Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010)

I'm here to review Heavy Rain, a game for the Playstation 3 I just finished playing and one that I'm not sure exactly what to say about. To begin with, it's been marketed as a new type of videogame storytelling, one where your actions in the game influence the outcome of events in ways never thought possible before in videogaming. The makers call it, perhaps somewhat pretentiously, "interactive cinema". To add weight to this lofty ambition, the developers, Quantic Dream, have gone all out in the CGI department, using motion capture to create highly detailed characters that at times look almost real (check out the original E3 2006 demo). It's all quite a large feat, and Quantic Dream, well, they kind of pull it off, but not quite.

Remember in the past when people thought up the idea of interactive movies, where the audience would be watching a film, and when prompted, decide what a character should do next by pressing a button and inputting their choice? Except no one wanted to do this - you go to the movies to be immersed and entertained, not asked what you want the protagonist to do next. Well, this interactivity is at the crux of Heavy Rain, and it actually manages to work, perhaps because the player is the sole decision maker. In this sense it vaguely resembles an old Choose-your-own-adventure book.

Heavy Rain is a murder/mystery story revolving around a handful of characters, each with their own motivations and desires, on the hunt for the elusive 'Origami Killer'. The killer kidnaps children who are then found dead a few days later drowned in water holding an origami figure in their hands. It makes for a great setup, and the characters are fairly believable and fit the story well. The story opens with a prologue with you playing as the main protagonist Ethan, a father of two children. One day one of your boys gets killed due to some slight negligence on Ethan's part. The game then shifts forward a few years where we find Ethan has become a distraught wreck, divorced from his wife, living in regret over his first son's death. Soon, his second son gets kidnapped by the Origami Killer, setting in motion the events of the game.

It's an intriguing story, as Ethan's desire to find his boy is made all the more urgent considering he's already lost one of his children. Other playable characters include a comely journalist, an aging private investigator, and an FBI agent.

The other aspect that makes the game unique is the control scheme. Done away with are standard button mapping concepts such as "Hit A to jump", instead each action your character performs is determined by an onscreen prompt that guides you in how to perform a specific action. While difficult to explain in text, it works ingeniously well as the button presses become proportionally difficult to the task at hand. It also adds a sense of bonding with each character that doesn't usually occur in a game,

Heavy Rain has many terrific moments. Playing as Ethan, the Origami Killer begins sending you messages. These messages outline tasks Ethan must do if he wishes to save his son. Some are straight out of the Saw series of movies (though it should be noted that the game is primarily a whodunnit and not a horror flick), and since you are carrying out the action using approximate button presses, it makes the action that much more visceral and exciting. In one of my favorite sequences, Ethan is told by the killer that he must drive for five miles going the wrong way on the freeway. It's an intensely exciting experience, one that had me jumping out of my seat as I struggled to keep control of the car and not hit any oncoming traffic (watch it here).

This leads into the next interesting mechanic that Heavy Rain offers. Your characters can die. And you don't get to start the scene over. So if one of the characters doesn't make it, their plotline is finished, they won't have anything else to contribute to the rest of the game. This ties in neatly with the choose-your-own-adventure feel of the game, leading to branching stories and scenes that may or may not occur depending on your actions. Luckily I managed to keep everyone alive and got an appropriately rewarding ending, though it should be noted that none of the endings are considered 'the right' or 'best' ending.

However, the game has many, many faults. To begin with, it's a slow start. The first third of the game is a bore, as you learn the basics of the control scheme through such mundane tasks as brushing your teeth or making a sandwich.

Second, Quantic Dream is a French company and they used all French voice actors. Sure, many of them have terrific American accents, but frequently the French accent slips through, ruining the sense that I'm supposed to be a grizzled P.I. in Philadelphia. This is most notable with the character Lauren and Ethan's two sons, who just sound so, so, French.

The game suffers from some pretty large plotholes as well. A major recurring plot point that strongly suggests Ethan has something to do with his own child's kidnapping is glaringly never resolved. Near the end of the game, once the plot begins to come together, you'll find that suddenly characters who have never met suddenly know each other. This is a major distraction from an otherwise intriguing story.

My final grievance comes from the fact that the identity of the Origami Killer always remains the same. I was under the impression that depending on how you played, the identity of the Killer would be different, that way each playthrough would be truly unique. Alas, this is not so, and it somewhat undermines the fundemental idea that your actions determine the outcome. Additionally, the actual final identity of the Killer is a bit of a cop-out and a let down.

So what do I really think of the game? I loved the control scheme, and I enjoyed the branching narratives and different ways the action can be played out in each scene. I would love to see another game like this made with the same controls and choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling, but one done with voice actors who actually sounded like they were supposed to, and one where the plot made more sense. There's a lot of potential here to create more engaging, meaningful stories, someone just needs to figure out how to make it all work.