I wish a camera could have taken stills of my face as I played through Heavy Rain. While it’s not the first game to engage my sensitive side, it’s certainly the most intense emotional experience I’ve had with a controller in my hand. And I’m not just talking about tears, either: Playing through the story made me mad, happy, content, and anxious in ways that few games ever have.
As intense as it was for me, a common question that came up when people saw me playing was, “is this actually fun?” I understand why you’d ask that; we usually play games for fun, after all. And Heavy Rain can be fun, sure — but a term that better describes my time with it is “entertaining.” It’s more akin to an interactive movie or a choose-your-own-adventure book turned game. The game’s copious quick-time events (QTEs) will likely put off many people, as will the genuinely mature themes, but they work well within the context of what Heavy Rain tries to accomplish. This is not a game where you actively control a major character in a predetermined story a la a God of War or Halo; instead, you mostly work in the background, guiding characters in a world where your actions ultimately determine their fates.
If you didn’t play developer Quantic Dream’s last game, Indigo Prophecy, then the idea of a game that plays more like a movie might be a hazy concept. In Heavy Rain, you control a slew of characters, sometimes moving them around an environment and interacting with objects, but oftentimes watching the game play out, and performing context-sensitive button presses or analog stick movements in order to change the way the scenes resolve. The QTE controls are fantastic, with the required actions appearing onscreen in places where you’re naturally looking already.
For instance, if your character needs to dodge a knife, the button input will appear on the blade as it’s slicing down towards them — something you’re already focused on anyways. Some people hate QTEs, and I completely understand that, but I can’t emphasize enough how well Heavy Rain executes them, especially compared to most other games. A big part of the game’s appeal lies in watching the nuances of the scene at hand, and the QTEs allowed me to watch the strikingly detailed scenes while still feeling like I was instrumental in what unfolded moment-to-moment.
The QTEs lend themselves well to the central characters’ realistic portrayals, but the movement controls remind me that — despite the leaps this game makes to produce vivid, life-like characters — we’re not quite there yet. Pressing R2 makes the character move forward, while the left analog stick controls your direction. The pressure-sensitive R2 button does a good job at letting you alternate your movement speed (making for some really convincing movement on stairs and the like), but moving characters is generally awkward, with depth perception being a particular issue. For a game that looks so good and does so much to draw players into its scenes, it can be more than a little jarring when your character fumbles on the edge of a wall or desk in the middle of a crucial story moment.
Because Quantic Dream has done such an amazing job with the way characters and environments look, things can really look off when they’re not perfect. If you followed Heavy Rain prior to its release, then you’ve likely heard the term “uncanny valley” tossed around when describing the characters’ faces. It’s true: They’re very realistic, but they’re also off enough to make you feel uneasy at times, like something’s not quite right. I guess it’s really to their credit that the team made such incredible-looking character models that you’ll study them intently, trying to figure out why they don’t appear as real as the person next to you, but their sometimes slightly inhuman expressions can occasionally detract from scenes.
I’d really love to tell you all about the story and how it worked out for me, but the most important part of Heavy Rain is playing out your own tale and unraveling your characters’ fates. The game can end in a variety of ways (as you’re given several opportunities to kill or otherwise lose characters), and while you can reload from a previously played chapter, I implore you to resist the temptation and make your first play-through a “whatever happens, happens” affair. If you can buy into the idea that the ending you get is your ending, and that your characters are really your characters, then you just might find yourself feeling moved by a videogame.