An overweight asthmatic private investigator, an FBI agent with a drug addiction, an introvert divorced architect and an insomniac photo journalist. Realistic characters in computer games? What will be next?!
From the very start of Heavy Rain (from Quantic Dreams) it is clear that this is a different kind of beast. You play Ethan Mars (the architect) and you simply wander around in your house, helping your wife preparing for a party, playing with your kids. Then a tragic accident happens and the story jumps 2 years forward. You now live in a rundown apartment with your son - the beautiful wife and house is gone. And then all of a sudden you’re Madison Paige (the photo journalist) being chased by hooded men with knives. And the next scene you’re Scott Shelby (the asthmatic PI), trying to interview the mother of a murdered child.
Last week I talked about the difficulty of feeling deeper emotions for the character you are controlling. In Heavy Rain you constantly shift main characters and quite often you interact with a character that you’ve just controlled. In one scene you control Ethan getting hurt doing something insanely dangerous and in the very next scene you control Madison tending the wounds on Ethan – wounds that he got when you controlled him. This is very, very clever. As I also said last week, it’s much easier to empathize with the side characters – so what Heavy Rain does is effectively making the main characters side character when it fits.
Heavy Rain is a multi-protagonist video-game. Each character in the game has their own goal and their goal becomes your goal when your controlling them.
Heavy Rain also lets you experience what the character you control feels. If your character is stressed, it becomes more difficult to control it. Your character will only run, when THEY feel there’s a reason for it. If you don’t react quickly enough, your character will autonomously make the easy choice … when you control Norman Jayden, the FBI agent, for instance, he will take drugs if you don’t actively stop him. And when you’re playing dreams or memories (which happen quite often) it seems as real as the rest of the game; because … you’re experiencing what the character you control feels.
You can influence your character, but that’s it; you don’t own them. This is emphasized by the fact that you don’t really know anything of your characters – despite that you’re controlling them, they are keeping secrets from you.
The multi protagonist game isn’t new – Infinity Ward, for instance, has done it with great success in the Call of Duty games. But the way it is done in Heavy Rain is really breath taking. Writer/director David Cage knows exactly what he is doing. While the story barely hits the standard of a straight-to-video rip-off of S7even, the way the character interaction works is going to set new standards.
The way Heavy Rain deals with characters should enter any game designer’s toolbox and as such the game, if anything is fair, will take its place in the video games’ history. It’s a landmark game.
I know that Quantic Dreams tried some of the same things in Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, as it was called in some parts of the World) – I think it seems like a rough sketch compared to Heavy Rain.
Oh, and David Cage calls Heavy Rain an interactive drama. Spare me, David – Heavy Rain is a video game … and a damn fine one at that.