Heavy Rain

The hospital door shuts behind me with an Enterprise “shoosh,” and I am standing in the December cold. I am 32 years old. My wife, still weak from 3 days of labor and 2 days of recovery, hangs on my left arm. In my right hand I hold a 10-pound baby girl, strapped in to an infant carrier, covered in layers of pink fleece. The parking lot is 40 feet away.

With the first step, I realize my life will really never be the same. By the 10th step, I feel the loss of the hospital: an invaluable safety net of professionals who actually know how to take care of an infant.

At the end of the 40 feet, I realize that I am utterly capable of murder.

As I look down into the confused, defocused eyes of Jen Murdoch, aged 2 days, I realize that if a mugger walks up to me in that parking lot, I would, without hesitation or remorse, beat him to death.

I am Julian. I am a father. I would do anything – without hesitation – to protect the 10 pounds of meconium and emerging sentience sleeping in the baby carrier in my right hand. Thankfully, I have never been tested.

Heavy Rain is, ultimately, about this: testing the resolve of parentage. That makes it a difficult game to play, as a parent, as many pundits and reviewers have pointed out. But it is an important game nonetheless.

That developer QuanticDream chose such a charged topic as the core device for the game’s story doesn’t surprise me. Stories told in broad strokes lend themselves to experimentation in other areas. There’s little in the plot, writing or acting of the game to set it above any reasonably good thriller coming out of Hollywood or off the pen of an airport novelist. Wrestling with the potential loss of loved ones, tracking down serial killers, following hard-boiled private eyes and investigating crime scenes are commonplace tropes of prime time TV and Hollywood blockbusters, but such tropes are uncommon in game plots, which tend toward fantasy and scifi. And where the game shows warts, it’s almost entirely in the plotting, writing and acting.

But all that’s really just the canvas on which Heavy Rain experiments, and it’s in the experimentation that Heavy Rain rises above “moving” and into the world of “important.” Important’s a big word, and one that has little to do with “good” or “bad.” To me, “important” means “games developed by people after this can’t help but be informed by the experience.” I see Heavy Rain as important in three key areas.

1: Interface Design. Unlike virtually every game made on modern consoles, Heavy Rain presents no fixed interface whatsoever. Every button press is contextual. More than that, however, the display and effects of that interface are woven into the emotional state of the protagonists and the context of the scene. When faced with difficult decisions (Run? Fight?) the easy, comfortable choice is rendered cleanly, the more panic-ridden choice is likely to be dimmer, wavering, and in the background.

These implementations are tremendously subtle, and masterfully done. Far beyond the simple “button hovers over boss” quick-time events common in series like God of War, the contextual cues contain meaning in their presentation each and every time they appear.

Even more impressive, the interface is uncompromisingly minimal. There is no inventory, no map, no health, no stamina. There are no artificial overlays of any kind. Instead, information about the characters is delivered the way it is delivered in film, and frankly, in real life: Wounds bleed. Stressed-out characters stammer. Tired runners falter.

2: Cinematography. Heavy Rain borrows from the metalanguage of film camerawork unabashedly. It also does it brilliantly. Where Left 4 Dead broke ground in making games feel like a B Movie, down to color palette shifts, focus and lighting, Heavy Rain takes this a step further, relying on every trick in the book, from dolly zooms to establishing crane-shots. THe game does it well enough that it never feels like it’s trying too hard, it just is. It is not imitating film, it’s simply using decades of learning, just like a good writer learns from everything he reads.

3: Animation. While the voice acting and writing are spotty, the character animations are consistently brilliant. The gross animations – characters running, fight scenes, jumping – are good, but the close up work is simply the best I’ve ever seen, rivaling the best CGI character animations on film.

It’s not simply that the faces of the characters are well rendered. I’ll admit to having more than a few uncanny-valley moments no matter how well the character’s skin is textured or hair is modeled. Rather, it’s the subtleties of performance that are really revolutionary. Even in non-scripted sequences – when a character is perhaps investigating a room, or simply sitting on the couch, wondering what to do next – subtle facial cues, nervous tics and eye movements convey volumes about their emotional state.

A year from now, when the initial bloom is off the rose of this game, and we poke holes at its flaws, I believe designers will look back at these three things and say, “Those were craftsman at the top of their game.”

Comments

Just to add a touch to your discussion of the interface and character stress, when dialogue options are causing the stress, it can be hard to tell, for example, the Square button from the Circle button, possibly making your character blurt out exactly the wrong thing. I find that brilliant.

I just finished this about 5 minutes ago. I really enjoyed it. You are spot on in your article Rabbit, I will say though that while the animations are great on the leads and major players whenever I was in a crowd or surrounded by strangers I found their animations to be pretty bad. The quality difference when next to the main character was pretty jarring at times.

The best example I can give of this without spoiling is the scene where you play as Madison in the hospital. In the main corridor is a nurse who looks good but moves like a weirdo robot.

I totally agree. For all its flaws, Heavy Rain is undoubtedly an experiment, and experiments are always at least interesting. I'd rather play a flawed experiment of a game than the latest space marine shooter.

SpacePPoliceman wrote:

Just to add a touch to your discussion of the interface and character stress, when dialogue options are causing the stress, it can be hard to tell, for example, the Square button from the Circle button, possibly making your character blurt out exactly the wrong thing. I find that brilliant.

It's especially brilliant when combined with the lack of fail states, and the emotional connection that the game creates with the characters. I had a couple of moments when I had the character say the wrong thing, and it stuck with me long after I stopped playing. In many ways, it's the same as when I say the wrong thing in the heat of the moment, and replay the event in my mind in the days and weeks after.

TheCounselor wrote:

I had a couple of moments when I had the character say the wrong thing, and it stuck with me long after I stopped playing. In many ways, it's the same as when I say the wrong thing in the heat of the moment, and replay the event in my mind in the days and weeks after.

It particularly stands out in an early scene:

Spoiler:

Ethan in the police station after Shaun's disappearance. They ask what time he disappeared, and I couldn't say for sure. They ask about the clothes he was wearing, and I could only say for sure is he had a beige coat. My missing of those details really emphasized the sense that I hadn't been alert enough, and brought me into Ethan's mindset, that lingering sense that I wasn't paying attention.

I truly thought this was a brilliant game but ultimately the revival of "adventure" games for the Halo crowd, really.

I mean this game doesn't do anything too new; it plays like Dragon's Lair and adventure games combined.

But, I think the graphics bring it to the current gen and the choices you make (actually pulling the trigger on a gun has WAY more emotional and impact than any Call of Duty where you just kill mindlessly).

I loved it.

What all these things combine to do, and what really presents Heavy Rain's greatest success as a game, is really put you in the skin of the characters you are controlling. A lot of people say that they'd prefer to watch the game rather than play it, and they could not be more wrong. The brilliance of this game is the connection you feel to the characters as you go through some of the gruelling things they have to do, especially the father, Ethan. The interactivity of the experience creates emotional responses far and away above anything you'd get by watching Seven.

Dysplastic wrote:

What all these things combine to do, and what really presents Heavy Rain's greatest success as a game, is really put you in the skin of the characters you are controlling.

Agreed.

I always made fun of cliched thriller/horror movie tropes (much like we all do).

However,

Spoiler:

When Madison was strapped to the crazy doc's surgical table in the basement and moments away from death I found myself falling into the exact same behavioral patterns that I made fun of on the big screen.

She's tied to the table both hand and foot. All I can do is flail while I impotently struggle against the ropes and scream in a fevered panic. It's all I got.

That's when it struck me. In a real-life situation, would I really do anything differently? The game actually made me feel like a suffocating panic was bearing down on me. Yet all I could think to do in those torturous moments before "real" QTE options started popping up was struggle and scream to no avail. If there was a button prompt to crap my pants I likely would have pressed it too 'cause that's exactly how I felt in that moment.

I'll no longer be making fun of movies that show the victim pointlessly struggling while secured by an assailant. I "lived" the experience.

It totally dropped me into the character unlike I'd ever experienced before in gaming. And imo, it exemplifies the brilliance of Quantic Dream's imaginative sets and deliberate pacing.

All of the above, but especially this:

Even in non-scripted sequences – when a character is perhaps investigating a room, or simply sitting on the couch, wondering what to do next – subtle facial cues, nervous tics and eye movements convey volumes about their emotional state.

I've only played the demo so far. The full game should be in the mail today, but while playing the demo, my wife stopped whatever it was she was doing, and just watched the game, like it was a movie. She's an animator by training, so the one time she blurted something out during the course of events was to compliment the game on its use of 'business' - having the characters and background moving realistically when they're not the focus of events (scratching, flowing coats, whatever).

I did three double takes before realizing I hand't posted in my sleep, it seems someone has "borrowed" my avatar... :OLD:

I've only played the demo but look forward to immersing myself fully this weekend.

This week's podcast sealed the deal when Sean (or Shawn) and Rabbit sat down with the wives and enjoyed an interactive movie. It's an activity of late, my wife and I enjoy.

Hobbes2099 wrote:

This week's podcast sealed the deal when Sean (or Shawn) and Rabbit sat down with the wives and enjoyed an interactive movie. It's an activity of late, my wife and I enjoy.

I think ... I think you just called Demiurge Rabbit's wife.

Brennil wrote:

I think ... I think you just called Demiurge Rabbit's wife.

If the shoe fits and it's legal in your place of residence...

I knew the game was working when I was simulating a bored guy being bored and I was enthralled.

I think ... I think you just called Demiurge Rabbit's wife.

Only one of those two people will be worried about that.

Brennil wrote:
Hobbes2099 wrote:

This week's podcast sealed the deal when Sean (or Shawn) and Rabbit sat down with the wives and enjoyed an interactive movie. It's an activity of late, my wife and I enjoy.

I think ... I think you just called Demiurge Rabbit's wife.

Cory's a lucky gal.

Were I a well qualified judge of character, I would only convict rabbit of manslaughter.

Hobbes2099 wrote:

seems someone has "borrowed" my avatar... :OLD:

Seems there is more than one Calvin and Hobbes fan here. But, I've gone ahead and changed mine.

I haven't played the game yet, so I'm certainly not in a position to dispute whether the game itself is as good as is being purported here. My eyebrows do raise a bit when we talk about the game being "important", though, especially during the following passage in the article:

The Article wrote:

Even more impressive, the interface is uncompromisingly minimal. There is no inventory, no map, no health, no stamina. There are no artificial overlays of any kind. Instead, information about the characters is delivered the way it is delivered in film, and frankly, in real life: Wounds bleed. Stressed-out characters stammer. Tired runners falter.

2: Cinematography. Heavy Rain borrows from the metalanguage of film camerawork unabashedly. It also does it brilliantly. Where Left 4 Dead broke ground in making games feel like a B Movie, down to color palette shifts, focus and lighting, Heavy Rain takes this a step further, relying on every trick in the book, from dolly zooms to establishing crane-shots. THe game does it well enough that it never feels like it’s trying too hard, it just is. It is not imitating film, it’s simply using decades of learning, just like a good writer learns from everything he reads.

Both of these factors are essentially standards in the survival horror genre and have been as such for quite a while now. For those who haven't played the game yet, could somebody explain how Heavy Rain goes beyond what games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have already done in these particular aspects? Is it just the sheer level of detail involved in their execution?

Careful Hobbes, you raise too much of a ruckus and your avatar will become the next rubiks-bra monkey Pederson craze.

OzymandiasAV wrote:

Both of these factors are essentially standards in the survival horror genre and have been as such for quite a while now. For those who haven't played the game yet, could somebody explain how Heavy Rain goes beyond what games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have already done in these particular aspects? Is it just the sheer level of detail involved in their execution?

Tough to say. I would personally say that I haven't played Silent Hill because it's too scary But as for the early Resident Evils - while they do do excellent camerawork and have a minimal interface, none of that really complements the narrative (which is pretty light) or the emotions of the characters to the extent that Heavy Rain does. It's really the Synergy (barf!) between all those aspects that really make it stand out.
From what I've seen, Silent Hill does a better job than Resident Evil, but again - to scary to be accessible

First of all, brilliant article, Rabbit. Absolutely perfect.

I'd like to see all those ideas make their way into other games but I've been burned by Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy. I loved the first few scenes so much, and replayed them so many different ways, that I honestly don't care about how poorly the game ended. And it seems like the only game that's tried anything remotely similar in the next five years was, no surprise, this one. So do I have to wait another 5 years before the next iteration of this idea?

wordsmythe wrote:

Cory's a lucky gal.

You have seen her dance, right? Lose the beard and you've got yourself a catch!

OzymandiasAV wrote:

Both of these factors are essentially standards in the survival horror genre and have been as such for quite a while now. For those who haven't played the game yet, could somebody explain how Heavy Rain goes beyond what games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have already done in these particular aspects? Is it just the sheer level of detail involved in their execution?

First off is the interface: Even games like Silent Hill where they intentionally minimize the interface don't come close to what this one is doing in that regard. Silent Hill had elements like the radio and the controller rumble for your health, but you still spent a lot of time bouncing into the inventory menu to manage and combine items. Same with Resident Evil. Heavy Rain is aggressively minimalist in this regard - there is nothing in the entire game that you can't accomplish with a single button press or gesture and without leaving the main play screen.

As for the camerawork and cinematography, Heavy Rain moves away from the more mechanical camerawork you see in the Resident Evil/Silent Hill games and goes far more towards expressionism (more Hitchcock than Murnau, but then that's appropriate for a crime story) than I have seen a game do before. It will use constant movement, long lenses and dutch angles when your character is stressed, for example, and then augment that with your interface going nuts to produce a whole presentation that is very affecting.

I'm not sure they got rid of artificial overlays altogether. In the

Spoiler:

butterfly trial, if you get zapped by the wires, your screen's perimeter becomes bloody red. I found it ominous and effective at ratcheting up the tension, but it was a kind of artificial "game" indicator.

AcidCat wrote:
TheCounselor wrote:

It's an activity of late, my wife and I enjoy.

Same here, my wife won't let me play unless she's there to watch.

Wait, when did I say that? Better yet, when did I get married? I don't even drink.

Also, am I the only one who read that and thought your said your late wife?

Heavy Rain certainly isn't the first game to use good camera work, and you're right, Survival Horror lead the way here. But honestly, it's the difference between great film school projects and Scorsese.

rabbit wrote:

Heavy Rain certainly isn't the first game to use good camera work, and you're right, Survival Horror lead the way here. But honestly, it's the difference between great film school projects and Scorsese.

Which one is Heavy Rain supposed to be? (Heyooooh!)

SpacePPoliceman wrote:

Just to add a touch to your discussion of the interface and character stress, when dialogue options are causing the stress, it can be hard to tell, for example, the Square button from the Circle button, possibly making your character blurt out exactly the wrong thing. I find that brilliant.

I never thought of it like that, but even seeing it from that perspective, I still find it utterly rubbish. I'm given four choices, and I want to pick one of them, but it doesn't adequately let me know how. This just smacks of poor interface design, and far from drawing me into the experience, it immediately pulls me back to real life and makes me start swearing at how it's a (bad, in that respect) game.

Floomi wrote:

I never thought of it like that, but even seeing it from that perspective, I still find it utterly rubbish. I'm given four choices, and I want to pick one of them, but it doesn't adequately let me know how. This just smacks of poor interface design, and far from drawing me into the experience, it immediately pulls me back to real life and makes me start swearing at how it's a (bad, in that respect) game.

It's trying to reflect the reality that in a tense situation, you won't always be calmly analyzing all possible options and picking the most rational one - sometimes you just blurt out what's comes easiest. Its not bad game design, its phenomenal game design, as it is actively trying to remove you from the calm, comfy and calculating position on your couch and into the mind of your character. That's immersion, baby.