Heavy Rain

art PS3 Heavy Rain philosophy Sony Gaming

So, Sony released a little game for the PS3 yesterday called Heavy Rain. Having already played the demo, I ran out and nabbed a copy. I got home, popped it in. I thought I would play for a little while, just to see the intro, you know?

A very short while later, I heard this: “Hey, you know it’s almost 1 in the morning, right?“

It seemed strange that a character in the game sounded so much like my wife. Also, my character had just looked at her watch, and it was way after 1. And there wasn’t anyone else in the room.

"Did you hear me?“

The surround sound on this game is great, too. It sounds like that voice is coming from right behind me. I turn my character around, but don’t see anything. Kinda creepy.

Then it dawns on me, and I press Start, and turn around.

This is the effect Heavy Rain has on me. The story in this game is that gripping, compelling. It propels you forward naturally, the pacing keeping you engaged without overwhelming. This game has the highest production quality of any game I can recall playing. I’ve seen the phrase interactive movie thrown around here and there over the years, but Heavy Rain turns that on its head; it is not a movie; it is doing things with storytelling that a movie can’t do, for a number of reasons. It’s not a visual novel either, because it is far more than a series of cinematic sequences with decision points. Rather, we have something entirely new here, and it is an ambitious and compelling idea.

I have been known to opine that a great piece of art is one that plays to the strengths of its medium. A great novel uses the written word to convey something that can only be conveyed with writing. Certain combinations of words have great effect on the reader, in a way that the same scene in a movie might miss entirely. Literature has the advantage of narration; a voice that can drive the story in ways that are unique to the form, and great stories capitalize on this.

A great movie, on the other hand, uses the fact that it is a visual medium to convey powerful emotional content that would feel flat in writing. Lighting, facial expression, and tone of voice can be evocative in a movie like they never could in writing. Plays have their own framework, and they are at their best when they exploit this fact. Ditto music, painting, and other artistic forms.

Heavy Rain is the first game that I have encountered that takes this approach with a video game. It is treating the game as a work of art, and not simply an entertaining way to kill time. Sure, other games have stories and beautifully rendered scenery. They have characters that portray emotion, sometimes. But Heavy Rain uses the canvas of video games to tell a story in a unique way; you couldn’t copy this story to movie or novel form without losing, or at least changing, something important.

Traditional games, even ones with great stories, are hampered by a number of problems. One is the tendency for this pattern to emerge:

1. Plot (cutscene, dialogue tree, etc)
2. Gameplay (random battles, shooting bad guys)
3. Goto 1.

In Heavy Rain, the plot and gameplay are intertwined inextricably, and the gameplay doesn’t devolve into the usual video game tropes of, well, killing Bad Guys. It’s more nuanced than that, and you observe a story unfolding in which your actions have real consequences, both minor and major, and in both the short and long term.

It’s been obvious to me for a long time that video games could potentially be art, evoke a broad range of real human emotion in the player, and deal with deep themes without resorting to ham-fisted tropes or dulling the emotional experience with tons of unrelated gameplay between evocative scenes. Heavy Rain is the first time I’ve seen this potential realized.