Last week there was much joy and jubilation when news emerged that David Milch, the writer of NYPD and (the admittedly excellent) Deadwood will be writing a film adaptation of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Leaving aside, for a second, the notion that they should just tap up the game’s producer, David Cage, to do this (because if Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain prove anything, they prove that Cage is a frustrated film director), what I want to know is this: why does anyone think that making Heavy Rain into a movie is a good idea? (Heavy Rain spoilers after the jump).
The reason I ask is not just because every single film ever made that’s been based on a video game has been sub-par at best, and practically unwatchable at worst. After all, somebody somewhere has to be able to break the trend at some stage, right? No, it’s because time and time again, Hollywood falls foul of the same misconception about video games; if a game’s plot is engaging and well written and cinematic, then it’s bound to be a winner if it’s adapted for a movie, right?
Wrong. One of the reasons great video games resonate so well with their audiences is because the developers behind them usually make use of the medium’s greatest strengths. This means that the biggest problem with using a video game for the basis of a movie screenplay, is that a lot of what made the source material great in the first place is inevitably stripped away during the process.
Dead Space, for example, is rumoured to be next on the list to receive the silverscreen treatment. If you’ve ever played this game – or indeed its excellent sequel – you’ll be aware of two things: 1) It’s pant-wettingly frightening and 2) the game’s plot reads like a mash-up of every single sci horror film ever made. Fans of this genre of entertainment can draw a straight line from Dead Space to Alien, ticking off Solaris, Event Horizon, The Thing and numerous others along the way. As a game, players can enjoy the thrills, the scares, the oppressive atmosphere and the chance to dismember snarling nasties with a Plasma Cutter. Turn it into a movie and they’re watching a story that’s been cobbled together from earlier classics – who wants to pay for that?
Heavy Rain faces the same problems as Dead Space and more besides. Not only is its plot and setting derivative – it draws heavily from Se7en for atmosphere and the original Saw film for the idea of a serial killer who forces his victims into horrendous situations – it also contains several gaping holes. Furthermore, the game’s most engrossing scenes – such as the Butterfly Trial and (especially) the Lizard Trial – rely to a degree on the game’s interface to ramp up their visceral impact. To wit, simply watching a bloke drag himself through a vent over broken glass or navigate his way past snapping electrical cables can’t match the experience of actually being in control of the person while he does all that (vibrating controller, an’ all).
The stake through the heart, however, is the fact that the plot is structured as a whodunnit. This was a major problem with Heavy Rain as a video game. The hype surrounding it promoted its splintered narrative as a USP guaranteed to keep players coming back for more as a game which changes according to the choices players make with each play-through, is bound to offer immense replay value. The problem with this, however, is that once the identity of the game’s antagonist is revealed, much of the impact of the game’s plot dissipates. It’s impossible to be as invested in the character of Scott Shelby, as you were on your first play-through, once you know he’s the Origami Killer. In the grand tradition of whodunits, once you know whodunit, why bother going back for seconds?
And this is really the main problem facing a Heavy Rain movie. Anyone who played the game knows where the plot of the movie is going. They’re also not going to be as connected to the set-pieces as they were when they were controller the game’s protagonists. The only way around these two rather large obstacles is for Milch to completely rewrite Heavy Rain’s plot in such a way that involves a new identity for the Origami Killer, new set-pieces and probably a different ending.
In which case, why call it Heavy Rain?