At E3 2005, Sony released a number of game play videos designed to show case the power of the PlayStation 3. It was later revealed that many of these were “target renders” – many were not running on actual PS3 hardware. The most infamous of these was the first footage from Guerrilla Games’ Killzone2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko9xC6TMdiw). It garnered such levels of praise, derision and controversy that the game was never able to live it down, despite the fact that when it finally arrived, the finished product actually came remarkably close to matching that E3 promise. The following year, a smaller, lower-key piece of footage was released at E3 by Sony that, with hindsight, has proved to be a much greater exaggeration of the finished game it claimed to represent. The name of the footage was “The Casting” and it was designed to promote Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain.
The Casting was, and still is, a stunning piece (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEtSi9a8oNI – Warning: occasional strong language). It opens as a young actress enters a blank room, answers a couple of simple questions from the off screen director and then starts a reading. The room transforms into a dark small kitchen of some dingy apartment, where the actress tells a haunting tail of love, betrayal, revenge and murder. Everything reverts back to the blank room, where the girl leaves, and the director’s briefly discuss if they will hire her. The technology on show is certainly eye catching, if deep in the uncanny valley. But far more impressive, to me, was the writing and acting. The story has real power in its simplicity and is told beautifully, with real emotion, allowing the viewer to connect and even feel for the virtual presence in front of them. Sadly, the finished game seems to have mislaid all these key strengths.
Heavy Rain’s story is totally unconnected to The Casting. It concerns the exploits of the “Origami Killer” (a terrible nickname for a serial killer – I physically winced every time a character mentions the name) who has terrorised an unnamed American city. Every autumn, the (ugh) Origami Killer kidnaps a young boy who is found dead several days later, having been drowned in rain water, clutching a piece of Origami. The actions of the Origami Killer draw in four seemingly unconnected characters: Ethan Mars – effectively the lead of the story, who’s son is kidnapped by the murderer; Norman Jayden – an FBI agent assigned to help the most inept local police force since Gotham PD, circa 1960; Scott Shelby – a private investigator hired by the families to find clues that the aforementioned police force happily ignore and Madison Paige , a…er…well, I think she’s a journalist, but this is never really explained.
The player gets to take each character through the story, supposedly affecting the flow of events by the choices they make. In a somewhat brave move, it is possible to kill any one the four player controlled characters and the game will continue, the story will “adapt” – a bold design, and something highly unusual in the world of videogames. As with Fahrenheit (the previous game from Quantic Dream), players interact with what is basically an advanced point and click adventure (think Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Sam and Max et al.) by following on-screen prompts – push up to open a door, tilt the control to swerve a car, etc. It’s more immersive that it sounds, particularly in action sequences where timing is crucial, or moments of stress when the on screen prompts are made harder to read or require the player to hold down several buttons at the same time.
Given this minimalist level of interaction, story and player choice are key to Heavy Rain, and are, unfortunately, its two weakest elements. The story is atrocious, full of clichés (the violent cop who wants to beat up every suspect he meets, the use of ‘Saw’-style challenges), amazing coincidences and plot twists that M Night Shyamalan would reject as being too far fetched (none of which I can mention here, for obvious reasons). None of the characters are believable human beings, which makes it so difficult to empathise with them. Worst of all is the killer; whose “superhuman” powers, pop-psychology motivations and ability to stage manage an entire city wouldn’t be out of place in a Scooby Doo episode. Almost as disappointing is the illusion of choice within the game – there are literally hundreds of things you can or can’t do in some of the early scenes but these really have no effect on anything beyond this. The big, story-changing moments are either reaction based (which is not a choice, but a challenge of skill) or totally unconnected to an action you may or may not take; for example agreeing to a single kiss automatically leads to a full blown sex sequence that cannot be stopped – I’m no legal expert, but I think that might be rape.
On the plus side, the technology on show is stunning, containing some of the best facial animation yet seen in any console game – the other key difference from that ‘faked’ E3 footage being that the graphics engine has taken huge steps forward in the intervening years. If not clear of the uncanny valley, it is certainly on the upward slope. The city is suitably bleak, suggesting both great art direction and the technological clout to carry out that vision. There’s an argument that this could be the best-looking console game yet released, but that’s such a subjective award. Personally, I prefer the colour and vibrancy of Uncharted 2, as they are such rare commodities in modern video gaming, but it’s a close run thing.
When Heavy Rain works, when all the pieces fall into place, there’s nothing in video gaming so far quite like it. In the high points of the game, if you can forget about the cliché you’re running through, and just go with the moment; it might connect with you, even move you, but you’ve got to block out so much to get there and make so many excuses for the game. I can’t blame you if you can’t get past the awful story or the ludicrous character arcs and just laugh along at the events unfolding before your eyes. Whereas The Casting told a simple, relatable tale with a sympathetic, moving narrator, Heavy Rain tells a melodramatic and at times nonsensical story, populated by some of the worst genre clichés imaginable. There’s a time and a place for genre melodrama, don’t get me wrong, but the pre-release advertising suggested something more real, more grounded. Everything that The Casting promised, Heavy Rain fails to deliver.