Sunday, November 06, 2011

games of our lives, part 2: Heavy Rain

CONSUMER ADVISORY: This is a repost of my original novella-length review from June 2010 because I couldn't bring myself to rewrite the whole damn thing.

I've loved video games ever since they came into vogue in the early 1980's. Many an allowance dollar was fed into the change machine at the local convenience store so I could play Q*Bert, Burger Time, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Jungle Hunt. Eventually, the video game craze cooled off considerably, arcades began to close down, and it was rare to see a machine outside of a bar or bowling alley.

But then video game companies started shifting their focus to the home market. I was working as an assistant manager at Blockbuster in 1997, and one particularly slow night, when the store had been thoroughly cleaned and all of the movies had been checked in, one of the employees asked me if he could switch the game in our demo Playstation and play something else. I said sure, and about ten minutes later, I went over to see what he'd picked. A woman onscreen was unloading a clip into a moaning zombie.

"Whoa, what's that?" I asked, awestruck.

"It's called Resident Evil. It's really cool 'cause you get to kill zombies and shit. Wanna try?" he asked, handing me the controller.

And thus, my dormant video game addiction came raging back to the surface. I bought a Playstation and copy of Resident Evil the very next day. Eventually, I added a Dreamcast to the mix, and shortly after moving back to California in 2001, I bought a PS2. Now, in addition to those systems, I own a Gamecube, Nintendo DS, and Wii. Glenn has an XBOX360 and a PS3, so between the two of us, we have our video game needs covered.

Sorry for the trip down Memory Lane. My point is that I've played hundreds of video games over the last 30+ years, and Heavy Rain has secured a place in my top 5 of all time.

Two years after a tragedy that changed his life forever, Ethan Mars is a broken man: divorced, haunted by the past, and trying desperately to bond with his emotionally distant son Shaun. One day, he and Shaun go to the park, and while Shaun is riding the carousel, Ethan blacks out. When he comes to, he's standing in the middle of an unfamiliar street and Shaun is nowhere to be found.

It turns out that Shaun has been abducted by the Origami Killer, who kidnaps little boys and traps them in a well during the rainy season. The child has about 4 days before the well fills up and he drowns, after which the murderer dumps the body in a deserted area and leaves an origami figure in its hand and an orchid on its chest. Ethan is contacted by the killer, who demands that he undergo several trials. For each one that he successfully completes, he gets more clues to Shaun's location. But the trials are physically and psychologically excruciating, and as the city continues to get pelted by record rainfall, Shaun's time is quickly running out.

One of the print ads for Heavy Rain has the tag line "How far would you go to save someone you love?" Of course, we'd all like to believe that we'd go through anything in order to protect our loved ones. But here's an example (which I've made as vague as possible in order to avoid spoilers) from the game. Imagine you're in Ethan's shoes, and you've just gone through a horrible test only to find yourself faced with another one. There are only two ways out of the room. One is a door right next to you that leads to safety. The other way could kill you instantly if you're not careful, but at the end, you'll get more clues to your loved one's whereabouts. You want those clues, but you're already so exhausted and wounded from your previous trial that you don't know if you can do it. Besides, how do you know that the killer isn't just toying with you? How can you be sure the clues are legitimate? Who wouldn't (even if only for a split second) be tempted to go out that door to freedom?

Heavy Rain has lots of choices like that, and some of them are TOUGH. During my playthrough, I made a decision that caused G to gasp in outrage. I paused the game and we had a very lively discussion about what I'd just done. Heavy Rain is filled with moral quandaries. You can make arguments for and against just about everything major you have to do in the game.

Although Ethan is the main character, you also play as three other characters (not including one spoilery character that you briefly control), all of whom bring special skills to the table. Norman Jayden is an FBI profiler with a nifty virtual reality device that helps him find and analyze clues. Madison Paige, who looks like Mariska Hargitay's less attractive sister, is a young woman who tries to help Ethan with his quest, and she's not afraid to use her sex appeal to get information. (Apparently the developers aren't adverse to it either; notice how she and her tight tank top are front and center on the game box.) Scott Shelby is a private investigator hired by the victims' families, and even though he's in his late 40's and out of shape, he can throw down with the best of them.

Gameplay primarily consists of quicktime events (or QTEs). For example, if you're engaged in a physical altercation, you might have to hit the triangle button to deliver an uppercut, thrust the controller down to smash something over your opponent's head, or press a combination of buttons simultaneously to choke someone out. If you're not fast enough, you could get hurt or even killed. None of the main characters are safe; ALL of them can die, and the story will go on without them, so you really have to pay attention and have excellent reflexes if you want everyone to survive to the very end. Non-QTE gameplay also involves following onscreen prompts, but you generally don't have to be speedy about it, just accurate. The first half-hour or so of Heavy Rain is devoted to menial, non-QTE tasks like brushing your teeth, shaving, and getting the table ready for lunch. I'm sure lots of gamers were bored stiff by that section, but this was the first PS3 game I'd ever played, so I appreciated the opportunity to get used to the controls in a safe setting.

It's hard to believe Heavy Rain was written and directed by David Cage, the same guy who did Indigo Prophecy. I enjoyed IP, but the story took such a massive and bizarre shit near the end that it almost ruined the whole thing for me. Heavy Rain is like a cross between a Choose Your Own Adventure book and a really good thriller, and when it was over, G and I looked at each other, shook our heads in amazement, talked about what we'd just experienced...and started up a new game. It's one of the rare games that's almost as much fun to watch as it is to play.

The graphics are astonishing. At times, the characters look real, although they occasionally suffer from the same "rubber lips" that plague just about every CGI human being. Most of the backgrounds are so detailed that they might as well be photographs. The soundtrack is perfect, ranging from haunting piano themes and swelling violins to thumping techno during a nightclub scene. The opening and ending credits are really cool. And there's lots of fun bonus content after you finish the game, including concept art and videos of the game's creation.

Of course, Heavy Rain has some flaws. Most of the voices are good or at least tolerable, but there are a few cringeworthy exceptions; the kids are especially bad, and one character sounds EXACTLY like porn actress Bambi Woods, who spent the entirety of Debbie Does Dallas sounding like she was stoned out of her gourd. (I, um, read that somewhere. Yeah.) I think part of the problem is that the characters are supposed to be American, but many of the voice actors aren't, so some of the line reads sound strange. For example, I didn't know the FBI agent's first name was actually Norman until another character said it, because his voice actor pronounces it more like "Nahmah". We ran into a few technical glitches ranging from the sound going out to a character showing up where they definitely weren't supposed to be. The controls can be a bit unforgiving, and the camera angles aren't always particularly helpful. But these cons are so insignificant compared to the pros that they hardly even matter.

This game certainly isn't for everyone. Assuming you don't play on easy mode (which we didn't), you'd better know the PS3 controller backwards and forwards. It's not a "feel good" kind of game, and no matter what decisions you make, you're bound to encounter a few story elements that leave you unsettled. And it more than earns its M rating; it's violent, the language can be very salty, and there's a sex scene and both male and female nudity. (No nether bits, of course, but you do see buttocks and bare breasts, and since the graphics are so realistic, you'll be like "Whoa, boobies!") But if you're looking for a game that will make you mist up, make you exercise both your brain and your fingers, and make you tenser than you've ever been playing a video game, you absolutely must play Heavy Rain. It was one of the most memorable gaming experiences of my life.