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Extensive Heavy Rain spoilers follow. If you haven’t played the game, steer clear.

I spend a lot of time in my columns complaining about the state of this industry and its users, so it’s a rare pleasure when I can state that for the first time in some while, the games industry, and gamers in general, have given me hope.

Heavy Rain has broken through the one-million sales barrier, an impressive figure for a divisive, esoteric platform exclusive. In a year when most chart-toppers have included the all-too-familiar – an online war-themed shooter, a hack-and-slash game that makes headlines for violence and nudity, and the 13th sequel in a series of fantasy games – Heavy Rain can only be seen as a breath of fresh air, no matter what you think of its quality.

The success of a game like this gives me hope, however vain, that publishers will once again be willing to put big budgets behind games that are not shooters, racers, or some combination thereof. Of course, nothing will change overnight. Heavy Rain‘s success only offers the potential for hope. But had Heavy Rain flopped hard, as many predicted it would, it would have sent a very strong message to publishers – one that said gamers were not ready for big-budget titles with real-world stories, games that are “mature” in the sense of the word that everybody outside gaming uses.

As a platform exclusive in these charged times, had Heavy Rain flopped it would likely have taken many years for another game like it to arrive again – as long, perhaps, as it did for Heavy Rain to follow what I consider its spiritual predecessor, Shenmue.

Of course, it may still take a long time. It takes a very brave, and possibly foolish, publisher to bankroll a game like this. Publishers want to know where their product will fit in the market, who the people are that are likely to buy it, and what other games they buy. Anybody who said that they knew the market that Heavy Rain would sell well to would have been lying. With a budget that must have run to $30 million or more, that’s a bold and commendable gamble.

So let’s hope that many more gambles will follow – gambles that are now somewhat easier to take, because a game can be pushed as “appealing to fans of Heavy Rain.” I hope to see many imitators, if for no other reason than the fact that Heavy Rain is both so deeply flawed as a game, and deeply flawed as a narrative, that the potential for improvement is vast.

While everything I said following my first playthrough of the game remains true, subsequent playthroughs have revealed Heavy Rain‘s many flaws. There are so many plot holes, loose ends and unfinished thoughts that a second or third playthrough can be like peeking behind the magician’s curtain.

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Extensive Heavy Rain spoilers follow. If you haven’t played the game, steer clear.

There are also some shockingly bad decisions. In a game where you control characters to such a degree that you choose whether they under- or over-cook their eggs, it’s a stunning idea to think that in an unseen period of time, Scott Shelby went from being under the player’s control, to murdering the antiques dealer Manfred and calling an ambulance, before control is returned to the player. It’s not only stupefying but insulting, and comes close to collapsing everything Heavy Rain worked so hard to build.

The inability to let Scott die when he’s under your control, even when stuck in a submerged car with water rapidly flooding in, is also irritating. To be fair, it’s generally not apparent during the first playthrough – the average player is always going to do their best to do what they’ve been told to – but once it’s revealed in subsequent plays, it’s a bit of a letdown, particularly when we were assured by director David Cage that the story would continue even if the major characters died.

Other mysteries abound: Why does Ethan lose several hours of consciousness and wake up holding origami birds in his hand? Why do all these affected parents have pieces of evidence they haven’t given to the police? Exactly what mental affliction is Madison suffering from?

And then there’s the writing and voice acting, the easiest flaw in Heavy Rain to fix, and the most important part for a game with an emphasis on “drama” to get right. Simply put, with its combination of non-native English and French-tinged voice actors, Heavy Rain, does not.

The gauntlet has been thrown down to other developers – make a better game than Heavy Rain. It shouldn’t even be that hard. Because Heavy Rain has proven something that gamers themselves have known for a long time – the market is out there for a serious, story-based game that, while imperfect, is neither gratuitous nor moronic.

Little by little, story is starting to gain acceptance in gaming. The recent announcement of Gears of War 3 included the announcement of the identity of the lead writer. Bioware’s continuing success in the console field is exposing more and more gamers to the joys of narrative taken seriously. And now there’s Heavy Rain.

Ultimately, Heavy Rain‘s gameplay is a matter of personal choice. It is so far removed from something like Modern Warfare 2‘s multiplayer mode that comparing the two seems almost unfair. But shooting a man and feeling bad about it afterwards; inflicting physical harm on my avatar and having it matter; kisses that actually have consequences – these are the experiences that a large and growing segment of gamers have been demanding for years. Heavy Rain is proof that these games, even when flawed, can make money.

Publishers, the ball is in your court.

Christian Ward works for a major publisher and yes, he’s going to shut up about Heavy Rain now.

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