Heavy Rain was first released on the PlayStation 3 amid much fanfare in early 2010. It was a significant game for several reasons. The PS3 was still languishing behind the Xbox 360 after a disastrous launch, and the console needed exclusive games that showed off its latent processing power and superior graphics. Heavy Rain was conceived as such a game, and much was made of its sophisticated graphics, in particular its characters’ faces and facial animations. It was also one of the first games to go down the route of “interactive drama”, and (along with The Walking Dead) it helped inspire the proliferation of similar games over the last six or seven years. It’s strange to think now, but back in 2010 motion controls were all the rage (thanks to the Nintendo Wii), and Heavy Rain was also used to demonstrate the potential of Sony’s Move controllers. So, a lot was riding on the game, but it proved a commercial and critical success, and was re-released on PS4 last year, taking advantage of the current craze for remakes. You can pick it up in a bundle with Beyond: Two Souls, also from developer Quantic Dream.
In short, Heavy Rain was an ambitious game that achieved what it needed to, but with the passage of time and divorced from its context, it now feels fairly unremarkable. Heavy Rain is a noir-ish thriller with a narrative structure that follows several characters as they attempt to unravel the mystery of a serial murderer known as “The Origami Killer”. The story is told through a sequence of overlapping scenes told from four different points of view; the player has a certain amount of control over what the characters do, and how they interact with their environment and other people. The game has quite a few possible endings, so some of the decisions you make matter and have consequences, but there are still quite a lot of scenarios where the game forces you down a particular path and makes you do something you really don’t want to. It’s not quite the illusion of choice for which Telltale games have become notorious, but it can still be a bit jarring at times.
The central story of Heavy Rain is well-paced and emotionally resonant, but it is also overwrought and prone to melodrama. Even by video game standards the storytelling is unsophisticated, and at times the script descends into outright bathos and Narm; indeed, T. and I took to referring to the game as “Chubby Rain”, in honour of the legendary B-Movie of the same name. Certain events that are integral to the plot depend on characters behaving in an unrealistic or moronic way, which tends to undermine the player’s immersion and investment in the story. The much-feted facial animations can lead to occasional unintended comedy when characters gurn inappropriately or make exaggerated expressions; and there were also a couple of nightmarish occasions when characters spoke without moving their lips. On the whole, the character models and facial animations are impressive, but Heavy Rain has long since been surpassed by the likes of The Last of Us and The Witcher 3 (which also happen to be fully-fledged video games rather than “interactive drama”). Heavy Rain “director” and writer David Cage also has a weird insistence on using extreme close-ups of the main characters during cuts and loading screens, which may have seemed original in 2010 but now just feels pretentious and odd.
The interactive part of Heavy Rain involves exploring environments and engaging with people and objects, and many of the scenes and settings are well-designed and executed, even if most of them are highly derivative of ’80s and ’90s cinema. The game doesn’t have difficulty levels as such, but it adjusts the complexity of the button and motion controls based on your level of experience with games. While I found the button controls to be fine, for me the motion controls were poorly implemented and a cause of regular frustration. Moreover, although some investigations and conversations proved thrilling, too much of Heavy Rain alternates between the mundane business of opening and closing cupboards, or a procession of overlong and ultimately dull fistfights.
Although it doesn’t always get it right, some of the relationships between characters can be quite affecting, in particular that between main character Ethan Mars and his son, Shaun. It’s fortunate that Ethan’s character arc is quite strong, because the other three characters are not developed that well. In particular, the depiction of journalist Madison Paige is somewhat problematic. Paige is an effective and tenacious investigative journalist, but almost every scene she’s in sees her luridly depicted as victim, nurse, or helpless object of sexual desire. This is testament to the script’s ’80s B-Movie DNA, but it’s somewhat jarring and out of sync with the game’s popular and self-perception.
The relative success of any game is inherently conjunctural, depending as it does on a variety of technological factors and cultural trends, as well as whatever artistry it can bring to bear. The original Heavy Rain took advantage of a certain set of circumstances to deliver a commercially successful, technologically savvy experience which also suggested a possible future path for video game design. But it hasn’t aged well. Although this remake helps to spruce up Heavy Rain’s graphics, it’s unable to do anything about its dated story and characterization, or its overly stylized and pretentious self-image.