“How far will you go to save someone you love?” is the tagline, but the question Heavy Rain really asks is “what is a game, exactly, and how far can you push it before it becomes something else?” While all developers tackle this question to a certain extent, reshaping the concept in the act of creating an individual specimen, few have posed it as explicitly and doggedly as David Cage and Quantic Dream.
1999′s Omikron: Nomad Soul turned its own player into a character, building the interactive process into its fiction. 2005′s Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, as North Americans and Canadians will know it) took a different tack, uniting lengthy scripted sequences and a heavy commitment to cinematic technique with a controlled, context dependent model of play. Both games contribute to the make-up of Heavy Rain, but it’s the latter and more controversial path, the path of the “interactive drama” as one of the game’s Trophies puts it, that the French studio’s third, fascinating project sets foot on.
Some have welcomed Quantic’s quarrying of the borderland between film and video game. Others have decried it as a capitulation to older, more entrenched, more “respectable” forms of expression. In crafting Heavy Rain, declare the nay-sayers, Cage has simply allied himself with the insecure nerd kid who pretends he enjoys football because all the bigger, older boys with hot girlfriends are into it. And in doing so, we’re told, he has relegated gaming to the cultural status of poor cousin. Lacking its rival’s fecund stockpile of stories and storytelling devices, hobbled by technical constraints and chronically short of real writers, the interactive entertainment industry cannot hope to surpass cinema on its own turf.
These critics are right, and they’re wrong. Heavy Rain would make a fairly forgettable film, the stuff of late night cable television, a hodgepodge of pseudo-psychology, highly strung orchestras and thinly justified voyeurism. Its tropes are immediately recognisable, if skillfully deployed. Hard-boiled cops. Soft-focus, shampoo commercial shower scenes. Seedy ethnicities. Over-cooked motives. Some convincing performances. The expected unexpected twist. It wouldn’t have been terrible, but it would have been terribly average, a watery reflection of the Fincher crime thrillers from whom Quantic leeches a plot and cast.
But Heavy Rain isn’t a film, or even a game trying to be a film. It’s proof of just how compellingly a game can use film, of how gripping a warmed-over scenario or humdrum script can become in the hands of a skilled design team. It filches ideas from cinema, doubtless – what big budget character-driven release doesn’t? – but it’s because it’s a game, in the final analysis, that it’s marvelous.
The plot brings together four characters in the hunt for a Zodiac-esque serial killer who drowns his infant victims in rainwater: Madison Paige, photojournalist and voluptuous insomniac; Scott Shelby, a paunchy private eye with asthma; Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler and recovering addict; and Ethan Mars, an architect haunted by the death of one of his sons. The 10 hour multiple-ending campaign distributes chapters even-handedly between the four, but Ethan soon emerges as the lynchpin. Not long after the intro his remaining son is abducted by the killer, leaving the cast with only a few days (as per the latter’s modus operandi) to effect a rescue.