‘Heavy Rain’ is steeped in mood, light on player interaction

the core mechanic of heavy rain is mood backlog header

No one has played every video game. Not even the experts. In Backlog, Digital Trends’ gaming team goes back to the important games they’ve never played to see what makes them so special … or not.

Heavy Rain is an extremely appropriate name for David Cage’s 2010 noir adventure game. First, it’s raining for virtually the entire game. More broadly, though, it captures this serial killer drama’s oppressively serious mood. That weight is undermined at every turn, however, by hack writing, distractingly bad performances, and dangerously large plot holes.

I kept thinking of The Room, another European auteur’s outsider take on a classic American genres that renders itself ridiculous through rough execution on every level. However, even Tommy Wiseau’s opus has a sense of levity to balance out its grim central narrative. Cage’s desire that Heavy Rain be accepted as art is deafening from start to finish.

Heavy Rain has more than its fair share of memeable moments if you’re willing to go along for the ride.

Heavy Rain is also at odds with its own medium. Cage is obviously a lover of cinema, with clear allusions to a wide variety of classic films throughout the game. It’s less clear how he feels about games, however, since at times Heavy Rain barely qualifies. At times, it’s more like a bad noir thriller fan film you need to click your way through.

On some level I must applaud David Cage just for making a game so different and purely narrative-focused in the AAA space, however misguided his experiment may seem a lot of the time. Like The Room, Heavy Rain has more than its fair share of memeable moments if you’re willing to go along for the ride, but boy, can it be a slog to get there. Heavy Rain is a game that desperately wants to be a movie, but it fails as both.

You’re tearing me apart, Jason!

Right off the bat Heavy Rain has the emotional subtlety of a bullhorn. We open on the idyllic life of husband and father Ethan Mars. Ostensibly a tutorial section to teach the player about the game’s basic mechanics, it mostly serves to aggressively underline how happy this guy’s life is before it takes a telegraphed turn south. It does this with every trick in the book, from over-saturated colors to cloying sentimentality as he plays with his children in the backyard. This aggressive introduction handily sets up the famous absurdity of the following scene.

Later, one of the other protagonists, journalist Madison Paige, is introduced no less crudely. Without any context as to who she is or why we’re there, Madison wakes up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. She wakes up to take a shower (as if that’s what people do when they can’t sleep), then is attacked and murdered by two men in masks. But don’t worry! It was all a dream. It’s the kind of scene a slasher film would use to establish the story’s antagonist, but Cage uses it to introduce a central character – and it doesn’t work.

These two early scenes establish a tone that carries throughout the game. These all feel like characters and moments we’ve seen before, remixed into a homage to noir and thrillers, but lacking any real coherence. This becomes an issue when rampant plot holes start to emerge. The game famously had some supernatural elements that were removed late in the development process, which likely would have helped to close a few of these gaps. That the holes left behind weren’t filled speaks to Cage’s generally slapdash approach to story, instead prizing the moment-to-moment experience above all else.

Press X to FEEL

The conventional wisdom about quick time events (QTEs) is that they’re a crude way to give the player something to do during cutscenes. The original God of War series is an example of how they can work well, as bringing enemies down to a certain health threshold would trigger QTEs for Kratos to perform brutal, cinematically-framed finishing attacks. They work in that series because they feel like a reward for doing well against an opponent.

Above all, David Cage wants you to feel emotionally engaged in Heavy Rain.

The problem with Heavy Rain’s reliance on QTEs, by contrast, is that there’s nothing else going on. The player is often dropped into a scene with little context, tasked with moving around the environment and interacting with objects until the story progresses. Many of Heavy Rain’s defining moments are QTEs that serve as simple pass-fail checks.

As a noir thriller, that includes moments you’d expect, such as fist fights and car chases. While the scenes offer some excitement, they don’t leave the player with much to actually do.

What, then, is the point of the game? I could argue that story is the main mechanic, but that doesn’t feel right, either, given the game’s tenuous grasp on a coherent narrative. Rather, the defining problem that explains why Heavy Rain fails as both a game and as a story is that mood is the core mechanic. Above all, Cage wants you to feel emotionally engaged.

Heavy Rain

My high school theater director, in his infinite wisdom, liked to say that “mood spelled backwards is doom.” That’s a pithy and hyperbolic way of saying that pursuing a mood or tone in your art above all else is a hollow endeavor–all sizzle and no steak.

It recalls the 2004 Best Picture Oscar winner Crash, which I recall liking in the theater, but felt increasingly queasy about over subsequent weeks. Eventually I came to feel it was posing as serious and important art by hitting me over the head with serious and important subject matter, without ever saying anything at all. I’m not alone in feeling that way about it.

Crash is the affective approach to art executed masterfully, however. Heavy Rain aspires to achieve the same effect, but stumbles over itself and thus ends up more like The Room. Like Wiseau’s opus, Heavy Rain is a game best enjoyed with a grain of salt, ideally alongside friends, while intoxicated.

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