The Glory of the Story
December 18, 2009 – Recently, we’ve seen a trend toward truly cinematic presentation in video gaming. Games have come so far visually that it is now possible to tell complex stories rather than focus solely on high scores and headshots. While this trend is apparent across nearly all gaming platforms, it appears to be especially so for Sony’s PlayStation 3 – with developers such as Naughty Dog and Quantic Dream leading the way.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves really showed what’s possible when a developer takes the time to unlock the power of the PS3; Uncharted 2 was perhaps the most breathtaking and immersive single-player presentation ever developed. French developer Quantic Dream is hard at work bringing their own interactive cinematic game to the platform, Heavy Rain.
I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the preview code of this “psychological crime thriller.” Marching my way through the first several scenes, I was introduced to a number of very interesting characters and presented with a handful of cliff-hangers that have left me anxious for closure. Rather than taking on the role of just one protagonist, Heavy Rain portrays its events through the perspective of multiple player characters with disparate motivations. This technique, when executed intelligently, nicely fleshes out the story and provides depth to all the characters. The Lovecraft-inspired Eternal Darkness from Silicon Knights used this narrative device to great effect on the GameCube, and now Quantic Dream appears to have mastered it.
During my limited time with the title, I took control of four characters: an architect, private detective, FBI agent, and an insomniac. All of these personalities are wrapped up in the overarching mystery of the Origami Killer – seven children between the ages of 8 and 13 have been kidnapped and drowned by a serial murderer. While little else of the mainline plot was revealed, around two hours was spent just detailing the protagonists. It is clear that Heavy Rain will make players care about the characters they’ll control.
High quality graphics are an essential aspect of this game. Quantic Dream has done their best to make the environments and people within the game as realistic as possible. At times, it is almost as if I was watching a film. Moreover, the dark and dismal, rain-soaked setting introduces a creepy feel that perfectly achieves the desired mood. It is almost as if you can cut through the depression with a knife.
To me, it seems obvious that the developers are Call of Cthulu RPG enthusiasts, as investigation and sanity play large roles in the game. The four characters of whom I took control were all relatively mundane individuals seeking a very scary truth. What’s more, they were either detectives or were battling through some kind of trauma/psychosis. Truly, the game has a very Lovecraftian feel to it (save for the inclusion of the early 20th century writer’s weird horror mythos – the supernatural plays no role in Heavy Rain).
Gameplay in Heavy Rain is not typical video game fare. From what we’ve been allowed to play so far, we’ve only come into contact with one gun – and we were staring at the business end of it. Most of the time, you’ll be looking around your environment and interacting with various objects in order to further the plot or deepen the attachment to the characters. The game effectively uses quick-time event-like button and analog stick prompts for both mundane and action sequences. However, only a fraction of them are time-sensitive. In other words, simple actions such as sitting down, opening up a fridge, drinking a cup of coffee, or turning off the television will all be mapped to swipes of the analog sticks. If you do find yourself in an intense combat situation, the quick-time nature becomes much more familiar, with rapid tapping of buttons and time-sensitive inputs.
While many of you reading the previous paragraph just let out a collective sigh of disdain, know that the button prompts in Heavy Rain are actually quite innovative rather than repetitive and frustrating. For example, commonplace actions are done realistically, so that the experience of taking a swig out of an orange juice carton is immersive; if you don’t want to spill on yourself, you’ll have to raise it to your lips slowly. This is accomplished through pressure-sensitive controls.
Thankfully, rather than having to repeat failed QTE sequences, combat is adaptive. That means if you fail, you’ll just have to deal with a new set of challenges rather than being ripped out of the immersion for one mistakenly-pressed button. The speed and accuracy with which you pull off actions will frequently determine how a scene progresses, but it won’t rob you of a cinematic experience. For instance, if you can successfully reach for a bottle on a store shelf, you’ll stealthily bash a burglar into unconsciousness. On the other hand, if you fail, you’ll have a choreographed fight scene to come through first. As a failsafe, if you are a casual or new gamer, you can adjust the difficulty of the quick-time prompts at any time to your skill level. That means anyone will be able to enjoy the rich narrative on offer in Heavy Rain.
And what a narrative it is. While many games offer a few different endings that depend on a handful of player decisions, Heavy Rain’s story is ever-evolving. Various characters will survive or perish depending on your choices and performance, essentially shaping the story as you progress. This has the effect of causing the player a good deal of duress. Even in the limited hands-on code I played, I experienced several moments of regret for poor QTE inputs and hasty decisions. Best of all, your choices are permanent, as only one game save will be recorded. There will be an option to go back and play individual chapters, but doing so will not change the way the story progresses going forward. I’m very happy Quantic Dream decided to go in this direction, as it makes player decisions and performance meaningful.
While I never like to judge a game based on its preview code, there are a few areas I would like to see cleaned up before the game hits retail. If any developers are reading this, I hope my comments won’t fall on deaf ears. For starters, the graphics are exceedingly realistic, but they’re often marred by clones and false patterns. In the police station, there is an officer that keeps cropping up. That same avatar makes pointless rounds about the complex. He even goes so far as to walk through conversation segments. Also, in the initial sequence, a silver sedan keeps driving by – around and around the cul de sac. In the park scene, the same little boy crosses the park endlessly and without purpose. While this would normally be considered nitpicking, this game is often so realistic that these foibles come off as jarring. Additionally, the voice acting, while strong, sometimes suffers from poor timing, seeming stiff and unnatural. Finally, the framerate drops and constant screen-tearing are quite disconcerting. While I’m positive that the game will be very smooth and stable when it releases next year, I’m not so sure the clones will be replaced. I sincerely hope that over the next few months the game is cleaned up significantly, so that the cinematic experience being crafted here isn’t bogged down by silly missteps.
Without a doubt, Heavy Rain is a game all Sony owners should keep their eyes on. It is obvious that the story being told here is very good, and it could be quite a revolutionary title; perhaps sparking a new genre of interactive storytelling. As long as Quantic Dream can clean up the code a bit and speed up the pacing just a smidge, this could be the start of something beautiful.