A video game can encompass a multitude of experiences, transforming gamers into the heroes of intergalactic wars or the saviors of underwater civilizations. While the settings and scenarios may be different, most titles use similar gameplay vocabularies to immerse and entertain us. Concepts like shooting the bad guys, leveling up your character, and acquiring new items are so pervasive that they have been inextricably woven into most players’ definition of what it means to be a video game. Heavy Rain forces you to reconsider that definition. It is barely a game in the popular sense of the word, but Quantic Dream’s masterpiece makes groundbreaking strides in storytelling and character development, demonstrating that interactive entertainment still has a deep well of untapped potential.
Heavy Rain is a game about choice – but not the kind of black-and-white moral decisions upon which games typically rely. It’s about choices that send ripples through the entire experience, changing what you see and coloring your perception of the characters. On a basic level, you watch the mystery of the Origami Killer unfold. Beyond that, how the plot and characters develop is up to you. Fight or flee? Surrender or suffer? Kill or be killed? Your decisions aren’t just brief forks in the road before the paths re-converge. Two players could follow unique arcs through the story, see different characters live and die, and come away with an entirely different idea of what happened and why.
Playing out like the chapters of a book, your control alternates between four protagonists, each gathering clues and driven by their own agenda. The order you play the characters and the direction of their stories vary depending on how you interact with the world during freeform exploration and context-sensitive button presses and motions, which comprise the entirety of what Heavy Rain offers in terms of traditional gameplay. Simply pressing a button may not sound compelling at first, but when your character’s finger in on the trigger, or when a child’s life rests in your hands, that single motion is just as intense as any boss fight. When you can read the conflict and pain right on the characters’ expressions (thanks to the game’s amazing facial models), the choices are even more powerful. During one particularly rough sequence, I was literally cringing as I pressed down, forced to decide between two equally reprehensible options.
While these harrowing decisions give the story its edge, the quiet and subtle moments are just as integral to shaping your vision of the characters. Allowing the dad to lose a toy sword fight with his son, deciding what the insomniac journalist does at two in the morning, or making the gruff private investigator close his desk drawer without taking a swig of whiskey – these are the incidental events that slowly uncover complex emotions like trust, grief, and love. The characters are defined through these casual choices, building a foundation to work from when you’re faced with dictating their actions in the high-stakes scenarios.
Your little choices and big ones fuse in a single, seamless narrative. No matter how you perform during the timed button presses, the story goes on, and the chapters flow from one to the other so brilliantly that you’ll have trouble imagining how things could have happened any other way. I strongly recommend you avoid the temptation to replay chapters if things don’t go as you hope; there is no success or failure, and by retrying until you “win,” all you’ll end up with is a more disjointed view of the events.
Not all of the stumbling blocks in Heavy Rain’s story spring from replaying chapters. While the plot is remarkably cohesive given the game’s ambitions, cracks appear in a few areas. One seemingly major thread is unceremoniously dropped about halfway through, and several of the side characters feel more like stock archetypes than believable people. The voice acting can be tough to bear at times, too – especially when no one can consistently pronounce “origami.” But for every instance where the game’s composition falters, there are dozens where it gracefully glides on uninterrupted.
Taking the right lessons away from its previous title, Indigo Prophecy, developer Quantic Dream has shorn away most traditional video game trappings from Heavy Rain. What remains is an innovative journey through an engrossing and well-paced mystery. You’re given just enough gameplay to forge a connection to the world and its characters, but not so much that it interferes with the game’s cinematic sensibilities. Heavy Rain is a truly pioneering title, and hopefully the vanguard for a new genre of interactive narratives.