Marcel recently revisited a game he had played seven years ago: Heavy Rain. Back then, it’s ability to have players choose how the story would unfold was very new and revolutionary. Skip to seven years later, and there have been more and more narrative driven games where the player gets to influence the narrative. How does Heavy Rain hold up to modern standards? Before you read: heavy spoiler alert. We’ve tried to hide the biggest plot-twists, but we cannot hide them all. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
It was a cold winter’s day in January 2014, and I had just completed my largely overdue first playthrough of Assassin’s Creed. Now I needed another excuse to procrastinate for the winter exams. Back then, when I still tuned in to PewDiePie on a regular basis, I watched a let’s play of Heavy Rain on his channel. I was very much intrigued by this thrilling game noir experience. And the game was already released four years ago, what? I had played Fahrenheit (called Indigo Prophesy in North America) many years before that, but kind of forgot about David Cage and his crazy projects at his studio Quantic Dream after I had completed that game. I decided to pause the video, get on my bike, and race over to Game Mania to buy a second-hand copy of Heavy Rain. And before I knew it I was hooked…
Now it’s 2021 and I wanted to go back to that experience. I found that I still digged the game, but I also noticed that my opinion about many aspects of the game were tainted with nostalgia.
The story and the illusion of choice
In Heavy Rain you play as four characters who each try to save another victim of the notorious serial killer known as the Origami Killer. The modus operandi of this killer is kidnapping children and drowning them in rainwater. Afterwards he leaves them on a deserted piece of wasteland with an origami figure in the victim’s hand and an orchid on the chest.
The first playable character is Ethan Mars, who once had a picture-perfect life. However, Ethan has recently lost his son in a car accident and his wife divorced him shortly afterwards. Now in a depressed mood he tries to cope and to take care of his other son, Shaun. But bad luck is part of Ethan’s life because his son became the latest victim of the Origami Killer. The killer gives Ethan a chance to find his son because he set up five insane trials for Ethan to follow. Ethan will receive parts of an address if he successfully completes a trial. Most memorable is the third trial were you have to cut off a section of your finger, which still gives me chills to this day. The screams man, the screams… But these trials are also an example of a bigger flaw in the game. There were multiple times in which I tried to fail the trials by seriously hurting Ethan to the point that I assumed would take him out of the story. However, the devs had already decided for me that Ethan cannot die during these trials. This is also true for the other characters: the devs decide in which chapter a character can or cannot die, which is an illusion of choice. This has been an issue for narrative games as a whole. Most times your choices simply affect dialogue options and minor characters. We can ask ourselves how much agency the player really has to affect the plot. However, since 2010 there have been a few games which let the player have more of an actual impact on the narrative and the world itself. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and it’s two marvelous’ DLC’s should be mentioned in this regard. But also the highly successful narrative game Until Dawn gave the player more agency on the plot.
The second playable character is ex-cop and private detective Scott Shelby. Scott has been hired by the families of the murdered children to investigate the murders. As Scott you conduct your enquiries outside of the official police investigation. You trace down every possible lead in locations such as sleazy hotels and big mansions. Scott Shelby fits perfectly inside the 1950’s private detective trope. From his demeanor as a grizzled no-nonsense type of guy to his 1949 Oldsmobile 88 automobile and the interior of his apartment. For example: Scott uses an old typewriter placed on an old wooden desk with a bottle of whiskey in one of the drawers. If you like old detective movies, which I do, you certainly will like this character, which I did.
The third playable character is FBI agent Norman Jayden who assists the local police department as a psychological profiler. Norman has always been my favourite character because I really like being part of the investigation, such as sweeping every part of the crime scene to find the killer. And I was very curious who the killer was, because in my first playthrough I didn’t predict the killer. In 2021 I became less excited about the criminal investigation part of the story and it has much to do with the illusion of choice. I was wondering if it made a difference when I made Norman the crappiest FBI agent ever by missing all optional clues. The conclusion amazed me because, apart from one clue, it does not matter how successful your investigation is. For example, in the chapter “Crime scene” Norman investigates a deserted wasteland on which the body of Jeremy Bowles was found. It is mandatory to investigate the body, but it is optional to climb the muddy hill and find the killer’s tire tracks. These tracks are important because knowing which car the killer drives is going to be a major breakthrough later on. However, when Norman analyses his clues in the chapter “Welcome, Norman” he finds these tracks anyway via a satellite image… The player doesn’t need to find these tracks because the game just gives them to you. There are only four important parts in Jayden’s story, which are: don’t die in the chapters “Mad Jack” and “Fish Tank,” tear the killer’s pocket in “Fish Tank” to make him drop gas station receipts and to collect the receipts. Jayden will find the killer when he does these things.
The fourth playable character is freelance journalist Madison Paige. Madison suffers from insomnia and she can only sleep in motels, although this insomnia backstory withers later in the story. I didn’t really like this character because most she does is patch Ethan up after he returns from his trials. Although I did like the chapter “The Doc” in which she visits the psycho doctor. Never accept drinks from strangers kids, although I initially did of course… Originally Madison’s character was more fleshed out, however this was scrapped during development. Her insomnia was caused during her traumatic experiences as a Iraq War correspondent. Furthermore, her own investigations into the Origami Killer were given more attention. For example, the player was supposed to be visiting her workplace at the news agency. It’s really a shame that this important content was cut.
Sir, you’ve got holes in your plot…
For a game in which the story takes the centre stage there are a bit too many plotholes. One can be explained by reading about the development process of the game, but most are just bad writing.
The first plothole are Ethan’s blackouts. On two occasions in the game Ethan blacks out and finds himself hours later standing alone in the rain with an origami figure in his hand. These blackouts apparently also happened before the game began because his ex-wife discusses this fact with the police. What is curious is that the Origami Killer strikes every time that Ethan has these blackouts, making the player believe he has some kind of split personality disorder and that he is the killer. It is never explained why Ethan has these blackouts. However, there is a logical explanation for this plothole. It was initially the idea that Heavy Rain had supernatural elements, but these were scrapped because David Cage wanted the story to be more realistic. In this version Ethan had a supernatural connection with the killer because the killer was present when Ethan’s son died in the car accident. So, when the killer strikes Ethan gets a blackout in which he finds himself underwater surrounded by bodies. These blackouts make more sense with this supernatural element included, now it just serves as an empty red herring.
Gameplay, sound, and graphics
The gameplay of Heavy Rain is dated, while at the same time holding up as well. The mechanic that you have to hold R2 while steering with the left analog-stick to walk around is really dated. I also don’t know why this decision was made because there are older games from the 2000’s where you can just walk and run around by tilting the left analog stick. However, the action sequences are some of the best part of the game. The player traverses through these sequences by using quicktime events, some of which are rather difficult to accomplish. Furthermore, these sequences are written quite well. For example, when Ethan gets into a fight with a drug dealer in his apartment you move through his entire house, knocking over furniture along the way. Another interesting gameplay mechanic is that you can read each of the characters thoughts by holding L2. These thoughts give you a good insight into what the character is currently going through. And in stressful situations these options all dart around, showing the character’s state of mind. However, for Scott this gameplay mechanic doesn’t work at all since he is the killer. He would have thought about his victims, which he doesn’t because that would give the spoiler away. And I have already mentioned the aforementioned situation in which Scott thoughtlessly kills Manfred.
The sound of the game is quite ambiguous. The music is really good, but the voice acting sometimes falls short. In the case of the music it perfectly fits within the ambience of the game. The four main instruments are the piano, trumpet, synthesiser, and the violin, which are all set in minor. For a gloomy and rainy game this works great. The game also knows when to be silent and when to use its instruments. The voice acting is sometimes good, sometimes bad. In the case of Ethan, his voice actor Pascal Langdale has some really good scenes, but he also has moments where you feel that he is performing as a robot. This is also true for some of the other actors. But some of the voice actors are just unbearably bad, such as the voice actors of all the children in the game.
The graphics don’t always hold up quite well. At the time of release the facial animations were one of the selling points of the game. However, in 2021 most facial animations look unnatural, for example when characters are talking. Furthermore, the eyes look dead giving you the feeling that sometimes you are looking at robots. But I am giving the game some slack in this regard because it was released more than a decade ago. At the time it was really great. However, in my personal opinion I think the game still looks rather well. For example, the environments and the rain dropping on and off the windows.
Since Heavy Rain I’ve fallen in love with many story-centred games, such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, The Last of Us, Life is Strange, Until Dawn and Firewatch. Over the years these have become some of my favourite games. The main flaws of these narrative type games are the many plot holes and illogical narrative choices. Heavy Rain certainly has a lot of them. However, the suspension of disbelief still immerses me most of the time, albeit sometimes with a lot of scepticism. Furthermore, Heavy Rain is still one of the best thrilling game-noir experiences on the market. It is an important game in my life because it opened my eyes to this genre of video games.
Marcel Keurentjes (1995) has studied history at the University of Groningen and the University of Leiden. During these studies he has specialised himself in the history and development of countries in the Non-Western world. In this field of research he is mostly fascinated by processes of change within Non-Western countries which have occurred through centuries of contact, cooperation and conflict between the colonisers and the indigenous population.