Full disclosure: The above title is not strictly true. This is a What We’re Playing entry, but I actually played Heavy Rain months ago, and am only just now getting around to talking about it. I’ll also mention up-front that I could only stand a couple of hours of yelling at it before I crammed it back into the envelope and eased my pain with Bayonetta. Which is saying something. I’ll talk about Bayonetta later, because I found my opinion of the game interesting and unexpected.
But anyway. Today is Heavy Rain. For those that get upset when a reviewer doesn’t finish a game before talking about it, relax—I’m not a reviewer. This is not a review. This is a collection of thoughts, an opinion. I don’t feel obligated to slog through hours and hours of a game just to justify my opinion as a designer about it. If said game is that bad up front, that’s the game’s failing, not mine, to be frank. And, yeah. I found Heavy Rain that bad. Ambitious, sure. But bad.
You Just Don’t Understand My Vision, Man!
The major criticism I’ve gotten from other people about my dislike of the game comes from a feeling that I either don’t understand or don’t appreciate what David Cage is going for. The problem with this criticism is that I do understand what Heavy Rain is going for. And I do appreciate the attempt. The problem is I understand it too well, if anything. Heavy Rain is not a game. It’s an attempt at a work of interactive fiction more than anything, a natural progression from Cage’s previous work, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy. This changes the way we have to look at it. And unfortunately, it changes the things that Heavy Rain needs to do well and the quality level necessary to do it well.
There are, to my mind, three things that a work of interactive fiction strives to do well: One, narrative. The narrative put forth is largely the point of the exercise. This is different than a game, where the gameplay and experience of play is the cornerstone of doing the work well. Second, the interaction with the story and the world are very important. This needs to be as smooth as possible and provide the player with agency within it. Finally, the whole point of choosing interactive fiction over the more traditional variety is to produce a sense of immersion into it. This last point largely comes from the successes of the other two.
Quite frankly, Heavy Rain isn’t good at any of these points. It seems far to much time was invested into improving on Indigo Prophecy graphically to nail the underlying issues of importance, because the game is visually quite nice, but everything else feels like steps backward, or motionless at best. And I say the game, despite my earlier contention that Heavy Rain isn’t a game, because ultimately it’s mired down by game-ish-ness. It’s not a game, but it’s been treated like one by creators and public alike, creating a DeVito Penguin-like monster-child divorced from either lineage. Which is probably a large part why I couldn’t stand it. It isn’t a good game from a game standpoint, and it’s not a very good piece of interactive fiction from that standpoint.
The Thing About Interactive Fiction is… It’s Fiction.
Right, so… instead of rambling on, how about I talk about what bothers me about Heavy Rain. We’ll start with the narrative, which is frequently lauded by its fans. And it is a good narrative. For a game. It’s no secret that game stories aren’t exactly amazing. Most of the time, they serve as just a bit of glue to give the gameplay context outside itself. But this isn’t really a game, is it? Narrative is the point of this one. It’s not just some forgettable glue to hold together action sequences or a kinda cool context given to why you’re jumping out of a plane. The narrative here is like that of a movie or a book—without a narrative, Heavy Rain does not exist. So it’s not unreasonable to judge the story with the same kind of expectations we have for media that depend on narrative to a similar degree.
There’s nothing all that wrong with the plot. It’s a little thin, but not bad for all of that, really. The real problem is that the writing is just so, so bad in the details. It makes a lot of the sort of mistakes that are outlined in basic fiction-writing classes and interviews with writers and any number of resources existing in abundance for this sort of thing.
Heavy Rain’s story is a basically character-driven one. It launches off when our protagonist’s son goes missing and gets hit by a car. Traumatic stuff, and we, the audience should really feel that moment. But… sorry, no, I didn’t feel it at all. It was just something that happened. I even seem to recall cracking some snide comment about it at the time. But, and Syd will be happy to tell you, it’s not because I’m some unfeeling beast of an insensitive man. No, quite frankly, I just didn’t care about the characters. I had no reason to. Nothing about the introduction of the game gave me any real reason to care, at all, about the man who lost his son, or his wife, or the other kid. Isn’t “The audience should care about the characters and what happens to them” a basic premise of fictive literature in general?
Then there’s other odds and ends that fall into cliché, but don’t give any reason to accept the cliché as anything greater. After the death, Ethan and his wife are separated, the other kid is distant. Yeah, we saw this coming, didn’t we? And on its own, it’s fine. Nothing wrong with it. But as an audience/player/whatever, we’re expected to just accept that this happens. We’re not given any logical progression from “basically vaguely happy maybe but I can’t really tell actually” family life to “separated and the kid hates him”. No real reasons other than “kid died”. Where as human beings, we realize that it’s equally possible for these traumas to pull a family together. Again, I don’t care about their problems, because we’ve got a cognitive disjoint from one end of the story segment to the other. This would have been a good place for some character building and making me care about what’s happened. But no. Similarly, our FBI agent gets his intro, and oh look, he has a drug addiction. I’ve never seen that before. Here’s another thing I’m probably not going to care about.
Part of me says I should listen to people that say “give it more time!” and such. That oh, maybe they fill in those gaps and I’m being unfair. But I’m going to be brutally honest here. Good stories hook early. Good stories don’t insist you stick around through bad storytelling to get to the good storytelling. I’ve already given you an hour or two to get good. You should have at least shown some promise in the first fifteen minutes, tops, not failed at investing me into the story.
It’s interesting to note that in the scene following the death, there are two cartoon shorts on the television, which can be watched in their entirety. One is Pyrats and the other is Voodoo. Both, I believe, are student shorts from the Gobelins animation department. Both also, in my opinion, do a better job of storytelling and character than the work they appear in. Watching them at the time made me wish I was playing a Pyrats game instead. No, really.
The Other Thing About Interactive Fiction is… It’s Interactive.
There are two major facets to the interactive part of things, at least as far as talking about what I think is wrong with them goes. The first is in the interaction with the narrative, and the second is with the actual interface. I’ll hit them in that order.
When I think “interactive story”, I think—as I suspect most people do—of a narrative where not only do my actions explore that story, but also where the story reacts to my action. A story that includes agency for the audience. A Choose Your Own Adventure book, for example, does it through a wildly branching story spread out over pages. And Heavy Rain does this to a degree, most notably towards the end. But by and large, interaction with the story comes from being along for the ride and playing it out, just as I would in, say, Final Fantasy 13. That works okay for FF13, or Gears of War because the game isn’t about interacting with the story. It’s playing through the RPG, or shooting things. But the same is not true of Heavy Rain, is it? Heavy Rain is all about experiencing the story. But it’s all about doing so the same way that we already do in film or a book. As a passive observer, NOT as a co-conspirator or even a discoverer.I can’t choose what I see—I can only see what the creators have deemed worth my time. Which apparently is a whole lot of mundane annoying stuff. I don’t particularly enjoy brushing my teeth in reality. I fail to see what entertainment purpose brushing Ethan’s by waggling a controller around can possibly have. And no, seriously, why all the drawing-out of mundane, boring tasks? Is this meant to distract me from the complete lack of any interesting interaction with the story? Because it’s kind of doing the opposite.
As an illustrative example, go fire up a new game of HR. Now. Try to play it out as if Ethan’s woken up hungry. Bad news: you can’t go downstairs without showering first. No, you really can’t. It won’t let you, no matter how hard you try. That’s not interactive narrative. that is a movie trying to disguise itself as an interactive experience by making you jump through hoops to get the next bit of plot. Heavy Rain actually strikes me most as, despite all claims of being something totally new and groundbreaking, being a slightly-branching adventure game with the UI rendered in 3D and the occasional Quick Time Event. Adventure games are not new. Lucasarts did them about 100x better starting over 20 years ago, and Telltale Games does them considerably better right now at half the price. Branching endgame narrative is also nothing new. Wing Commander had branching story based on win/loss conditions of particular missions back in 1990. I am almost certain we’ve even had a branching adventure game before, but I can’t think of one offhand. The point is, interactive fiction? Fiction, sure. Interactive, debatable at best.
And then there’s the other part of interaction. The interface. The means through which we, the user/audience, affect the story (or pretend to). This was a BIG DEAL for Heavy Rain. Much-touted as being groundbreaking and amazing and totally different. Somehow we’re expected to accept that moving an icon from a 2D colored HUD to a monochrome 3D surface makes it TOTALLY different from the context action icons and Quick Time Events of Zelda or God of War or WET or very likely dozens of other titles that use functionally the exact same UI scheme.
Honestly, the grandstanding about the interface being totally different and amazing wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if that interface wasn’t also BAD. But it is. Sure, it looks nice, but is it useable? Frequently, the answer is “no”.
When a character has things they might like to think about, words associated with those thoughts flit about them in a little cloud, each with its own button. They move around, slide behind objects in the scene (like the character!), and make it frequently somewhat difficult to actually read them. With the result that the character sits there for several seconds while you chase them around with your eyes trying to figure out what all you’re looking at.
Similarly, there’s an infuriating habit of interaction icons being turned at an oblique angle to the camera, making it difficult or outright impossible to see what one needs to do with the controller without moving around to get a better angle on it. For added fun, all the icons are white. They don’t always contrast with the scene well (in fact, they frequently fail to). And, as a final nail in the coffin, several of the interactions look nearly identical, especially if they aren’t facing you. Press a button versus hold a button, for instance, or fast versus slow stick movements.
Nowhere is the pain quite as evident for me than in the sections of the game that feature Quick Time Events. Here, not only do you have to find where in the environment they’ve chosen to stick the action prompt icon, not only do you have to figure out what it wants you to do and perform it, you also have to do it in a short period of time, which is pretty much just entirely a recipe for irritation. Especially in a title that, by its nature, leads one to expect that twitch-skill is not going to play into it. I’ve got good reflexes, even now that I’m getting older, but it doesn’t help to sit down for an experience that promises sedate, unhurried action and still throws these things at you with the added bonus of an interface that works against you.
So, What’s the Thing About Immersion?
Well, in a lot of ways, it’s already been answered. The story just isn’t that well-written, which prevents a certain amount of investment into what is, after all, the primary reason to stick the disc in at all. There’s no real sense of player agency in the story, which blocks investment into it even more. The interface works against you, so even if you don’t mind the story problems, you frequently get pulled out of an immersive state by the reminder of what you’re actually doing—manipulating a controller. So that all works against immersing in the offering.
There is one other factor, though, and that’s Heavy Rain’s habit of not quite getting details right despite favoring an extremely detail-oriented realism, leading to the old Uncanny Valley issue. I’m not going to talk on this much, because others have done a much better job already. One example is in Sweat the Details on Above 49, an excellent developer blog I came across recently. That article links to the more extensive(where Heavy Rain is concerned) post on Experience Points called The Little Things. Both do a nice job of covering this area.
Heavy Rain comes up every once in a while, and the people I talk to about it are frequently surprised to find that I hate it. Sometimes more so when they know I’m a game designer ahead of time. I’m usually asked why, and the answer I give is usually that it simply fails to do well at any of its primary components. If a game is sold on the idea of being an interactive story, and the story and interaction with it are bad, then I’m not going to have a good opinion of it. So here we have a longer explanation of that opinion.
Maybe I would have liked it better if I hadn’t known what Cage was going for ahead of time? It’s hard to tell. But we have to take these things based on what they’re trying to be, so I expect not.