A Reflection on ‘Heavy Rain’, from the People Who Made It
Quantic Dream director David Cage and 'Life is Strange' director Raoul Barbet look back on the PlayStation 3 hit.
To many latecomers unsure of purchasing the PlayStation 3 prior to 2010, Heavy Rain served as a decider. It was a justifiably hyped noir thriller from the mind of video gaming's answer to David Fincher, Quantic Dream founder David Cage. His Paris-based studio had already delivered a critical hit with Fahrenheit on previous-gen consoles; but the power of the PS3 enabled Cage and his team to realise an interactive drama like gaming had never seen before. Heavy Rain proved to be a commercial success, pulling in €100 million by the third year of its release against an overall development, distribution and marketing budget of €40 million. It was also well received critically, being named IGN's PS3 game of 2010, and winning three awards at the 2011 Gaming BAFTAs.
With the benefit of hindsight, Heavy Rain's shortcomings are clearer to see. Its reliance on quick-time events soon got repetitive. Then again, in what other game would you be faced with cutting off your own finger to save a loved one? But with a remastered version of the game now available for the PS4, it's equally apparent that Heavy Rain's aged well in several respects. Its story of a serial killer on the loose, and that situation's connection to one of four playable characters' missing son, remains Quantic Dream's (and by extension Cage's) best, while the game's multiple endings drove home the mechanic of key narrative decisions really mattering.
'Heavy Rain', PlayStation 4 launch trailer
A game like Heavy Rain could only have emerged from a mind as offbeat as Cage's. He's a truly polarising figure whose recognisable tropes leave no gamer in the middle ground of opinion. From Fahrenheit to 2013's Beyond: Two Souls, Cage has never really set out to make "traditional" games – for him, gameplay is really only there to serve the narrative.
Raoul Barbet is the director of Life is Strange, a hit for another Parisian studio, Dontnod, in 2015. Barbet worked on motion capture for Heavy Rain, and told me about Cage: "I think sometimes games miss the vision of a director. And it can become more like a publisher's or producer's game, or a gathering of designer ideas without a real heart or direction. With David, there is definitely a vision."
In conceptualising Heavy Rain, Cage asked himself: "Would you kill someone innocent to save your son? Would you be prepared to give your own life?" He was fascinated by the difficult moral choice, telling me "only a video game could ask [such questions] directly, and let players face the consequences of their decisions". You feel invested in Heavy Rain's story because of the complex choices you have to make.
Starting out as a video game composer, Cage eventually decided to develop the filmic stories that were running around his mind. It's interesting that he never pursued film directly considering the common criticism that his games may as well be movies, for the amount of gameplay involved in them. He says that he's more interested in "the strange relationship that can be created between the player and their character in the context of a story, and the very emotional bond that can be established".
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The story of Heavy Rain weaves a surprisingly dense tapestry of twists. Four characters are playable, and every one of them can buy the farm depending on your choices (and quick-time efficiency). There's Ethan Mars, a father still grieving the death of one son, and now trying to retrieve his other one who's been kidnapped by, it's later revealed, the Origami Killer. Scott Shelby is a gumshoe detective investigating the killer, or so it seems. Madison Paige is a photojournalist whose path crosses Ethan's, and for a time they find comfort in each other's company. And finally there's FBI agent Norman Jayden, who's addicted both to drugs and augmented reality.
These characters interact with each other in dramatic and mundane ways, sharing moments that can be either banal or surprisingly real. As Ethan, you'll sword-fight with your kids in the garden; later, you'll use the game's initially odd controls, all holding this and twisting that, to have him undo a bra. There are scenes of relatable vulnerability in Heavy Rain, scenes no other games of the time were going near. Says Barbet: "You have to remember how the market was in 2010. There weren't so many narrative games, and a lot of people were saying that this [story-driven] genre was finished."
The visual influences for the game are definitely subtle nods to Cage's own tastes, with the films of Fincher and M. Night Shyamalan well represented. There's also a dash of James Ellroy's Black Dahlia and, adds Cage, "a Korean film called Memories of Murders, dealing with an unresolved case". It's not an obviously blockbuster mix, but while it swings from total nihilism to being hilariously camp in a heartbeat, Heavy Rain somehow achieves not only coherency, but also an affecting hold on its player. Get through the whole Jason Thing, and into the real core of the story, and it becomes tough to turn the game off for the night.
One of the more controversial aspects of the game, though, is the portrayal of Madison. Aside from being Ethan's love interest, she doesn't have a great deal of narrative relevance, and Cage inserts both a shower scene and an uneasy strip-tease section for her to quick-time her way through. Mike Thomsen wrote about her portrayal for IGN: "she's a male fantasy and doesn't seem to have any concept of her own sexual interests or wants unless they're in the context of the men who surround her... I think Madison feels like a concept of a human, more than an actual human."
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Cage denies that Madison is simply a sexual object. "I don't think she is 'sexualised', although she definitely has one sensual scene. Love or sex in video games is still very challenging. Heavy Rain deals with this matter in a very soft way compared to many mainstream films, but we chose not to ignore this aspect of human nature. That is, in my opinion, a legitimate decision in the context of any mature story." Perhaps that's a reason to ridicule Cage, but you can't criticise the man for trying to portray emotionally resonant scenarios in big-budget video games.
Play the PS4 version of Heavy Rain and you can see how more recent titles, like Life is Strange and Until Dawn, have taken cues from it. They're riffing on formulas found in what remains Cage's best game to date, but shifting them into different genres and new narrative experiences. And more than just a product with deadlines to meet and money to make back, Heavy Rain was a significant labour of love for its director.
"Heavy Rain was my baby, my reason to live and my oxygen for four years," Cage concludes. "And seeing the successful release of the game has been the most extraordinary reward I could have dreamt of, after years of working in the dark."
Heavy Rain is out now for PS4, via PSN, and available in just about every second-hand games store in the world for PS3.
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