By GrantHeaslip 50 Comments
Early in Heavy Rain, I joked that its 87 Metacritic score was doing more to damage my perceptions of mainstream video game criticism than any ethical controversy could. That was admittedly hyperbole, but having finished the game — which I believe to be an utter, laughable failure in both game design and storytelling — I'm genuinely baffled that it was met with such breathless praise. IGN's Chris Roper wrote "[the story of] Heavy Rain is easily amongst the best that's ever been put onto a disc. Were this filmed as a Hollywood picture, it would perfectly fit the body of work of someone like Martin Scorsese or David Fincher." GameSpot's Lark Anderson called the game a "powerful interactive drama […] an intensely absorbing experience that meticulously conveys the tension, urgency, surprise, and tragedy that its characters feel." 1UP's David Ellis declared it "one of the most emotional experiences [he'd] ever had playing a videogame." The A.V. Club's David Wolinsky produced a review so comical in its hyperbole that I feel the need to reproduce its first paragraph in full:
As gaming has matured, countless arguments have broken out over whether the medium can ever transcend itself and become art. Many people will point to Heavy Rain as tipping the scales, but that’s pointless. It’s doing something far more important, by being the first game to live up to the Mature rating.
I don't highlight these reviews just to mock, but also to establish that I'm not criticizing a straw man here — Heavy Rain was a bona fide critical darling.
Heavy Rain clearly wants to be judged on its cinematic and literary merits. David Cage famously doesn't consider his games to be games at all — a particularly insufferable PS3 Trophy description reads "Thank you for supporting Interactive Drama." In that spirit, I'll indulge Cage, set aside my numerous complaints with Heavy Rain's gameplay, and look at how it succeeds as a piece of fiction. Here's some choice examples of Heavy Rain's "powerful interactive drama":
- Ethan (the main character)'s younger son finds his pet parrot dead, and says "I'd give anything if he could come back to life." Ethan replies: "there are some things which just have to happen even if you don't want them to." What could this possibly be foreshadowing?
- Ethan's older son, who is supposed to be 10 years old, wanders away in a mall twice over the course of a minute. Ethan stumbles through the suddenly-ridiculously-crowded mall, repeating the same 3 awkwardly-performed "Jason!" yells ad nauseam. The son inexplicably walks out of the mall and stumbles across the street. Ethan dives in front of a slowly-moving car to shield his son. The son dies, and Ethan ends up in a coma for 6 months(!?).
- As part of the ridiculous series of arbitrary trials Ethan is put through in order to save his son, he at one point arrives at a power plant that is mysteriously fully operational. He crawls through 30+ metres of Metal Gear Solid-style tunnels that are uniformly (and quite implausibly) covered in broken glass. He arrives at a room full of electrical cables strung around a grid of equipment, which sets off a series of godawful QTE sequences in which you're expected to hold down 5 buttons at once to squeeze through them. The idea that the killer is secretly operating a supposedly-abandoned power substation is never acknowledged again, and is entirely inconsistent with the character of the killer.
- Jayden — a Fox Mulder look-alike who dons Men In Black-looking VR glasses in order to investigate crimes in a Minority Report interface — has an extended fight sequence with "Mad Jack." Mad Jack — who it's worth noting is the game's only black character — owns a junkyard, opens by calling Jayden a "cracker", proclaims that he hates the police, and maniacally cackles as he attempts to kill Jayden with a crowbar. He eventually knocks Jayden out, then inexplicably straps him into the driver's seat of a car, which he attempts (unsuccessfully, of course) to lift into a car crusher. This all could have been avoided if he's just dumped Jayden's unconscious body into the human-remains-filled acid bath Jayden stumbled across just minutes earlier. The scene comes out of nowhere, and has practically no bearing on the story.
- Madison (the game's heroine) — wanders around her apartment in her underwear, undresses, and takes a painstakingly-modelled shower. Masked intruders appear, setting off one of the at least 4 scenes in the game in which another character tries to kill her amidst pretty deliberate sexual overtones. The scene turns out to be a dream, and has absolutely no plot significance except to establish that she's an insomniac — a fact that she repeats multiple times to a complete stranger she undresses and lovingly tends wounds for in her very next scene. I don't have a moral problem with any of this, but there's a pretty conspicuous fetishistic quality to her character that is really at odds with the game's self-serious tone.
Yes, I'm cherry-picking, but Heavy Rain is such a bountiful treasure trove of amateurish nonsense that I don't think I'm giving it all that bad of a shake here. Nearly every scene is undercut by moments in which characters say or do farcically goofy things.
The story is full of gaping plot holes. Ethan periodically blacks out and wakes up with an origami figure in his hand — a phenomenon that is never addressed at all despite the fact that the story revolves around an "Origami Killer" and the kidnapping of his child during one of his blackouts. Madison is at one point told the name of the killer, reacts in shock, and immediately beelines for his apartment despite the fact that she's never met him. The identity of the killer is apparently deduced because he's wearing a gold watch, which in the alternate universe of Heavy Rain are only attainable as police department promotion gifts. While it's not technically a plot hole, the eventual motive of the killer is so laughably stupid that I assumed the extremely obvious hints the game was ramming down my throat had to be red herrings. The script is a mess, even by the low standards of video game writing.
Perhaps even more crucially, Heavy Rain's voice acting is all over the place. The child actors in particular are so comically terrible that I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming they were reading their lines phonetically. There's a few redeeming performances — particularly that of the actor for private detective Scott Shelby, who is tellingly one the small handful of native English speakers in the cast (and even more tellingly begins phoning in his lines when his character suddenly falls apart in the service of Heavy Rain's ridiculous plot twist). I understand that Quantic Dream is a French developer, but they sold me an English-language game set in an American city full of people seemingly unequipped to deliver their lines in a halfway-convincing manner. Early in the game, when the story revolves entirely around the game's worst-performed characters, I was seriously considering switching the language to French and enabling subtitles.
I'm making such a point of criticizing Heavy Rain's poor writing and acting because it's a game that, on its own terms, lives and dies by its quality as a piece of cinema. Quantic Dream clearly invested heavily in some nearly-unparalleled character rendering technology, then used it to meticulously reproduce flat, unconvincing performances of a badly-written script. Unlike most other games, which can and do make up for their cinematic weaknesses with strong mechanics, Heavy Rain has no such escape valve. To be clear, however, Heavy Rain does not play well in almost any respect — it's a jumbled mess of awkward tank controls, confusing camera transitions, interminable QTE sequences, nauseating screen tearing, and unclear objectives. This is a game that derives most of its challenge from making you hold down awkward combinations of buttons and/or making you contend with awkward motion controls. I'm fairly sure I got a bad ending because I failed a series of bullshit motion-controlled quick time events.
With the exception of its admittedly-impressive facial modelling, nifty hair-rendering technology, strong lighting, and sometimes-striking cutscene cinematography, Heavy Rain fails at nearly everything it sets out to do. It's utterly baffling to me that just 3 of Metacritic's 107 indexed reviews gave Heavy Rain a less-than-average review, while a full 73 of of them rated it 90% or above. Is this just another case of critics falling so head-over-heels in love with the idea of a game that they failed to critically evaluate what it actually achieved, or am I truly this out-of-step with popular opinion? Either way, it's going to be hard for me to get Heavy Rain's fawning reception out of my head come the next "cinematic" video game du jour.