Heavy Rain: A Gaming Revolution?

Heavy Rain, the Playstation 3 exclusive coming out February 26, is going to change the way people think about games. That’s right. I said it, and I’ll say it again: Heavy Rain is going to change how people think about video games (yes, even you) and it may very well alter the medium forever.

What is Heavy Rain, exactly? It’s been described as an adventure game, along the lines of titles such as Grim Fandango or Day of the Tentacle. The game’s story centres around a serial killer (dubbed the origami killer because duh, he leaves an origami figure with his victims), whom you pursue over the course of the game. Writer/Director David Cage has described the game as a “film noire thriller,” while others have simply dubbed it an interactive film.

So is Heavy Rain even a game? Kind of.

"Don't you tell me what a video game can't do, pal!"

Users control their character, making them move by holding down the R2 button and steering them with the right analogue stick. The left analogue stick is used to perform context-sensitive actions. Walk by a chair, for instance, and you’ll see a small white arrow pointing down; flick your thumbstick, and your character sits.

Dialogue plays out similarly. During conversations, one-word phrases float around the player. Press the corresponding button, and your character will do or say something based on that word.

But that’s about as traditional as the game gets. While you control your character’s movement and select their dialogue, you can’t make your character do anything and everything you want. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto.

Unlike many games on the current market, you won’t be creating an avatar, nor will you be playing as a faceless grunt/rookie/whatever. Instead, you’ll play as one of four characters, ranging from a drug-addicted cop to an emotionally-broken father. These are characters in the more traditional sense, characters with preset tendencies to act and feel certain ways, to say and do certain things.

Granted, “traditional” characters are nothing new to video games. There have been some terrific game characters over the last two decades, characters who’ve made us laugh, cringe, or tear up (for those of us comfortable enough to admit it). On that same note, story-telling isn’t new to games either, nor is having control over the narrative (Fallout, anyone?) So what’s the big deal with Heavy Rain?

The big deal is that Cage and his team at Quantic Dream have re-imagined how a video game essentially functions. Video games, traditionally, move forward as players complete certain actions: killing their enemies, collecting gold coins, or getting through a checkpoint. If a game is “story-driven,” the story is given to the player in chunks, only after they kill X amount of enemies, or reach location Y. Take the recent Dragon Age: Origins, which has been lauded for its story and characters; even Bioware’s latest falls into a sort of story-action-story sandwich.

Porn movies are structured in exactly the same way,” said Cage, referring to the alternation between story and “action” in games during a 2008 interview with Gamasutra. “Most video games are done like that. It’s one thing to do a great cutscene, even if it’s real time. It’s another thing to try to tell the story as you play, so the story’s not told through cutscenes — it’s told through gameplay.”

And that’s what’s revolutionary about Heavy Rain: The story and the gameplay are one and the same. The player doesn’t travel along the narrative (occasionally touching down to make a decision or choose a line of dialogue), but rather participates in it fully. Instead of having players battle their way through numerous baddies to unlock a scene of dialogue or dramatic action, the game makes these moments the very things to battle through.

For instance, take the scene from Detective Scott Shelby’s section, when a gunman holds up a gas station you just so happen to be in. You’ll hold R1 and R2 to raise your hands, and at the same time, press buttons for corresponding lines of dialogue, which swirl about your player. The words move quickly and are difficult to read, increasing the pressure as the gunman grows impatient. In the demo I watched, Shelby gently talked the gunman down, though it’s possible to imagine what would happen if the player had been more aggressive.

The action of the scene is different from what we’re used to in video games, but it’s still heart-pumping and engaging (more so, I’d say, than shooting 500 near-identical bad-guys). It’s through this kind of gameplay that the player can  progress through the story while shaping it simultaneously.

I use the term shaping because you can’t really compromise the narrative of Heavy Rain. All possible actions for the game are limited by the game’s script. According to Cage, this isn’t meant to be a “sandbox” game. You can’t walk into the street and start beating people up. Your actions and dialogue are limited to what makes sense in terms of the narrative.

At the same time, Heavy Rain promises a unique experience for each player. There seem to be numerous variations that the player can make in each scene, which affect the course of the game (not to mention the fact that the main characters can die depending on how you play). While a character’s actions will be restricted to their personality, you can still choose what range of their personality to exhibit. So, while as Detective Shelby you can’t jump on top of a counter or punch old ladies in the face, you can still choose to act aggressively or compassionately toward a young man trying to rob a gas station.

I know some readers (perhaps many) will take issue with my using the term revolutionary in describing Heavy Rain. Many of the game’s devices have appeared elsewhere. Context-sensitive controls are nothing new, and even the game’s stylized split-screen approach (which allow the player to see the action from several angles) was used in the studio’s last game, Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, state-side).

The game borrows stylistically from Quantic Dream's last project, "Indigo Prophecy."

But as Cage is quick to point out in numerous interviews, nothing is created from scratch. “When photography started, they didn’t invent everything,” he said in the same interview with Gamasutra. “They started copying painting. When cinema started, they started to copy from photography and theatre. When television started, they started to copy cinema.”

While each new medium relies on its predecessor for forms and ideas, it eventually becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It becomes a new medium. That is what’s happening with Heavy Rain. It’s borrowing from the best of video games, film, and literature, and it’s making something exciting and new. It’s forging a new medium for story-telling.

In a recent interview, Cage said he doesn’t consider Heavy Rain a video game any more, “because it breaks most of the paradigms.” It’s a fair sentiment, a similar one to why Cage doesn’t want his game to be called an interactive film. Still, the video game industry could do well to claim Heavy Rain for itself, not necessarily as an example of what games can do, but as a possible evolution for the medium.

I predict Heavy Rain is going to have two responses. Some people are going to love it, and some people are going to hate it (pretty insightful, eh?). And, whether you love it or hate it, your reason will hinge on the game’s privileging of story. If you love this game, its a sign that storytelling doesn’t only belong in video games, but can drive the entire experience, can be the experience. On the other hand, you might decide that storytelling has no real place in games.

Whatever you reaction, it’s going to say a lot about your expectations from the medium, and your belief in the medium’s potential. In that respect, this game is going to say a lot about the medium itself.

That’s why I’m calling this game, for the third time (fourth, if you count the title), a revolution. Heavy Rain is going to be a title that designers think about every time they’re at the drawing board from now on, either as something to emulate or stay away from. No matter their choice, it’s good that they’ll at least be thinking about it, about story and its role in games.

Heavy Rain will be released February 26 for the Playstation 3. Stay tuned to see if it changes the face of gaming. Forever.

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Written by Robert L.

18 comments

  1. I approve of your use of the word “revolutionary”! The aspects of Heavy Rain may not be new, but by combining it in this particular way, like no game has done before, makes it something new. And if other companies look at Heavy Rain as inspiration to yet again create something revolutionary, then the term has indeed been used correctly. I am very curious about this game, it has kind of slipped my attention because of the enormous amount of games coming out. But reading this definitely got my attention, an interesting game to say the least.

  2. As Cage said,

    ‘Heavy Rain isn’t a video game any more, “because it breaks most of the paradigms.”‘

    I totally agree with you using ‘revolution’ as a term which aptly describes the game…

  3. karooo /

    great article, thanks 😀

  4. Matt S /

    Being a fan on Cage’s previous entry in the video game world, I am looking forward to this titles; like the last, I expect an interesting story involving interesting characters. The controls are gonna make or break this title for many….let’s hope its a success!

  5. Senpai_Sakura /

    I completey agree with the article. when the wright brothers first build their plane they were probably mocked, i mean how can bicycle makers fly….today we cant function without air travel, and yet it was copied from nature, animals, other people trying to fly…..so i see nothing wrong with taking from the past to create for the future.

    i wish more games can become more story driven, most of my gaming experience i hold close at heart is definately not the fragfest online modern warfares, no its more the uncharted,dragon age,mass effect, ff, and i simply cannot wait for heavy rain at least to me it will be a revolution

    great article and people try this game, dont look at it as q-time events you will be missingout on something sooo great, really how many times do you get the chance to shape a world with such rich interactivity?

  6. doa766 /

    “you’ll play as one of four characters”

    not really, you’ll control all four characters on a single play through

  7. tarbis /

    Everything comes from copying, but that does not mean it’s bad. It’s good, ‘coz you copy and you improve it, that’s what makes it even better. Heavy Rain is gonna be one of those games that’s gonna be a pioneer in creating a new gaming genre. And I’m one of those gonna take part of that. =D

  8. GreenBirdo /

    I for one accept “revolutions” if you want to call this piece of entertainment that. I have my pre-order of the EU special edition and I expect to thoughroughly enjoy it. Fahrenheit was like this, not as polished nor as refined in gameplay or story, but it was like this. It was the first cog, the first member of the revolution.

    Quantic Dream has been brewing a storm to unleash hell on all those that are used to the staples that have become necessary for all games to be called games. Cover mechanics, regenerative health and all those fun things that yes make the game fun and enjoyable, but many developers these days focus on those highly un-needed gameplay mechanics and forget about the story. These days you have very little to fight for and the excuse that a cutscene is good enough reward is not working, not for me atleast.

    What I see in Heavy Rain is innovation. Cinematographers will praise the innovation they call the projector. Writers will praise the creation of paper and the household computer. For Game Developers I can see them in 10 years time giving Heavy Rain the same praise for changing the landscape of digital entertainment forever. We have seen it already as gaming now moves into that late teenage phase, it’s getting rebelious. Infinity Ward recently proved that with the ‘No Russian’ airport murder mission, other games are also trying to break out with nudity, profanity and extreme violence.

    What gaming is asking for is what all teensagers ask for.

    “Treat me like an adult, I am ready and most importantly respect me for what I am”.

    Gaming is now at that level and I feel Heavy Rain is the metamorphosis into adulthood, it will be the digital equivelant of people recognising gaming has grown up. It has been a long road and people aren’t going to accept Heavy Rain, but to be honest it is their loss as Heavy Rain will truly be mesmerising.

  9. i really can not wait for heavy rain because of its something i have not played before and we have not had that for a long, long time!
    seriously, look at all the games released in the last few years there all the same, thats fine and dandy but i need something different, a change every once and a while.

    only thing im worried about heavy rain is if you die thats it your character is dead and you move on.
    but what if i want to continue where i was at, what if i actually want to finish that sequence?
    will i have a retry option?
    like the E3 09 demo for example say i got crushed in the car will i have the option or will the game go on.
    if the game goes on what if i want to go back and find out what happens if i make it out the car.
    im not going to replay the whole game again making sure every decision i make is exactly the same just so i can find out what would of happened if i made it out that car.
    theres to many what if’s.
    i think davids response to that would be just play the game again.
    well, id love to but your games not the only one coming out i want to play.
    IF heavy rain truly delivers on the your actions have consequences and i say IF because many have made that promise GTA IV springs to mind.
    IF it does reach that promise and it does allow you to go back to each sequence than i can see this getting GOTY.
    i think it could be that big, it has the power but will it reach it?

    • half_empty80 /

      I don’t think there will be any retry options in game, other than perhaps reloading an earlier save. David Cage has been quoted as saying he only wants people to play through the game once (!) so they get their own unique story version. Every choice or action you take will shape the way the game plays out, probably without the chance to undo it, unless the story itself revisits the topic later (in a sort of Are you sure? type thing I guess)

      • dam thats disappointing.
        that makes no seance though.
        he only wants us to play the game once, but theres so many different paths you can go down changing what will happen.
        so if we did that technically speaking we would only experience a small portion of the game.
        hopefully the game lets us save it when we want like darksiders and not like army of two the 40th day.
        i hate it when games do not allow you to save your game whenever you want.

        • GreenBirdo /

          Just because the director says that doesn’t mean you have to. It would be like Christopher Nolan making a movie and saying only watch it once otherwise the magic is lost. You aren’t going to listen to him as you want your money spent to go a long way.

          What David Cage wants people to do is to take the deaths as that. Not every scene is going to end in death if you make a mistake. That scene where Norman Jayden ends up in a car can be bypassed, same as another take on that scene see’s Norman Jatden fighting the man infront of a moving vehicle. All of these are by products of messing up the quick time events.

          You have in many cases numerous chances to mess up before they start getting harsh and pushing you towards a death scene, but that is the game David Cage wants this to be the first game where death is truly final. While people can mess up his work and save before the scene starts and re-load if they die, he doesn’t want that because he wants the gamer to feel real emotions.

          He wants you to feel real fear as your character is in a situation where he/she is about to die. If you are being held at gunpoint by an agitated gunman, he wants you to feel nervous and start to panic as your characters life really hangs in the balance. Sure not every scene has life or death moments, quite a few I imagine will be living the life of that character. I know some scenes of Ethan Mars are just him and his son in his house, you can turn lights on and off, make food and play basketball, but that is what this game is.

          David Cage wants it to be an experience he doesn’t want you to treat it like Darksiders (amazing game though, right?), he wants you to be immersed and feel the connection with the characters, so much so when something goes wrong you really do feel bad though when something goes right you feel joy and happiness. That is what Heavy Rain is.

          • half_empty80 /

            Perhaps it would be a better experience with multiple playthroughs, trying different options, but not using reloads when something you didn’t want to have happen did. In that way there would still be the sense of permenance to the choices and story branches, which is the intention of the game, but you woudl see more of the different story sections.

  10. half_empty80 /

    I am so excited about this game. Some of my favorite games are adventure types. This promises to be so different, I hope they pull it off. I love the idea of no cutscenes. Why should the story be told like that? You’re already seeing what’s happening as you play. Good article.

  11. KrazyFace /

    Crackin’ article! I’ve been watching this for a while now, and loved Farhenheit too, though I did only play through it once Heavy Rain looks like it’s on the same wavelength and about to make some big shakes.

    Good read.

  12. Oni-Samurai /

    I hope they include something which can show you what paths you have taken in the game (once completed) so we know when we’ve explored every possible path, kinda like onimusha 2 after completing the game you get an option to see the branches the story could have diverted down.

  13. Kevin M /

    Really looking forward to playing this game. I grew up playing Lucasarts adventure games, and this looks like the next logical evolution of the genre. At long last a game for adults that doesn’t involve shooting as the main gameplay mechanic. I really hope Sony markets it well and people buy it, as I’m getting a bit jaded playing FPS after FPS.

  14. I got around to trying the demo for Heavy Rain last night and was very impressed. Quite brave for a game of this sort to put you on the trail of a serial child murderer.

    It’s essentially a collecion of QTEs though so I’m sure it’ll put some people off. You need to have good finger dexterity for some of those multi-hold button combinations. Some of the acting is…questionable too, but I’m looking forward to the full game even more now.

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