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

Anyone else wonder why they chose to name a very important character such a recognizable name. I am sure it was an accident since the game was in development for so long.

I definately had a double take though.... wait a minute...the boys name is what?

TheCounselor wrote:
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?

Hah, that was Hobbes! Sorry for mis-quoting you, was quoting two different posts and something went terribly wrong.

Hobbes2099 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.

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.

Yes, it really feels like choices have consequences in a way no other game has really made me feel (I don't know how much of that is an illusion and I don't want to know) and along with the sense of connection to the characters, makes it a very engaging experience. I made one split second choice and felt a deep regret, a "what did I do?" feeling that felt very visceral. I really, really dig what this game is doing.

This game seems like a natural fit for a Natal type interface. I could see myself playing controller free with this type of game much more than a driving or shooting game.

Note about that voice acting,

It's probable they didn't have the budget to hire good voice acting for every language they likely released in.. English, French, Italian, German, Spanish (EFIGS), Japanese, and Chinese.

The best voice acting is likely in the French version, Quantic being in France.

Which is a mistake when you compare the potential audience for the french version (France, Quebec) to the audience for the english version (US, Canada, UK, Ireland, english-speakers worldwide).

I find that Heavy Rain was thoroughly engrossing during my play-through (uncanny animation, damage /red border, and how awkwardly I could puppeteer my character to behave aside). Unfortunately it is diminished in hindsight. Rabbit points out how serviceable (but only serviceable) the story is, and I have to agree. Worse, the game flat out lies to you as a player. I understand that it's in service to a reveal later in the game:

Spoiler:

in the antique store control of Scott is never taken away from the player, but later in the game he is shown reflecting on what happened, with a very significant difference in events to what actually happened

But come on - there's gotta be a better way to not show you hand than fudging the books? Sleight of hand, maybe?

Also, on the cinematography front: I agree that the framing of shots was really very well done. But after Wall-e i admit to having a higher watermark for CG cinematography than what was achieved here. Notably, in Wall-e Pixar studied film cameras, and lenses in particular, and grounded their CG future in reality by incorporating accurate lens distortion. The huge difference this makes is that it implies that the film technology exists in the movie's world, and thus that the film viewer exists in that same world. I wish Heavy Rain had done this. It would have removed just one more layer of artificiality.

I Finished the game on Saturday and loved every minute of it. It reminded of the choose your own adventure books I used to read as a kid. I am looking forward to playing it again to see how different the story plays out with the different choices that I'll pick.

Did anyone get this ending? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw-hH...

I looked up some alternate endings on the youtubes and this one blew my mind.

Dysplastic wrote:

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.

I know what it's trying to do, but the fact that it frustrates me snaps me out of my suspension of disbelief and I suddenly become aware that it's a game. That is the precise opposite of immersion, which is why it's bad game design.

I could deal with it if it was because I accidentally pressed the wrong button due to hand-shaking nerves, or because there was something in the game that said "press a button NOW or you will die" (so that the consequences of not pressing a button overwhelm the consequences of pressing the wrong button). But this is the developers presenting me with options and deliberately obscuring my ability to choose the one I want. In that situation, they might as well replace all the options with question marks.

I agree with Dysplastic, it has the opposite effect on me from what Floomi is describing.

Mack wrote:

Worse, the game flat out lies to you as a player.

Unreliable narrators are well known in literature and cinema, I don't see why it's so wrong to use one in a game. Besides, for the observant player there are plenty of hints along the way that something isn't quite right. For some reason spoiler tags don't appear to be working for me, so I'll omit what I was going to write there.

For me the difference is that, as a player, I am expected to inhabit these four characters. To use that other 'I' word: immersion is the goal. Internalization of the characters plight. For all intents and purposes, the player is the narrator, driving the story forward. I didn't lie to myself while playing; the game re-wrote my story. That's what bugged me.

There are definately plotting flaws, but unreliable narrator isn't a flaw in and of itself. See: Biosh
ock.

Julian, I thought that you brilliantly summed up the growing weight of fatherhood as you walked away from the hospital. I'm not a father, yet I found it to be intense and affecting, and thought it felt really... true?

Which I think I can use to illustrate my biggest gripe with Heavy Rain. Due to the sloppy writing and poor voice-acting, the game required too much work from me in order to get emotionally involved.

The gaping plot holes required that I utterly suspend disbelief. Not a little bit, but, like, permanently. Possibly worse, the writing was generally of such a low caliber that I had use my imagination and my own language to re-draw the scenes in my mind if I wanted to be invested at all in these characters and their story.

In general, if I'm on board with an experience, I'm happy to put in the mental energy to take a game/movie/tv show that extra 30% from "I see what they're going for" to "I am emotionally engaged." But the dialogue and performances in Heavy Rain were so stilted and strange that I eventually grew exhausted, and by the end, was out of gas and totally disconnected from a game that could have been just as remarkable and affecting as the story you told here.

Mack wrote:

For me the difference is that, as a player, I am expected to inhabit these four characters. To use that other 'I' word: immersion is the goal. Internalization of the characters plight. For all intents and purposes, the player is the narrator, driving the story forward. I didn't lie to myself while playing; the game re-wrote my story. That's what bugged me.

I would debate that, but then again, I also agree wholeheartedly with Elysium's earlier article "Identification, Please". "I" am not Scott Shelby, Madison Page, Ethan Mars, or Norman Jayden. They are merely my avatars through which I explore the game's world. It's not surprising that they may know or see things that aren't relayed to me accurately.

I think I come across as more negative here than I intend to. The game was fantastic; I was just left with a weird felling after it was done, like it was less than the sum of it's (admittedly fantastic) parts.

Mack wrote:

I think I come across as more negative here than I intend to. The game was fantastic; I was just left with a weird felling after it was done, like it was less than the sum of it's (admittedly fantastic) parts.

If possible try watching your friends play through who haven't played it before, and see how you react. I find myself much more distanced from the story, but am still entertained by seeing how my friends respond to it, and the choices they make.

rabbit wrote:

In my right hand I hold a 10-pound baby.

Hoorah for the 10 pound club!

McChuck wrote:
rabbit wrote:

In my right hand I hold a 10-pound baby.

Hoorah for the 10 pound club!

At least I only had to carry her!

Is this a club for heavy babies, or a particularly hefty blunt weapon?

wordsmythe wrote:

Is this a club for heavy babies, or a particularly hefty blunt weapon?

Same thing.

This will be the game that makes me buy a ps3.
btw, does anyone remember Omikron?

rabbit wrote:
McChuck wrote:
rabbit wrote:

In my right hand I hold a 10-pound baby.

Hoorah for the 10 pound club!

At least I only had to carry her!

I had half a heart attack when I read that in the article. "You're carrying a newborn? Use Two Hands!!!" I was relieved when you clarified she was in her carseat.

Bullion Cube wrote:
rabbit wrote:
McChuck wrote:
rabbit wrote:

In my right hand I hold a 10-pound baby.

Hoorah for the 10 pound club!

At least I only had to carry her!

I had half a heart attack when I read that in the article. "You're carrying a newborn? Use Two Hands!!!" I was relieved when you clarified she was in her carseat. :-)

That's silly. You hold them by one leg, so they can get extra blood flowing to their developing brains.

wordsmythe wrote:
Bullion Cube wrote:
rabbit wrote:
McChuck wrote:
rabbit wrote:

In my right hand I hold a 10-pound baby.

Hoorah for the 10 pound club!

At least I only had to carry her!

I had half a heart attack when I read that in the article. "You're carrying a newborn? Use Two Hands!!!" I was relieved when you clarified she was in her carseat. :-)

That's silly. You hold them by one leg, so they can get extra blood flowing to their developing brains.

And preferably by the ankle when dipping them in the river Styx.

My wife and I finally found a couple of hours when we were home together to finish the game. I'd waited to read this article until after.

I agree whole-heartedly on numbers 2 and 3, but if we were sitting in a pub having a beer and having this conversation when you said what you wrote in number 1 I would have spit out my beer and said "Are you HIGH?"

While I can appreciate their attempts with the vibrating choices, etc. there were just way way WAY too many instances in which I couldn't make an informed decision because I had no idea what an action would do, or because my avatar had to be in an area about one mm wide to actually allow me to pick up the papers/open the drawer, etc. So I ended up being torn out of the game because I was unable to function, and could not participate in what was happening around me.

And while I can see the argument that the effects of the interface added to the tension of the game at times, the horrible movement and "pick and hope" actions weren't part of that — they were failures of design.

A simple one-word explanation under each gesture choice might have helped. "Kick" or "Wash" or "Rescue" or "Sit." The number of times I ended up leaning against some wall, when I thought I was going to be picking up a nearby book or something drove me nuts.

I'm really enthusiastic about the direction this game was going, and they did a lot of things well, but the interface was not one of them. It could be a good first step forward, but it failed on too many levels to be a success.

And here I'd drink the rest of my beer.

What's fascinating is that when I describe Heavy Rain to my game dev coworkers, it sounds like the worst thing ever:

  • The entire game is "quicktime events."
  • You use stick movements for many things, e.g. to open doors.
  • You use R2 to walk forward and L to move your direction.
  • The button icons have no color and they jitter when you're stressed so it's really hard to tell circle from square.
  • You sometimes have to press and hold multiple controller buttons - up to five simultaneously!
  • Button presses are often attached to limbs, so you have to follow moving limbs to determine your next button press.

And yet somehow as a whole it works.

Maybe you're talking to the wrong type of game devs, Yew. We're talking about a game that intentionally messes with "best practices" for interface design. Seems missing the mark to critique the interface there.

I completed the game last night, waited until I did so before I read the post and the thread.

What a fantastic game. I have often wondered whether you could make a game like a thriller movie - all "adventure game" tropes, but without mood-breaking item puzzles. Heavy Rain did it for me. It really is the often-speculated, dreaded and derided "interactive movie", and pulls it off with panache.

My wife completed the game before I did and when we were comparing notes, I was blown away by how much our stories differed. I figure I got the "good ending", albeit the killer got away and some less important characters died. My wife's version's tone was quite different and the ending completely different. One of her lead characters had died early on and the developers were apparently willing to sacrifice a lot of content to make the story adapt to that quite drastic change to the "baseline" scenario.

For me, the bar has been raised for good. This is the first time I've actually bought into character drama in a game - I was totally under their skin. And as has been said here already, actually playing the characters made the quite barebones, Hollywood 101 scenario so much better.

I think I'll play through again, seeing that I'm still missing 60% of Trophies. Even if I didn't, it would've been easily worth the full price I paid for it. I'm just worried that we won't get anything on this level of storytelling until Quantic Dream's next game.