Two years ago it was Mirror’s Edge. EA’s first-person chase game toyed with convention, tackled assumptions about user interfaces, and tested the way most magazines and websites approach the reviewing process, their regimented lists of criteria proving too dogmatic to truly reward it.
So far, however, the response to Heavy Rain, the grimly atmospheric interactive drama from French developer Quantic Dream, has been much more intriguing. This is a title that always promised to defy established notions of ‘gameplay’. Operating somewhere between the almost total linearity of Dragon’s Lair, and the QTE-splattered quasi-interactivity of Shenmue’s action scenes, it’s a singular amalgam of cinematic and ludic devices. Those who call it an adventure game are wrong, those who call it little more than a movie with a few branching decision points are wrong. If it wasn’t for the fact that Quantic Dream has been heading in this direction for years via the likes of Omikron: The Nomad Soul and Fahrenheit, I’d call it unprecedented.
Heavy Rain: the official trailer
One factor is certain: the sense of atmosphere it creates is incredible. From the jarringly mundane opening scenes, to the first major tragic event and beyond, there is a lingering sense of fear, isolation and dread that few games before have ever mustered. I’m not sure if it’s the thoughtfully designed locations, the wonderful score or the, at times, intricately convincing human animation, but something drags you in.
Ultimately perhaps, it’s the fact that Quantic Dream’s visionary director David Cage is a true student of cinematic theory. Whereas Kojima seems happy to skim along the surface of filmic method, Cage and his team have mastered the intricacies of mise-en-scene, timing and subjective camera work to subliminally create and sustain mood. There’s a lovely moment, early in the game where grief-stricken architect Ethan Mars takes his withdrawn son Shaun to a playground – the two have drifted painfully apart since the accidental death of Shaun’s brother, but here they suddenly bond, and as Ethan embraces his boy, a rainbow becomes visible amid the endless grey skies and battering rain. It sounds hackneyed, but it’s so subtle and beautifully introduced, it’s almost poetic.
And the clever thing about the game is that it feels as though your interactions with the lead character actually reflect and heighten the atmosphere. There’s a scene with Ethan visiting his psychiatrist – you can pick up and play with objects, pace the room, sit down, stand up again – it’s as though you’re playing a creative part in the drama, as though you’re the actor. It is an unexpectedly literal manifestation of experiemental game designer Jane McGonigal’s assertion that all gamers are performers. It maybe even hint at a new form of interactive narrative entertainment.
But, as reviewers are writing, it is also fascinatingly flawed. The voice acting is horrible in places, and the dialogue grinds. No-one, no-one gets out of a shower and thinks to themselves, “I’m as clean as a whistle!”, yet that’s exactly what Ethan does in the first five minutes, and it more or less sets the tone for the the cliché-ridden scripting. The movement interface can be arduous, too, harking awkwardly back to the early days of the Resident Evil series when simple navigation tasks became frustrating tussles with a staggering somnambulant character. Yet, you are absolutely compelled to continue.
Reviewers are currently grappling with these inconsistencies and contradictory tensions. This is actually a game that’s worth thinking about, a game that asks questions about interactivity, narrativity and causality. And those questions are being considered. I loved David Houghton’s review on Games Radar, which brilliantly refers to Heavy Rain as ‘augmented cinema’, and goes on to intricately examine its failures while always maintaining an awe of its achievements. Also Tom Bramwell makes an important point in his take on the game:
“Heavy Rain is another game about killing, but the difference is that when you pull the trigger – if you pull the trigger – you’re committing to something with consequences.”
Death is final here. And it’s so fraught and panicked and messy, it resonates for hours. How weird, but how absolutely right.
And here too, there’s a central question about much of the game – the players’ input often turns out to be of negligable importance; certain things always pan out in a certain way, it’s just that there may be different routes to the conclusion.
Does that matter? It feels like it should, but somehow, as part of the experience that Heavy Rain conjures, it doesn’t; this is another aspect that reviewers are wrestling with. I’d like to think Quantic Dream is playing with the old philosophical questions of free will vs determinism, but that’s probably only because I’m obsessed with Lost.
I’ve yet to complete the game, but already, it feels as though it is part of that great European tradition of idiosyncratic, transgressive masterpieces. It deserves to be considered alongside the films of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, or the novels of Michel Houellebecq. Although really, with its sense of dread, its erratic plotting, its reliance on stock characters and its histrionic acting, it is perhaps more closely aligned with the ‘giallo’ movies of Dario Argento and Mario Bava.
Whatever, it’s an engrossing experience, and though it will divide players, it’s a game that forces allcomers to think – to really think about what a video game is. It could turn out to be a testcase for how a new era of interactive diversions will be critically considered. The Metacritic rating is at 89%, despite the fact that this game arouses plenty of negative feeling. That’s what happens when you encounter something that – even just in a small way – matters somehow.