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.”