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"Heavy Rain": Story Review

  WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  
    

Idea:

 Heavy Rain, generally, is an interactive movie in the most classic sense. That is to say that it asks the audience to make several hypertext style choices to decide where the story should go. But its big idea as a murder mystery is that in the end the protagonist turns out to be the culprit... And this is not a good idea.  
 
Mystery stories in general have certain rules. Some of these rules are unwritten, some of them are written by people like Willard Huntington Wright. Let me quote his rule number 4 from the famous Van Dine rules:  "The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses."  
  
There is a reason for this rule. Doing otherwise makes the story unfair for the audience, for the audience experiences the mystery through the eyes of the protagonist. The audience ideally has to possess the same knowledge the investigator does. When the investigator is the culprit, one huge piece of information is missing, rendering the mystery pointless. 
 
Every now and then authors try to circumvent this rule and almost all of those experiments end in tears. So does the rule change when the story is interactive; when the audience can influence how the characters act. In theory this is an interesting proposition. Does it work in Heavy Rain? Ultimately no. But I think the naive courage alone deserves praise. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Setting:

 The entire story takes place in a generic and possibly American city, in the near future. It is a functional setting but the main problem with it is the fact that it lacks character.  The city in the famous Fincher movie Seven, for instance, is also generic but has a distinct noir quality to it. It's almost as if the city itself is a character in Seven. This cannot be said for the city in Heavy Rain. One thinks the artists were mostly concerned with making the environment geometrically beautiful but they did not really consider the city from a storytelling point of view. It's a problem of cohesion. Taken individually each location looks great. But there is no cohesive layer which combines everything.  
 
And then there is the cyberpunk component. I get the practical importance of the glasses in terms of game play. I also get the Caruso pun. Yes. But in a story which is supposed to be rooted in reality all the time, the designer drug triptocaine and the ARI interface are quite out of place. The implied comparison between virtual reality and drugs is compelling, sure... But they do make Jayden and all these elements sound like they are coming from an entirely different story, an entirely different setting. 
 
The setting is not overtly or offensively bad. It's just incoherent and under used, contributing nothing to the story. Even though Cage's attempt to include the rain as a central element to the story is admirable, he fails to capitalize on that too. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Characters:

 This is a character based story. We seem have 4 protagonists but what we actually do is controlling 4 different characters. From them Ethan Mars emerges as the de facto protagonist of the story. Although he's a featureless and -dare I say- whiny character, it is admirable that David Cage actually manages to make Mars invoke genuine emotions in the audience. Part of that is because Mars is a very familiar character to us. He is a guy who had a bright future, a wonderful wife, two kids and a beautiful house when everything in his life falls apart, not because of an alien invasion, but because of an event which can happen to any father at any moment. This makes the character in sync with the audience. Perhaps the audience does not know how they should feel if the things happening to Mars were ever to happen to them. But they can imagine, for any parent's biggest fear is losing their children. Mars' unstable behavior and illogical decisions can be explained this way.  
 
A far more likable character is the villain, Scott Shelby, although him being revealed as a villain is the twist the story is depending on. Shelby, as the good natured, retired, old cop who became a detective really steals the show with his selfless pursuit of the origami killer and his willingness to help people on the way. It's a great thing that the character we love most turns out to be the villain in the end. However, for other reasons we'll get into later, this does not work. 
 
The other two major characters Madison Paige and Norman Jayden do not fare as well though.  
 
As an insomniac reporter who's apparently obsessed with serial killers, Paige is potentially the most interesting character in this story. Sadly we find that she is woefully underused and thus has little impact on the story in general. Jayden appears the be the official investigator here but he's arguably the most generic character of the bunch. Jayden's investigations and inevitable conflict with the local police department usually stays at the periphery of the story. He's neither the fearless crusader of justice nor the eccentric genius this type of story requires. And his demeanor is, "weird", to put it mildly. 
 
The characters work. But do not expect to feel like you wish to see any of these characters in another story after Heavy Rain.  
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Plot Structure:

 Interesting is the word that comes to mind. On one hand Heavy Rain, utilizes interactivity as a true weapon and even tries some new stuff in interactive storytelling. Cage's rubber band idea is not bad at all in protecting the structure of the narrative. No matter what you choose the story travels to its inevitable ending. Your choices are about the journey towards that end. So while the theme and even most of the events stay the same, your choices arguably determine which perspective you'll use while you're experiencing the general theme.  
 
This is really admirable. With an equally strong story this could have been an unforgettable experience. Sadly when you peel off the interactive layer the remaining story is a mess, to say the least. 
 
The cause seems to be a genuine lack of knowledge about the genre. David Cage simply writes as a fan of mystery stories who doesn't really get how great mystery writers actually make their stories work. Instead of making research into serial killers, perhaps it would have been a better investment to make research into mystery literature. 
 
There are entire hooks and story paths which do not lead anywhere. They not only bother the audience in the end but also actively produce plot holes. In one interview David Cage says the origami in Mars' hand is a McGuffin, something which looks like it has significance in the story but actually does not. This reveals how he has absolutely no idea of what he's talking about. 
 
First of all, the origami is not really a McGuffin. A McGuffin is a plot device which by itself may not have any significance but provides motivation for the characters. A good example would be the Maltese Falcon. Everyone tries to possess it but we do not even see what it actually is, for the story is about the relationship between the characters. It is also possible to say R2D2 or more accurately the plans of the death star is a McGuffin which initiates the whole story about Luke becoming a Jedi. The origami is not a McGuffin. 
 
Assuming that he meant Red Herring, which is more in line with what the Origami piece is, it must be a horrible red herring. A Red Herring is something which looks like a significant clue in a mystery story but is actually irrelevant. It's a false clue. But it is essential that the audience understands how the red herring was irrelevant after all. It either has to be something so simple that it can be written off as a coincidence (like the fingerprints of a person found in the crime scene which is open to public) or it has to be explained exactly how the red herring appeared at the place it is. 
 
There is absolutely no way you can explain that origami appearing in Ethan's hand after he blacks out. Sure, maybe he got it from a guy who also happened to make origami, but this is quite far fetched and so improbable that expecting the audience to swallow this is kind of stupid. Ethan's blackouts are a real red herring. The origami is just a nasty, nasty plot hole. 
 
But these are all small problems. The bigger problem is the revelation at the end. See, mystery stories are almost like sporting events between the protagonist and the reader. Together with the protagonist we try to pick up clues and to work out who the murderer actually is. In an ideal mystery story the audience should have all the same clues as the investigator but the investigator should still be able to solve the mystery because he's way more smarter than the audience. In the end there should be an "Ah-ha!" moment. Everything should click together and the audience should go "Of course!! It all makes sense." You should feel like the solution has been staring at you all the time. 
 
In Heavy Rain, the solution comes from the left field. When the murderer is revealed you do not go "Ah-ha!!" you just go "Huh?!?". Because up until the point the mystery is revealed there is next to no clues to suggest Shelby is the origami killer. We then get a flashback scene which contains almost every single clue in one tight spot, rendering the whole story irrelevant. It is as if the author wants to justify why Shelby really is the murderer. It's cool that he does that but it is really horrible writing doing this after the murderer is revealed. We are expected to link Shelby's work in uncovering and obtaining clues about the murderer to him being the murderer himself, when in fact his plan is far too convoluted to make sense. This is slightly similar to Hobbes turning out to be the traitor in Wing Commander 3.  
 
This is a bad mystery story which misses a lot of opportunities provided by the great setup. Still the interactive structure saves it a bit, managing to get the audience involved in the story more than they would be involved if this was a book or a movie. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Craftsmanship:

 Sadly, this is where it all really falls apart. Heavy Rain, features some of the worst writing for an original English script. Cage may be fluent in English but writing an actual story is entirely different matter. Perhaps he's a really good writer in French, but this script leaves a lot to be desired.  
 
Many things will sound weird to native speakers. I mean, they sound weird to me even if I am NOT a native speaker of the English language. The dialog actually stands between the audience and the characters. The fact that most characters are voiced by French people also doesn't make much sense to me. Even though they are quite good as foreigners speaking English, the accent quickly distracts you. I am baffled by this choice. How hard could it be to get British or American actors to do the voice work?  
 
Visuals are functional but nothing stands out. Camera work is quite standard in terms of video games and way behind the likes of Uncharted 2 in which the camera really enhances the whole scene. The music itself is technically good but you won't remember any melodies. 
 
This is not a disaster in the magnitude of some Japanese RPGs and if you can ignore some cringe worthy moments the writing is functional I guess. But so is the writing on a street sign. I believe we do need something more in a mature story like this. 
 
Rating: 0 out of 2 
 
 
OVERALL: 4 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment", "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2", "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves", "Brütal Legend", "Heavy Rain" 

NEXT REVIEW: "Alan Wake"  
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