The Game of Life
HIGH Surviving the climactic battle with Mad Jack.
LOW Glitches can absolutely kill the impact of some scenes.
WTF Clown: "Sir, you haven't paid me yet!" Ethan: "Keep the Change." Clown: "Sir, you haven't paid me yet!" Ethan: "Keep the change." Clown: "Sir, you haven't paid me yet!" Repeat 10 times.
Back when survival-horror games were a capital-T "Thing," the gaming community was blown away by the discovery that video games—kids' toys, really—could inspire genuine emotion. In that case: fear. The decline of the genre was accompanied by the rise of a question: What other emotions can games inspire? Apart from the low-profile efforts of Fumito Ueda (ICO, Shadow of the Colossus), woefully few have approached this issue directly. Cue Heavy Rain, which elevates the question of emotions in games to mainstream status, skillfully handling the topic itself in the process. (Reader beware: To better discuss the game, I've included some spoilers in the review.)
In the game's opening moments I assumed control of Ethan Mars, waking to a beautiful new day in his incredibly stylish house. Aside from Ethan's own thoughts suggesting that he get some work done while the family was out—he's a work-from-home architect—I was given free reign over how to spend my (his? our?) time. After a bit of probing around, I was shocked to find that there were actual cartoons on TV. Not a few still images in rotation, a typical way of handling TV in games, but a fully animated (though brief) show with a plot and characters. I was fascinated by this cartoon, surprised by the amount of effort put into something so peripheral, but my trance was abruptly broken when the wife and kids came home. What's that? How much work had I gotten done this morning? Er... I spent all day watching cartoons.
It was at that instant that I drank the Kool-Aid. Experiencing that flash of "oh shi—", while an embarrassingly familiar sensation in my daily life, felt completely alien (and completely refreshing) when the source was a video game. Heavy Rain is filled with sequences that trigger the mundane but complex emotional responses that are mostly reserved for the rigors of real life. The stakes are often much grander than typical day-to-day affairs—at one point Ethan must choose between cutting off his own finger or missing out on a clue to his missing son's whereabouts—but the decision making process closely emulated real life. Instead of basing my choice on which option yielded the best rewards or most experience, I found myself relying on totally foreign (to games, anyway) criteria. Do I really have to do this? Can I piece together the clues I already have? Will there be repercussions if I don't do it?
There is usually no correct answer. Often there isn't even a narrative consequence, which may sound unfulfilling, or even lazy from a development perspective, but this yet another aspect in which Heavy Rain reflects real life. In reality, we are often confronted with choices where the only consequence of choosing is a newly-adjusted perspective.
The aforementioned finger-removal scene is a great example of this. After choosing to do the deed, Ethan must find appropriate tools for the job. Weighing my options, I decided to go with the wire cutters (ouch!) and made sure to have some disinfectant ready post-dismemberment. Ethan cuts off his pinky in one (relatively) clean motion, then douses the wound with disinfectant. When my girlfriend played the same scene she grabbed the nearest implement, a rusty saw, and made no other preparations. Ethan proceeded to painfully butcher himself, and then stumble out of the room with a fresh, bleeding stump where a finger used to be.
The results were the same in both instances; Ethan received a new hint, and pressed onward in his quest. What changed was the context. In one scene, Ethan was resigned to his gory task, but was collected enough to think of his own well-being. In the other, Ethan was a desperate, self-destructive father willing to do anything to find his son. The genius of these seemingly pointless decisions is that they allow different gamers to view the same character as a totally different person. Though the narrative arc might be similar across groups, the four heroes end up with unique personas depending on whoever is holding the controller.
After finishing the game, I was interested in seeing how scenarios might develop when played differently. On attempting a few critical chapters, I found that I couldn't motivate myself to continue. All of the new paths and interactions felt hollow and illegitimate after having experienced the ups and downs of my original playthrough. While this is seen as a weakness by many, I counted it as one of the game's greatest virtues. I had a real sense of ownership of that original experience. More than just the curious experimentation of a gamer, the events that transpired over the course of the story felt like they belonged to me. It might sound pretentious, but the replay value was undermined by the fact that additional attempts violated the sanctity of my initial experience.
This isn't to say that Richard's appraisal of the game was wrong. On the contrary, it was entirely correct. The controls are awkward, technical glitches abound, and the storyline jumps the shark in magnificent fashion. Even so, Heavy Rain's most grievous missteps are inconsequential in the face of its achievements. Playing around with the kids in the backyard instead of helping my wife set the table for dinner is one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had in my gaming career, and no amount of audio skipping or plot holes can diminish that memory.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).