I have mixed feelings about Heavy Rain. Having played through it three times, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think it’s an unreservedly great game, but I do think that it has moments of greatness in it.
When I first played Heavy Rain, I went into the game completely cold. I hadn’t had any hands-on time with it. I didn’t know anything about the plot. I hadn’t even watched any trailers. All I’d done was looked at a couple of screenshots and seen the box-art. I was aware of the buzz surrounding the game; about how its narrative splintered into multiple directions, how its control system was unlike anything before it and how it was a dark, noir thriller.
I was also aware that its producer, David Cage, was sauntering around stating that Heavy Rain was some sort of salvo in a war for more creativity in the video games industry – and that annoyed the hell out of me. It also annoyed me that he said that buying it was almost a political act.
“You can vote with your credit card. You can say we want the industry to go in this direction. And if you don’t vote it means ‘no’ – just continue to make games based on zombies and monsters, that’s fine.”
What rubbish. It’s a testament to how creative and diverse video games have become that a title like Heavy Rain can exist and find an audience. But I digress…
A lot of critics and gamers praise Heavy Rain to the heights for its unique control system, for the way it blends the elements of cinema into a gaming format or for simply offering something different. Part of me recoils from that appraisal on two counts.
First, because it seems unfair for a game to garner such a huge amount of acclaim, simply for playing the Killer 7 card. Like Suda 51’s bat-excrement-crazy rail-shooter, Heavy Rain can lay claim to being like no other title in the year of its release, and yes, its sheer uniqueness demands that anyone interested in video games as an artistic medium should play it at least once. So I did, and after I had, I felt slightly like I’d had one put over on me.
Second, because when critics talk about Heavy Rain having movie-like qualities, they’re usually referring to the fact that it has actors performing dialogue and actions at the service of a thriller. While I agree that Heavy Rain feels to an extent like a film, but to be honest, all of the above qualities were things I thought the game did badly. I didn’t think the acting was up to much, the dialogue wasn’t particularly great and the plot – once the twist was revealed – was disposable, derivative and contained several large holes.
I believe Heavy Rain is like a movie in that its success hinges on a massive collaborative effort; its moments of greatness arrive when all of the game’s disparate elements come together into a cohesive whole – and that happens rarely enough for you to notice. It happens when the shonky controls don’t interfere with the action on screen. When the actors are far enough away from the camera so the player can ignore the occasional facial twitches. When the dialogue is servicable or paired done to nothing at all. And when the score – the only consistently good thing about the game – soars into the foreground with a wave of orchestral menace. In those rare instances, Heavy Rain shines, and for my money, it shines brightest during the Lizard Trial.
If you’ve not played Heavy Rain, well then, here be spoilers. If you have, you’ll know precisely the scene I’m talking about. Ethan Mars enters a run-down apartment block which looks like something from a David Fincher thriller (as so much in Heavy Rain does). He finds a couple of porcelain lizards in a hallway, smashes one, and finds a key inside which gives him access to a room at the end of a corridor. Once inside, he finds several sharp objects scattered about and a glowing tablet screen on a wooden table. When he activates the tablet, GLAdOS’s little sister tells him he has to cut off his little finger within a five minute time limit. Hilarity ensues.
Well, actually it doesn’t. The Lizard Trial, being a moment of pure gold in Heavy Rain, is five or so minutes of compelling brilliance in which everything comes together beautifully. Ethan’s desperate inner-monologue doesn’t sound hokey or forced for a change. The controls – which in so many instances get in the way of everything – actually compliment the action; beginning with the selection of whatever implement Ethan uses to sever his own finger, the player then needs to calm him down through breathing exercises and then tap the buttons manically to force him to place his finger on the table and bring the axe down on it. All the while, the score and merciless robotic voice issuing from the tablet ratchet up the tension in the scene to nail-shredding levels.
When Ethan slams the axe down, though, his screams don’t dissipate the atmosphere. They transform it into a palpable sense of rage and pain which shreds away at the player’s heartstrings. It’s very hard, watching Ethan writhing on the floor of the room, not to have a lump ball up in the back of one’s throat. The Lizard Trial may owe a debt of inspiration to the first Saw movie, but in the hands of Cage and his team, it’s transcends that movie franchise’s pechant for cheap gore and leering voyeurism. Instead it makes a very human connection between the player and a collection of pixels. And it does so, in a scene that leaves an impression on the player like a jackboot to the gut.