As I write this, I have just finished my first playthrough of Heavy Rain. I have, by turns, felt my heart pounding and my muscles aching; questioned my decision-making and morality; laughed where the game’s creators intended, and in other places they didn’t; I felt genuine surprise, alarm, sadness and joy.
It’s been a long time since a videogame made me feel any one of these emotions.
As an experience, Heavy Rain is brilliant. As a videogame, by our narrow definition of what a game is, it’s flawed, but with enough ambition to make those flaws forgivable. Some people are going to hate it. And that’s totally fine.
But if you care about the future of storytelling in this industry, if you have an interest in seeing games graduate from their comic-book hell and deal with real adult themes for real adults, then you need to put your money where your mouth is and purchase this game, new, in the first month of release. Even if you hate it – and that’s entirely your prerogative – consider it your donation to the future of this industry.
The game’s creator, David Cage, says as much. “It’s about asking the market, are you interested in experiences that are for a mature audience based on storytelling and triggering more complex emotions?” Cage told Eurogamer. “If the game doesn’t sell, it’s going to close doors to everybody and for a long time… Do you want [games] to be just trolls and goblins and zombies? Then don’t buy it.”
Now, David Cage obviously has a vested interest in getting you to purchase his game. I don’t. I don’t work for Quantic Dream, Sony or any of its affiliates. I have nothing personal at stake, other than the fact that I feel this is an important game – one of the most important in a long time – for the future of this industry.
My only personal investment in this is that if Heavy Rain succeeds, more publishers will be willing to gamble on esoteric, emotional adventures, and that’s a good thing for me, both as a member of the industry and as a gamer. So to summarize: if you’re sick of the standardized direction this industry is taking, if you want publishers to take risks and do daring, unusual things, if you want to see games that aren’t just recycled versions of the same mechanics we have been playing for the last decade, if you respect gaming as an art form, then you have a duty to buy this game.
For a game that is technically on the bleeding edge, Heavy Rain occasionally feels like something of a throwback. At its heart, it’s not a lot more than a very pretty “visual novel” (albeit in the same way Modern Warfare 2 is a very pretty Wolfenstein 3D). More than that, it feels like the type of game you might imagine seeing ten years ago on the Dreamcast, full of genre defiance and non-standard control schemes.
Let’s get the minuses out of the way. First and foremost is the writing. While the overall story is well written and compelling, there are some dreadful lines of dialogue that could only have been written by a non-native. The overall dialogue quality is nowhere near as good as “The Casting” trailer that showed the game to the public – so much so that I would wager a better writer than Cage polished that speech, as it betrays none of the heavy-handedness that occasionally blights Heavy Rain.
The voice acting ranges from poor to competent depending on the character, but none ever reach “excellent.” The America of Heavy Rain is one located firmly in Uncanny Valley, California – a 1980s Hollywood as seen through the eyes of a Frenchman. I get the impression that Cage is not a dialogue virtuoso even in his native language, but even so, some of the lines are real duds, even if the overall quality of writing is far superior to Indigo Prophecy.
The game occasionally misses beats in its pacing that would destroy a movie. The intro is plodding and dull, and while I can see what Cage is going for and thus tagged along, I imagine there are plenty who can’t and won’t, quitting before an hour is done. The Madison Paige chapters in particular are somewhat weak both in characterization and in content. And finally, the game has more than its fair share of bugs – substantially more than I would expect of an AAA title.
All these flaws I am more than willing to forgive, because in very significant ways Heavy Rain is one of the most ambitious titles I’ve played in years. It deals with themes of domestic abuse, suicide, senile dementia and substance abuse. On all technical fronts, it is a masterpiece. Some of the set-pieces are intricate and brilliant, and will genuinely have your pulse racing. At its best, it makes you feel like a character from a movie like Se7en or Cube, the helpless plaything of a demented mind.
It’s not easy playing or viewing. I’ve killed tens of thousands of virtual people in my years of gaming, but Heavy Rain was the first time I ever had cause to doubt myself before pulling the trigger. Likewise, I’ve had thousands of virtual avatars be killed, but before Heavy Rain I never suffered remorse nor – as ridiculous as it sounds – never felt like apologizing to the person I had, through my own inactions, let die.
Is it a game that I will be playing every day for 30 minutes for the next six months? Absolutely not. But is that what videogames have to be? Heavy Rain won’t be for everyone, and that’s fine. I dream of a games industry where we can accept that what you don’t like isn’t automatically awful – where we can have different tastes and recognize that this is not a bad thing.
If you think Heavy Rain is nothing more than a series of poorly-acted QTEs, then you have little to worry about – any anxiety that publishers will suddenly abandon “hardcore” gaming in favor of Heavy Rain-style storytelling is assuredly unnecessary.
All I ask is that you consider where you want this industry to go. Heavy Rain asks how far you are willing to go to save somebody you love. Well, I love videogames, and they’re in need of help.
True, Heavy Rain alone cannot save them. But if it flops, it would be sending a message to publishers the world over – a message that says gamers don’t want story, gamers don’t want mature themes. Instead, let’s see what else we can pin existing mechanics onto instead. Has anyone tried God of War in space yet?
Is this the industry you want? The choice is up to you. Gamers are very good at saying “no” – no paid DLC, no DRM, no sequels that come out too close to the original game. This is one of those times where you can say “yes.” Cage can be infuriatingly pretentious at times, both in his interviews and in his heavy-handed approach to game design. But at least he wants to take us somewhere new. In this case, the destination is more important than the journey.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher. Before the comments page gets turned into a daft fanboy war, he would like to note that he holds a lot of hope for Alan Wake, too.