Thoughts on Heavy Rain

I’ll just write down off the top of my mind a “review”-like thing for Heavy Rain. I happened to play it all – in one play-though – with a friend last evening, and really feel I should write it down while memory’s still fresh and not yet affected from “better” thinkers then me.

I’d love to start off with the story, but I’ll save that to last. It’s a very, very, story-focused game, and I’ll prefer to use plenty of spoilers (of what happened to me and my friend, at least). So I’ll start off with my thoughts on the controls of the game. You see, Heavy Rain has been accused both before and after to be “a series of Quick Time Events” (QTE). That’s only half true, and the true half is gravely misleading. Let’s just give a quick description of what I consider a “Quick Time Event”, just to remove any confusion. A Quick Time Event is a series of prompts asking you to press, hold or smash a specific button within a short lapse of time that does something a regular move would not. Atop of that, it usually have grave consequences if you fail and doesn’t have much with regular game play to do. With that said, the accusation of Rain only being QTE:s falls completely. Rain uses prompts with button commands such as press, hold, smash or steer a stick or the controller in a certain direction or move, but it does so consequently and in a logical manner. Want to turn on the ignition of a car? Sure, just make a turning move on the stick. Have to throw something? “Throw” the controller (just don’t actually throw it, or you’re in trouble). And this will be the move every time you want to do this action. In other words, it works wonderfully! The system allows the game to do so many things regular game’s cannot. I’ve never played, or seen, a game where you change a baby’s diaper, put on make-up in a club’s toilet, cooked dinner or started a car before – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what this game does.

These prompts are displayed with white squares with stylized icons on them, which usually follows the object in the game world its associated with. This means the icons are always visible, most often clearly say what their action does (although we had a few tragic miss-clicks). Sadly, the design of the commands they want you leaves room for interpretation sometimes. The “mash this button”-prompt looks obvious in theory (it’s a button that pulses inwards), but sadly can be confused by the “hold”-prompt (a white arrow-head on the top quarter of the square) in the heat of action, something that caused us to fail one of the game’s tasks. The icons of the face-buttons (X, Square, Triangle, O) were a bit difficult to read, which usually caused half a second of lag in my mind just figuring out the right button. They could be slightly colour-coded to increase visibility. At least you’d had two things (colour and shape) to go on. The shoulder-buttons (L1, L2, R1, R2) could also be a bit more visible by displaying the label more to it’s corresponding side (so [L1] and[R1] would be [L1  ] and [  R1]) and having a slightly different shape for the 1-buttons and 2-buttons. That’s another thing that caused some response lag in my brain and could easily be fixed. The brain is fast at reading semantic relationships and shapes, but not that fast at reading. A natural mapping makes it quicker.

And quickness is highly valuable. Although the game always gives you time to press every prompt (about a second, I think), the game in its more hectic moments can stir up a lot of panic and similar. You’ve ever been to an exiting movie where your stomach is practically twisting itself in anxiety or something? This game is like that, times ten, every ten minutes. Or that’s what it feels like. The knowledge that the outcome is based on your performance, and that you can fail, is the tip of the scales here. In films, you usually know the outcome before the exiting part even begins. Here, you can’t know until the next chapter begins.

One more thing about the interaction that I don’t want to forget. Movement. Movement in this game is really unconventional, and takes awhile to get used to, but it’s really smart. To move, you hold R2. The left stick only adjusts the direction. Which means walking a long time isn’t that annoying (and you will walk a lot, because you don’t half-run like all the FPS:es out there). It also means you can keep going the same way if the camera angle should switch, which happens from time to time. The game controls the camera, and although it most often only follows you around, it often jump to more dramatic places, as well. This blurs the edges between different game play modes and cut-scenes, and it often feels like one single entity.

Oh, yeah, and there’s dialogue options, which fits right into the current character’s situation and, in a Mass Effect-fashion, gives a key word for what they then say. If you don’t select any within a specific time, they start to fade out and select one for you. This makes them options, but doesn’t halt the flow of the game. Besides, they’re done in a really smart aesthetic manner, circling around your head as thoughts do (you can “hear” what your character think from time to time).

So, the story. Spoilers from here now on (and now I’m filing anything slightly revealing or supposed-revealing in the “spoilers”-folder), so don’t read on unless you’ve played it or never intend to. I’m not a buyers-guide, nor do I intend to, but a quick analysis, so I can do this. So, the game starts off with Ethan Mars sleeping on his bed, with a nice view and a fantastic house. He walks around the upper floor, showers and gets dressed, and you start to really connect with him. I went off to his desk and got him working. Turns out he’s an architect. He probably drew this house! Then his wife and two kids shows up, and you sort of feel like I suppose parents feels, the “wow, how life turned out well! I’m so lucky!”-feeling. Which serves dual purposes of tutorial, planting the Mars families into the “regular” state, and soon makes the rest of the story so much stronger. Because, frankly, you care. A game-hour later, Ethan’s life is but a shadow of what it once was. Where his home was clean, modern and beautiful before, it’s now a worn-down place from mid-20th century. Instead of two happy sons, he’s got one depressed one. Instead of a lovely wife, he’s got an ex-wife who blames him for the son who’s no longer with them. And so does he. And it’s such a tragic mess. And then the story kicks off, and it’s just worse.

Along the course of the story, you switch between four characters who’s stories intersect with one another from time to time. This is both a good and a bad move. The good move is that you get plenty of perspectives on the drama, and the moments the characters meets and interact become so much stronger. The bad part is that you somewhere along the way lose that connection to Ethan. He becomes just a character, although one you hope for will succeed, instead of that tight feeling with being someone who could be you. But, really, the gain is so much bigger than the loss that it doesn’t really do anything.

The plot gives the impression of being semi-linear. That is, it’s not like a completely linear and pre-defined story, but it won’t branch into very different endings, either. Now, I’ve just played it once, so maybe I’m wrong, but the story felt like it was going from A to B, and the circumstances of the main plot would depend on my choices. I dunno, maybe that’s praise I first didn’t intend it would be. Perhaps the story can go wherever it want, but it so well put together that I don’t notice it. If that’s the case, then the game is truly amazing.

End of Spoilers. Anyway, it’s a great game, and I hope other developers takes inspiration from it. Now I’m off to see what the “better thinkers” have thought on the matter.

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