Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain is not a good videogame.

By almost all measures of videogame critique it falls way short. The controls are unresponsive and often abstract, the animation is stiff and awkward, 'gameplay' - nebulous term as it is anyway - amounts to nothing more than going through the motions of a scene until the opportunity to move on presents itself. Most of the time these sections deal in activities so mundane the only result is patience-trying tedium. You cannot fail, the plot moves on regardless.

This would be fine if the game were striding boldly into new arenas of storytelling. That, at least, would be something worthy of praise. Unfortunately Heavy Rain is hampered on these fronts by the dramatic quality of a made-for-cable thriller starring C-list actors delivering C-list performances, and a ludicrous plot shot full of holes.

The thing is, those cheap thrillers are often highly watchable. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but nevertheless - when time is ticking down and Frank Stallone, Don Swayze and Zeppo Clooney are closing in on their man, you're clutching the edge of your seat and munching on popcorn all the same. Of course, you've also spent the film laying on comedy commentary and pointing out every duff moment for laughs. Heavy Rain entertains immensely in the same way. Probably not what self-proclaimed writing genius and videogame auteur David Cage had in mind.

There's a lot of talk out there about how groundbreaking this is, how important it is. Did anyone play Fahrenheit? Did people conveniently forget that developers like Bioware and Bethesda have been spinning yarns where the actions of the player have far-reaching, game-altering consequences for years? What's more, games like Mass Effect and Fallout 3 offer significantly richer writing and 'digital acting' than Heavy Rain ever manages. It may feature *glimpses* of truly photorealistic characters (in the right light, from the right angle), but toss in some robotic animation and a trip through Uncanny Valley and it immediately falls apart. Plus the fact that the decades-old output of Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls effortlessly trumps it in the script department.

As my good friend Johnny Beatdown remarked:

"if you're claiming that your story is the most important thing to happen in videogaming, that story had better be pretty damn good."

The lineage of Heavy Rain comes from text adventures, through point-and-clickers, mixed in with laserdisc games and FMV-driven 'interactive movies' from the heady days of the mid-90s, and of course Cage's own Fahrenheit. Videogame creators desperately trying to present a more traditionally dramatic experience, elevating videogame narrative to something more worthy, maybe something to sit alongside the best that literature and cinema could offer. Only with the twist that you were in control, manipulating the story and characters to fashion a unique kind of adventure.

I've spoken on this before. My unashamedly alarmist attitude towards this encroaching notion that videogames can only truly be accepted as art - or even a respected entertainment medium - if they strive to emulate the cinematic experience. I'm sorry, but I want my games to be games. What's more, I want them to be good games. Is that too much to ask? Changing a baby's nappy or scrambling some eggs may be something that my characters would do, but performing them via a series of button prompts will never be something that I want to do.

Heavy Rain does a couple of things very right, but only by default due to its nature as a videogame. What I mean is, it does deliver some genuinely pulse-pounding QTE moments thanks to the player's foreknowledge that it's entirely possible to lose any of the characters at any point. This lends certain scenes a true sense of urgency and desperation. I will happily admit to finding one particular sequence almost unbearably tense. Also, it presents some tough ethical choices that reverberate throughout the narrative. But, like I said - you can't lose as such, you can just end up at a very bleak conclusion. Even that isn't necessarily wrong. The ending of Seven isn't necessarily wrong, and indeed Cage has commented that players should really only go through the game once, accepting the consequences of their actions and having whatever they come out the other end with as their own experience of the game.

Maybe because he knows that if you do play it multiple times the cracks start to show. Inconsistencies in the plot where the game isn't clever enough to adapt to things the player's characters have experienced or missed, for example. I'm aware of how impractical it must be to cover every possibility, to provide alternate paths for every decision (and on this point the designers of Mass Effect 3 must be in some kind of flowchart hell right about now), but if you can't do it don't do a half-arsed job of it anyway and hope people put the flaws down to stuff they missed.

Heavy Rain does have multiple possible endings, and gamers being gamers will generally try to see every single one of them. It's going to be a hard slog, though. This entry comes across as incredibly damning, but I did value my experience at the very least and I will play it again. If I seem like I'm raging against the game it's only because I'm feeling like the majority of mainstream opinion is misguided - they're using the wrong tools to judge it. Allow me to kick back a little.

Which brings me full circle to the statement that Heavy Rain is not a good videogame. It's an occasionally thrilling, very flawed, badly acted, often wonky-looking interactive movie which is very little fun to play, but nevertheless is kind of worth playing. Certainly worth talking about.

If only to know the enemy.

1 comment:

Marc said...

Interesting article. Somehow, even though I do have things like Eurogamer, Edge and Kotaku in my feed reader I manage to completely avoid (or ignore) the video game hype machine. I just happily trot along playing last year's (or even last decade's) releases. Long may it continue.

It's very coincidental that a piece I've written for my new blog (http://www.gameandwrite.co.uk) also mentions the folly of video games blindly following the lead of cinema. It would be interesting to hear your opinion.