Heavy Rain is unlike any other video game. It's mature and mundane. It's heartfelt and honest. It's utterly captivating. Yet it very clearly isn't for everyone.
For the uninitiated, Heavy Rain is something of an adventure game. It wants to tell a story in a most un-videogame type manner. It tells its story through the eyes of multiple protagonists, allowing the player to push and prod them in various directions. It's part-thriller, part-character study.
I've played through the first hour of Heavy Rain. Here's what happened...
00:00 - Closeup of a man's face. Eyes. Nose. Brow. Pores. He looks lost. Disbelieving. Unable to comprehend what he sees. I can't see what he sees. Fade to black.
00:01 - Cut to a bedroom. Screen splits into six panels. Each panel takes us nearer to bed's occupant. He's asleep, sprawled on his stomach. It's daylight outside. The curtain flaps in the breeze. Pushing the right stick up prompts the man to sit up on the edge of the bed. Pushing it again makes him stand. It's the same man from the closeup.
00:02 - Holding R2 makes him walk. Left stick chooses the direction. I walk the man to a side table. He picks up a framed photo. It's a photo of his wedding day. The woman in the photo is not in the bed. Pressing L2 lets me hear the man's thoughts. He thinks he should shower before getting dressed.
00:03 - I walk the man to the bedroom door. A note has been slipped under the door. It's from a woman, Grace, the man's wife. She'll be home soon.
00:04 - The man leaves the bedroom. A bird in a cage sits on a table outside the bedroom. I ignore it. I walk the man into the bathroom. He takes a piss. I make sure he flushes.
00:05 - I walk the man to the shower stall. Moving the left stick turns his head. It lets me sees what he can interact with. I push the right stick down and the man undresses. He steps into the shower and washes. The camera cuts between shots from inside the stall to a view from outside the bathroom door. I feel unnerved.
00:06 - The man steps out of the shower and picks up a towel. I shake the controller. He dries his hair. I shake again. He dries his back.
00:07 - I walk the man to the sink and push the right stick. He picks up his toothbrush. I shake the controller. He brushes his teeth. I push the right stick again. He picks up an electric shaver. I gently push down on the right stick. He shaves one side of his face. I gently push up on the right stick. He shaves the other side.
00:08 - I walk the man out of the bathroom into the hall. L1 switches between camera angles. I walk the man into a second bedroom. It is a children's bedroom. There is a bunk bed. On a shelf are three juggling balls. I push down on the right stick and the man picks them up. I push up and he throws one into the air. Prompts tell me which face buttons to press to keep him juggling. I push down on the right stick and the man puts the balls back on the shelf.
00:10 - I walk the man back to his bedroom. He opens the wardrobe and gets dressed. I walk him to the balcony door. He opens it and steps outside. I motion for him to lean against the rail. The sun is bright. He looks down over his garden. Birds are chattering in the trees. He looks content. I can hear a car as it drives past the house.
00:12 - Back inside, the man walks downstairs. Party decorations hang in the living room. "Happy birthday Jason." I listen to the man's thoughts again. Grace and the kids will be back soon. He thinks he should get some work done first.
00:14 - I walk the man past the kitchen, through the living room and into a study. He sits down at the desk. A drawing board covered in a large sheet of paper lies before him. He picks up a pencil. I push the right stick and he draws perspective lines across the paper. Closeup of his eyes. I tap face buttons as they are prompted and he draws a building. He sits back in his chair.
00:17 - I motion for him to pick up the pencil again. I gently push the right stick as he adds detail to the building. I hold down combinations of face buttons as he develops the architectural complexity, giving it shade and texture until it is complete. He smiles.
00:20 - The man rises from his desk. I walk him into the living and past a bookcase. I motion for him to reach for a book. "Creative Architecture." He thumbs through the pages. Closeup of his face. He looks happy again. He returns the book to the shelf.
00:22 - I walk the man to the back door and open it. A car pulls into the driveway. Two young boys run through the front door. The man greets them with a hug. One of the boys must be Jason. He asks his dad if he's now old enough to drive a car. His dad laughs.
00:24 - A woman, Grace, is at the front door holding three shopping bags. She asks for Ethan's help. The man, Ethan, walks over and takes the bags. I hold down two face buttons while he walks to the kitchen. Grace begins unpacking and asks Ethan about his work. He says it's nearly done. She asks him to help get the plates out of the cupboard.
00:27 - I walk Ethan to the cupboard. I push the right stick to open the door. It is stuck. Grace says it is always sticking and I should give it a push. I thrust the controller to the right and the door opens. Ethan takes the plates out and begins setting them on the table. I move the right stick to quickly and a plate clatters on the table. Grace tells me to be more careful. I gently push the right stick to finish the task.
00:29 - Ethan steps outside to watch the boys playing in the yard. They ask him to join in. I hold R2 and tilt the controller as Ethan carries one boy around the garden on his shoulders. Then I rotate the right stick as Ethan holds the other boy by the hands and spins him around in circles.
00:32 - Jason hands Ethan a toy lightsaber and they duel. I press face button prompts as Ethan attacks Jason or dodges his blows. I deliberately fail a few times and Jason stabs Ethan through the stomach. Jason is triumphant as Ethan feigns an exaggerated death. Grace calls the boys back inside for lunch.
00:35 - Ethan gets up off the grass and I motion for him to walk back inside. Grace and Jason are seated at the table. Grace calls for Shaun to come down. Ethan says he'll go get him. I walk Ethan upstairs. I can hear a faint sobbing. Ethan finds Shaun kneeling before the bird cage. "It's Merlin... He's dead. And it's my fault." Shaun cries. I motion for Ethan to kneel next to Shaun and console him. "It's not your fault, Shaun. Sometimes these things are meant to happen even if you don't want them to."
00:38 - Fade to black.
00:39 - Ethan and Grace are walking down a crowded street. The sun is as bright as ever. Cut to the inside of a shopping mall. Ethan is holding Shaun's hand. Grace is holding Jason's. The polished floor gleams under the artificial light. Grace tells Ethan to mind Jason while she takes Shaun into the shoe store.
00:42 - Jason starts wandering. I direct Ethan to follow him. A prompt hovers around Ethan, informing me that pressing X will call Jason. I leave it for now, content to just trail behind the boy and keep an eye on him.
00:44 - Jason finds a clown selling balloons. He asks Ethan to buy one for him. He does. As I fumble through Ethan's pockets for the correct change, Jason wanders off again. When Ethan finishes paying, Jason is nowhere to be seen.
00:46 - Grace catches up with Ethan and asks where Jason is. An erratic camera closes on Ethan as he explains that Jason has disappeared. He says he will find him. I head Ethan in the direction Jason appeared to take. This time I do press the X button. "Jason!" Ethan's breathing is now audible and his leisurely walk is now anxious.
00:49 - I motion for Ethan to lean over the railing and look down on the floor below. He spies a clearly distressed Jason downstairs near a merry-go-round. I recall walking past an escalators moments ago. Ethan stride seems to quicken as he retraces his steps.
00:51 - Ethan barges his way down the escalator and into a throng of bodies on the floor below. Jason red balloon is visible on the far side of the hall. I hold R2 and steer Ethan between the swarm of shoppers. I hit X repeatedly, hoping that Jason will hear his name. Ethan reaches a food court, but the red balloon has vanished.
00:54 - I turn him around again. I see the red balloon again and beeline towards it. The camera is pinned to Ethan shoulder and lurches violently with every time he shoves someone out of the way. Ethan grabs the boy with balloon, but staggers back when he realises it isn't Jason.
00:57 - I head for the street exit. Ethan again shoulders his way through the heaving mass. I'm feeling as anxious as he is. We stumble out onto the street and spot the red balloon on the other side of the road. Ethan calls out. "Jason!" The boy turns. "Dad?" He steps out onto the road.
00:60 - And that's a wrap.
My impressions thus far...
Let me admit I'm a huge fan of David Cage. His previous work in Omikron and Fahrenheit touched greatness even if there ultimately proved maddeningly inconsistent. For every moment of genius there was a sequence of downright clumsiness. So I approach Heavy Rain with optimism that perhaps this time he'll get everything right.
So far it's treading much the same ground as Fahrenheit. The mundane, even banal, opening is familiar in the way it echoes some of my favourite scenes from the earlier game. It works because it gets you inside the head of the character whose strings you are tugging this way and that.
Cage spoke about Fahrenheit's narrative as being like a rubber band: the arc remains the same for each player, but you can pull and stretch yours into different shapes. It's an apt metaphor, perfect for describing a game that elevates interaction as being distinct from choice. You play with the story Cage wants to tell; you're not here to tell your own story.
Sitting down with Ethan at his work desk allowed me to imbue his character with my own personal style. I could have moved him to abandon his work halfway through, distracted him with something else. Instead I wanted him to finish the task and, as a result, my Ethan is a man who takes pride in his work. The look of satisfaction on his face once he'd completed the drawing was reward enough.
Heavy Rain is unlike any other game. Except, of course, Fahrenheit. One might take issue with Cage's declaration that it is "not a video game anymore" because, ultimately, it is. However, he's right in believing it stands apart. He's pioneering new territory for the medium and we're fortunate to be able to explore it with him.