Games

What Made People Think 'Heavy Rain' Was a Great Game

Once near the forefront of a revolution in narrative game design, why did 'Heavy Rain' fade so fast into irrelevance?

by Cameron Kunzelman
Feb 18 2020, 1:00pm

'Heavy Rain' screenshots courtesy of Quantic Dream

Detailed plot spoilers below.

There’s an interrogation a few hours into Heavy Rain where a lot of what the game’s going for comes into focus. Ethan Mars, one of the four playable characters, has come to the police station to report that his child Shaun has gone missing. With the Origami Killer on the loose, time is of the essence, and a rude detective puts the screws to Ethan in order to get the most information possible. He asks what time the child went missing, and a cloud of possible options flutters around Ethan’s head. You make a choice, and the rapid-fire follow-up comes: what color was Shaun’s jacket?

When I played the game for the first time about a decade ago, I had no idea. I felt like garbage. And that was that point. Director David Cage said in a post-release interview that this was about adding a kind of guilty texture to the world. “It's just,” he told journalist Christian Nutt, “if you can't even remember the clothes of your son, it really means something about you as a father.”

It’s not a piece of information that matters. It’s not a critical fulcrum point of the game. It’s just a place for the player to realize what a terrible father Ethan Mars is, and even more, to realize what a terrible performance they have given as that father . The chances of knowing the color of the jacket with any certainty are slim, but this is a chance for characterization to take front and center. From Heavy Rain’s perspective in 2010, this is the heart of what meaningful choices mean in games. It’s not about getting an answer right or wrong. It’s the ambiguity of not knowing if things matter.

Here on the 10th anniversary of Heavy Rain, I want to consider those choices.

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Heavy Rain was released on uncertain terms. Previews of the game were carried on David Cage’s name and confidence. Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer wrote eloquently in 2008 about how there was no Heavy Rain before Heavy Rain. The preview event centered on director David Cage, his massive 2,000 page script, and the promise of narrative front and center. “We’re up against pure ego,” Bramwell noted.

It was ego that seemed to be paying off. Reading reviews from Cage at the time evokes strong feelings of revolutionary change. Spinning Heavy Rain as an evolution of his studio’s previous Fahrenheit ( Indigo Prophecy), he presented the game as an example of players simply not knowing what they want. “We think there is a market for experiences for people who are maybe tired with playing the same games over and over again,” he told SavyGamer, “and [they] are eager for something different with more depth, more meaning, and more emotion.”

For Cage, one of the problems with games culture is simply that people don’t know all the things they can do with games. There can be more than what people are currently getting, and beyond that, more people can enjoy playing it. In the wake of what Jesper Juul called “the casual revolution” in which mobile, Facebook games, and systems like the Wii showed that the world of people interested in games was much more vast than the “core” crowd catered to by most games, Cage clearly saw an opportunity to double-down on accessibility and adapting familiar media forms like the thriller into video games. In his own words, “everybody who enjoys thrillers and owns a PlayStation 3 should be able to play the game.”

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A whole universe of design decisions proliferated from this position. What Heavy Rain brought to the forefront of game design was the idea that a button press is a choice and not an action. To be clear, I am not saying that Heavy Rain invented this. It refined it, and made it the core product. When I press X on my controller in Heavy Rain, I am not performing the action that X shortcuts to. It’s not a jump button. Instead, it is defined contextually. It might be a dialogue choice or a dodge or an accelerator or a kick, and more often than not I am selecting the X button out of a few options in front of me. The primary verb in Heavy Rain is not shoot or jump or punch. It is “choose,” and choice can be spun out into dozens of contexts. Heavy Rain used those contexts to advance a story and only to advance a story.

Then and now, most games either put story second or have story and gameplay as roughly equivalent values. Even a game like The Last of Us, celebrated for its narrative seriousness, has long stretches of video game-ass video gamery. Moments of truly singular performance and direction are interspersed with sections where you assault a sniper or defend a dam from invading zombies. The gun and movement mechanics matter there. Joel and Ellie are backgrounded in favor of the R2 button and action-stealth.

There’s none of that in Heavy Rain. In fact, there’s a purposeful distance from action that’s unattached to some emotional or narrative goal. For Cage, those emotional beats along the path of the story were deeply wrapped up in his life. In 2009, he explained that the game’s opening scene, where Ethan Mars desperately searches for his son in a mall, happened to him. The scene was panic inducing when I played it a decade ago; it’s still stressful now.

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And the interaction you have there, the choice you can make, is to hammer on the X button to scream “Jason.” It does nothing. There is no change in the outcome of the game’s opening. You scream and you scream and Jason Mars dies. If Heavy Rain has a philosophy of choice, then it is one in which the roleplaying that Cage points out allows you to inhabit the emotional world of a character. Heavy Rain is extremely successful at making some of those worlds feel suffocating.

The success is matched by an equal failure, though, because Heavy Rain is destined to follow in the footsteps of the always-escalating thriller genre. In Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs, the kinds of movies that Heavy Rain feels most in conversation with, the plot is always grinding its way toward smashing our protagonist detectives into the brutal killer who is behind everything. Just like the killers in those films, the Origami Killer is always one step ahead of the victims he is terrorizing and the detectives and journalists who seek him out. Delaying that capture generates the thrill.

The difference between those successful films and Heavy Rain, though, is that films are a couple hours of tight pacing that are heavily controlled by editing and direction. Heavy Rain is a sprawling set of scenes across several playable characters that goes on for a dozen hours or so. By virtue of being a game, it also has a lot of interactive segments and scenes that have different potential end states. What that adds up to is a game that has all the pieces of a thriller but no way to put them together in the way that a thriller film would. You end up, frankly, with a mess.

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Which brings us back to that scene in the mall. On one hand, I am on Cage’s side. I find the scene harrowing. It works for me. But there are a lot of people out there who know of Heavy Rain only by reputation and the meme spawned from it: Press X To Jason. On one hand, depowering the player and giving them something “useless” can have a strong effect. On the other hand, it is so far beyond the bounds of what the average player might expect to see in the game that it is immediately comical. It is silly and funny in the same way that pressing a button to make a goose honk is.

It also didn’t help the game’s reputation that the game’s length and multiple characters amplified its pacing issues. In various scenes we control: Ethan Mars, who is following the orders of the Origami Killer so that he can rescue his son; Norman Jayden, an FBI supercop addicted to mind-altering pills; Madison Paige, a journalist looking for a scoop on the killer; and Scott Shelby, a local private investigator on the case. Unlike a thriller like Se7en where we follow an extremely small cast along a direct path through some crimes to a killer, as players we spend an immense amount of time in Heavy Rain just wandering around in various scenes that are sometimes connected to one another and almost always go for the salacious option over actually advancing the plot.

It doesn’t help that these one-off scenes are just plain gross for the most part. Madison has a nightmare that she has to run around in her apartment in her underwear being assaulted by men in masks. Does that ever come back or have any bearing on the plot? No. Later in the game, a retired doctor tries to kill her in an extremely sexual way. Again, no real bearing on the plot. Norman Jayden investigates a crime, finds one of the very few black characters in the game (who works in a junkyard, is extremely muscled, and is discovered to be a murderer), fights him, and then can kill him by crushing him beneath the treads of a construction vehicle. For every moment of serious emotion there are five of grindhouse grittiness, and it produces a feeling that the player is on a tonal rollercoaster that can’t ever settle into one mode.

We can’t forget that, in the midst of this, Cage was talking about Heavy Rain as something truly revolutionary. Speaking to Engadget after release, he said that “we sometimes said in the past that buying Heavy Rain was some kind of political thing to do. It was like voting for this industry to change and evolve. And by buying the game this is exactly what people did.”

Vote with your wallet. Change the world. It’s hard to play the game now and read all of these Cage quotes and not feel ambivalent. Was all of this just a grift? How much of the dream of “interactive cinema” was just selling us the same shallow video game stuff in a new package with better art language around it? Does it matter if more people can play a game if you’re just exposing a bigger population to the same sexist and racist stereotypes that fuel so much of our fictions?

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The big sin, of course, is that the game lies to you. The player spends the vast majority of the game embroiled in the same mystery as the characters. Who is the Origami Killer?

In the end, it’s revealed to be Scott Shelby. A flashback late in the game reveals that the scene that took us to a typewriter repair shop to investigate where the Killer gets his supplies was, in fact, a murder. Scott Shelby killed a man there and fled the scene, covering his tracks as the most-wanted serial killer in the city.

Except we were controlling him the whole time. When we were there, when we were making our choices, the game simply had us discover the body. As a player, we witnessed two things: Scott Shelby having nothing to do with the killing under our control and Scott Shelby performing a murder. Both happened at the same time.

In a game that makes choice and player alignment with characters and emotion and tone into a monolith to worship, it seems that robbing a player of any and all of that is a ridiculous and backward thing to do. In interviews with Cage from the time, there seems to be a mass hallucination that the 12 or so seconds that the camera cuts away from Shelby was enough time to commit a murder and stage a scene. Critics called it a moment where the camera itself was an unreliable narrator. Years later, Heather Alexandra said the moment was “ultimately nonsensical.”

From the perspective of the director, it was all in service to the twist. Whatever the emotional baggage you had from the journey was, you still had to pass through the truth of Scott Shelby. And that reality pushes on all of the other “choices” the player can make through Heavy Rain. Looking at a map of the possible branches of a game that’s entire reputation was built on responding to the player reveals a largely linear game in which choices don’t matter all that much. And while I’m not interested in debating one way or another whether linearity vs player choice is good or bad, I think that the legacy of Heavy Rain has ended up in a place where any possible positive feeling that you might get from it runs into a brick wall of contradiction and design ambition exceeding accomplishment.

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There are a thousand other things to say about Heavy Rain. Much of the mystery behind who the Origami Killer is just isn’t filled in for the player, and most of the game’s explanations lie in cut content around spiritual and psychic bonds. There is a crime solving VR platform and an AR interface for the FBI. There are Saw-like scenes of self-mutilation. There’s a tale of addiction and possible recovery. A journalist writes a book. And it’s all in this glorious weird thing that is stapled together with a murder plot. There really is nothing like it.

Reviewing the game when it was released, Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo praised Heavy Rain for being a game about people, calling the game’s opening domestic scene of playing with your kids and setting the table “boldly bland.” I think that’s the most wonderful way to describe the game, because there is something that still remains unmatched about the game making serious moments out of telling your kid to turn the tv off and eat dinner or walking slowly around a waste field below a highway looking for clues.

Whatever promise Heavy Rain held has fled. Developer Quantic Dream has had to own up to a toxic culture of exclusion and bad game development practices. The most recent Cage & Co. game, Detroit: Become Human, rips off the specific histories of marginalized groups to make it cover a paper-thin science fiction plot. If Heavy Rain was figured as a revolution in video game terms, then the conditions under which it and its mechanical sequels were produced didn’t match up. Whatever artistic good will talking the talk conferred to the studio by its way of thinking has been annihilated by an inability to walk the walk.

But we’re left with Heavy Rain, ten years on, as a straggler of another era. The Telltale game came and went. The narrative-heavy “walking sim” is a fully established genre. Whatever it wanted to accomplish by putting narrative and storytelling first in games came to pass, but it’s hard to say that Heavy Rain was responsible. And so it is an artifact of a particular way of solving a problem, built in its age, receding in time.

Tagged:
Retrospective
Heavy Rain
Quantic Dream
David Cage