Interactive finction? Now there’s a term I haven’t heard for a while…
Many years ago, when personal computers were either massive or little more than keyboards that plugged into your TV executing BASIC code, there was a type of game known as Interactive Fiction, sometimes known by the somewhat unflattering term “text adventures”. The idea was simple; desribe the game world using words and let the player input commands to drive the story. This was done mostly because there was no other way to do things back then; real-time detailed graphics weren’t possible, so “a finely detailed painting of my cream-coloured Persian cat” looked like 5 white pixels on a brown background which might suggest a picture frame. Still, people started to work in non-linear plots and flesh out stories that went into all sorts of odd places. An interactive fiction game could be about missing your bus or exploring the techno-superhighways of the Year 2000 where we all had flying cars. Give them a break, it was back in the 1980s, they still had two decades to dream. Interactive Fiction gave way to Adventure Games, which were mostly crushed by FPS games. What little of them did survive was incorporated into RPG games, which are slowly being turned into action RPG-FPS hybrids. Whatever, I’m not going to lament the loss of something that was ever so slightly before my time (old enough to remember the later Space Quests, not old enough to remember IF at large) but I will mention it here because Heavy Rain is all about interactive fiction… or interactive drama, as the game puts it.
Heavy Rain is not an action game and I think we’ve found the “Napoleon Dynamite Effect” of the videogame world. What’s that? The Napoleon Dynamite Effect refers to the ability of a movie to completely polarise a viewing audience; in other words, you either love it or you hate it. I’d like to coin “The Heavy Rain Effect” as the videogame version, because you will either love this game or hate it. Firstly, Heavy Rain is little more than a series of button presses or quicktime events when you strip everything else away. All you really do is move the sticks and press the buttons when required. Heavy Rain’s only challenge is to not get everybody killed. Other than that, you’re almost part director, part viewer, in that you watch this movie unfold while giving some input into how things should go.
The best way I can explain it is like this: you know how in movies you see some ultra slick detective silently walk up behind the bad guy, pull put his gun, and blow his brains out? Of course you have. But did you ever wonder what would have happened if he’d messed up and fumbled his gun, or missed? That’s similar to how Heavy Rain works; you watch the sequence of events and take control to see how they turn out. For example, I was playing the scene where the private detective character was sneaking up on a robber holding the guy at the counter at gunpoint. I avoided the isle with the spilled chips and slowly walked up the isle at the front so the guy wouldn’t see me. I then followed the quicktime event to SLOWLY (emphasis on the slow) move the right stick so that the character picked up a bottle. I moved on… and the overweight, clumsy bastard knocked a box of something off a display stand. I qucikly mashed the triangle key to catch it, and then slowly eased the box back onto the shelf… except my thumb slipped, the private investigator fumbled the box, and the robber went apeshit.
That’s more or less what Heavy Rain is about when it comes down to action, but the rest of it can be a bit more simplistic. The opening sequence, where one of the main characters is introduced, is nothing more than waking up, having a shower, taking a piss (no, I’m not making that up) and doing some work. Then his wife and kids come home, and the story kicks off from there. A lot of Heavy Rain is simply controlling what the characters do and how they’re interacting with their environment. Sometimes it’s meaningful, like choosing to shoot somebody or messing up a quicktime event. Other times it’s seemingly pointless, like flipping through a magazine, sitting on a couch, or taking a drink of orange juice. But it’s moments like those that make Heavy Rain feel like an actual story, a real piece of drama; without it, it’s just a sequence of quick time events. It sets the mood and it sets the pace for the game, which is incredibly important because Heavy Rain is out to do one thing – tell a story.
The story behind Heavy Rain is that there’s a serial killer known as The Origami Killer on the loose. The Origami Killer targets young boys, keeping them alive for a few days before killing them. He follows the same modus operandi and doesn’t leave many clues… except each victim has a flower on his corpse, and a small origami figure clutched in his hand. When the story starts proper after introducing a main character, it’s absolutely pissing down with rain and there’s been another Origami killing. From there, you take control of four different characters. One of them is the father of a child who has gone missing, and has deep psychological problems. The next is the aforementioned private investigator, looking to solve the case. The third character is an FBI agent who struggles with a drug addiction. Finally, there’s the only female of the group, who seems to have nightmares and is also interested in the case. There’s also a whole host of supporting characters which sets the scene for a twisted murder mystery worthy of a TV slot.
The writing is really good and the storyline is compelling, but the slow pace will probably put the majority of Halo-loving kids in the “I HATE THIS SHIT!” box. Anybody who loves a good story will probably enjoy it. Voice acting is above average, but it’s not quite as natural as you’d find in Mass Effect or Half Life 2. It’s B+ quality, but there are a few instances where characters speak with odd accents or putting an emphasis on the wrong part of a word. At other times though it all flows together so smoothly that you feel like you’re watching an interesting movie, except you’re steering the story into whatever direction you’ve decided to choose. You can screw everybody over or try to cause a turnabout that’d make Phoenix Wright vomit in awe. Character detail is absolutely fantastic, but animation tends to be a little wooden at times. The textures and detail are stunning, and it really shows what the PS3 is capable of. The game world is… it’s stunning, honestly. It’s not always stunning because of the textures, but because of the sheer amount of detail that’s gone into the game world. Remember that most game worlds tend to be remarkably empty; a kitchen counter might have a few pots on it but nothing else. In Heavy Rain counters are littered with the debris of modern day life. Then again, this is supposed to be something like an interactive movie, so missing out on these details would be a major omission and it’d stick out like a sore thumb. Still, all this detail… it’s a little bit overwhelming. I also wondered how this would impact on the framerate, something that consoles traditionally aren’t strong at, but I never felt like the PS3 was struggling.
The UI is pretty good and works surprisingly well. When you can perform an action, it’ll pop up on screen with the location where that action can be preformed. Generally you can guess from the action and location what the result will be; an up arrow near a carton of orange juice means you’ll pick it up, a down arrow near a light switch might mean you’ll flick it on, an icon near your pocket means you’ll pull something out of it. Sometimes you’ll need to perform an action slowly, indicated by a dotted line, or you’ll need to complete actions in quick succession as per your usual quicktime event sequence. Vibration is used at appropriate times, and the motion abilities of the SIXAXIS controller are also used but occasionally they feel slightly gimmicky. When your character is confused or in a state of panic, icons tend to shake and blur, making you a bit confused too. For example at one point you’re asked to recall details about a person. The character is confused and in a bit of a panic, so the rotating options are vibrating like all hell and difficult to read, not to mention that you honestly might not have a clue yourself (I know I forgot all about the details). Sometimes you’ll only have a short period to respond before the game just makes a choice for you. My only real gripe with the controls is the walking system and some of the camera angles. Walking is a bit clunky and you’ll find yourself wandering into walls a hell of a lot. The camera occasionally moves to a position that’ll make movement quite difficult but you’re usually given two camera choices whick works well. The camera work in this game is also pretty damn good when it comes to setting up a cinematic sequence. It’s really just like watching a movie.
Seriously, fantastic for the Playstation 3. But again, it’s not so much the textures or shaders, it’s how much work has actually gone into the game world.
The musical score is great and fits in with everything, but sometimes the voice actors seem to forget in what context their lines should be delivered, and they screw it up occasionally.
I’ll say it again – this isn’t for everyone. But it tries something new, and if you’re into this kind of thing, it succeeds.
The story can go multiple ways, and it encourages you to go check out the other possibilities. Unlike some games where you get one defining moment to make a choice, in Heavy Rain the choices stack up, kind of like Mass Effect.
I’m giving Heavy Rain an excellent rating because it’s more or less unique and, in my opinion, it’s fantastic at what it does. I can’t put this game down, it’s easily the most entertaining piece of interactive drama I’ve ever experienced. But I love games with a story, and I can overlook a few control issues (or odd gameplay mechanics) if the story is compelling. And this story is compelling; it’s a journey through human misery in a dark environment of fear and doubt. There’s no bright spots in this game after the first 10 minutes, it’s just one, big nightmare afterwards… depending on how you play the game, of course. Yes, at the end of the day, it’s one big, hyper-advanced “Choose your own adventure” book with astounding attention to detail. But that’s exactly what I was expecting, and that’s exactly why you’d play a game like this. If you can’t stand RPGs, if you think Halo was the best game ever created, and if you couldn’t sit though the dialogue in Deus Ex, this game isn’t for you. Furthermore, you should stop reading DisCONNECT because there are too many big words in it (like “Opinion”) for you to understand it. In short, it’s not for everyone, and if you have any doubts, I’d check the demo first. If that keeps you glued to the controller, then you’ll find Heavy Rain to be an exciting movie that you half direct and half watch. You have some idea where this thing is going, but you’re not certain. And in the end, that’s what makes it so compelling. I really hope we see more Interactive Drama popping up, and a platform like the Playstation 3 (or the Xbox 360 for that matter, but not the Wii because the Wii is a shovelware platform) is the perfect vehicle because there’s nothing more entertaining that watching/playing this on a big screen TV. This is, frankly, fantastic.