of the temptation to see how others have played to find the "optimal" route. I've been able to experience Heavy Rain the way you're supposed to - just the way you want it.
At its core Heavy Rain is an adventure game, much like Monkey Island and Police Quest. But that is also the same as saying that Gears of War is an action game like Contra. You will perform the same tasks as you did in those games 20 years ago. You walk around, explore, talk to people, and poke things. But much like Epic's action feast turned the mechanics of an old genre upside down, Quantic Dream's thriller invents a new way of interaction that makes it impossible for me to go back to the old ways.
David Cage and his team have evolved the controls from Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy to Americans), and given it a lot of thought. The result is a game that breaks a lot of the conventional rules of game design. Think about it. When you move, do you run like a platform character who turns instantaneously at a frantic pace? Have you ever walked sideways like you would in any first person shooter? It may work in games, but when realism is such a fundamental component as in Heavy Rain it would have looked bizarre. Instead you look around with your left analogue stick and press R2 to walk in the direction your facing.
The evolution of adventure games has gone from enormous freedom to increasingly abstract generalisations. From be able to do anything the thesaurus could handle in Zork, to general verbs such as "use", "take", and "talk" in most of Lucasarts' classics, to practically controlling everything with context sensitive clicks of the right mouse button. Heavy Rain takes a giant leap backwards and provides you with a wealth of options, but manages to make them feel intuitive by showing an icon for the specific movement. Difficult situations require more advanced movements, like playing Twister with your Dual Shock 3. Careful actions, like setting the table at grandma's house or stalking a burglar, must be performed with slow deliberate movements.
Flashing buttons that pop up on screen has become something of a stigma. It was cool in Shenmue ten years ago, but too often these "Quick Time Events" mean that you have to memorize a sequence and do it over if you fail. Not very fun at all. Heavy Rain is not like that. It's fun to open up the fridge, throw a boomerang, and see your son smile, and its fun to choose from your thoughts as you further a conversation.
The only times Heavy Rain is reminiscent of Shenmue is when you get caught up in combat. Then there are seldom any alternatives to succeeding or failing. But neither is it just black and white. A missed right hand or a punch to the ribs does not mean you have to start all over. You can win or lose in many ways. And succeeding is not always the best route forward. The game never ends until the story does. If you fail against let's say a very dangerous opponent you will get thrown into another situation to get yourself out of, that you would never had seen had you succeeded in defeating your foe. Whole chapters of the game are completely dependent on your choices and how well you implement these choices.
This takes us back to the thriller aspect. A "Game Over" screen is in many ways a relief, proof that I was doing something wrong and need to do it again. In a film most of the time you know the hero will make it through and it takes away some of the thrill. But since the story in Heavy Rain carries on regardless of whether one or more of the main characters die, you always keep the fact that any given situation may result in a death at the back of your mind. Every choice becomes a matter of life and death. And whether you come out alive or not, you are always left with the question; what would have happened with the opposite outcome.
If it has felt like playing a film up until now, this is where we get reminded that it is a game. Nothing prevents you from replaying a chapter if you are really unhappy with the outcome. I did so once, when I accidentally allowed Madison to perish towards the end. I really wanted to see her side of things in the closing scenes. But apart from that I played it through from start to finish, with good and poor choices, failures and accomplishments. And despite all of this my journey felt like the true and proper one. A film with the same script would have been fantastic. David Cage has said that you are only supposed to play Heavy Rain once, and that it is your experience. I can see his point, but at the same time I'm dead set on replaying it to experience something different.
Perhaps it's time to mention the main characters, I'm sorry to have to spoil some of the enjoyment of getting to know them by doing so. Ethan Mars is the one which everything revolves around. From an idyllic start, his life takes one tragic turn after another, and around halfway into the game I wonder if I have seen a character with as much anguish since I saw Passion of the Christ. The main theme of the game is... "how far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?"... and the answer is pretty damn far. But I can also say no, and I did once. In the eternal words of Meatloafian wisdom: "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that". Ethan's story grabs a hold of you and it's very hard to put the controller down.
Compared to Ethan the others feel almost like side characters, but important ones. The sleep deprived Madison Paige, the wholesome detective Scott Shelby and the Fox Mulder-like FBI agent Norman Jayden are brilliantly brought to life. At first I was afraid that I would dislike one of them, and start to groin everytime it was their turn in the story, but after only a few chapters I'm captivated by each of their stories. I loved immersing myself in Norman's character and playing him very cautiously after shooting a person - something I could have avoided - and playing with his cyber shades. I enjoyed Scott's old school detective work and brawls. And I cannot say I disliked turning Madison into a slut in order to get under the skin of a true douchebag just to turn the tables on him with some good old girl power.
The combination of explosive action and ordinary, everyday actions takes us closer to these characters than we would to most other characters in video games. And this is of course one of the reasons why Heavy Rain is so captivating. All speaking parts in Heavy Rain have "virtual actors" modelled after their real life counterparts. Sometimes the animations don't measure up, but given the amount of animations it is easy to forgive the shortcomings when they occur. It may not be the most visually striking game on the console, but to call it ugly would be a lie. The lighting, the shifting depth of focus, and the different rain effects are brilliant. And the "cinematography" for lack of a better word, also contributes to the experience.
I still haven't fully recovered from playing Heavy Rain. It's almost as if I see a couple of discrete arrows in the corner of my eye as I head to the kitchen to get some juice. Heavy Rain is a bewildering experience that offers something out of the ordinary, in the same way adventure games once were something much more free than your typical action game.
In a perfect world everyone would own a copy of Heavy Rain and experience their own story. The chances of this happening aren't great. To make such an effort with a game in a genre that has been derived of best sellers during the last 15 years or so is daring... and admirable. No matter how Heavy Rain fairs, I know one thing. I have experienced it. And so should you.