Heavy Rain is the type of game that we claim to want more of: story-driven, high-concept, and emotionally affecting. We have played a lengthy demo for a preview, and have the final copy in our office right now, but have yet to tackle the final code as we approach the title's release on February 23. What we know about the game however, from interviews and our own hands-on time, leads us to believe that the title has a very rough time ahead of it both critically and at retail.
In many ways, Heavy Rain seems nearly designed to fail. It's also one of the games Sony is going to be able to point to for a long time as evidence of the company's bravery in supporting new and unique intellectual property. Will boutique appeal be enough of a return on investment, however?
This is unexplored emotional territory
Gaming is used to taking complex ideas and boiling them down to something simple. The Divine Comedy has been made into a God of War clone, after all. Mass Effect 2 dealt with some serious issues, granted, but it did that by sandwiching them between action-heavy shooting sequences. You had to think about the reproductive rights of an entire species, but you also knew you were just a few minutes away from blowing something up.
Heavy Rain deals with parenthood, and the tragedies that keep parents up at night. In one heartbreaking scene, you sit next to your son and hope he says something to you. A schedule for his visit is pasted on the wall. Look at this scene in a certain way, and nothing happens. From another perspective, this is one of the most mature moments in modern gaming. The question is, do gamers want real maturity?
As gamers, we play to escape. We like being the good guy, and when we aren't, we like being able to go over the top in our badness. Morality is a binary choice in gaming: do we rescue or harvest the Little Sisters? Gaming hasn't had the freedom that books and movies enjoy to create a work that is hard to watch and leaves you feeling unsettled. There will be no gaming version of Precious. The story of Hotel Rwanda will never be experienced as a game. It will be hard to make the gaming equivalent of Requiem for a Dream a hit.
Heavy Rain's controls may seem like quick-time events at first, but they're no different than the contextual button presses in other games... dismissing the action scenes as quick-time events is easy, but also inaccurate. In a game of choices, complaining that your reflexes need to be tested is somewhat disingenous; arguing about how, visually, a cue to hit a button is displayed on screen when every game is simply hitting buttons to control actions is likewise a little lame. Think of Heavy Rain as a graphically enhanced adventure title, perhaps, and you'll do better.
Heavy Rain breaks the controls of your life down into discrete actions: you'll have to shake your controller to brush your teeth, you need to dry yourself after taking a shower. In an early scene in the demo you play swords with your children. Starting a car may take multiple steps. This is all done for a reason, to make you feel like you're in the middle of an actual life, in a real place—but when gamers see screenshots with pictures of buttons overlaid on the action, they're going to think quick-time events, a conceit that many—including us in the past—have very little patience for.
Gamers recoil from real consequences
It's rare that a game asks you to make an actual decision, one that matters, and those that play games know that taking back an action is as easy as reloading a previous save. Even games that appear to offer you a choice almost never do; in the end, the two paths will meet up in the same place, or will reward or punish you by playing a different movie at the end of the game.
"I like the fact I can play the game I want to play, and not have a disadvantage compared to someone else who played a different way," Carlos Cuello, the lead programmer on Bioshock 2, told us when we asked about how harvesting or saving the Little Sisters made almost no difference to ADAM collected or the rest of the game play in the first title. You can make whatever choice you want, but you won't be praised or punished for any of them.
In the demo of Heavy Rain given to the press, you could make bad decisions, and people will die. They won't come back. The game features four characters, and you can lead them to their death, or guide them safely through the game. "There's no such thing as failure or winning or losing; you're creating a story. We have four characters, and any one of them can die at any point, and the story continues. It's just that character's storyline has been removed from your story," Petro Piaseckyj, Managing Producer for SCEA, told Ars. If everyone in the game dies, that's not a bad thing. "You haven't failed. You've created a tragedy," Piaseckyj explained.
To see everything in the game, you'll need to play through multiple times. The death of a character closes certain doors and opens others. Every decision you make, every misstep and every near-failure creates a story. Gamers are used to being able to reload and take back their decisions—and to some extent Heavy Rain will also allow that—but the game will be given a new gravity if you're willing to allow yourself your failures and continue to play. Will that be a trip gamers are willing to take?
Heavy Rain is a unique and singular game, and it's certainly something new. Sony should be applauded by giving it the time and budget required to bring something this ambitious to market. It could be destined for the world of cult favorites, but the challenges inherent in both the story and presentation give the mainstream almost too many excuses to check out. We still haven't played the final version of the game, and this is one of the rare titles that leaves us not knowing exactly what will happen when we do.
No matter what the quality of the final version is—and we do wish Quantic Dream had hired American voice actors instead of what sounds like French men and women who speak English—it's clear that the world of gaming is going to be made richer by its release. For that, we're glad Sony took the risk to try something new, no matter our skepticism at its ultimate fate.
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