My last review was on Heavy Rain.  If you are one of the unfortunate few to have not played it yet, stop reading right now and go pick it up.  Don’t worry.  I’ll wait.  Got it?  Okay good, welcome back.  As we move on with our talk about Heavy Rain, I’d like to remind you that this isn’t a review.  The review is done: 93 hours played.  That’s the review, this is elucidation.  I play many games for varying amounts of time and rarely walk away from one as satisfied as I did Heavy Rain.  I played God for four days. I pulled apart lives and reassembled them like a sadistic seamstress. Afterwards I caught a killer.  It was hella fun and I recommend you check it out.  Not everyone will like it, but everyone should be able to say they’ve played it.  So what is left to discuss?  I’d like to explain what video games can and should be.  The subject of Heavy Rain provides a great segue for doing this.

The gameplay of Heavy Rain is mostly investigating well designed environments and navigating dialogue chains for information.  Quicktime Events are used for everything else.  Toggle the thumbstick to floss your teeth, wipe your ass, and frantically search for your lost child in a crowded mall.  This is where, I think, the disconnect begins for most gamers.  QTEs are historically frustrating.  There’s no real skill curve for “press X to not die.”  Yet we die.  A lot. Many a Six Axis has taken flight over a cluttered coffee table proceeded by cursing and, “Fucking son-of-a-bitch game throwing a QTE at me like it’s cool or something. It was a cutscene and I was thirsty, and it knew I would think it was safe to enjoy my beverage. There is no reason to do this but to destroy fun. Where’s the platforming and shooter mechanics for me to truly skill my way through the game?”

While I partially agree, as I normally despise QTEs as a rule (Sleep Talking: On QTEs), Heavy Rain is an exception – and not only because it doesn’t sneak them into what you thought would be a cutscene. Another common criticism for QTEs, and indeed Heavy Rain, is that QTEs are gimmicks.  The QTEs in Resident Evil 5, for instance, are gimmicks.  They’re tacked on and don’t really enhance gameplay.  I have difficulty understanding why they’re there at all.  They just frustrate.  Heavy Rain on the other hand only frustrates when it intends to.  The QTEs of Heavy Rain are a feature.  In Resident Evil you conserve ammo and shoot zombies similar to how you use QTEs and experience the story in Heavy Rain.  QTEs in Heavy Rain utilize time limits, rapid or awkward movements, visual effects (like blurry screen) and sound to get the player into a similarly stressful state of mind as the character being controlled. This is the natural progression of Mario speeding up the soundtrack to get you to rush to the finish. It purposefully controls the senses to help better identify with the characters and raise tension.  It’s an evolution of immersion.

Exploration, dialogue, action sequences, a powerful narrative, well imagined environments, and an impressive soundtrack are all parts of the formula that make Heavy Rain great.   There are many endings to unlock and many ways to get there.  Every decision made and button pressed affects the outcome. This sentence has been stated before by other games.  Those games are liars and we knew they were lying when they said it.  Heavy Rain is not lying.  You’re given many opportunities to kill off key characters or miss clues.  The story meaningfully changes at each juncture.  There’s no game over screen, the plot just continues to unfold.

Heavy Rain has taken some bold steps to remind us that a video game can be more than the sum total of its game over screens.  It took those dreaded QTEs and used them in a rather interesting way, and more importantly decided that a well told story can be the backbone of a great game.  Like the point-and-click Adventure Games of old, Heavy Rain’s narrative is a central part of the gameplay itself.

Early on in the development process Quantic Dream had to decide whether or not to make Heavy Rain a sandbox game like the GTA series.   Director David Cage decided against it as he felt that sandbox gameplay would take away from the pace of a story.  Had they gone the sandbox route I would’ve called that a gimmick and wouldn’t be arguing that Heavy Rain be recognized as good art.  In fact, I’m predicting it now: L.A. Noir will be a gimmicky version of Heavy Rain that misses the point of noir intrigue.  If L.A. Noir is even half the game Heavy Rain is I’ll print off a copy of this page, salt it up, shred it, mix it in with some Sloppy Joes, and eat my own words.

Video games are art.  Sometimes a special example rises above the din to prove that they can be fine art.  This generation of gaming seems light on titles that I’d call on to wear that mantle.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some genuinely good games this generation.  While I can call Arkham Asylum a damn good, albeit niche, game, I have difficulty calling it fine art.  Arkham Asylum would fall into the “games should be fun” category of video games.  Heavy Rain blends art and fun in a manner reminiscent of Braid or Shadow of the Colossus.  I’m not certain why these concepts can’t walk hand-in-hand more often, but here we are.

Heavy Rain keeps the dream alive.