"For everything you have missed, you have gained something else,
and for everything you gain, you lose something else."
Driving the hatchback through Gordy’s living room.
Trying to get Mrs. Shepherd to remember her son’s name.
How the hell did Shelby not get stuck in the pipe?
I don’t like Heavy Rain. Dammit. Maybe I’m embarrassed to admit it. After 3 playthroughs and many months having consigned and retrieved the game from the world of retail, I’ve realized that flawed as it is, I love the world of Heavy Rain. With a caveat: it perfectly illustrates the problems with conveying a filmic narrative in video game form. It doesn’t work, strictly. Some people would argue it's broken, I wouldn’t. Compromised, but not broken.
Clearly, Heavy Rain is a Noir. For all it’s pretension it could be called ‘David Cage’s Heavy Rain’, like James Cameron's 'Titanic' ... or ‘Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon’. The central trait of the Noir story is that the main character or characters are trapped in a web of circumstance which tightens around them the more they struggle against it, leading to a tragic and thoroughly foreshadowed outcome. While not claimed by the genre, ‘12 Monkeys’ is a great example of Noir aesthetic. No matter what Bruce Willis does, it’s already happened, and he’s just going further and further down the rabbit hole of his own doom, but you can’t help but root for him. The idea of being trapped by a cruel fate is compelling.
The predicament of Ethan Mars’ trials captures this memorably. The finger cutting scene is a grueling set piece, and structured in a way that makes you feel like you can’t do it, but have to anyway. There’s real transference here. It’s frightening, you don’t forget it, and after wards you’re even more committed to see Ethan save his son. Whether the game makes sense or not – you want Ethan to save Shaun.
So what about the big dealbreakers? A lot of people, and myself included, weren’t crazy about the red herring of Ethan’s possessing incriminating origami figures. The only way this works for me is to consider that Scott Shelby has planted them, to divert attention from his own mission to clean up his trail of clues, because he knows already that Ethan Mars is The BIG ONE, the one that will succeed where others have failed, and he’s making it as hard for Ethan as possible. That’s a reach, and I’m not crazy about it, but it does solve a narrative problem, which Ill get to. There is also the blackout/vision sequences where Ethan sees Shelby’s home – if he's not the killer, then he would have to be having a premonition, right? That concept fits well within the Noir idea- in either case, it’s dark foreshadowing that puts your perception of the character in jeopardy.
BUT. They’re still awkward cheats. Why leave them in? My inelegant defense: you leave them because they create moral ambiguity, even if it's baloney, and that gives you the opportunity to question Ethan’s motives, and to give Scott Shelby benefit of the doubt, and some empathy. The second thing they do, and this is important, is that they foreshadow the killer’s origin, they point the way to the abandoned construction site. Everything radiates from that event. IF you had Scott thinking about it instead of Ethan, it’d be a dead giveaway. He’d ‘know too much’ about the killer. But the story needs to go there, it HAS to, to come full circle. It has to and you can’t give it to Scott, so you give it to Ethan because it lets it stay personal
, and that’s where you want the audience to be. It's a compromise. But at least it's entrenched in the game world.
I've forgiven egregious plot manipulation, now I have to forgive Scott Shelby. He probably won’t win any awards for best video game villain. Mostly because he spends his time pretending to no-one but us, the audience, that he is what he APPEARS to be, a private investigator trying to solve the case. And this is mostly a problem because of a hint mechanic that won't go away. How to reconcile? There were things about him that while not making perfect sense, make enough sense. He’s compassionate towards women. He rescues several during the game. This works. Scott Shelby is not a serial killer in the strictest sense. He is trying to punish God or the Universe for letting his father let his twin brother die. Within this revenge context, he has no animosity towards women or the children. It’s all about punishing dad. They don’t deserve their kids. Or more precisely, the kids don’t deserve the world that gave them these crappy fathers
. So he expedites a personal justice. Being a former cop, this makes some sense. But for not knowing his own mind when you click the shoulder button to bring up his thinking- you have to allow that he’s in character, even in himself. Ok, I know, I know
, just hang on…
if you consider the pathological lying attributed to some of the real serial killers on the books, it’s not that out of character. People like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer did spend a fair amount of time PLAYING at being normal. Maybe for fun, maybe in deadly earnest, but it’s why they succeeded as murderers. For storytelling purposes, it’s a no-brainer. The murderers mind should be a private place. Disguising the identity of the murderer is nothing new, it's essential in a thriller, but Heavy Rain, the game
, is weak here because it has to rely on a gameplay mechanic that wants to give the killer away. Well, you can’t do that, and you can’t not do it, either. So- Scott Shelby talks in a weird 1st person as 3rd person dialogue with himself as he tracks down the clues he left behind. Compromise.
I’m not going to get into Madison Paige or Norman Jaden’s quirks, because I don’t feel either of them were particularly offensive, although both of them seem to know what’s happening before we do. They are quite literally ‘supporting’ characters in that they help reign the other narratives in. I don’t want to pick apart anything else, really. What I think is truly unique about this title doesn’t have anything to do with logic or excellence in design. Because even at it’s most illogical, Heavy Rain involved me emotionally in a strikingly recognizable world of angst and human frailty. I called it a ‘misery simulator’ a while back, and that’s true, I think, but it’s also a mood piece where everyone is looking for hope. It might be less than the sum of it’s parts, but this is because the gameplay is always in danger of breaking the story. You don’t get to level up in Heavy Rain, or buy accessories. You don’t have a set of game ‘rules’. What you do get to do is experience things like not knowing what to say to your child, feeling lost in a crowd, making an impossible choice, relief at being done with an ordeal. Nearly every scene in the game offers something worthwhile, emotionally, if not truly interactively. If it did offer real interaction, you would need an army of scriptwriters to juggle countless options and the story would become meaningless. You can't have a sandbox drama.
The design and story have had to compromise eachother. I don’t think Heavy Rain is interactive at all. It’s pretension is that it is. I can’t call it a great game. It’s an experiment, if it’s anything. But like a guilty-pleasure film noir that shamefully hides it's villain from you(and ‘Identity’ strongly comes to mind),
after letting it sit for many months, I found myself happily re-engaged with it, because most of what they've laid out resonates with me. I like the scenes. I like it’s world. I like it’s characters. And I found myself a lot more forgiving of it’s failings the 3rd time around. I look forward to more entries in this genre-in-progress.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Amazon and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 25 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 3 times).
Parents: Strong adult themed content and disturbing violence. Not recommended for young teens.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Game relies on visual clues much more than sound. Subtitled in several languages.
My score: 7