Even if you don't own a PlayStation 3, Heavy Rain is a game you should know because it re-imagines both videogames and movies, combining them into a new genre of Choose Your Own Adventure digital narrative. (Very minor spoilers ahead.)
This is not to say Heavy Rain is perfect, but think of this piece as less a review than a critical discussion of a new work. How about we start from the beginning?
Heavy Rain is by a French company named Quantic Dream. Unless you're a hardcore gamer, there's no way you've heard of them. Before Heavy Rain, they'd made a game that was so plagued by budgets and launch schedules that its narrative lost basic cohesion—yet Sony has most likely sunk millions of dollars (be it in indirect support) into Quantic Dream to create a unique, PlayStation-exclusive IP.
Why? There's no other development studio on the planet like them.
Quantic Dream creates a game that's equal parts video game and movie. And I don't mean that it's a game peppered with a few, slightly congruous extended cutscenes, like Metal Gear Solid 4 or any Square Enix RPG.
Heavy Rain, and its predecessor Indigo Prophecy (also known as Fahrenheit), are highly directed pieces of media, deploying fixed cameras to tell the story of a scene as your character walks through, nuanced motion capture to add realism to both jumping through windows and merely turning off a sink, and choices that stem from real actions and dialogue that will change the course of the story you see unfold.
What's this mean? If a person cries in Heavy Rain, you will most probably feel for them as you would any fictional character in any photographic media. These games aren't Grand Theft Auto, with humans filling the landscape as silly, bleeding sheep-like diversions. Heavy Rain's writing is melodramatic to say the least, but its basic presentation of character is on par with any well-directed drama.
Heavy Rain may chronicle a serial child murderer through the perspective of four characters—an overweight private eye, a young FBI agent, a sexy journalist and a depressed father—it may take you through high speed chases and fight sequences that rival any action flick—it may have all the twists of any good yarn—but it opens with a father waiting for his son to come home.
The father walks through his house, exploring his life, completing mundane tasks and thinking aloud at any time with the tap of a trigger button.
Much of Heavy Rain explores the mundane, some of which fills in backstory, other of which just puts you in the shows of another's life—like The Sims for someone 30 or over.
However, there is something to be learned in all this shaving and cooking. You're mastering button combinations, strange holds and releases and analog stick maneuvers that you'll need when things don't go so well for Dad and his family. To drink a carton of milk, for instance, you'll want to move the analog stick in the shape of a fishook...but slowly! Too fast and the realtime animation might make you spill on your face. Shaving works similarly.
Eventually, this same motion, coupled with a properly timed X or square button press could be the difference of life and death. And if your character dies during the course of the game, their story merely ends.
I know why Quantic Dream uses these quick time button mashing events. They want to make the gamer literally feel like they're really controlling a character. And no matter how coordinated you are, knowing you'll need to hit a random button at the right time is always stressful—allegedly mapping the stress your character feels in, say, ducking a swinging crowbar to your psyche as you press down on the controller.
And herein lies Heavy Rain's greatest flaw.
I want to choose whether or not my character shoots an innocent man for information. I'd like to decide the best way to hide a body without getting caught. And yeah, when and if I kiss the girl—that should be my call, too.
Knowing a scene can end so many ways to make a story branch so many ways feels like, well, it feels like something very important in the future of storytelling and gaming alike.
But when these decisions, my decisions, are impeded, not just by my gaming skill, but by the nature of the Dual Shock itself, it rips me from the story and reminds me that this is just another game filled with characters that aren't real.
A simple shake of the controller, that was the difference between life and death for two of my characters. I shook the controller, timing it just right. They both died.
Sure, that could be the end of their story—people die, and that's one potential outcome that I witnessed. But while I find the ability to affect choices interesting, if my gaming prowess is put to the test—even when that Dual Shock is working fine—I don't want my heroine to perish because I missed hitting X when prompted. I want her to perish because I stupidly told her to go into a deserted house where a murderer was waiting, or because I told her to fight the guy off with a banana instead of a meat clever.
It's a key question that future entities like Heavy Rain will need to answer better than they are now: How much of a story's outcome is based on the story, and how much is based upon player skill? But I have the distinct feeling—as intense as it is to jiggle an analog stick to unhook a bra clasp—we'll realize that watching two people make whoopie is a lot more exciting than making a lame minigame out of it.
And just as we have for millennia, we'll watch a story unfold in front of us, passively, just with a bit more choice and replay value.
If titles like Heavy Rain show us anything, it's that, yes, technology is unlocking new ways to tell a story. While most video games focus on a very linear plot, modeling themselves after movies and theater, they have the great potential to allow the audience to explore parts of a story that could have happened, altering fiction to better emulate real life and challenging the construct of a story as we know it—all well allowing the viewer to feel like they're somehow involved beyond mere spectating. Fiction evolves from a series of events to a series of choices, much like life.
All my critiquing aside, you should absolutely play Heavy Rain. The PlayStation 3 title, available now, blurs the boundaries of media, offers an extremely entertaining 10 hours (or more if you replay chapters for different outcomes) and, for just a few moments over the course of the game, renders characters that are spitting images for real people. (And the rest of the time, the game still looks damn good.)
Oh, and one of the characters has these virtual reality glasses that are really cool.