It’s rare that a game doesn’t fit neatly into a genre these days. First person shooters. Real time strategy. Beat ’em ups. You know what I mean. But Heavy Rain is, at least in my experience, pretty much a one off. A sort of interactive noir psycho-murder thriller, relatively light on the interaction in some ways, but heavy on plot, tension and drama. Perhaps to some degree it’s the inheritor of that old point-and-click tradition, but the quality of characterisation and atmosphere, along with peculiarities of its gameplay (particularly that you never save, you just have to go wherever your decisions and mistakes take you), make it unlike anything I’ve ever played. Whether it will prove to be an influential milestone or a curious dead-end remains to be seen. Perhaps a bit of both, but I actually really enjoyed the experience.
So, the origami killer is drowning little boys in a rain drenched unidentified US city and you, in the four guises of a bereaved father, dishevelled PI, addict FBI profiler, and spunky journalist, must bring him to book before he kills again. Simple. Actual gameplay is achieved by wandering around various meticulously detailed locations and performing tasks using combinations of timed motions and button presses. Which is a little tedious to begin with as you struggle to brush your teeth, wee, and perform other household chores, but soon becomes quite mesmeric, and eventually as you survey crime scenes, battle hoodlums, and struggle with windows in burning buildings, really quite tense. The level of detail on the characters, not necessarily in pure graphics but in the tics of voice and motion, and the way in which you’re involved with quite banal aspects of their lives makes for strangely compelling gameplay. Or perhaps viewing, since it feels more like a film than a game at times. You feel like you know these people and as a result you root for them, fear for them.
Much has been said of the game’s supposed fluidity – that it will take radically different courses depending on your choices, no two games alike and etc. It’s something I’ve heard a lot before about various games, and have to say I’ve nearly always been disappointed in that regard. I can’t really speak to how meaningful that is in Heavy Rain, since I’ve only played it through the once, by all accounts the variations are reasonably limited for most of the plot, then get pretty intense. Central characters can die and there’s a huge range of endings. Whether characters would have survived however good my button mashing was, I don’t know, but certainly the sense the game created that there was real jeopardy was powerful. A truly new experience to realise that you can’t just nip back to your save game and get it right second time round. A couple of times, as I held a gun on one person or another, the option to press the R1 button vibrating beside my itchy trigger finger, I really wasn’t sure what to do, and that has to be a good thing. It’s a reasonably short game – took me about fifteen hours to run through, I think – but the level of drama is hard to match.
Now certainly it’s not perfect. The early sections dragged a little. The button pressing doesn’t always really match what’s going on in any particularly intuitive way, and the six-axis stuff (where you shake the controller itself around in the manner of a wii remote) is pretty ropey on PS3. Sometimes while plodding about the locations looking for the next clue or cupboard to open you’d become intensely aware the options were actually painfully limited. The faces were good on the whole, but not quite up to, say, Uncharted 2 standards. The mouths especially were odd, occasionally at times of high emotion I felt like I was watching one of those comedy sketches where an impressionist’s mouth is keyed amusingly over a photo. Some scenes were a little incongruous – a sudden lurid shoot-out when up to that point things had all been admirably understated grated in particular. And love seemed to blossom out of pretty much nowhere. Hello, let me bind your wound, I love you. But in general the plotting and characterisation was admirably convincing. It felt like a mature game, not just ’cause it had, you know, blood and boobs, but because the dialogue, the themes, the plotting, were grown up. Were realistic. When it all came together, accompanied by a brilliant score, it had some seriously good moments, and overall you’ve got to applaud the adventure, guts, and innovation of the developers. Because there aren’t anywhere near enough unique games out there.