Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Digital Polyphony Episode Six

(Author's Note: To explore Heavy Rain, I must detail many aspects of it. I'll do my best to not give away too much and certainly will not give away the ending, but if you are concerned about everything being ruined for you when you have not played the game and plan to, then it would be wise to not read any further. This is not fully a review but more an analysis of one of the most unique titles to be created in videogame history).

 

Have You Ever Seen the (Heavy) Rain?



The Human Condition: noun - the positive and negative aspects of existence as a human being, esp. the inevitable events such as birth, childhood, adolescence, love, sex, reproduction, aging, and death.

 

Like many places in the city, the park had a air of gloominess about it. The sky was overcast. The ground covered in dead leaves that have fallen from the skeleton-like trees. The teeter-totters and swing seats were wet from the rain and everything had a tint of sienna around it that felt more like a rain-soaked Old West town than a place for families to come together and children to play.

The weather didn't stop the children this day, though. Against the sienna ground ran specs of bright colored backpacks and jackets. Parents watched them intently while conversing; the fear the newspaper headlines instilled have ripped the city apart and families held their children tighter than ever.

My son hadn't been talkative lately. I couldn't help but think back to better times and sunnier days before our world crashed down around us. We still love each other, but there's a distance there that's unsaid. Even when sitting on the same park bench he simply stares, his head resting on his hand as the laughter of happier children surround him, I contemplate my failures as a father.

I can't just sit here. I need to do something. I see a boomerang in his backpack. I ask him about it and he says he can never get it to work right. I take it out and look at it. I could make his day if I can help him learn to throw it. I walk over and take it out, he watches me intently. With a few flicks of my wrist it's up in the air, spinning around the trees until I raise my hands up upon its return and grab it from the air as though I had actually done this before. I'd never tell me son it was just luck. A smile has grown across his face, something I hadn't seen in what seems like years. 

He tells me to do it again. Surprisingly, I easily do. He gets up from the bench and runs to me, the smile growing larger, and he takes the toy from me. I stand behind him and instruct him through the motions. I feel such pressure, nervous that I might fail him. He pulls back, lets it fly and as it comes back as he snatches it from the air. He smiles, laughs and hugs me. I can't remember the last time he actually hugged me.

A minute or so passed, and it was at this moment I realized one major thing: I can't simply look at Heavy Rain as merely a videogame.  What other game has you feel a connection by making a child smile or feel the emotion of a father when he is hugged? What game even has you play as a father? What game takes its time to show raw emotion and human relationships on such a level that it's not only convincing and real, impressive considering there aren't any real people to be seen, but also resonate within a player themselves? It was as this moment I realized I can't review Heavy Rain as I would any other videogame. It was at this moment that I saw how bold and ambitious a videogame can be and how the medium is more than just pushing buttons and progressing levels. It was at this moment I saw a form of storytelling that many people who play videogames probably won't quite get, much less appreciate.

It was at this moment that I realized Heavy Rain is something entirely its own.

 

How Do I Review This "Game?"

I had initially thought I would simply write a review of Heavy Rain. I have a nice handful of reviews and judging by some responses, many really like them. As I began writing, however, I simply realized I had a lot more to say than merely the pros and cons of a game.

Heavy Rain is not a title you can approach as simply just a "videogame." There's no end goal or even a game over screen. As its creator says, it's an "interactive drama" and only until you actually play it do you understand. You can't review it as a videogame because it's not trying to be a game as much as it is trying to be something that you can't simply just classify. There's not a lot you can compare it to nor is there another form that it might liken itself to. It has a combination of many: the interactivity of a game, the narrative structure of a book combined with the cinematic presentation of a film and the human characters and actors therein.

So to approach Heavy Rain, I have to look at what even its creator notes is its focal point: the story. Heavy Rain is both about the story but also about the influence you can have on the story and the attachment that emerges by feeling a part of the characters. It's a little hard to explain the level Heavy Rain works on in regards to the game-player relationship. Unlike most games, there is no health meter or amount of lives, or even continues, special moves and secrets. What you have, rather, is the emotional resonance it can invoke in you; the investment you have that transfers from the characters on screen to you sitting on your couch. You aren't merely passive, but involved, and what happens to those you control impacts you in a way that is rare for a game - a way where you care for the characters as actual people, not merely polygons created by a computer. It's the sense of loss and potential failure as a person that is the consequences to your actions, not the loss of health percentages and extra lives.

Whether or not any of this works is entirely dependent on the writing, particularly of the characters. Before we get into how Heavy Rain handles this, and handles it far differently than your typical "game," we need a quick rundown of the narrative conventions it utilizes. Since I have a lot to say, particularly about how Heavy Rain presents its story and characters, the piece escalated from a simple review to a discussion about videogame stories and a potential new approach to storytelling entirely...and unfortunately one that will likely be taken for granted.

 

A Quick Lesson in Storytelling

A story is only as good as the conflicts within it. More importantly is that those conflicts, no matter how big or how small, internal or external or personal or impersonal they might be, have to be written in such a way that it feels relateable, understandable and convincing. Often, the first two are in direct relation to whether or not we like the characters in the story, they are our window to the story and the conflicts that arise. When something good happens to them, we want to cheer and when something bad happens we either feel their sadness or hope they get out of it. Either way, they are people we must route for to overcome the conflicts.

The third aspect, though, is whether or not the conflicts are convincing. By this I mean does it feel like something real and comes to the story naturally, or is it just forced into the plot to give us a false sense of conflict, tension and, more often then not, force us to like the characters more. An example of something badly convincing in terms of conflict would be the romantic plot in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones where it feels obviously set up as a conflict to overcome. Instead of flowing naturally through the exposition it's just more and more exposition tacked on: elaborated rather than purposeful.  Conflicts should be interspersed throughout the story and are often of varying degrees. They can be quick and soon resolved, or the entirety of the story itself through its three acts (Establishment, Doubts and Despair and Resolution).

Alright, that's the narrative, but let's talk about something that 99% of videogames don't even touch upon. After all, story in videogames are usually just a means, not the end. Heavy Rain makes it clear that it's fully about story, and like any good story it has an underlying meaning to it all, called the "core narrative." The core is what a story is really about and isn't the obvious story but the subversive one - call it the "message" to it all, if you will. In the case of Heavy Rain, it's story really is a combination of consequences and of redemption on such an inherent level that few games can really muster - even the story-heavy role playing genre might have a core narrative, but doesn't exactly dive deep into it on this level to explore the depths of the human condition.

To understand Heavy Rain, you need to understand the basics of storytelling because the entirety of Heavy Rain relies on these basic conventions...and conventions done remarkably well. A story, though, is not only written in this case. This is a visual medium afterall...

 

Establishing a Tone

Drab. Overcast. Dreary. Visually, the tone that Heavy Rain is going for is absolutely clear. What many take for granted, though, is that a visual aesthetic here is more than just to present the atmosphere. It's also used to enhance the story. A scene of loneliness is presented in a place of dim lighting, or confusion presented in a place where there's a lot of people. The rain is more than just a quippy little plot point as well. It fits the entire point of the story and characters because rain is calming and soothing, but also uncommonly depressing. The tone and aura of Heavy Rain is about death and depression and what better way to showcase that than in a rain-soaked world (especially after being introduced to the game when everything is sunny and happy) and have the rain as a character of the game itself? I couldn't tell you what city the story is to take place in, but I can you its a depressing, ugly place.

Heavy Rain is one of few games that I can say is "well directed." It knows its palette, but you still must visually present it to be effective. Like much else in the game, it approaches its scenes like a film. It uses purposeful angles, field of focus and understand this rare attribute that videogames rarely grasp: pacing and space in scenes. This is probably the one element that most people won't even notice, but I did in the first few moments I spent with it. Heavy Rain is a quiet game, some might say slow but I might say, instead, that those people are simply used to the bad storytelling 90% of games do in the first place (especially when they don't quite tell a story like this or in this manner). Like the rain, it's calming and takes its time. It wants to present itself more as a dramatic film than just a videogame. Instead of focusing on the next set up for a level or action scene with orchestral hits, it sits a camera in a room and lets the characters and dialogue do all the work.

The directing and "acting" here is what allows Heavy Rain to "breathe." It has pauses, contemplations, and minimalism that echoes the world, the story and the character struggles.  It has a concept of space and time where a room is more than just a room and a dialogue-driven scene more than just two back-and-forth camera angles and people looking at each other. I noticed this advancement originally in Uncharted 2, again a game that takes a film approach and doesn't attempt to go overboard with a certain style or visual aesthetic. Heavy Rain takes this concept even further by pulling back to such a degree that you can't imagine any other visaul adaptation - especially something else that would do everything so much justice.

 

 The Characters

While there are technically four main characters to this story, there's only one that I really need to focus on: Ethan Mars. Make no mistake, Ethan is our main character from beginning to end and there's no better way for me to touch upon the way Heavy Rain presents his characters than to simply take a look at him. Ethan is about strife and the love of a father. It's about redemption and will in a man who is full of regret and sadness. Ethan is one of the most human characters I've witnessed...and he's not even real.

Heavy Rain presents emotions of a person as well as I've seen any game do (if not be the best at it). It's a combination of the technology to finally express human body language and facial expressions with the less direct presentation approach the developers take. They aren't going to insult you with exposition and stating the obvious. There's no better example of this than the change Ethan goes through in the opening parts of the game. We first see him relaxed, clean shaven, smiling. This soon changes to fear and anxiety, also showcased through the camera's ability to visually express his emotions by a short focus only on him even when in large areas and a good amount of shaking that you, as a player, have to work around as his world narratively and visually begins to unravel.

We then see the results of these first moments. Ethan changes. His eyes have a sadness in them that wasn't there before. He obviously cares little about his appearance and has lost touch with basic emotions as expressed in his inability to communicate with his son. His home is poorly lit. His furniture is as sparse as the food in his refrigerator showing an isolation and lack of social interaction. There's no doubt he still loves his son, though, as his son has a room full of toys and things a child loves to have even if he may not be as close as he once was to him. Beautifully, if you want to call it that, the game shows us a slight glimmer of hope. It asks us to try to make his life better and this shows an involvement and understanding as Ethan attempts to become closer with his son. It's a remarkable moment, one I detailed in the beginning of this article. It gives you hope and understanding and, hopefully, the realization that whatever level Heavy Rain is working on as an interactive experience is working in full-force as you share the happiness with Ethan.

Then the game strips that away from him once more. Meaning it strips it from you as well.

It's then you feel what Ethan feels once more as he (that being you, remember) rushes to his home and searches the rooms. Like you, he has no idea what to do and is utterly lost and he falls to his knees, screaming because the pain within him is great and you're likely to be sharing that with him or, at the very least, understanding him because of the subtle connections to the character the game manages to maintain between you and Ethan.

The approach is one of subtle nuance and one that allows the story to be told visually and the "actors" to act rather than constant explaining and detail over every plot point and emotion. You don't need a character to tell you he's worried when you can simply look at his eyes. It's minimalist character writing with purposeful, natural dialogue (and voice acting) with advancements in character animations and detail that allows the characters to show their feelings and tell us their stories without really needing to say a single word. Ethan is a man with a heavy heart, suffers from depression and struggles with his life every day and is absolutely lost and aimless. We pity him and absolutely want him to overcome the odds that soon become stacked against him. We want him to crawl through the river of shit and come out clean on the other side and damn sure want him to regain that smile that he gloriously had at the beginning of the story.

This, folks, is a videogame character...and he's more human than half the characters you'll find in a Hollywood movie or even read in a book. He is poetically presented and I don't think any gamer, particularly older gamers such as myself, won't feel an attachment to him - not to mention an understanding and appreciation of what Heavy Rain is doing in terms of ushering in a new approach to videogame stories...but more on that later. We need to discuss what exactly Heavy Rain is.

 

What Heavy Rain Is

Heavy Rain is a character driven game. I don't know if I've every called a videogame that before, maybe something like Final Fantasy XII or Grim Fandango, but even those are a stretch in terms of being entirely character-centric and still rely on the fantastical worlds and atmosphere to showcase its plot. There are great characters in videogames, sure, but there's not a "character driven game" per se and a majority of games are less concerned about realism in characters than they are portraying character archetypes (heroes, villains, love interests, etc..) that simply look realistic rather than actually act as such.     

Though not true, Heavy Rain is selling itself as a mystery-thriller because that's really the only thing it can sell itself as and, down to brass tacks, that's technically what is. Truth is, though, it's less to do about the Origami Killer and more to do with the stories of these characters, their personal problems and the situations they find themselves in (that, often, aren't even related to the Origami Killer at all). The serial killer plot isn't really anything special. The game uses a serial killer more as a means to explore the depths and complications of the characters in the world the killer happens to also inhabit rather than merely be an end boss to be vanquished.  It's more a situation to be explored than it is a mystery to be solved.

If it were merely a "mystery thriller about a serial killer" then it wouldn't spend so much time establishing its characters and focus entirely on the hunt and capture of said killer. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes into Heavy Rain you'll see it's a little more complicated than that. Instead of investigating a murder, you're talking to a woman about the loss of her son who was killed or playing with children in a back yard as you set the table for dinner. There are no other games that will have you play as a father piggybacking his child or looking for him in a mall, an FBI agent with a drug addiction that you have to help him overcome or a journalist confused and conflicted with her desires versus her professional duties because no other game would really try to approach characters in such a way (i.e. attempt to make them real human beings and not just avatars to control).

There isn't an end boss, or even a level. Heavy Rain is an exhibition of subtlety and tension that even many films can't quite present convincingly, much less videogames. One might assume that the early moments of taking showers, turning off televisions or helping with groceries are just tedium for tedium's sake. What these moments are really doing is showing more than just a story about a killer of children, it's showing our characters' lives - thus my conclusion of it being more about them and less about the murderer. Heavy Rain ushers in a new notion of what a videogame can be and how it can present a story. From a casual smile to a dramatic pause to natural sounding dialogue that you simply never get in videogames. It's a game that wants to show its characters as real people, which is probably why it's so easy to find yourself invested in them and the conflicts that surround them.

That investment and care you have in to what happens, and the frustration when maybe you don't get the right end or a scene doesn't work out the way you want, is proportional to how good the writing and characters are in the story. This isn't a matter of getting through a puzzle or escaping a chase, but even in the small moments such as kissing someone or the sense of satisfaction in making a child smile. It's this approach that sets Heavy Rain apart from your typical videogame and also why I feel the need to discuss narrative form in videogames and how Heavy Rain does something quite unique and bold as a form of storytelling. I would go as so far to say that Heavy Rain is a game that showcases an entirly different approach in storytelling - from the passive reading of book and watching of movies to a new form that allows the person experiencing it and participating, even if loosely, to feel as though they have a value and consequence to everything that happens. This weight is something books and films cannot do, and only now through such a quality writing and the fear of losing and failure does this new form finally come into its own.

From this investment comes the central aspect of Heavy Rain: the tension. You could easily just watch a scene and feel the tension within it. Heavy Rain, though, has you involved in how that scene plays out. You don't just sit back and watch as it unfolds. I'll guarantee you that once something starts becoming intense, even if you know its a moment where you can't fail or be killed, you slowly sit up straight in your chair, square your shoulders and stare unblinking at the screen as you quickly press buttons, contort your fingers and shake your wrists with the motion controls. When you make it through it, you breathe a sigh of relief on cue with your character on screen, who is probably winded and tired as well. It's a risk/reward system that grabs you like no other game has.

Would you bother if those characters weren't people you cared about? Probably not, unless you're a cold heartless bastard and don't bother pressing anything to help them survive whatever precarious situation they find themselves in (which ranges from cutting of fingers to being electrocuted to death). The game smartly has you getting to know these characters first then thrusts those situations at you. This grows into the the tension coming naturally because you care. Eventually, even the smallest actions can feel tense, such as opening a door not knowing what's on the other side or answering a phone. Good writing leads to quality characters which leads to you caring for them which leads to feeling tense and frightened in fear something bad might happen. When you look at it that way, it all seems so simple. But Heavy rain is far from simple.

 

What Heavy Rain Isn't

Heavy Rain is not just a videogame. It's not something I would recommend to just any person with a Playstation 3 looking for something to play. That's because you don't exactly play it. Instead, you "influence" it with the controller than trying to link together combos, explore the world to take on quests or call a field goal with three seconds left. You aren't there to commit to exploring or learning moves. The game isn't telling you to do that. It's asking you to commit, instead, emotioanlly to it. To become invested in its story and characters. It can't even be compared well to a role playing game, which also asks of such things, because the gameplay and presentation is strikingly different than that as well.

It's not a game that's simply full of "Quick Time Events" as some have claimed. Those that say that are really missing the point. I can't say I blame them, however. Heavy Rain is not something that is made for everyone. A lot of gamers, let's face it, want to grab a shotgun and blow off various faces of various peoples. They want a huge world to run around in and lots of enemies to kill. They want instant gratification, not the slow-brew narrative exploration of Heavy Rain. They want escapism. They want more fantasy. They want entertainment and to have fun.

Heavy Rain is not escapism. The truth is, I don't know what it is. I don't have the answer to that. It is far too focused on its characters, the dreariness of its world and story and the expression of realism for it to be just "escapism." It's not a place you particularly enjoy being a part of and the story is far from what I would call "feel-good." It's not something I would call "fun" and certainly not "relaxing." All these preconceived notions of what a game can and can't be are skewed here. It's an entire product built upon emotional attachment and risk versus reward, but not in the simple terms videogames are often associated with.

Like in most games, there are consequences to your actions. Consequences is the singular thread holding everything together, from the thematic motifs and story to the gameplay itself. Unlike most games, and I've think I've pretty much established Heavy Rain is unlike most games, consequences aren't so cut and dry. It wades in the saturated gray that the game's uses as its own palette: a washed out visualization of ambiguity itself.  

Only until the final moments is there a clear, definitive "villain" to point a finger at. That comes with the territory of the plot, so it's expected not to mention required. Through most of the game, though, our big villain is more an idea, again ambiguous, and the obstacles less to do with the serial killer and more to do with internal conflicts.  It's easy for stories, and almost necessitated by the design of videogames, for there to clearly be one singular evil to everything. Though there is a finger being pointed by the end of it, hopefully gamers will look at the complexities of what its not pointing at and realize that for a game about a serial killer, it's not entirely about one and shows how conflict and antagonism is more than just a "bad guy."

Yet, there's still this ire in the back of my mind - a little voice that says to me "you realize you're still calling it a game, don't you?"

Well damnit. You have a point there. I suppose I keep using the word "game" because that's an easy, catch-all term and is the closest I can attribute Heavy Rain as. A "interactive story" doesn't quite fit and sounds more demeaning and insulting rather than appropriately descriptive. That would be like calling a movie a "non-interactive story" or a book "words on pages you read."

"Experience" doesn't quite fit either; far too broad and encompasses way too much. Either way, it's no surprise that the gaming community, at least those more in to mainstream titles, have not responded favorably to Heavy Rain. The "one big QTE" is one thing said. Others included "it's just a movie" and "it's too slow" and "boring" and that you "don't do anything" and "nothing happens." Well, when you make a game so drastically different and that isn't a typical escapist fantasy, I suppose such a response is expected. The truth is, Heavy Rain is partially to blame here. It looks great and is marketed as a bit more of an adventure title than it actually is, so naturally when someone goes out, slaps down the over-priced $65 and not get what they expected, then that will be the common response. At the same time, such a childish response really shows the classifications of people who play videogames. Someone young and that might be used to playing Halo or Uncharted probably won't be nearly as receptive as an older gamer who understands the design approach that Heavy Rain is going for and, perhaps, is more open to a sudden change and shift (if not been looking for it) .

 
 
Not Everything is Perfect

While I can applaud its character study, approach to realism, degree of tension and suspense it may convey, Heavy Rain isn't entire perfect with its story. You see, while the serial killer plot might be more the backdrop, it is still the plot and, unfortunately, the plot here is nothing particularly special. Yes, it's written well enough and the presentation is astounding, but its plot fails on one major aspect: its desire for a twist. 

Although a twist and whodunit is always interesting, Heavy Rain really doesn't handle it well and its script not as tightly woven as it could and should be. A twist should never have to sacrifice the presets of the story up to the point of that twist, in this case showing things a character did, even though we controlled them, that we were not aware of. This is forced and really tries to push home the issue that we just weren't paying attention when, in reality, the story just withheld the critical moments from us all for the sake of having a big reveal. A story can imply that something happened, but it can't show us a complete alternative to what we already know did happen.

The case in point here is who the killer is and the fact that one scene we saw through with no indication that  something else was going on. (I was reminded there was a slight indication, however it doesn't quite work in how the scene is done). Then towards the end, it re-shows the scene  and something different that occurs. You can't do this and have someone  asking "wait...when did that happen" when that scene is already over  and done with (and that slight indication forced into the scene only to serve this purpose). It's not some flashback that maybe has a lapse in memory  of the character that is later filled in, it's a scene that happens during the course of the story and not once is it implied that something  our character, the one we're controlling from beginning to end, did  something we didn't tell him to do. We are controlling him here, and you can't break from that connection to just serve your end game twist.

Let me use an example. The masterpiece of a film (based  on a book): Psycho. In the infamous shower scene, we see a person enter  and dressed in a nightgown and has hair pulled back tight and looks like  an old lady. The person kills Janet Leigh while she's in the shower in  her motel room, blood splattering everywhere. The person leaves, the dead body is hunched over the tub and the music slowly slows like a  fading heartbeat. Later we cut to a shot of the house behind the motel.  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) yells out to his mother, in disbelief  that she's covered in blood. He runs from the house to Leigh's room to find her dead. Shock and disgust is sprawled across his face.

Now, you know by now Bates is the  killer but when first seeing this film, nobody knew until the reveal at  the end when he's caught wearing his mother's clothes and a wig. Now, let's look at Heavy Rain. If Psycho, instead, took the approach I'm  describing, it would play out like this:

Janet is in the shower. Norman is doing taxes in his  office. We center on him. We then center on one of his dead animals, then we suddenly hear Janet scream. Norman  gets up, runs to the bathroom and finds her dead.


See the problem there? It's an easy way to shoehorn a twist.
That's the problem Heavy Rain has and easily its worst aspect. It's not game-breaking, but a product where the story is so central should have handled its twist far better.

I would argue the twist wasn't even necessary on top of it all. The story isn't about the twist. It's a buildup to that twist, yes, but it's not the focal point as much as it appears to be. The story is about the individual characters first and foremost, again a "character driven" game, and their own conflicts, not the twist. Now there could have been a reveal of who the killer was, but it shouldn't have to sacrifice its story to present it because there are quite a few characters the killer could have been and the one the story goes with (and yes, there is only one) is as contrived as the laugh track on Two and a Half Men.  

There's also the issue of the character Madison. While she is certainly a strong woman (given her personality, though she could be better introduced to the audience), taking matters in to her own hands and has some good scenes on top of it all, there are two particular moments that are nothing but blatant sexism to exploit the male demographic that dominates the videogame audience. Heavy Rain could have been a game that had a universal appeal, cross gender boundaries and take a role front and center as a title that not only alters how games are played, stories told and presentation, er, presented...it could have been a title that stood to cross those gender boundaries that videogames have struggled with for 30 years. It's a title that the gameplay and writing could have appealed to women just as much as men, but the obvious service in sexuality that Madison represents nothing but attempt to achieve a male fantasy of the ideal woman rather than a woman who is inherently strong and impactful to the story as a whole. If it didn't have the nudity, the sex and the obligatory "woman will take care of you" motif, you might have had something damn-near perfect.

Since we're on the subject of flawed masterpieces, and I need to deviate just momentarily from the story aspect of the game because this isn't just a discussion of story but the title as a whole, I have to make mention of the controls. While basic events that require you to respond quickly or hold certain combinations work well enough in simulating the motions of the character on screen, the basic walking control is absolutely broken. I played this game twice, and even towards the end of the second playthrough my character still tended to not quite walk where I want them to, wandering in circles at times, or simply not facing the direction I need them to face to look at something they need to look at. Basic movement should never feel cumbersome and Heavy Rain utterly fails in trying to get it to work correctly. A better control scheme would have done wonders. The game also has a few minor bugs here and there and there are moments when your action and dialogue options aren't entirely clear (as in it's hidden on the screen and you can't quite tell what you can say or do).

At this juncture, I would have to say that Heavy Rain is a "flawed masterpiece." There's no other description I can really give towards it other than those two words. What it is attempting to do and succeeds at is utterly remarkable and impressive, it just isn't quite as refined and polished as it could have been.


The Future of Videogame Stories

As much as I would like to say games could take a cue from this title, I can guarantee they won't. Now don't get me wrong, not every game needs to take this approach to a story and just because a game does not take such an approach doesn't mean it doesn't have a good story or is poorly written. The thing is, Heavy Rain works on such a different level with everything and is designed so different that most games couldn't adopt its approaches even if they wanted to. Those concerns aren't important, and story always just a background element to game than in such a driving force as it is represented here. Though flawed in many respects, Heavy Rain is a game many designers and writers should look at for what a videogame can and can't do and the true potential it could very well have. Deep down, though, we know they won't.

Look at Final Fantasy XII for example. It's made by Yasumi Matsuno who's stories are quite different than your typical Japanese role playing game. They're often less to do about young heroes saving the world and, instead, center on the people in a more dramatic and adult way instead of relying on anime conventions to tell its story. Final Fantasy XII isn't about saving the world, its characters are adult, dialogue beautifully written and its purposeful with its scenes and drama rather than throwing in an action set piece to grab your attention. It develops its drama and characters rather than thrusting them into an impossible situation and only focusing on that situation. Final Fantasy is the biggest name in Japanese Role Playing games. Did this alternative to storytelling change anything?

No. Instead, it turned long-time fans so used to the stylings of Final Fantasy VII through X away from this unique approach and complete overhaul in everything they've known. Though reviews were high, the backlash is still felt to this day. It didn't change anything and Japanese RPGs de-evolve back to Final Fantasy XIII and Tales titles rather than show any potential of progress. I'll save the de-evolution of some genres for another piece, but know that many often do so because developers simply aren't willing to take risks. Heavy Rain is a bold risk, and while I applaud Quantic Dream in taking it, I know it's not going to change or even influence anything.

While gamers may not quite grab on to what Heavy Rain brings, and perhaps they won't even like the game once it's all said and done, they must be is appreciative of it. You can not play Heavy Rain without saying "I've never really played anything like it." A harkens back to classic, PC adventure titles but isn't entirely like them; there's something more personal here and its visual presentation is definitely one-of-a-kind. A game like Indigo Prophecy or Shenmue might have touched on similar ideas, but the difference in what Heavy Rain does is on the storytelling and presentation front and the fact is, the videogame industry needs more ambitious and bold attempts to progress the medium than simply sitting around dawdling in whatever second-rate junk that is similar to some other second-rate junk. 

Many message boards and blogs have said "all you do is press buttons" or "wow, this is really slow and dull." These people miss the point completely and fail to see  what Heavy Rain does right, how one-of-a-kind a title it really is and the rarity of something so utterly unique on so many levels - let's face it, "unique" is pretty rare in the videogame market, showing again how bold a game Heavy Rain is because innovation is nearly dead in the world of gaming. When something new comes along, it always gets good reviews and usually ends up selling poorly (Heavy Rain has done better in terms of sells, but isn't lighting the world on fire). The industry is a business first and foremost, so if something doesn't sell well, that tells developers to not try following in its path. They want to make money, not try to advance the perception of what videogames can and cannot do.

This is understandable, yet at the same time disappointing. Development costs are high these days and a developer, especially smaller ones, need to make something that will sell, not be ambitious. While the reviews for Heavy Rain are fantastic, it's simply not a mainstream enough title and, most likely, will be forgotten about in less than a year in lieu of the next big open-world sandbox game or newest first person shooter. There aren't a lot of games like Heavy Rain for a reason: nobody will play them. I would love Heavy Rain to have an impact, but it probably won't. Games like Shenmue and ICO had no impact whatsoever as well.  I don't see developers completely retooling their approach to games and storytelling as a result of Heavy Rain, and I certainly don't think a developer will try to create something similar.

Hopefully, though, it will at least be acknowledged for what it's trying to do. Even if it doesn't quite hit all the right marks, it certainly makes you rethink what a game can and can't be. Gamers should be appreciative of it because the most common perception of videogames are "toys for kids." It's always been this way and will likely continue to be perceived this way even if games such as Heavy Rain and statistics on the demographics (adults) say otherwise. Heavy Rain is rewriting a lot of rulebooks here and even if you end up not liking it, you certainly will be saying that you haven't quite played anything like it and must be appreciative of the bold and ambitious things its attempting to do.

 

The Failed Attempt to Review Heavy Rain

You simply can not review Heavy Rain as you would simply any other videogame. By its strictest definition: yes it is a game you play that is electronic and visually stimulating - ergo a videogame. But it's not quite that simple as I soon found out. There's nothing to really compare it to or find something established. It's like Shenmue, but more human, better paced and less detailed. It's like Indigo Prophecy but better told, far more personal and certainly more refined.

So, again, I bring up the notion that Heavy Rain is simply not a game as we traditionally know videogames. It's not necessarily something more or less than that, but it is certainly something completely different. It's difficult to review it other than its merits, or what I assume are its merits, are. I just go by what it attempts to do and whether or not that works. It's gameplay is basic, but I'll be damned if you won't find yourself compelled by it. It's writing is superb, which unfortunately will go unnoticed by most mainstream gamers. Other than the story that ends up sloppy in the final few hours and a walking control scheme that is utterly awful, it seems to do what it wants to do right on the money. Still, though, writing a review ended up impossible for me to really do.

This, though, I am perfectly fine with. Just because I can't review something comfortably doesn't mean I can't discuss it or analyze it as this article, which ended up far longer than anticipated I might add, proves. If anything, the amount put into this article itself is proof of one thing: Heavy Rain is doing something right if it can evoke this kind of response from me, a rather pessimistic and often-unimpressed guy who feels videogames is an industry that's a shell of its former self. I've come to a point where I play very little but when something is fresh and new, I will absolutely applaud it over the big title that sells a million units its first week. Innovation is a dying breed and if we aren't careful, we'll end up with a million "me too" titles that look and play just like the title you played the week before.

I suppose my gratitude towards Heavy Rain is a review in and of itself. It's an eye-opening game. Daring us to not just sit and "play" a title but to become involved in it on a completely different level than just getting achievements and shooting things. I applauded previous ambitious titles as well, most other games are simply retreads playing it safe. Heavy Rain set out to make a game (a game, ladies and gentlemen) about the human condition. If that isn't ambition (and maybe even a little arrogance, but that comes with the territory), then I don't know what is.


 


 

 

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