How far would you go to save someone you loved? This is not a question that is asked in many video games, let alone treated as seriously as it is in Heavy Rain. Created exclusively for the PS3 by French company Quantic Dream, and directed by studio founder and CEO David Cage, Heavy Rain is a hard game to classify. Cage himself coined the term “interactive drama” to describe his creation, and this term is apt. The opening chapter introduces us to Ethan Mars, happily married, and father of two sons, Shaun and Jason. You wake up and go about tasks such as brushing your teeth, working, and preparing for your son’s birthday party later in the day. This may not sound like the most exciting game from the outset, but this introduction teaches players about the intricacies of Heavy Rain’s rather unique control scheme. Most interactions will generate prompts on the screen for the character to follow. Some are simple button presses while others are flicks of the right controller stick. This game also features some of the best use of the Sony Sixaxis controller to date. Your wife arrives home with your sons and you play with them. Focus too much on one boy and he may grow mad at you. All of these little sequences serve to teach you one very important thing, and that it that your actions as the character have tangible consequences.
I will preface that what I am about to tell you is not a spoiler since the event merely propels us to where the actual story properly begins. During a trip to the mall the next day, tragedy strikes. Jason is struck by a car and dies. Ethan is left in a coma for six months from trying to dive in front and save him. Now flash forward two years. The happy Ethan Mars we saw just moments before is gone. His wife has left him and he is clearly not fully recovered from the loss of Jason. His relationship with Shaun is showing signs of fraying as well despite his best efforts. All the while, a child serial killer has been on the loose, dubbed the Origami Killer because of the trademark paper figures left on the bodies of his drowned victims. One day while playing with Jason at a local park, events occur and Jason disappears. Ethan’s worst fear is realized upon receiving a package with instructions that shows the boy has into the hands of the Origami Killer. The killer’s instructions say that if Ethan can complete a series of trials that he will be able to save the boy. This is where the game truly starts, and it is a true roller coaster ride.
In addition to Ethan Mars, the player also is given control of three other characters. Scott Shelby is a private detective that has been hired to investigate the murders by the families of the victims. Madison Paige is a insomniac journalist pursuing a story on the killer. FBI agent Norman Jayden has been sent in to assist in the investigation. Each of the characters has an important part in the overall story and considerable time is spent with each of them. You will grow an emotional attachment to these characters very quickly. The game shifts the player back and forth between each of these characters. What makes Heavy Rain truly a unique experience relates to the consequences of choice that I eluded to earlier. Based on the choices you make with each of the playable characters the progression of the story can vary wildly. Key pieces of evidence can go undiscovered and it is even possible for characters to die. The game constantly adjusts the narrative according to each and every variable that you are presented with. There is no such thing as “game over” in Heavy Rain. You are made to live with the consequence of your actions, no matter how dire the results may be. To say that some of the situations presented are unsettling would be a massive understatement. I found myself genuinely unnerved in select situations and the knowledge that my character could be one missed control input away from death at any given time had me on the edge of my seat regularly.
From the standpoint of visual presentation, Heavy Rain is almost without peer. Using a performance capture process and real actors, Cage and the team at Quantic Dream shot every scene of Heavy Rain before converting them into their digital form. The voice acting is top notch and in general the script is written at a very high level. Cinematic camera angles also add to the presentation nicely. It is very apparent that every visual element of this game was closely and meticulously crafted. The only real complaints you can levy against this game’s visuals occur when we get a little to close to the uncanny valley. For the unfamiliar, the uncanny valley refers to when robotic or digital representations of humans actually cause a revulsion reaction when observed. So-called “dead eyes” are another problem, but considering the overall quality of the presentation these are minor quips. These things aside, these are some of the best realized representations of human characters to date in a video game.
Heavy Rain has 7 main endings and a rumored 20 further epilogue showing the outcomes of some of your actions after the story is complete. This is the sort of game that is great to talk about with others because the narrative can fluctuate so wildly. If you play games a lot you can pretty easily see where the “seams” are in this game and what the critical choices and variables are, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Interestingly enough, despite creating a game with so many different endings, David Cage was quoted as saying he actually hoped gamers only played the game once and accept the outcome they received. I personally would like to revisit this game again to do some things differently. This is not to say I was not happy with the ending that I received, far from it in fact. One complaint I do have is that the motivations of certain characters remains unclear even after knowing the final outcome of the story. However, this was not enough to tarnish my overall enjoyment of the story.
Heavy Rain is a maturely designed game containing arguably some of the darkest material that I have come across in a long gaming career. It is also one of the most emotionally powerful experiences that I have had in many years. Quantic Dream has crafted a magnum opus in Heavy Rain and the game will be remembered for pushing forward the kind of storytelling that video games are capable of. Come Game of the Year discussion time Heavy Rain will certainly be critic nomination lists and it certainly has a spot penciled in on my own list already. If you own a PS3, you should own Heavy Rain.
Entertain Your Score: 9/10