“Thank you for supporting Interactive Drama.” David Cage may not repeat his digitised Fahrenheit appearance, but his voice rings clear in the first Trophy Heavy Rain awards. Odd it should arrive at the outset, where our ‘support’ amounts to one glass of orange juice glugged and two children entertained. Perhaps Cage means to reassure us. After months of struggling to describe and defend individual moments, Quantic Dream has found a confidence in the whole. But where great movies are unified in the editing suite, Heavy Rain’s strength lies in those earlier inconsistencies.
Scene to scene, few games match Heavy Rain’s compulsive pull. A boy is abducted; his father must pass fiendishly engineered trials to save him. Being propelled through these challenges taps into the same gruesome curiosity that has powered six Saw films to date. What will be asked of him next? Will he ever catch up with his tormentor? Is he really going to do that with those pliers? As a safety net to the father’s plight, three other characters ensure that varied ground is covered. A private dick charts the fallout from a serial killer. A preppy journalist sneaks into the homes of kooks and crazies. The FBI agent cleans up all of their mess.
Where is often as important as what. While Quantic Dream initially presents perfect Ikea-filled domiciles – Madison seems to have moved into Lucas Kane’s Fahrenheit apartment (vacant since he turned into a god) – they make way for a refreshingly downbeat palette of city suburbs and motels. It is here, not in the heavy-handed sprinklings of suicide, abuse and child murder, that director Cage finds his maturity. A fine line is trodden between realism – aptly conjured with the finest quality of light seen this generation – and filmic cliché, only occasionally, and thus effectively, giving in to the fantasy that plagued so much of Fahrenheit. Needless to say, the Origami Killer is one creepy interior decorator.
As a thriller, Heavy Rain thrives on jarring uncertainty. Context-sensitive controls tap into similarly playful unknowns. “What happens next?” asks the story. “Whatever we want,” reply the buttons. Bar one trigger, the controls are free to be what they want. They can toss a boomerang, rock a baby or stove in heads with a wide selection of electrical appliances. Heavy Rain is a pointand-click adventure with a massive verb sheet; new actions are as much a twist as the narrative reveals they prompt. Although occasionally misjudged – transitioning from sponging slit wrists to nappy changing is a little much – the hunger for fresh interactions is constantly fed throughout.
The controls don’t always make sense. Vigorously flailing the Sixaxis to bully an onscreen figure into brushing his teeth is far from simulation. And why, on a control pad with perfectly squishy triggers, are gunshots meted out with a prod of a stunted shoulder button? When inputs don’t bemuse, they often befuddle. Hovering over the environment, the cues make clear what can be interacted with, but not necessarily how. At different times straight directional pushes will pick up, open, eat, drink and smash. In a game founded primarily on choosing a path, the inability to know exactly what you’re doing is literally and figuratively short-sighted.
A similar criticism can be levelled at the scene structure. Quantic Dream smartly guides you with director’s tricks. Camera angles, focusing and splitscreen subtly hint at key props and draw the eye towards points of interest. No doubt about it, you’ll know what to do. The question is why you do it. Segments can begin with little explanation of why you’re there or, in the opening scenes, who you are. Early hours are spent investigating a crime you haven’t even been told about. The Stanislavski school of acting would ask: what’s our motivation? Even internal monologue (summoned with a shoulder button) fails to fill in the gaps. Why the resistance to recap?
The confusion stems from Heavy Rain’s adaptable storytelling, an ambitious system that sets itself the impossible task of bringing together Cage’s jumble of scenarios. Our heroes can’t regurgitate the plot because they don’t dare try. Heavy Rain pulls off its branching narrative by donning blinkers and sprinting down the chosen routes. Countless permutations of each scene are allowed, safe in the knowledge that they will never be addressed again. Scars, bandages and bloodied stumps accrue, but in a game full of moral choices, we are owed more than a character reskin. How do you invest in decisions if they are so casually frittered away?
Death is a sticking point. Die in the story and the world moves on (see ‘Grave situation’). It’s an intriguingly tangible threat, and as such motivates your success in Quick Time Events – there are no game overs or restarts. Whether driving into oncoming traffic or fighting knife-wielding intruders, the chain of onscreen stick prods and controller tilts is feverishly adhered to. But it appears that the Grim Reaper is in a lenient mood. Deliberately tempt fate, refuse to follow the cues, and the QTEs often play out to non-fatal conclusions. The general skeleton of the story cannot truly be changed, cheapening every event in the process. Whether or not the Origami Killer is apprehended, his fiendishness is neutered from the outset – Cage is unwilling to force the consequences of failure on to the player.
“How far are you willing to go to save someone you love?” asks the kidnapper. We’d put a similar question to Cage: how far are you willing to go for interactive drama? Scene by scene, Heavy Rain proves itself a worthy advocate, ripe with potential and mystery. But the bigger it grows and the more it threatens to collide and conflict, the broader the strokes become. Are you a champion of freedom and interaction or choreographed thrills? Do you make games or films? Like the scenarios put before our desperate father, the decisions are not easy, and the consequences often unsatisfying. But watching them unfold? Quite unlike anything else.