Here there be spoilers. So, yeah…
I’m now a few chapters into Heavy Rain, and I have all kinds of exciting things to tell you. First, despite the fact that the game’s dingy, decaying urbam settings are carefully, artfully crafted, it’s an incredibly European game. It’s supposed to be set on the East Coast (somewhere, who knows where, it’s like a movie shot in Vancouver, that “takes place” in Chicago), but every single thing is French. The toilets and bathrooms are separate, the children have some kind of awful Tintin-like Tipi in their room, and all kinds of other little things are just not (to use a phrase I don’t often use) in any way American. Your average hipster Architecture family would have graduated to different racist presents for their kids, I’d think. Casual racism towards Native Americans (of this strange, twice diluted variety, not in the garden variety, institutionalized, brutal way we practice it here in the US) is a specialty of the French, it would seem (watch the movie Cliente, if you want a lesson in this particular brand of bizarre second-hand bigotry). This serves to undermine the (obviously incredibly careful) work that has gone into world-building in Heavy Rain. Instead of Somewhere, America, it feels like some kind of surreal, Prisoner-like sham is constantly underway. You aren’t really in America, you’re trapped in a not-quite perfectly realized version of America that hides a dark dystopian reality… Or something.
Really though, I find most of that quite charming (although if this game replicates Heavy Rain‘s treatment of African American’s, I’ll be forced to amend that judgment), much like I find the odd, all-over-the-place voice acting to be charming, in its mostly appropriate but always tonally off way. If you play with French subtitles, the sense of living in Mirror Universe America is strengthened, excellently. Unsurprisingly, the game is also incredibly worried about the possibility of the destruction of a happy bourgeois life. They’re all just so happy, but the, their suburban paradise is destroyed! Destroyed, so that they’re forced to move into a scary, poor part of town. Oh no.
The action scenes are really quit fun. I’m not sure what everyone is complaining about when it comes to Heavy Rain‘s controls. They’re too abstract, or something? They’re not like “real” game controls? It’s really unclear. I understand Edge’s issues (article linked here) with the game: button cues are sometimes inexpertly presented or represented… But then there are the reviews that delight in pointing out that the game isn’t always an action game, that it isn’t always “thrilling.” From the Destructoid review (link here):
Fortunately, however, the game’s many boring moments are offset by some of the most intense and sometimes terrifying sequences ever found in a game.
Actually, I’m happy to play games that actually try to inexpertly create an in-game “normal,” only to destroy that normal with the abnormal. Even if action/fighting are a common thing in a game, it’s nice to know that games can tell stories (however badly) with something that isn’t a gun or a fist. Let’s move on to this peculiar nugget of wisdom, again from the Destructoid review:
the very fact that Quantic Dream even attempts a serial killer story in a videogame is worthy of respect.
Really? They are? Actually, I wish they hadn’t. It’s not a genre I find compelling in any media, and it seems to me (from the story so far) that they’ve used it to pigeon-hole their narrative into a rather narrow, uninventive (aside from the TWISTS) space. It just means that their dark gray pallet comes from Poverty and Crime, and not Aliens and Space.
Ultimately, Heavy Rain is an experiment that both succeeded and failed, when it could easily have been a total success if the brains behind it weren’t trying so hard to be smart, and cared more about providing a sensible plot as opposed to a shocking one.
Well then… It’s like some kind of paradox, right? It’s one thing, and the other. I’m trying to remember where I read it, but someone (Quinns from RPS?) recently pointed out that saying that a game was “trying too hard to be smart” was a rather large journalistic mistake. First of all, how many mainstream games “try to be smart” in a way that doesn’t include Retro Chic and Art Deco, Cover mechanics, or Moral Choices? How many? None of them! Personally, I think the fact that the writing behind Heavy Rain was done by someone who actually had an abiding interest in something interesting is almost revolutionary. It’s not a game based on the insipid, stupid ramblings of an asshole, couched in the obvious struggles of robotic fathers and mutated sons (similar to Heavy Rain, I’ll admit), and it’s not a thrice-regurgitated, stupidly self-referential attempt at gravity, bombast, or “morality.” It may be badly written (edit: I can now safely say that it is badly written), have bad voice acting (I actually like the French voice work, although any Francophones in the audience can mock me for that), and traffic in clichés, but it’s still not a story about a Man who Travels through a Dangerous Shooting Gallery to Save his Girlfriend/City/Ship/People/World. Just in that, it’s (sadly) somewhat unique among video games. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
You know what is annoying about Heavy Rain? The awful, badly-explained difficulty setting. I spent a minute or two figuring out which was hard and which wasn’t. Likewise, the way many scenes always end one way or another (their “choices” are in no way choices) is pretty transparent, even to a first-time player. That’s the kind of thing we should be critiquing. Making fun of a game simply because it isn’t like what you think “games” should be is a pretty arrogant, foolish thing to do. I’d like to think that no one is that arrogant, to think that they can guard the gates of Gaming High Culture, but I’m obviously wrong. I’ll leave this one in the hands of Corvus Elrod (link to Semionaut’s Notebook!):
1a) If I ever suggest there is only one “correct” method of telling stories with video games–smack me.
1b) If I ever suggest that there should only be one method of examining any media–smack me again.
Let’s add a third, silent point there: If I ever suggest that there is only one “correct” method of controlling games and game characters, smack me. Yes, I think that should do it nicely.
This might be a good time to say that I’m really digging Call of Pripyat and Neptune’s Bounty. So much. More on those two later this week.
[Edit]: I just finished the first part where you play as Madison, and it was pretty bad. It’s a creepy, highly sexualized home assault where Madison gets attacked by a bunch of masked men, one of whom then slits her throat (but it’s a dream!). Of course, she does this all in her underwear, or naked, or in post-shower underwear again. It’s so obviously, cheaply about the threat of gynocide (BSG example linky) and rape. It really telegraphs the level of sophistication that went into writing parts (or all?) of this game. Fantastique.