Games

The Bleak Lessons of 'Heavy Rain'

The 2008 murder mystery had a lot of goofiness, but some great ideas shined through.
February 24, 2017, 9:00pm

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Seven years ago this week, Heavy Rain was released into the world. Happy anniversary! It's a strange game that's plagued with plot holes, weird character interactions, and a twist that so thoroughly betrays the player that it is closer to a lie than a reveal of strange information. If you haven't played the game, you might be familiar with this meme-starting video where the game demands that you "press X to Shaun."

That's ultimately the longest legacy that the game has: It's a murder mystery that is remembered as a glitchy joke. And I think that's a tragedy in many ways, because I think Heavy Rain has some truly amazing ideas that haven't been matched or attempted by many games since. And they're all absolutely bleak.

It also has lots of things that shouldn't ever be attempted again, too. We don't need a woman in her underwear fighting off a dozen black-clad intruders in a dream sequence. We don't need a drug-addled trip through an FBI investigator's VR companion app. We can do without the Saw-like torture that protagonist Ethan goes through.

(All of that, by the way, is real stuff that happens in this game. This game goes for the damn gold, and its scope is pretty impressive. It's even stranger when you realize that there was supposed to be a strong supernatural element to the game that was cut before release.)

I don't just want to point out that Heavy Rain is interesting here, though. Instead, I want to take this Postscript column to talk about the game's one significant strength that puts it above a lot of other adventure and narrative-heavy games that preceded and followed it. Heavy Rain is, ultimately, a game about death and mourning. It is a game that wants to put us into the minds of people who have experienced profound losses and their life and then, to their detriment in some ways, kept on living.

The plot circulates around a small cast of people who are living in an American post-industrial city that's haunted by a serial killer named The Origami Killer. Some, like FBI agent Norman Jayden and P.I. Scott Shelby, are trying to find him. Madison Paige, reporter extraordinaire, is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Ethan Mars is a tragic victim, merely trying to stay afloat in the loss.

I want to avoid spoiling swaths of the game, because I think the game's "twist" is so badly implemented that it needs to be experienced fully and wholly, but in broad strokes the game eventually comes to be structured around dads and what the responsibility of a dad is. The game opens with Ethan losing his son in a shopping mall before losing him forever to a busy street, and a reveal later on tells us that the Origami Killer is motivated by the negligence of his father that caused the death of his own brother.

These two stories are intertwined thematically, and both turn the various narratives of Heavy Rain into a story of loss. How does one get over the loss of a child? How could a person ever recover from preventable death of a sibling? These are heavy themes that might smack of exploitation to some, but I've yet to really get over how Heavy Rain portrays these things.

Heavy Rain holds tight to the idea that the line between life and death is perilously thin. Any moment, any accident, could pull someone across that line; it could be someone you're responsible for. Unlike so many other games, Heavy Rain doesn't play these profound losses as tragic backstory for the sake of it. Death isn't just something to be evoked to get us into the headspace of the vengeful dad. Instead, death exists in this game to put us in the shoes of the aftermath.

Ethan Mars's son has been dead for a few months, but his other son still lives. He has to take him to a muddy, swampy public park. He has to put on a happy face: Push the merry-go-round; buy the snack; play on the teeter totter. Smile and provide a warm, strong presence for the child that you have while the child that died languishes in oblivion. Every character interaction that Ethan has is painted with the player's knowledge. It's a brutally oppressive, bleak series of scenes, but it feels profoundly real and tragic. The world keeps going on, and despite any feelings to the contrary, Ethan has to be there to help his living son make his way through it.

With the Origami Killer, we see the same kind of narrative. His brother drowned while he watched, his foot stuck in the bottom of a broken drainpipe. The camera lingers on the scenario as one child tries to pull the other out of the pipe. You do the interactions with the controller, the pulling and the button presses, but he doesn't budge. The one child, the surviving child, says he'll go get help. It never comes; the father, the only one who could help, is drunk and far away.

Both Ethan Mars and the Origami Killer operationalize their extreme feelings of responsibility and inadequacy. The latter creates baroque and complicated serial killing scenarios attached to orchids, origami, and rising rainwater levels in the city. The former plows through the self-mutilating, physically-taxing scenarios that are put in front of him that will allow him to rescue his child and prove that he is a responsible dad in the eyes of the Killer.

The strength of Heavy Rain is that it doesn't try to fix any of this. It doesn't absolve Ethan, and it doesn't forgive the Origami Killer for his actions. These people are up to their neck in the mire of self-loathing and guilt.

I mean, Ethan might not even make it to the final scenes of the game; he can die in his attempt to fulfill the Killer's demands, his plot unresolved. So, unlike other games where you can shoot your way through your feelings, Heavy Rain bravely suggests that a person might just need to get along the best they can. There isn't necessarily a happy ending, or even an ending at all. There might just be the void of the long view, a series of failures and irreconcilable deficiencies that travel on into the future, unchecked and unaltered except for a few people who take responsibility and attempt to change the shape of things. Heavy Rain, in its bleakness, paints a cruel picture of the world.