Heavy Rain Deconstructed (Part One)

My brother (lead guitarist of the fantastic up-and-comers, Farthing Wood) said something to me this morning that I found rather interesting. He said that whenever a new videogame comes out that is very story-focused and is hyped to be the new byword for interactive storytelling, a number of people will largely ignore the game’s obvious flaws in the hope of justifying their hobby as a proper art form, and to emphasise the self-proclaimed “importance” of the release. To wit: “Everyone has to buy this game, even if they end up not liking it.” It’s possibly a controversial view, and it’s certainly a generalisation.

Heavy Rain, though, would seem to fit the bill. Interactive storytelling? Most definitely. Important? Quite possibly. Flawed? Oh yes. And the reaction of the videogame community to its release is pretty much unanimous, despite there being differing views as to whether the game succeeds or fails in everything it tries: it needs to be a success, otherwise we won’t get anything like it again.

Videogame fans want the industry to be seen as mature and have mainstream acceptance; to be ranked alongside films, music and books not just in terms of balance sheets but in the sense of “mattering”. Hardly surprising – it’s human instinct to want to fit in. I was visiting a client yesterday, and the subject of videogames came up in a less than flattering light. I kept quiet because I didn’t want to make the argument – and deep down, to be honest, I don’t think that I would have been absolutely sure of winning it, considering what “M for Mature” usually means when it comes to the industry.

Heavy Rain’s flaws range from the specifically game-related, such as the dodgy tank-like controls, to the ones that lend some credence to my brother’s argument, like the variable (and that’s being kind) voice acting, the often dodgy dialogue, and some plain baffling story continuity howlers. This is the future of interactive gaming?

Well, maybe yes. I think of Heavy Rain as the mere prototype of great things to come. It’s certainly no storytelling masterpiece, though, and this blog entry will focus on just one example about why that’s the case. The plot is heavily influenced by countless movies, which in and of itself isn’t an issue, but it’s often frustratingly executed.

*STORY SPOILERS REGARDING THE OPENING CHAPTERS AND OVERALL PREMISE OF THE GAME FOLLOW.*

The notion of happy family man Ethan losing a son (Jason! Jason! Jason! Jason! Jason! Jason!) in an accident, and subsequently turning into a shambling wreck of a man who’s found it impossible to cope with the guilt, is a character arc played offscreen. It happens during the credits. Ethan’s subsequent journey to achieve some kind of redemption by rescuing his kidnapped son Shaun – a quest that progressively channels Eli Roth – is an arc of sorts, but a relatively small one.

It would have been better to not have the fake-out of the “certain” kidnapping of Jason (though the expectations-shattering twist of his death by car was interesting), and actually have that son taken by the Origami Killer. Imagine playing as Ethan following his son being kidnapped at the mall: the man who has it all, gradually losing everything in front of your eyes, going ever more downhill as the killer plays his twisted games. The character could be taken gradually to the point where he becomes that shambling Ethan during the game itself, rather than having it all happen offscreen.

Think of Ethan’s happiness scale as being between 100 (blissfully happy) and 0 (suicidal). The real Heavy Rain, as soon as the introduction ends, takes Ethan between about 5 and 0. He starts depressed and gets more depressed, before a chink of light finally has the chance to emerge, depending on your decisions. You don’t get to play the more interesting character arc, the stretch of 3 years where Ethan separates from his wife and ends up living in a ramshackle apartment. The introduction and credits transition aside, Ethan doesn’t change much. His situation is still interesting, but his journey becomes all about set-piece plot manipulations (of which, more tomorrow) rather than also the well-paced character progression that writer-director David Cage envisaged.

There’s much more to say about Heavy Rain, though, including what really does work and why the title points towards a bright future for grown-up videogames.

Part Two of this article will follow tomorrow.

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