Like many people who played it, I really enjoyed Fahrenheit, David Cage’s previous attempt at fulfilling his noble ambition of moving storytelling in games beyond the infantile nonsense that it defaults to. That is, I enjoyed it until it went completely off the rails.
That game’s most impressive achievement was the speed with which it tossed aside a brilliant opening, brimming with possibilities, and completely lost it. As far ahead of most games at the time as the cut-scene direction was, it didn’t take long for me to stop enjoying them because I had to spend their running time staring at two little on-screen prompts, and don’t even get me started on the plot machinations. Just baffling.
My disappointment with Fahrenheit was perhaps the main reason why I skipped Heavy Rain on its release. I’d heard all the promises before, and even today I put Cage, up there with Peter Molyneux on the scale of bullshit. I’m so used to being let down by their unfulfilled promises that I have a mental filter on everything they say, treating it as a joke that I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it turns out to be even close to reality. It’s like the racist uncle who you just nod your head and smile at, because you stopped actually listening to them years ago.
Once I sat down to play it, though, I quickly realised how much better this is. Some odd pacing and a flawed interface aside – how about telling me what a given selection of stick motions are going to do instead of giving me one chance to make the ‘right’ choice? – it’s more mature than Fahrenheit and seems to be evidence that Cage has finally learned some restraint.
I’m still not convinced that this is the future of in-game storytelling, however. Putting aside the actual content of the plot, which is admittedly better than most games but still far below the standard of the best available in other media, Heavy Rain is still far more of an ‘interactive movie’ than it is a game. You can spend all the time in the world on brilliant animation, voice acting and careful choreography, but it does nothing for games when all of these awesome action sequences are QTEs. I’m not entirely averse to this mechanic – God knows I go on about Shenmue enough – but I’m not going to pretend that it does anything for gameplay design, which is the reason we’re playing games rather than watching movies.
Quibbles aside, Heavy Rain is well worth experiencing. It’s just that it reinforces my opinion that while trying to advance narrative in games is certainly admirable, copying the conventions of Hollywood too closely simply dilutes what makes games special. And for all its ambitions, my recent playthrough of the Half-Life 2 games suggests that maybe it’s barking up the wrong tree.
A decent game, but it would be a better movie. Pick one and stick to it.