Heavy Rain: Spoilertastic Thoughts

I was only a few hours into the game when I wrote my first post on Heavy Rain, so I thought it might be nice to revisit the game. In short, I loved the game. It’s not without its faults, but my first playthrough was about as good as I could have hoped for. If you haven’t played the game and it sounds like it might be your thing, definitely go play the game. Don’t read anything about it, don’t consult gamefaqs, and definitely don’t attempt to replay the chapters. I think that’s the best way to play the game, and I think some of its finest qualities can be impacted by treating it like every other game. The rest of this post will contain spoilers, though I’ll put most of the egregious spoilers into the extended entry.

I don’t want to fully retread everything I said in my initial thoughts, but I think that post holds up and my feelings haven’t changed much. I was initially suspicious of the choose your own adventure aspects of the story, but for the most part, I was wrapped up enough in the story to not really notice the limitations. I wasn’t sure if the controller scheme would hold up throughout the entire game, and it does grate at times. It was done well enough that it didn’t entirely detract from the game, and there are definitely times when the controls were very well executed. The control scheme is probably the most obvious flaw in the game, and the one that would probably turn off the most people, but in the end, it worked well enough for me. The “thought” mechanic was basically pointless, but it’s also completely optional. Visually spectacular, but not to Avatar levels. Voice acting is terrible and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, but it wasn’t bad enough to completely pull me out of the experience.

A big deal was made about the game’s mature themes. By “mature”, I don’t mean violence or sex, though both are present in the game. There’s real emotion at the core of the story, and it plays out well. It doesn’t really approach the great serial killer movies like Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs though. It’s more like the middle-tier thrillers that were popular in the 90s, like Kiss the Girls or The Bone Collector. Or perhaps a really good X-Files episode. This isn’t really meant as a slight. It’s not a great story, but neither is it a really bad story.

I suppose I should disclose that my first playthrough did not come to a happy ending. Some of my characters did die. And you know what? I thought that was great. I’ve since replayed the game and tried to get a bunch of the other endings, and I honestly think that the first ending I got was the best I’ve seen so far (more about this later). Alas, in replaying the game, some of it’s limitations become even more clear. I’ll leave it at that for now. The extended entry will contain more detailed descriptions of my favorite moments in the game as well as some more detailed discussion about the game’s limitations and where I hope gaming is going…

So far, I’ve been kinda light on the spoilers, but the below contains massive spoilers and should be avoided if you haven’t played the game yet.

  • I have to admit that I was fooled by the first chapter featuring the character of Madison Paige. In short, Madison wakes up in her apartment, you walk her around a bit and then you’re attacked by a bunch of masked men. There’s a QTE fight sequence that quickly gets pretty complicated (in terms of the number of buttons pressed and the amount of time you have to press them) and then… she dies. But wait! It turns out that the whole sequence was a dream! It’s a trope we’ve all seen a billion times in horror movies and thrillers, but my heart was pounding and when the chapter ended, I was really shocked at what had just transpired. It’s the sort of thing that would seem hackneyed and unacceptable in a movie, but that worked really well in the game. Presumably the addition of interactivity makes cliches like this acceptable. Or perhaps it’s just that I’ve never seen this sort of thing in a game before – I have to wonder if future games would be able to pull this sort of thing off…
  • The moment of the game that is most frequently referenced by people who love the game is the scene in the police station when Ethan is being questioned by the police. A couple chapters previous to this scene, you control Ethan as he attempts to play with his son at a park. At the end of that sequence, Ethan blacks out and ends up a few blocks away, holding a piece of Origami. He runs back to the park, but he can’t find his son. The next chapter after that, you’re playing the FBI Agent as he researches the Origami killer at a police station. As that chapter ends, the camera pans over to a desk and you see Ethan being questioned by the police. They ask you simple questions: What time were you at the park? What was your son wearing? And so on. It’s very unnerving. The way the game handles such moments is to put up a few possible responses (associated with various buttons), but they’re not just floating around you as normal. When you’re in high pressure situations like this, they become wobbly and hard to read. It makes what is already a tense situation almost unbearable. It’s a really effective tactic, and this was one of the best parts of the game.
  • Of course, Ethan’s blackout is also one of my biggest complaints with the story. In short, it makes no sense. There’s no real reason for the blackouts, and the origami figure that’s in his hand is only there to mislead the person playing the game. The writers attempt to make it a red herring, but it’s a lazy and manipulative one because there’s no real explanation that would make any sense here.
  • Speaking of the killer, it turns out that the killer is always the same character, no matter how you play the game. On the one hand, I think this is a missed opportunity. There are a number of red herrings strewn throughout the game (some more successful than the aforementioned blackouts), but the game doesn’t really follow through on any of them. Now, I liked when the killer was revealed in the game and everything, but it would have been really interesting if the game adapted and chose a different character as the killer depending on your actions. I realize this is probably unrealistic in terms of time and budget for a game like this though, and one thing I will say is that playing the game once really does imply a greater flexibility in the game than is really there. So while playing the game for the first time, you don’t know enough about what’s going to happen to say what impact your actions had on the story. My assumption during that first playthrough was that almost everything was important. After replaying the game, I saw how limited the game was. When I first played through the game, I thought that maybe I had seen 40-60% of the content in the game. It turns out that it was more like 80%, and even then, the story had basically the same trajectory.
  • I made a lot of “mistakes” in the game, and I think that was actually a good thing. I mentioned in my first post how one of the interesting things about this game is that it actually lets you make mistakes in the first place, and after playing the game, I think that’s one of it’s biggest successes. This may be the first game I ever played where getting everything right isn’t actually that great. In my case, I loved that I accidentally created the world’s worst FBI agent by failing a couple of the quicktime events or picking the “wrong” option during one of those tense situations. The FBI agent has something of a drug problem, and you’re confronted by this a few times in the game. You can choose to hold out, or you can give in and take the drugs. I think I managed to avoid taking the drugs the first time, but I got flustered and accidentally took them twice later in the game. Then there was the time I was interviewing a suspect and, uh, kinda shot him in the face. I didn’t really mean to, but it was one of those tense situations and I panicked and shot the guy. This is one of the great things about the game though. In any other game, that would be a failure state and would cause me to have to replay the scene or something. In this game, I have to live with the consequences of my actions. I have to admit that I was expecting more consequences from that particular shooting though. While replaying the game, I managed to not shoot him and was kinda surprised to see that the result was mostly the same. There was one additional scene stuck in, but otherwise, the results were the same as if I’d shot him.
  • During my first playthrough, I actually managed to keep all my characters alive long enough to make it to the final chapter in the game. However, once there, I failed a number of things. I did succeed in saving Ethan’s son, which was relieving, but while my FBI agent was fighting the killer on some sort of weird conveyer belt thing, I failed a bunch of QTE’s, leading to the FBI agent’s grisly death (he basically fell into a giant woodchipper thingy). Because of this, the killer got away. Meanwhile, Ethan saved his son, and was about to leave the building. Outside, the cops, who think Ethan’s the killer, have already surrounded the building. Madison arrives and attempts to help Ethan… or she would, if I didn’t fail the QTEs. As such, Madison gets arrested and when Ethan opens the door, he ends up getting shot by the police. It was a very tragic, very emotional part of the game for me, but I think it’s actually better than the ones where he survives. The epilogues for this particular ending were great too. The killer ends up getting his comeuppance, courtesy of one of the other side characters in the game (it’s a satisfying end to the killer’s arc). Madison writes a book, and while at a signing, she seemingly runs into another serial killer who things she deserves a more challenging opponent or somesuch (we’ll presumably find out in Heavy Rain 2). Norman Jaden (the FBI agent) is dead, but his non-friend at the police picks up Jaden’s sicence-fiction super-glasses and enters a virtual reality world… and then Jaden mysteriously shows up which is really strange (in a good way). Ethan’s son has a sad scene with Madison and his mother at the cemetary. All in all, I think it was a fantastic ending.
  • I replayed the game once with the intention of letting the serial killer win the game (thus earning the “Perfect Crime” trophy), and then used various chapter controls to replay individual chapters to see what would happen if I varied my responses in certain situations. As previously mentioned, this pretty much broke the spell of the game in that you begin to see how limited the branching possibilities really are in the game. The first time playing through the game, you feel like every choice has weighty consequences. The second time, I found out that a lot of things didn’t have much in the way of consequences at all. This is a bit disappointing, but I have to admit that I’ve never played a game that made me feel this way before. I really hope that future games manage to figure out a way to create more divergent paths and branching choices. Again, I realize this sort of thing has to be difficult and expensive to develop and I imagine it would be difficult to work on a game where any one playthrough would only reveal a small portion of the game… by design. And yet, that would be pretty awesome if someone could manage it.

That about wraps up Heavy Rain for now. In the end, it’s a really interesting game, perhaps the most interesting of this generation, even if it does have its flaws.