Monday, March 1, 2010

Heavy Rain: Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

By Kirk Hamilton

I finished Heavy Rain late last night. I wrote a bunch, much of it rant-like, but decided to wait to post anything until morning to see if the anger had subsided a bit. Nope, still here. Muted, perhaps, but burning with no less intensity. So, fair warning.

Heavy Rain did a lot of things for me (and even more things to me). Some of them were pretty amazing, many of them incredibly frustrating. But damned if I wasn't more angered by the last 30 minutes than I have been by any game for as long as I can remember.  Somewhat unfocused thoughts, including major spoilers, follow right after the break. If you haven't finished the game, I suggest you read no further.

So, first of all - I totally called it. Like, four hours in. I don't want to be That Guy or anything, but I'm just saying - he hadn't talked about having a client, and was way too nice... I saw the typewriter on his desk and I said "That dude is the killer."

At any rate, for a while, I managed to look beyond the gaping plot holes and the inconsistent controls, but after six or seven hours, they started to feel deliberately confounding, nightmarish, even sadistic.  Like the writers had decided to go with "dream logic." I wrote over on Michael Abbott's blog (which I have a feeling will be the comments section to watch) that it wouldn't surprise me to find that there are folks out there who read the whole game as a waking nightmare, the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic who lost his mind when his family died. It would explain a lot - I never did find an anchor to the real world in Heavy Rain's surreal cityscape, entirely populated as it was with floor-gazing ciphers and gun-wielding psychopaths. Alas, my long-desired game about real people has yet to materialize.

But despite all that, I put my head down and soldiered on, amazed at the different ways the game messed with me. And just when I'd decided to go ahead and give in to Heavy Rain's terms, the story I'd been helping to tell reached its climax, I missed a couple of quicktime events, and BAM - almost all of my characters were killed.

It felt so unfair - after surviving harrowing situation after harrowing situation, my heroes' deaths were not the result of my choices, nor were they narratively rewarding. They just happened, one of them entirely because of my inability to make a character jump three feet. And what truly infuriated me was that the game had the gall to make me feel as though their deaths were my fault.

No. Heavy Rain, I reject your stupid j'accuse!-ing finger. Those deaths were not my fault. They were your doing, you and your unfair, deliberately confounding quicktime events. My character's deaths held no more logic than did the game's bizarre swiss-cheese spread of a plot. It did not serve a narrative purpose to have Madison die in the burning apartment, or to have the killer stave in Jayden's head with a sledgehammer minutes before the end of the game.

So often, I felt like the guy at the horror movie, yelling advice to a character on the screen as if he has some vague influence. And even though in my case I had nominal control, I didn't really feel as though I had any more say over the outcome than that guy in the theater - just enough control to feel responsible, I guess.

What's more, my choices had nothing to do with it, merely my reactions, and I do not accept that Madison and Jayden's deaths were my fault just because I couldn't adjust quickly enough to the game's constantly-rearranging, infuriatingly contrived quicktime events. In Mass Effect 2, I decided that even though a great tragedy occurred during the final mission, it was part of my Shepard's story because it felt right, it felt like a good story. The deaths in Heavy Rain felt utterly hollow by comparison.

The game certainly made me feel things that games haven't made me feel in a long time - vulnerability, anger, regret, rage. Powerlessness. And I get that, I do - though I have yet to jump on the Demon's Souls train (still eying the cars from the terminal), I get the sense that in a few ways, the games are not dissimilar. But I do think there's one huge difference - Demon's Souls sounds hard, but eventually masterable, while Heavy Rain simply doesn't play fair.

There's no possible feeling of mastery, or even familiarity with Heavy Rain's game mechanics. I know that's on purpose, and it's an interesting design decision, but also a confounding one. For all of the talk of the game's replayability, I'm just not sure what a second playthrough would get me. I wouldn't really make any different decisions, and because the quicktime events are so impossible to master, I would most likely get the exact same result as I got first time through. What's more, I can't see a way to load from halfway through the game, so the idea of spending 9 or so more hours just to watch stupid Madison (and her horrifyingly overzealous pathfinding) blow that jump in the exact same way gives me fucking hives.

At 2:30 in the morning last night, I wrote, "I'm not sure what it is that I want from a game, but I'm pretty sure it's not this." Okay, that feeling has subsided. My experience with the game was a big one, and there's a lot to talk and think about. I'm glad it exists, and I'm glad I played it. But I'm gonna need a minute, because right now, I kinda just want to kick it in the nuts.

So, rather than come up with some sort of denouement, I'll wait to get some distance, and decompress by talking about it some with David and the rest of the Internet. And in the meantime, here are some highlights from my notes, somewhat out of order and context. They paint about as accurate a picture of my playthrough as anything could.

Heavy Rain Notes:

"Microwave dinner to son - dishes taken from dishrack. Nice."

"Jayden has blackheads."


"Bathroom = euro."

"Ethan Mars = opposite of Nathan Drake."

"Not much exposition."

"Who are PI clients? Who hired him??"

"Eyeliner!" (circled)

"P.I. roars like a Lion."(underlined, not explained)

"Why not look at origami from Conven. store guy's box?"

"Constantly failing tests."

"Johnny Mnemonic."

"Fuck this."

"Magical Car Tracking? Magical Clue?" 

"P.I. is killer. 100%(Bam. That's right.)

"Game could be called "Helping Ethan Mars To His Feet."

"Reacting!" (underlined twice)


"Sweat. Sweat. AAAA"

"Fuck. Coward."

"Hot ass, walks funny."

"ARI glasses improve piano playing?"

"A toast, to old friends."

"Huge. Plot. Hole" (underlined twice)

"Dead Jayden in ARI - Caprica?"

"Flashback = safe?"

"4-button combo to Crush Balls"


Evan said...

Great write-up. I never seemed to have as much of a problem with the QTE as you did, so I was fairly enjoying the game for the most part. I realized the story was average and cliche-ridden at best, but was still intrigued about how it would end up and what I would have to do.

That was, until I reached the point that they implied that the killer was going to be a surprise. I took a moment to think about what this implied; namely, that it was someone the player already knew. There was no character in the game that I was going to happy with being revealed as the killer. And yep, it was Scott Shelby, and I felt fairly enraged.

It's possible that going back through his story, everything he does (and everything he thinks) somehow lines up with his true motives, though I still think the scene where he kills the typewriter expert is cheap...he is apparently shocked to find him dead even as he's not trying to put on a show for that terribly-voiced hooker mom.

It's the idea of motive that is the real problem with Scott Shelby being the killer. In a game such as this, making the claims as it does, being told to experience and play out a character under a suggested motive that is false is cheap, and it helped make an average story terrible.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Really, the QTEs only bothered me at the very end - in just about every other part of the game I thought they were actually really engaging, chaotic, and effective. Ditto the conversation system.

It wasn't until those brutal last thirty or so minutes that the rage kicked in. It was one specific thing, even - while I was trying to make Madison jump in the burning apartment, the game changed up on me in what felt like a deliberate attempt to trip me up. And trip me up it did, goodnight Madison. Rage.

Anyway, interesting what you say about Scott - it wasn't a problem for me, but then again, I was pretty sure he was our man for most of the game. The scene in which "the killer" snuck in and killed the typewriter expert just seemed too fantastical to believe, even in the ridiculous world of Heavy Rain. I was already pretty sure, but was just one more thing that sealed it - the fact the killer would somehow just know to break into that guy's office right then was too much to swallow.

Really, the scene that seemed unfair to me was when Scott got out of the car to console Lauren and let her back in. A methodical killer such as he wouldn't want her around, and would jump at the chance to let her run off.

So I agree, when it's not done properly, the old "unreliable narrator" trick isn't playing fair - but when it's done right, it can be really groovy.

I'm thinking of when I've encountered it in fiction - Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, and this one Steven King short story, something about flowers, where the narrator realizes that he is keeping bodies in his trunk. Also, Fight Club, and some James Patterson book (an Alex Cross one?) where the narrator, a cop, turns out to be the killer. Though that's pretty much just The Killer Inside Me again.

In each of those stories, it was a really effective trick, but I agree that the its execution in Heavy rain, as with so many of the game's narrative elements, didn't really deliver. It wasn't much of a twist even if you didn't see it coming. It didn't put past events in a different light, it didn't give that crazy "Oh, that makes so much more sense now!" feeling that a good twist gives. It just... was.

And actually, it was even less effective than that, since the game gave us another, more explicitly unreliable narrator in Ethan Mars, with those blackouts where he'd wake up with the Origami in his hand... and we never did get an explanation of what the hell that was all about. It went pretty far beyond "red herring" - it's one thing to have Ethan black out, but quite another to put mysterious Origami figures in his hand.

So after we learned the killer's identity, not only didn't Scott's past actions make sense, neither did Ethan's. Is it possible that the blackouts are something that's explained if you get Ethan through all the trials? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, there's a lot to unpack here. Michael Abbott is doing another playthrough (godspeed to him) and focusing a bit more on discussing the game's narrative not in terms of all of the problems we're laying out here, but in terms of the branching mechanical narrative, which I think actually sounds like a far more interesting way to look at it. Even a casual glance at Heavy Rain's story reveals like thirty gaping plot holes, so a look at the gameplay narrative can only be more valuable.

And in that spirit - it sounds like your issue is more that you were playing a character whose motivations were false? I'm trying to think of other games that use similar trickery, and the only thing that's coming to mind is the first Bioshock. Which, come to think of it, turned a bunch of people off for similar reasons.

Jay said...

Alright, Kirk. First, know that this is probably my favorite new gaming site, and I love your writing and the topics/games you guys choose to discuss. Our tastes seem to be freakishly aligned so I really appreciate the effort you all put into it. BUT (and its a BIG but) I've given myself a couple days to let my disappointment in your post-game analysis subside, and I'm just still really bummed out.

Hopefully I won't come off like a total prick, but after all the exciting pre-game banter I was kinda devastated by your review. I finished Sunday night as well and I just think you're way off base here. I'm not going to pretend like those giant plot holes don't exist but the worst of them (the red herring blackout origami figures and the car ride with Scott and Lauren) just didn't bother me all that much. Granted, this is a matter of personal preference but having to use hindsight to fault the logic in certain plot points didn't ruin it for me while it was happening. I mean, I was more disappointed that the writers didnt use his asthma condition as a means to identify the killer somehow (inhaler, medical records, police records, something). That's just wasting a device with great potential right there.

I guess I'm not as upset with your calling out the plot holes as I am with your whining about the controls at the end. I realize it was probably brutal to lose those characters in the final scene, but c'mon, you had the whole game to get those QTE's down! It's not like it they threw you some crazy curveball, hoping to make you fail. The Funny Games reference gives me the impression you thought that is exactly what they were trying to do. But fine, those last few button prompts got away from you and Jayden got killed. Is that so different from ANY other fight in the game? The Doc? Mad Jack? You get killed if you fuck those up too. I mean, how can you rationalize getting smashed with a sledghammer and NOT dying? I think that one was your fault, and I'm sure it sucked, but that's life and that's Heavy Rain. If it bothered you so much, to the point that it ruined the game for you, why not just replay the damn scene and get it right?

I'm a little less clear on the Madison fiasco. Is there a different window than the one on the 3rd floor that you can try to jump out where she says "It's too high up. That fall will kill me."? When there are cues like that, I certainly don't feel like they are trying to deliberately trip you up. I dunno, maybe I misunderstood your scenario.

Finally, and I hate to have to say this, but you ARE "That Guy," especially when you say you don't wanna be. That makes you even more That Guy. 4 hours in? Are you fucking kidding me? The Lieutenant dude was barely introduced at that point and every new scene he was in made me think it was him. The more aggressive he got and how it seemed he was ready to pin it on anybody just to be done with it. Granted, I thought more of the writers than to assume they would have Scott as the killer after the whole car ride with Lauren (and he makes out with her? wtf? but he did put her on a train, which is consistent, but it should have happened WAAAAAY sooner). Anyway, that anecdote about guessing the killer came off totally smug to me, which was surprising because I have the complete opposite impression of the site as a whole (and one reason why I like it so much).

In summary, I'm with you on the narrative (though I still liked it) but everything about the controls just sounds like whining. I say sack up and deal with the consequences. Isn't that what this game is all about after all?

Jay said...

ps - I did complete all 5 trials and the blackouts were never explained. I think the only real purpose they served was to get sympathy sex from Madison... which also felt totally weird to me. "I'm in all kinds of crazy pain, I cut off my finger, my son might die and I don't know how I'm still standing. Let's screw."

Kirk Hamilton said...

Thank you Jay, it means a lot that you'd put that much thought into calling me out. (seriously!)

Of course, the truth of the matter is that if I hadn't messed up those QTEs, I wouldn't have been as mad about the controls. Sad but true. I had plenty of other issues with the game, but the controls wouldn't have made me nearly so mad if I'd just survived them.

But I didn't. I tried to frame this post as an "in the heat of the moment" kind of thing... but yeah, basically, I was (and, to some degree, still am) pretty mad because I didn't think the game played fair.

As for calling Scott as the killer - very early in the game I did the math and figured who the least "likely" character was, and backed that horse. When he didn't ever name a client, I became more sure, and there were plenty of other hints (the watch, the typewriter, that he didn't examine any of the clues).

But anyhow - as I said at the end there, problems with the game notwithstanding, I'm 100% glad I played it. It was a singular experience.

And I'm absolutely sure I'll sack up and play through it again, try to get it right. Or, you know, try to get it gloriously wrong. I'm very interested in unpacking the experience more thoroughly.

And props to you for finishing all the trials! I'm impressed. I only succeeded at two. I'd love to hear more about what you enjoyed about the game - the internet has been a good way for me to get perspective on it.

Jay said...

I'll try to sum up the high points and themes I really dug while it's still fresh:

- Fatherhood (theme): OMG, I was not expecting such a layered, thoughtful look at the kind of brutality that can accompany the love a father has for his child (or vice versa). You have Scott's Dad, the elder Kramer and Ethan all illustrating varying degrees of intensity in reaction to their son in peril. Scott's drunk-ass Dad was completely apathetic, Kramer tried to buy his son's way out and Ethan, obviously, went through the fucking roof. But who's more brutal? The apathetic slob who lets one son die and the other grow up to be a serial killer? He didn't actually DO anything but his inaction had SERIOUS consequences (like the QTEs too). Or is it the madman who's willing to go through what and whoever it takes to get his son back (even kill in cold blood)? All we know is, its not Kramer. All this and the parallel of the sons, Shaun & Jason and Scott & John, was the kind of writing I could appreciate.

- The Trials: ESPECIALLY the finger cutting off. I don't know if I've ever played a more intense part in a game than that. I had everything ready to go with like 45 secs on the clock but I waited until there were only 2 secs left to do it. I had to shut it off for the night after that.

- Mad Jack: He was the best voice actor (besides the Lieutenant) and his whole scene was so bad it was good. The ex-con running a giant chop-shop is just gonna let you snoop around? Holy shit, it was just to good to be true I had to love it. And the skull in the acid bath was the topper. Over the top in my kinda way. I mean, the rest of the game is SOOOOO serious I thought of this as like the "fun" level.

craps! dinner. wife's kicking me off the puter. more to follow..!

Kirk Hamilton said...

Ha, I agree about the Mad Jack level - he and the Doc were both enjoyably over the top, and I'd say that the Doc's basement was my favorite part of the game (perhaps because I survived, heh.) I quicktime evented as I have never quicktime evented before, and rammed a drill into that dude's heart.

I've found it interesting how many games have been tackling the issue of fatherhood lately. I'm not the only one - Steven Totilo wrote about it on Kotaku, and Michael Abbott wrote a lovely coda about how much the portrayal of fatherhood in Bioshock 2 resonated with him.

Interesting, too, that in Heavy Rain you saw not just the love, but also the brutality and intensity of a father/son relationship. I hadn't thought of it that way, but just as in real life, there is a kind of violence there, the sort of primal thing where you're not a man until you defeat your father, or he dies. And with its pantheon of various father figures, Heavy Rain certainly tapped into that.

And as easy as it is to complain about how the weird animations and voice acting on the children took me out of it, it wasn't that hard to use my imagination and let the scenes of Ethan and his son resonate as they were meant to. Though it would have been easier if, say, Naughty Dog had been in charge of the facial animations and voice direction.

So a lot of the games that have been coming out recently have been offering all sorts of interesting and varied takes on fatherhood. What I want to know is, when will we see a game tackle motherhood? It'll happen sooner rather than later, and I find myself looking forward to it.

Matt said...

I'm glad you said you needed to sack up. The controls are hard, but they're supposed to be hard. Jayden shouldn't be a ninja; he's a desk jockey for the FBI. And Madison should be able to jump 3 feet, but when you're in an apartment that's ablaze, just figured out the killer's identity, trying not get blowed the f up, save the man you love, and save Ethan, jumping from one ledge to another is going to be hard.

I accidentally killed Nathaniel. The controls were confusing, but I think Jayden was in a situation he couldn't handle. R2 jumped out at me and I did it in a panic and had to live with that decision. The regret was real, inasmuch the trophy told me it was a blunder and I knew my story would change. But I also felt bad for Jayden—something that's pretty hard for a game.

I disagree that Scott's actions don't add up. He wasn't a methodical killer. His MO was testing the fathers of these children he kidnapped. The mothers were just being used for information, and he could still use Lauren. Plus, I think he was starting to fall for her, since one of my options was "caress" her back into the car. I didn't—gross. Every step of his destruction of evidence was tied to his investigation, which was really just following up with the parents and figuring out why they didn't follow his clues. His victims: the parents, not the kids.

The blackouts are due to the accident. The one in the park could have been triggered by the circus music (remember the clown?). My thoughts on the oragammy in his hand: Since Shelby had been following him since the very beginning (when Jason was hit by the car) he had been waiting to strike and swipe the kid. Had he been doing that, he obviously would have known Ethan was messed up and was throwing him off. Again: the victims were the dads, not the kids. Even though the kids died, it was more about the trauma of losing the kid.

I wish you could go back and play it again without knowing anything about the story. I'm playing for alternate endings (I had all four survive to the end) but the magic is gone. But it does offer a way to really look into the clues scattered around the game, things I missed before, whole other emotional cans of worms I opened. Instead of watching my kid do his homework, I drank a beer and sat upstairs and watched old home movies and cried like a baby. It was still fulfilling.

Give it another chance, and maybe go to Normal difficulty this time.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Thanks, Matt - you guys've definitely convinced me to give it another go. I will probably allow for some time so that I can get closer to experiencing it again fresh, but I'm not putting the game up for sale anytime soon.

I still don't think that Ethan's Origami was a fair red herring - if Scott was really planting them, the game should've explicitly said so in the reveal. I don't think players should be required to stretch that far to explain it on our own.

But as plot holes go, it wasn't the worst in the game, and for whatever reason the holes didn't bother me so much as they were just... noticeable.

Anyhow, the farther I get from the experience, the more perspective I have on it (naturally). It occurs to me that the title of this post could refer either to the game or to the post itself. Heh.

An imperfect game, but such a fascinating one. I with we saw its kind more often.

Jay said...

One other highlight for me was the CSI-style evidence gathering. I wish Quantic could make a Law & Order game solely based on this aspect of the gameplay (coupled with the interrogation mechanic used on Ethan, but in reverse). Of course, they would HAVE to get the actual cast to do the v/o work or it would be a waste, but man what potential!

For all its faults, this game was nothing if not innovative.

A couple recommendations for a 2nd play-through (from my own notes).

- Set audio to French and turn on English subtitles. Why I didn't do this at the beginning of the game is beyond me. I kinda despise watching French movies dubbed in English so I don't why I thought it wouldn't matter for a game. I mean, it could only improve the god-awful child voice acting, right?

- Do the trials. I don't care if you have to restart the scenes (unless you're REALLY opposed to it) but that whole series of events were some of the best and most versatile action the game offered. I don't wanna give anything away (omg spoilarz!) but there is one trial in particular that forces your hand in one of the toughest moral decisions of the game. Do them all and I think you will have a new-found appreciation for Ethan's role in the game.

- Lower the difficulty level (as Matt suggests too). Was your first play-through on hard? Mine was not (maybe why the QTEs were manageable). I know the hardcore gamer in you will not want to welcome this ego-bruising tactic, but I specifically did not play on the harder difficulty because I wanted my peeps to live through my first run. I expect my 2nd play-through (on hard) will be full of failed QTEs, but that's OK cos I want to see what happens when I fail this time around.

Hopefully these ideas will bring both of us some welcome changes to the presentation.

Also, I'm playing through Bioshock 2 now (put it on the back burner when I started Heavy Rain) and I'd love to get more in-depth on the topic of Fatherhood in gaming in general (I read Totillo's post, waiting on the other till I finish). Motherhood, however, seems like a bit more of a stretch as there just aren't as many female gamers that will relate to that theme on the scale that male gamers are available to relate to ideas of fatherhood. The numbers just aren't there yet, and I don't see a developer taking on that kind of risk with all the studios closing these days. I'd certainly welcome the idea tho!

Kirk Hamilton said...

That is a great idea about the french language track with subtitles. Can't believe that didn't occur to me!

Also, didn't know you could restart a scene mid-game. If that's an option, I'll probably keep the difficulty where it was (I think it was on "normal?") and leave myself a replay option should things go tits-up.

Jay said...

You can replay any chapter with the option to save or not. For example, you can go through individual chapters of your completed game without saving to try and get trophies or whatever else you missed without rewriting any scenes. Or, if you wind up shitting the bed during a QTE, you can re-load that chapter with the option to save over your blunder. Not sure what happens if you play a much earlier chapter and save over your progress... I imagine diverging Heavy Rain universes splintering out JJ Abrams-style. You may wanna shy away from fucking with the space-time continuum in that way, but it could be an interesting experiment (or frustrating beyond belief).

*All in all, I just wanted you to get as much enjoyment out of the game as I did. After all the effort you put into the previews and analyzing the demo and tracking down a copy... you deserved your "game about real people". Those contributions got me more excited for a game than I have been in awhile (and there's been a TON of great games coming out). Sorry it was a bummer for you but I guess that's life imitating art imitating life. Good luck with round 2. I recommend a flask of bourbon within arm's reach this time. It may not help your game, but at least it'll dull the pain.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Alas. But I remain hopeful that one day soon I will get to play that game about real people, and Heavy Rain was certainly closer than most.

And really, I wouldn't be surprised if in the next couple of years, a less idiosyncratic developer takes the concepts behind Heavy Rain and makes a game that realizes their full potential.

In the meantime, I can always just pitch "Mass Affect" to EA, har har.

Jay said...

Forget EA, you should just team-up with someone who can help turn Mass Affect into a Facebook game. I mean really, what better platform could there be than that? It would sell faster than an Urban Outfitters bandana with the 3 keyboard cats moon image on it. Schell will love you for it (achievement unlocked: next gen game designer!). Potential for hundreds of millions of dollars (apparently) and hella internet fame...

Let me know if you need a staff writer!

JonasGrum said...

I had myself screaming in frustration in the tunnel "power plant" when Ethan only wanna do a 180 turn to the right. It's just unforgiven when everything becomes a matter of life or death and because you never get the notice about the replay possible as you go along at that point I felt strong hate and betrayal! - When loading you get the same advise about tapping flashing x 20 times! Useless compared to death of a son!