It’s Sunday night and myself and two of my housemates are raptly glued to the television. We have been poised on the edge of our seats for hours, totally engrossed in the story unfolding before us, and now it is about to reach its nail-biting climax. Ethan, a father who has braved no end of hell to find his kidnapped child again, is about to confront the serial killer who snatched him, and I am in the rare position that I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen – not an inkling of how everything will end. I’m in this position not just because the story has been so well written and performed, but because the ultimate ending hasn’t yet been decided, not even by the writers who created it. In fact, the fates of each of the main characters lies very firmly in the hands of my housemate Chris, for Heavy Rain is not the latest blockbuster movie, but a video game. And I am so nervous that I can barely bring myself to watch…
Created by developers Quantic Dream exclusively for the Playstation 3, Heavy Rain is an intense, genre-bending, landmark of a game that softens no blows and leaves you with nail marks in your palms that won’t disappear for weeks. Shot in the style of a film noir, with a storyline that centres around the efforts of four main characters to find a child who has been kidnapped by the infamous “Origami Killer”, Heavy Rain almost defies definition in the traditional lexicon of gaming. The common description of “interactive-thriller” makes it sound like a “choose-your-own-adventure” and entirely misses the subtle genius of the mechanics involved. Every scene in the game is filled with tiny, seemingly insignificant decisions that your characters need to make to progress in their investigations, and so flawlessly are these interwoven into the gameplay and storyline that it is impossible to tell when playing what sort of impact your actions are going to have in the future. But these decisions may not only affect whether or not you manage to discover the killer’s identity, but also in what manner you discover it, whether your characters will ultimately live or die, and what kind of people they choose to be. And there are no half measures here – if a character dies, then they’re dead for good – the story will continue without them, with their death written in.
The interactivity is only half the brilliance, for Heavy Rain also has a cinematic quality unlike any game I have ever seen. The lighting, settings, voices, music, colours, characters, cut scenes… even the camera angles during gameplay have been so thoughtfully crafted that the game really does look and feel like a movie. The mechanics of playing seemed a little awkward at times (particularly when the task being controlled was somewhat gratuitous, such as rocking a baby or having a shower), but that also added an edge of uncertainty and concentration to the players relationship to the story, and even as an onlooker that knowledge added to the tension as the game went on. The four main characters are ruthlessly three dimensional and their carefully written dialogue and cutting flaws (drug addiction, depression, even acute asthma) make for some tough decisions. Granted, there are some touches that begin to verge on the ridiculous – the augmented reality specs possessed by FBI Agent Jayden could get a bit over the top – but these are soon forgotten once the tension mounts and the game begins to take over your world. And take over your world it does, for the interaction between player and story creates the conditions for a truly absorbing experience – a story that the player is entirely a part of. And of course, the potential is there to complete the game again and again, making different decisions to try to discover what else could have happened, although replays are likely to render the experience less effective, as the game’s director David Cage agrees – “I would like people to play it once…because that’s life. Life you can only play once… It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decided to write…I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it.”
Whichever way you play though, this game tells its story in such a powerful way that I think it may finally put to rest any doubt over whether or not computer games can be as effective a medium as novels or movies for telling stories. And that’s why I believe it’s not just the gaming world for which Heavy Rain may prove to be a landmark that changes the nature of the industry. The future for movies could also be heavily influenced by this kind of storytelling medium becoming more developed and popular. After all, it is the desire of the film-maker to set up a critical level of emotional involvement between the watcher and the character on-screen, and it is the subtle interactivity of Heavy Rain between watcher and character that sets this involvement up almost effortlessly and in my opinion with a far greater intensity, even for those who aren’t playing the game. Certainly for me, its been a long time since I have actually had to bite my knuckles, cover my eyes or cry out with anguish while watching a film.