Heavy Rain
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The Heavy Rain conversation


Since posting my thoughts on Heavy Rain, I've been reading other views on the game - some affirming, others opposing mine. More than once I've seen Heavy Rain described as a love-it or hate-it affair, but such a simple summary doesn't reflect the broad spectrum of responses this game has received, even among the commenters here. 

It's hard to ignore so many reasoned viewpoints, so I've begun playing Heavy Rain again to see if approaching the game with a different mindset will alter my experience. I don't re-play games often, but in this case it seems like a thing worth doing. We'll see what happens. [Update: PSN issues have me spooked. Looks like I'll hold off firing up my 'fat' PS3 for awhile).

The conversation that's sprung up around Heavy Rain is the most interesting I've seen since Braid was the game in our crosshairs. It invites ruminations on storytelling, agency, mechanics, and genre (among other things); and it provokes proclamations ranging from "...the future of video games may be closer than we thought"[1] to "...ham-fisted schlock and downright broken storytelling."[2]

Given the range of responses to Heavy Rain, I thought it might be useful to account for some of the most salient ones. I've already had my say, so I won't rehash those issues here. But plenty of people see the game differently - or see other problems I didn't see - and here's a sampling of what they're saying.

Note: I'm summarizing perspectives shared by a variety of people, so for simplicity's sake I won't attribute them to individuals. I encourage you to peruse the comments on my previous post where thoughtful folks like Unanbangkay, CBZ, Nat, JPLC, Louis F, Nels and many others share their individual takes.

  • Heavy Rain's emphasis on controller inputs is an effective expression of agency. The player is forced to respond, often in real-time, with little opportunity for reflection. This conveys a real sense of urgency in high-pressure situations that branching dialogue trees (e.g. Mass Effect) lack. 
  • David Cage wants us to identify with the everyday physical lives of his characters, so he gives us control over trivial physical actions. The problem is that reproducing an everyday movement with a thumbstick gesture is nothing like doing it for real. So, in the end, we're being asked to substitute one abstraction for another. Twirling a thumbstick to open a refrigerator is no less artificial or arbitrary than pressing a button to open it.
  • Heavy Rain forces the player to absolutely focus in critical situations. When a cop is bearing down on you asking questions Ethan should know the answers to, the barrier separating player from character is dissolved. You can't shoot your way out or hit the Pause button. You must reflect on what you know, what you want, and what you fear. You're in the spotlight sweating.
  • The game fails because it refuses to use the language of the medium. Heavy Rain attempts to translate a film into a video game by incorporating interactivity, but that media marriage doesn't add value. Consequently, it's neither a good film nor a good game. It's a regressive hybrid.
  • The game has the power to make you feel afraid/nervous/tearful/anxious/guilty. Dismissing Heavy Rain as a glorified point-and-click adventure grossly understates its impact on an open-minded player. Get on board and take the ride the game wants to give you.
  • Heavy Rain illustrates 'the uncanny valley of player agency.' The more control a player is given over trivial things, "the more unrealistic, jarring and infuriating the arbitrary barriers become.[3] Simulating everyday reality in a game is an interesting exercise, especially when we're accustomed to playing epic shooters. But after the novelty wears off, what's the point?
  • Why must every major game be measured by its ability to move the ball down the field? If Heavy Rain doesn't usher in a new era of games, does that mean it's a failure? Is there no room for a game like Heavy Rain? Does it threaten the existence of other games? Heavy Rain tries something new and different. It may not fully succeed, but few big experiments do.
  • If you're looking for well-written interactive drama full of meaningful high-level choices, play a great text adventure game.

My experience with Heavy Rain wasn't especially positive, but I'm willing to give it another try. In the meantime, I'm grateful for the vigorous conversation surrounding the game. Maybe that's where the real lasting impact of Heavy Rain will be found.