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Old 04-18-2010, 02:53 PM   #1
Odofakyodo
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Please rate this review: Heavy Rain

Where Does the Road Not Taken Lead?


High – Resolving an agonizing moral quandary to my satisfaction.
Low – Realizing that you’re just going through the motions in a given scene.
WTF – The uncanny yet mesmerizing loading screens.

In Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken", the narrator walks through the woods and encounters a fork in the road. The fork is a metaphor for an important life decision. Once the decision is made, the path is chosen and the narrator will not be able to return and explore the other route. Near the end of the poem the narrator speaks of a sigh—presumably an expression of regret at his choice. A key observation is that the narrator would not feel regret unless he truly believed that he would have reached a different outcome had he chosen the other path.

Heavy Rain, the latest game from developer Quantic Dream, bills itself as an interactive drama, and that is an apt description. The player takes the role of four different characters in an attempt to prevent a serial killer from claiming the next victim. In the vast majority of games, player choice is exhibited through spatial movement and physical action—running, jumping, shooting, etc. Heavy Rain, on the other hand, eschews these standard options in favor of letting the player directly affect how the drama develops. This includes how characters react emotionally to various situations as well as the moral choices they make.

As with Frost's traveler, these choices are final and the player must bear the consequences. In theory you could quickly reset the game every time you changed your mind (hoping to beat the auto-save), but that would cheapen the entire experience. Heavy Rain is refreshing in that the player never has to play the same "level" twice. Furthermore, the criteria for winning and losing are often blurred and player-defined. If you make a mistake, then you live with it, learn from it, and move on—just like in real life. Ultimately, Heavy Rain's success as a game depends on whether the player's actions have a meaningful impact on the final outcome, or if they are merely illusions of choice that lead to the same destination regardless of the path taken. The reality lies somewhere in between.

Heavy Rain's style is cinematic film noir and the overall presentation is generally high quality. The visuals are crisp and realistic, with gritty urban settings that range from crowded subway stations and run-down apartment buildings to abandoned warehouses and seedy motels. For the most part the dialogue and voice acting are good, and the animations are fluid and believable. The music helps set the mood of each scene quite well.

All of that is necessary to set up the story and draw in the player, but where Heavy Rain sets itself apart as a game is when the narrative creatively gives the player meaningful and consequential choices. Big or small, the results are often personal and rewarding. For example, during a pretend sword fight with my son Jason, my gamer instinct initially led me to start winning the fight. After a couple of times hitting Jason, I thought "You know, this is a kid. I should let him win." Then I intentionally started missing buttons. Jason slashed me in the leg, then he stabbed me in the stomach, and finally my character collapsed to the ground in a fake death. When Jason cheered in victory, I could not help but smile. I loved the inversion of the traditional QTE.

That example is lighthearted, but there is no shortage of intense moral decisions in the game. In one scene, I was resolved to handle an awful moral dilemma in a particular way. Through clever writing, the game threw a sequence of curveballs at me in an attempt to justify backing down from my position. Each new revelation forced me to reconsider my values while under pressure. In the end I steeled myself and continued on the path I had chosen, feeling extremely satisfied that I had resisted temptation. Heavy Rain is at its best during these moments, when the decisions clearly have consequences and the "correct" one is debatable.

In contrast, the game's weakest moments occur when there is no choice. There are some scenes where it is obvious that the player exists simply to propel the action forward through button presses. For instance, there was a scene in which I thought I was being presented with the opportunity to sever a relationship with a particular character, only to discover that was not an option. I was forced to play out the scene, watching two characters reconcile their differences when I would have preferred that they go their separate ways. If I had been allowed to make the choice that I had desired then the outcome of the story would have been far different. In such cases, the game is reduced to a movie and the player’s connection to the story is diminished.

Therein lies the rub with Heavy Rain: The game is structured in such a way that none of the narrative is generated by the program itself. As a result, it requires the developers to explicitly create all the narrative nodes that the player can experience (in this sense it a descendant of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and games like Dragon's Lair). This is a daunting task because the possibilities are as limitless as there are players. Inevitably, players will encounter some plot holes, hand-waving, and occasions where the characters' behaviors conflict with the manner in which they have been controlled.

Fortunately, in the end I discovered that my actions had a profound effect on the final outcome. All four character threads intertwined to determine not only who lived and who died, but where the characters were headed in the future. Heavy Rain's narrative did not branch quite as much as I would have preferred, but I have not spoken to anyone who has completed the game and had the exact same outcome, so that speaks to the relative uniqueness of my involvement. Accordingly, I found Heavy Rain to be a refreshing, satisfying experience that defies traditional notions of what video games should be. Though I am skeptical that its underlying structure is viable for narratives with larger scope, I hope more developers explore these less traveled roads to see where they might lead.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode (completed 1 time).

Last edited by Odofakyodo; 04-23-2010 at 12:13 PM. Reason: Removed an unnecessary word.
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Old 04-20-2010, 03:32 AM   #2
Brad Gallaway
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Re: Please rate this review: Heavy Rain

Hey Odo,
Great review, very nice work. My only feedback would be that with the strong, cerebral opening (which I very much enjoyed) you totally kill all your momentum by talking about the logistics of the controls and the context-sensitive inputs.

Since the main point of your piece is to talk about the choices and the player experience, I'd say cut that nuts and bolts stuff out and just stick to the intellectual side. The piece is certainly strong enough that you don't need to outline the inconsequential details.

Snip and resubmit! Itís good!

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Old 04-20-2010, 11:54 AM   #3
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Re: Please rate this review: Heavy Rain

Hey Brad,

I cut the controls section. The reason I had them in there was that I felt it was somewhat related to the rest because it described *how* the player makes choices. Also, in my mind the context-sensitive bit was related to the "daunting task" I mention later, in that the developers have to explicitly implement all the possibilities. But I never quite made those connections. The piece was a tad long and it certainly flows WAY better now. Thanks for the advice!
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Old 04-21-2010, 08:49 PM   #4
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Re: Please rate this review: Heavy Rain

Hey Odo,

I must say, I enjoyed reading your review as it explores the game in a context I haven't seen before, with extreme focus on the narrative, and I think Heavy Rain is deserving of this. The only issues I have with the review are minor, and primarily involve the language used as the review goes on. There are some instances where you use descriptors that are on the deep end of the layman vocabulary, and this may send the reader scrambling for their dictionary unnecessarily. Additionally, I noticed a number of small grammatical errors that were minor, but numerous enough that I think you may want to give her a once over with this in mind. I have provided a few examples that stood out below.

"In theory one could quickly reset the game every time one changed one's mind, hoping to beat the auto-save, but that's cheating, and in the end it would cheapen the entire experience. "

I believe this sentence suffers from some redundancy, and was a bit clumsy to read. Unfortunately I don't have a solution to provide, but I'm sure with some thought it can flow a bit better.

"Heavy Rain is refreshing in that the player never has play the same "level" twice, and the criteria for winning and losing are often blurred and player-defined."

I think it should be rewritten as:

"Heavy Rain is refreshing in that the player never has to play the same "level" twice, and the criteria for winning and losing is often blurred and player-defined."

"Heavy Rain's style is cinematic film noir and the overall presentation is generally of high quality."

I don't know why, but the sentence just reads better to me in my head when I replace the word quality with caliber. Could just be personal preference though.

Anyway I hope that helps some.

Last edited by leviboley; 04-21-2010 at 10:01 PM.
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Old 04-22-2010, 09:52 AM   #5
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Re: Please rate this review: Heavy Rain

Hey Levi,

Thanks for the input!

I reworked the third paragraph so it flows better, and fixed the error you found (missing "to"). Good catches.

The "criteria is" versus "criteria are" seems to be a tricky case. It appears that the word can be used singularly, but I definitely mean to use it in the plural sense, so for now I will stick with "are".

I'm going to stick with the word "quality" instead of caliber. I think that's just my personal preference.

As to the vocabulary, I understand your concerns and I think your description of several words is accurate (deep end of layman's vocabulary). I went over the piece and looked for words that might be problematic. There are three words that I found:

First, "eschews" - I think the word's context is very helpful in determining the meaning. When I was writing it I considered replacing it with "forgos", but I really like the word.

Second, "incongruously" - this one the context is not so helpful. I'll think about rewording that clause, maybe saying "where the characters' behaviors conflict with".

Third, "procedurally generated". This is a phrase that comes up in computer programming, and what I mean to say here is that none of the narrative pieces are created by the program itself. I think I'll change it to "generated by the program".

I made all these changes and I think the meanings read clearer now, so thanks again for the input.

Were there any other words you think could be particularly problematic?

Last edited by Odofakyodo; 04-22-2010 at 10:05 AM.
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Old 04-22-2010, 06:55 PM   #6
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Re: Please rate this review: Heavy Rain

This is a good review, but comes across to me as a little formulaic and bland.

I agree with Brad, get rid of the synopsis stuff, namely paragraphs 2 and 4, and focus on the story/character mechanics. What I would find interesting, is your opinion on Heavy Rain's obsession with film and its methods of storytelling. In the end does this hurt or help the game?
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Old 04-22-2010, 08:23 PM   #7
Odofakyodo
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Re: Please rate this review: Heavy Rain

Hey Seth,

Thanks for the comments.

I’m not sure what formula I am following. The review does not follow the standard story/gameplay/graphics/audio/controls template. I could see how the style might be considered bland, primarily because I do not attempt any humor. The serious tone was intentional on my part because I believe that the subject matter of the game is fairly serious and I wanted to convey that. I haven’t read every review out there but I like to think there are some observations here that few (if any) others have stated. E.g. The relevance of the Frost poem; the difference when you have a choice versus when you know you’re just along for the ride; and the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying structure, its history and potential.

I think that I have just enough synopsis (100 words or so) to provide some context to the reader while staying relevant to my overall theme (player choice). Paragraph 2 talks about how choice in Heavy Rain is different from other games. Paragraph 4 makes the case that the game is competent in communicating the situation to the player so the player can make informed choices.

While I agree that the game’s heavy reliance on film techniques is certainly a worthy topic, it could take up an entirely different review on its own, and it simply was not what I thought was most interesting about the game (after all, many games have cutscenes). I chose to really focus on the choices that the player can make and whether or not they affect the outcome in a meaningful way. This game attempted that in a different way than most other games out there and I thought that was what was worth talking about.

Last edited by Odofakyodo; 04-22-2010 at 08:24 PM. Reason: Typos
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