raindrops keep falling

Fri Feb-19th-2010 // Filed under: Games

Just finished playing Heavy Rain. (No spoilers here.) Everyone made it alive to the end. I figured out who the killer is. I had a reasonably happy ending. And I had a great experience: it’s easily one of the most interesting games I’ve played in a long time.

There are issues, to be sure. Many of them. For starters, the visuals vary a great deal: in some scenes, they’re absolutely top notch, in others, they seem lackluster. The main characters always look fantastic, though, and the level of animation in their faces, body language and clothes is great.

For example, in the very beginning of the game, there’s a scene where Ethan Mars, on of the four protagonists, is walking around a mall and trying to spot his kid. First he walks around fairly slowly, but as he becomes more concerned, he begins to look around in an agitated fashion, starts to walk more quickly, takes the occasional running step, etc.

It’s amazingly expressive, but unfortunately, the effect is somewhat dampened by the fact that obstacles and people cause the character to come to a fairly abrupt halt. The game features large crowds of people, which look very impressive, but actually interacting with them ruins the illusion, with the player-controlled character invariably ending up walking in place or sliding around strangely. It’s also not uncommon for limbs to sink into walls or other objects in certain spots.

The facial animation is absolutely beautiful in some scenes, whereas in others they look far simpler. (I know how much work that kind of polish takes, and I’m not knocking them for it, I hasten to add. I don’t think it looks bad, it’s just that when it looks gorgeous in one scene and bland in the next, it’s hard to avoid noticing that.)

So while this isn’t an ugly game by any means, I’m hesitant to name it one of the PS3’s flagship titles in the looks department. I mean, compared to the lush visuals of Uncharted 2, for example, it just doesn’t have the same punch — which is not to say that it doesn’t look breathtaking every once in a while, and it never looks bad. But it is uneven.

Twisting and Turning and Swearing

And the controls — well, honestly, I’m not really a big fan. I almost am, because the context-sensitive stuff works very well… except when it doesn’t. Twisting the right thumbstick in the indicated pattern feels surprisingly intuitive, but the problem is that far too often you can’t quite see the indicator. Camera angles and character positioning can and far to often do obscure the icons that appear in the game world, so you often have trouble telling what you’re supposed to do, or, worse yet, you may miss them entirely. I know what they’re trying to do with the system, and I think they succeed most of the time, but it’s jarring when they don’t.

It doesn’t help that suddenly changing camera angles and the fact that steering works relative to the camera have a bad habit of sending your character walking around in circles, sometimes with the camera view switching rapidly between two points. The end result is a control system that has its moments, but generally manages to frustrate me a great deal. Sometimes, it feels like it has all the worst aspects of Quantic’s previous game’s, Fahrenheit’s, wonky controls. On two occasions I had to stop playing because I was so annoyed by this — but it’s worth clarifying that on both counts I soon picked up the controller again, because I couldn’t really stop playing.

There are also other problems, ones that seem to matter more to me than the ones above. For the most part, the plot manages to be very interesting, although I had some issues with some details — for example, I don’t think FBI agents are generally subordinate to the cops they work with. The dialogue itself is often awkward and stilted. The quality of the voice acting varies widely, and sometimes it gets very bad. The children in particular sound very artificial. (Child actors are, of course, always very difficult.) Some of the bad guys are so obviously evil that they’re like cartoon villains.

Beautiful Moments

But — and it’s difficult for me to stress this enough — none of the whining above is very relevant. I’m not saying it doesn’t have an impact on the experience you’re getting, but these things don’t determine its nature.

What matters to me is that the game has, at its finest, an incredible atmosphere. As the name promises, the rain is ever-present, and it’s oppressive, especially once you know that it can literally spell death to someone. The way the characters react to the rain, hunching their shoulders or hugging themselves, makes it feel all that much more real.

And really, that’s where the game shines, because it’s just chock full of moments that feel genuine, the kind of things you rarely see in games. I don’t know if it’s pure stubborn hubris, some weird breed of genius, or just huge set of balls that enables Quantic Dream to do things like this, and I can’t imagine that talking Sony into actually publishing a game like this could have been an easy battle, but whatever set of circumstances allowed them to make this game, I can only hope that they occur again.

Ambition, Guts and Luck

I don’t know how you go about convincing your publisher — let alone your co-workers, fans, stockholders and whoever the fuck else — that playing a game where your character can shave his beard, brush his teeth and then follow that up with watching videos of his children playing while having a good ol’ cry is worth the price of admission. I mean, either you can have moments like that or you can’t, and I know a lot of people don’t associate any of that stuff with games. Quantic Dream does, and it’s unapologetic about that. And I love that, because contrary to what you might think, it’s not pretentious and it’s not boring.

I’m a writer, and I work in games, and even though I feel very, very, very lucky to be working at a studio that takes storytelling extremely seriously, I have a hard time imagining us doing a lot of the things they do here. A part of it is simply a question of game mechanics, focus and subject matter, of course, but there’s more to it than that.

Simply put, I don’t think we’re willing to go there, and even if we were, I don’t think we’d be willing to suggest it to our publisher, and even if we were, I don’t think they’d go for it, and even if they did, I don’t think enough people would buy it to justify to expense, and even if they did… well… I guess we’ll see how that goes, won’t we?

I’m speaking completely hypothetically here, of course. This has nothing to do with the attitudes of any particular company. My point is that this is a little like having a complex European art movie open in every multiplex in America — it’s fucking great and I’m in awe of that achievement, but the odds you have to overcome in order to get there must be staggering.

Moments of Humanity

But, yes, there are countless little unapologetic human moments here, whether you’re laughing or crying or just leafing through a book with a little smile on your lips. They lend an air of authenticity to the events, and playing through them is surprisingly fun. They aren’t necessarily terribly innovative or intuitive — once you’ve twisted the right thumbstick every which way a couple of times and shook the controller in various directions a half a dozen times, you’ve pretty much experienced everything the game mechanics themselves have to offer.

But that, again, is missing the point, because the decidedly mundane activities are character moments, vital parts of the atmosphere. There’s a lot of subtlety, here, and it really helps that the amount of custom animation here is staggering: there are so many things that the characters do, whether they’re fighting or interacting with the environment or making love or whatever, more often than not, you’re seeing them do something you haven’t seen before and most likely won’t see again. That’s a tremendous amount of work, and it pays off.

The mystery is gripping. The sense of despair is real. The pressures are almost unbearable, and when the gameplay works, it really works. I love that there are four characters to play, and I love how the game is paced like a movie, with one scene often following another at a rapid clip. The characters have the kind of humanity most video game characters don’t even attempt. Sometimes they fail, but I love it that they try.

Too Interactive? Not Interactive Enough?

I don’t know if I’m giving the right impression here. I know I’m listing a lot of faults, and they are things that bugged me. Perhaps the most important point is this: they try very hard to make interactive drama, but I’m not at all sure that the interactive portions actually enhance the experience.

Some of the gameplay is very interesting, but if I’m playing a sex scene and constantly have to press buttons to initiate actions, I don’t exactly feel too hot under the collar, you know? I feel like I’m playing a video game with a somewhat awkward sequence in it. Which is a shame, because the level of animation here would, for once, be sufficient to invoke a mood, if I didn’t have to worry about holding down L1 while pushing down with the left thumbstick in order to get the lady’s shirt off.

A part of it is probably just that the control system is so unorthodox that I’m not used to it, so having to think about it harder pulls me out of the experience.

On the other hand, when it works, it really works. Some of the very simple actions, like putting on a seat belt, turning the key, putting the car in gear and stepping on the gas feel very natural, and because of the vast variety of animations, it’s always fun to just watch what the characters do as you control them.

Quick Time Events = Really Fun?!

And then there are the pure action scenes. They are quick time events, yes, but fairly forgiving ones — it’s okay to miss a few buttons here and there; they branch quite a bit, and they’re really about whether you’re generally successful than not, rather than “miss a button and die.” They’re imaginative and fast-paced.

When you’re fighting, people are throwing each other into furniture, stumbling around, getting yanked off their feet, using the environment to their advantage… It’s very cinematic and exciting — I don’t know about their replay value, but I had an absolutely great time playing through every one of those scenes once.

Fucking up a move is as much fun as getting one right, because it’s so rarely just about someone hitting or missing. There’s a sense of momentum to these fights that feels good. When you’re winning, it’s great; when you’re losing, you’re really feeling the pressure. Again, a lot of this comes down to the wonderful animation and pacing.

There are some scenes where the character you’re playing is in great danger, and you need to work fast. Being trapped in a car that’s about to be crushed or working your way through a burning building makes you feel frantic. Things are constantly changing, and these scenes are relentless. You’re breathless when they end.

Heavy Rain is not a perfect game, by any means, and probably nowhere near as revolutionary as the hype might make you think, because really, they’re not doing a lot here that they didn’t already do in Fahrenheit. But, very importantly, they do it much, much better, and let’s not forget that Fahrenheit was a fucking great game — that one wasn’t perfect, either, but I loved playing it.

Everyone should buy this game and play it. It does things that you don’t see often, and just the attempt in itself is tremendously interesting. I don’t know if there’s anyway something like this can be commercially successful, but I very, very much hope that it sells well. Quantic Dream has accomplished something fascinating here, and I very much want it to pay off for them.


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