In its opening chapters, Heavy Rain is a quiet downer, a rare - for a video game - persistently sad experience. That makes the unusual PlayStation 3 exclusive one of the most interesting titles of early 2010.
Over the weekend I played the first several chapters of Heavy Rain using a preview disc supplied by Sony Computer Entertainment of America. It was my first at-home trial of one of the major early 2010 games, a hands-on test of whether ambitious French game development studio Quantic Dream can meet its high goals of high-definition interactive fiction, last seen by players in the studio's 2005 PS2 game Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit in its native Europe).
Or let's call the Heavy Rain genre not interactive fiction but something else, a different name signalled by one of the early rewards unlocked for starting the game is a Trophy that states: "Thank you for supporting interactive drama."
Interactive drama. It's not quite a classic video game, at least not in what it asks the player to do, how it shows the action of its scenes and how it marks progress. Having experienced Heavy Rain's first several chapters I've not repeated many actions the way you might repeat Kratos's combat moves 25 times in the game's first 30 seconds. In those Heavy Rain chapters I seldom saw my controllable character from behind, as you would any number of heroes of Final Fantasy or Dead Rising. And I never scored points, lost lives, collected items or so many other things that we do when we play games.
I searched for clues about a serial murderer, the Origami Killer. I also washed dishes, turned on light switches, smooth-talked a convenience store stick-up man and took a shower. Concerning that last one, I took a shower both as one of the game's male characters and later as one of the game's female characters, and didn't just get to control the shower - I got to control the drying off.
Heavy Rain is bound to perplex some gamers. Its description will agitate a certain kind of macho gamer who is already angry about the alleged watering down of gaming by so-called casual and party game experiences.
But Heavy Rain may even test the tolerance of those who want to believe in development studio Quantic Dream's zeal to develop genuinely mature games. This, Heavy Rain, is a slow trickle of interactivity within a deluge of dark tones. This game is sad and slowly paced. It is melancholy and as sunless as the weather pattern from which it gets its name. Those who will enjoy it will be those who can stave off impatience.
The game begins, in an exception, in sunshine. The player controls Ethan Mars, taking the happily married father of two boys through some basic morning routines. That's the tutorial, teaching the player that a hold of a PlayStation 3 controller's shoulder button will walk Ethan forward, twists of the left control stick will turn him, but that most meaningful action will be generated by presses and pushes of the right stick and face buttons. Getting up from bed is a push of the right stick up. Opening a door might be a slide to the side. Shaving, washing your face and brushing your teeth is a combination of button taps and motion-triggered controller shakes. Any available action is signalled by the presence of a floating controller prompt, making the gameplay largely one of walking, searching for the next prompt that signals an available action. A hold of another shoulder button often generates a swirl of words around Ethan, representing his thoughts or topics of conversation, once he is around other people. This helps the player as a hint system.
This first Ethan chapter is your tutorial, the first gaming tutorial I've ever played consisting entirely of actions possible in the real world. In other words, Heavy Rain begins in an un-fantastic way, taking the aforementioned risk of lulling its players to disinterest. But the developers maintain that their quiet moments and quotidian options are character-building moments, mood-setters that make later actions more impactful. Sure enough, when one of Ethan's sons goes missing in a mall in the next chapter, it feels like it matters. And it's hard to say if it would have felt so relevant had the game not enabled the player to have Ethan horse around with his sons in the backyard one scene earlier.
About that backyard scene. There's a triumph there in the presentation of a challenging option. Once his wife and kids had returned from the store, I had made Ethan go outside to the backyard with the boys. The two sons vied for their father's attention and the game asked the player to choose: Who do you play with first? Who do you gleefully swing around like a propeller first, among these two cheerful boys jumping up and begging you to pick them? It's the simplest and seemingly least-perilous question posed in this or any other PlayStation 3 game. There's no stakes of life or death. But the feeling does seep in that something else is at stake: How the boys feel and how the one who won't be chosen first will react. Games seldom evoke such subtle and empathetic reactions. Heavy Rain doing it there, strikes the right note.
The game unfolds in chapters. Soon, Ethan's life is ruined, with death having struck the family and Ethan resigned to live by himself, struggling to maintain being a decent father while suffering mysterious blackouts. At this point the game's skies get dark.
Each chapter is established with some text that doesn't just name the day but notes the amount of rainfall. Sunshine is gone as the player becomes vexed with simpler things, like figuring out whether to force a child to do his homework or what to make for a dinner - and the domestic despair of not being able to find any as it gets later and later.
The player gets control of new characters in new chapters, taking command of an overweight, middle-aged private detective who visits a prostitute to speak to her about her son, a victim of the Origami Killer. The player controls Madison Page, in a nighttime scene played intermittently with Page in her underwear or, when she's showering in the nude. The sequence might seem pandering and overly sexualised until those themes are twisted and made all the more disturbing when men seem to break into her apartment to attack her. She, with the player in control, can fight them off, as Heavy Rain prompts the player to input series of button presses and control stick swings to choreograph the fight (bad timing in this game might result in a missed punch or, in a less threatening moment, a dropping of the grocery bag you were supposed to be taking from your wife).
A fourth character, Norman Jaden, is an FBI profiler who seeks clues to the identity of the Origami Killer with the help of some advanced glasses and glove that allow the player to produce a clue-highlighting circle of light. Jaden's sequences, using that clue-finding mechanic, are the most classically game-like in Heavy Rain.
Quantic Dream has promised a malleable story and one with consequences. Those claims were hard to test in the incomplete build I have of the game. I recognised options for how Ethan could interact with one of his sons, but I didn't see consequences yet about how that would affect their interactions later in the game. I had the private detective, Scott Shelby, play out the convenience store stick-up scene in two very different ways (honestly, I was trying to get him killed the second time), yet each scenario ended the chapter in the exact same way. It feels like there are choices, but it's hard to recognise if and how they matter. That they will is supposed to be one of the draws. After all, the game's executive producer, Quantic Dream CEO Guilaume de Fondaumiere told me recently in New York that any one of the four characters I played can die - and die early. The game has approximately 20 endings. So there is variation, just, for better or worse, nothing that is obvious about it in the early going.
Another more worrisome detail is the quality of the voice-acting, which sounds as if accents are being suppressed and characters are talking in isolation, conversation being stitched together rather than occurring in person. There is time for that to be improved.
It's hard to convey just how much of a sad experience Heavy Rain is without giving away some of the plot. It might suffice to say that it seems that almost every major character in this preview build has experienced a death of someone close to them. That sadness weighs on their moods, is worn on their faces and matches the relatively slow movement and quiet activities of this game - or interactive drama.
What was building by the time my preview build reached its end was a decent mystery about who this killer was but also a deeper interest, in me, as to how these four main characters would wind up. I want to know what happens next, what I can make them do and where their emotional journeys will land them. These are not the impulses I typically have about game characters. There is no ultimate weapon to seek, no level to conquer, no stat to raise. I didn't mind the quiet actions, though the brushing of teeth, washing of hands, turning on and off of light switches was a little more than I expected.
I finished the preview the least interested in playing Ethan the father, in terms of the game mechanics available to this sad and broken man. The other characters were more dynamic and physically fun to play. But I find myself drawn to the emotion of Ethan's story the most and I do desire to know what happens next. I'm interested in feelings and drama. So far, that change of pace is a welcome one.
Heavy Rain ships for the PlayStation 3 in the first quarter of 2010.