Looking Forward by Looking Back: Heavy Rain

Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain is a game I missed when it was originally released for the PlayStation 3 – I always intended to play it, but a backlog of other games reared its ugly head yet again and before I knew it, six years had passed and the game got a re-release for the PlayStation 4. My how time flies. But the re-release prompted me to finally rewind to 2010 and dive into Heavy Rain to see what lessons were within and what changes could could have improved the re-release – in other words, I was looking forward by looking back. What I found was a game where excellence existed just over the horizon, but remained out of reach because of a few frustrating quirks.

The Good

Make no mistake, Heavy Rain is chock full of excellent elements: a story that tugs on the heartstrings, relatable characters, beautiful environments and (mostly) quality voice acting. Each of these is important to the success of the game, contributing puzzle pieces that fit snugly together to render an artistic vision of loss, love and redemption.

Story

Heavy Rain opens with the player controlling Ethan Mars, whose son Jason is celebrating his 10th birthday. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and Jason is killed by a car after wandering away from Ethan at the mall. From there, Ethan’s life enters a tailspin, culminating in another tragedy – his other son, Shaun, is kidnapped by a serial killer known as the Origami Killer. From there, the player controls four different characters in different scenes, with each working towards the same goal: saving Shaun.

The story isn’t perfect (more on that later), but has a number of engaging and touching moments. While heavily mocked in the gaming community for repeatedly having to shout “Jason!” for the lengthy sequence, the hunt for Jason in the mall, and his resulting death, was an emotionally impactful way to open the game. This solidifies the player’s emotional investment in the events of the game right off the bat, which is something that other developers could learn from (ahem, Bethesda).

There’s also a touching moment where the player, as private detective Scott Shelby, rescues a single mother who had attempted suicide and must briefly care for her baby. Again, this scene is all about making an emotional connection with the playable characters and the events of the game. Each time the player experiences one of these moments, we’re drawn further into the world of Heavy Rain and feel compelled to reach the end, which is the true testament of a quality story.

Characters

ScottShelby_HeavyRain

Scott Shelby is an example of Heavy Rain’s excellent characters … except for one illogical plot twist.

Beyond the touching story moments, each of the player characters is relatable in their own way. Ethan Mars is the loving father who would do anything to save his son. Norman Jayden is the FBI agent pushing his body’s limits as he suffers ill effects of an virtual reality program which he uses to gather and sort clues as he fights against the clock to identify and arrest the Origami Killer. Scott Shelby is the lone wolf private detective who finds comfort with an unlikely partner, a prostitute whose son was a victim of the Origami Killer. Madison Paige is a journalist seeking the story of her life, who falls in love with Ethan Mars.

If each of these sound like stereotypes or tropes, it’s because they are. But that’s not a bad thing. Stereotypes and tropes can be used to help shorten the time it takes for players to recognize and identify with a character’s motivations. Of course, developers have to be careful to use these as a jumping off point for character development and not to let the stereotype stand as the definitive portrait of a character. Luckily, Quantic Dream opted for the former, treating the stereotypes as a jumping off point and further developing the characters with each scene the player utilized them.

For example, the Origami Killer requires Ethan to finish five trials to acquire Shaun’s location and save him. With each trial, the players learns a little bit more about how much Jason’s death affected Ethan to better understand just how far he’s willing to go to save Shaun – which he couldn’t do for Jason. Will Ethan risk the lives of others by driving the wrong way down the freeway? How much self-harm will he endure; will he crawl through glass and navigate an electrified maze, or chop off his own finger? Will he kill a drug dealer … even if he’s also a father? Ultimately, the player gets to decide how much Ethan endures and who he’s willing to hurt to save his only remaining son.

While Ethan’s is the extreme example, each playable character has similar moments and decisions of their own that help to move beyond the stereotypes used to quickly ramp up the player’s understanding of each character.

Environments

Ethan Mars House Heavy Rain

Ethan Mars’ house is bright, open and airy, matching the early tone of the game.

True – graphics alone don’t make games great, but when it’s clear that an artist spent hours creating a string of beautiful scenes that perfectly accent the tone of each particular in-game moment, they’re worth highlighting. Which is the case with Heavy Rain. The opening scenes of the game take place in the bright, open and airy space of the Mars’ household as Ethan casually wakes up, preps for his day and plays with his boys Jason and Shaun in the sunny yard, conveying love, happiness and tranquility. When Ethan loses Jason in the mall, the scenes are flooded with walls of people unintentionally preventing Ethan from getting to the lost and wandering child and conveying Ethan’s sense of anxiety. Following Jason’s death the environments are all overcast and the rain is constant; the bright moments from the early game have vanished and perfectly reflect the moods of the playable characters – depression, anger, loss and disillusionment.

No matter the tone a scene was striving to convey to the character, the environments and set pieces were carefully designed to match and enhance; something that some developers struggle to to do in their games (ahem, Gears of War).

Voice actors

Bill Henning wrote about the positive impact that voice acting can have on a game:

“Over the years, AAA video games have added amazing voice actors to help create some wonderful stories. One of the most recent examples is Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy stepping back into the shoes of the Joker and Batman, respectively, for Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Conroy and Hamill not only had the support of many fans from their work on the animated series, but it was clear they understood these characters and understood their relationship to one another, bringing these two giant characters to life.”

While I don’t know the history of the voice actors utilized in Heavy Rain, they provide much the same feel as Conroy and Hamill did: they brought their characters to life through believable and natural performances (mostly; again, more on this later).

When Ethan and Shaun Mars are in Ethan’s home some years after the death of Jason, and Ethan’s life has clearly fallen apart around him, the sequence of events which makes up a normal evening of TV, dinner and homework seems particularly unbearable for both parties, despite the fact it’s obvious they’re both trying to move on from the events that have put them in their current situation. The subtleties of this scene are delivered through the dialogue of both Ethan (Pascal Langdale) and Shun (Quentin De Gruttola) – and when Shaun declares to Ethan that Jason’s death wasn’t his fault, the sincerity in his voice creates a genuinely touching moment in which you can feel both his longing for his brother and for the return of the father Ethan used to be.

These performances are largely typical of those found throughout the game and combine with the other elements to push the game to precipice of greatness.

The Bad

But all is not perfect in Heavy Rain, and when the game stumbles, it stumbles pretty hard. Despite the quality of the voice acting, there are moments when it’s clear that Quantic Dream cut a few odd corners. On top of which, the controls are a major hurdle in some very strange ways and in one alarming instance, the story itself doesn’t add up.

Voice actors

It’s odd to have voice actors appear in both the good and the bad sections of the game. The praise above is all true, but unfortunately the corner that Quantic Dream seems to have cut comes at two of the most pivotal moments of the game, and has spawned a meme among gamers:

Chasing Jason through the mall after he’s wandered off, Ethan shouts Jason’s name repeatedly, hoping to get the boy’s attention. In what is supposed to be an emotional and anxious scene (as evidenced again by the sea of people intentionally blocking Ethan’s progress), Ethan’s voice comes across and emotionless and robotic. Maybe it’s a product of the recording process, but Ethan’s shouts for Jason feel completely unnatural and out of place for the moment.

The same thing occurs later as Ethan finally identifies Shaun’s location, and shouts for him “frantically.” The same robotic, emotionless feelings springs forth in a scene that’s supposed to be the exact opposite of that. This is the pinnacle of emotion – Ethan has a chance to save his son Shaun, something he couldn’t do for Jason, and the best he seems to be able to muster is a monotone call for his boy.

This may seem like nitpicking as these scenes make up less than 10 minutes of total game play, but again, in a game that excels elsewhere with voice acting, when the peak moments of drama occur, the voice acting falls decidedly flat.

The Controls

I once wrote about the complex control schemes sports games have adopted and how in many instances they served as an unnecessary challenge and distraction from the game. Unfortunately, Heavy Rain suffers from the same problem. For example, to move a character, the player must use an analog stick for the direction and hold the R2 button to make the player move. Combined with a camera the player cannot control fluidly and walking becomes a chore. There were points when I was trying to move around a simple space like a bathroom but couldn’t complete an action like open a medicine cabinet because the character wouldn’t face the proper direction or would walk past the object as there was a delay between the time I let go of R2 and when the character stopped walking. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to use the analog stick for both movement and direction and skip the extra button entirely?

And that’s not the worst part. Completing simple tasks often was accomplished by holding a series of buttons. The problem is that often the button combinations were something like: hold R1 + hold X + hold O and shake. Notice the problem? All the required buttons are on the right side of the controller, meaning that I had to contort my right hand in an unnatural way or use both hands to manipulate the buttons on one side of the controller. It might have been different had the player not been required to hold each button, but tap them in succession instead. In fact, in many of the fast action sequences, that was exactly what was required – a simple tap of the correct button – and it worked like a charm; the controls in those instances weren’t a hinderance but became a natural extension of the on-screen events.

The on-screen prompts for the controls were another problem. The prompts for a player to click, hold, shake, etc. were often too similar causing me to take the wrong action which resulted in me restarting the sequence all over again. A little better differentiation in the commands could have gone a long way.

I didn’t play with the PlayStation Move controls, but it sounds like they suffer their fair share of problems as well. Sometimes developers need to realize that when it comes to controls less is more and simpler is often better. Just because you can implement a complex control scheme doesn’t mean you should. It’s important to think about what the controls add to the game – if it’s unnecessary frustration, skip the extra buttons and let the player focus on what’s important.

Story

Origamia Heavy Rain

Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer? Sure, whatever you say Quantic Dream.

OK, maybe it’s a little unfair to put the story here – after all, I found it compelling and was engaged with it throughout the game. It had everything a player could want – action, drama, love, loss and redemption. But it also had a reveal that didn’t make sense. Spoilers if you haven’t played it, but Scott Shelby, the private detective investigating the Origami Killer is in fact the Origami Killer. That might not sound like a problem, but it is and here’s why: there’s no hint that he’s the killer throughout the game, and he viciously and violently accuses another character of being the Origami Killer.

I get that Quantic Dream was going for the surprise reveal and that it’s easiest for the killer to be one of the player characters, but even if we assume that Scott Shelby is investigating the Origami Killer so he can revisit and take enjoyment from his previous murders, there’s no reason he would:

  • Save the life of a store owner in a robbery if that same person failed to complete the trials necessary to save their son (the Origami sets up brutal trials to see which fathers are willing to do anything to save their child). If that man was unworthy in the eyes of the Origami Killer, why should he save him later?
  • Allow one of his victim’s mother to become his partner in trying to solve the crime and become emotionally attached enough to her and have a violent reaction when he’s unable to save her from a drowning in a car pushed under water?
  • Accuse a seemingly random person of being the Origami Killer and violently pursuing them as a lead?
  • Kill an old friend of his who sells typewriters to cover up a clue when he’s the one investigating that clue?

Essentially, the leap from Scott Shelby private detective to the Origami Killer is a huge one, and honestly, it doesn’t make any sense. That’s a real shame, because the rest of the story strikes all the right chords.

Add it all up

Add it all up and what do you get? A good game with excellence just over the horizon which is held back by a few strange and unfortunate hurdles. A good story with relatable characters that stumbles at the reveal. Excellent voice acting that stumbles at the most critical moments. Controls that deliver at the height of action and stumble at the simplest tasks. It’s strange that so much of what makes Heavy Rain a compelling game also keeps it from reaching it’s potential – I don’t think I’ve ever played another game where many of the same elements land on both the good and bad sides of the ledger.

The big question now is, did the re-issue of Heavy Rain for the PlayStation 4 bring a port of the game with a bump in graphical fidelity, or will it actually address some the issues that kept the PlayStation 3 version from achieving excellence? Unfortunately it looks like the graphical boost and a pairing with Beyond: Two Souls is all PlayStation 4 owners got – which is nice, but it’s also a damn shame, because Heavy Rain got oh so close to reaching its full potential, only to fall just short again.