I finally sat down and played through one entire round of Heavy Rain, nearly uninterrupted, yesterday. It took me about ten hours. An unruly piece of my brain kept humming that beautiful Bob Dylan song: "Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed son? And where have you been, my darling young one?" Seemed a good soundtrack for this dark and perilous emotional journey springing from the tradition of the modern noir crime film.
The mood of the game is probably what affected me most. The constant rainfall, the darkness of the skies, the way the characters shivered as they walked through a wet night, all made me feel soaked through with rain and depression. The sound is so well-done in the game that it felt like it was raining in my living room as I played -- raindrops were landing on pavement at my elbow. The game perfects the atmosphere at every level.
In terms of narrative structure, the game strikes a precarious but successful balance between occluding information to keep the player guessing and revealing clues to the protagonists. Each of the four protagonists has pieces of the puzzle, and the player (presumably) has the power to put them all together. There were some neat moments of crossover when the player, while playing as one character, encounters the other, and then smoothly transitions to play the second character. Actually "play" is not quite the right word. It's more like the player accompanies the character and unravels both the sequence of events as well as the mysteries of personality. In that sense it reminded me of great adventure games like Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.
And I can't not point out the incredible skin textures on the models -- they look so stunningly good that it almost takes me out of the game because I'm lost in marveling at how they got freckles and stubble and skin transparency so exactly right. You see close-ups of faces during loading screens and it's astonishing. They still haven't quite solved that certain deadness in the eyes but man, they are close.
From this point on there are spoilers ahead as I'd like to discuss some concerns in a bit more detail.
The biggest issue, which is depressingly unsurprising, I suppose, is they way the only playable female character is handled. For one thing, she's almost completely non-integral to the plot. The other three male characters are investigators -- one's an FBI agent; one's an ex-cop PI; one's the father of the kidnapped child. But Madison? Well, in my playthrough I didn't find out that she was a journalist until the very end of the game. She tells Ethan that she photographs furniture and before that I found her mooning about in her apartment in her underwear (more on that later), no career in sight.
I was looking forward to finding out more about her and I mistakenly believed, since she was so prominently featured on the box cover and in promotions for the game, that she'd be a major player. She's not. The game could easily progress without her in it at all. The game never made her motivations clear to me (except that she's got some sort of fetish for playing "guardian Angel" -- blech) and as I result I felt completely disconnected from her character and depressed that she didn't have more involvement, more of a personal character arc or a background.
Most damningly, every major moment the character has is sexually exploitative in nature. In the introduction to her, she's forced to fight off an attempted rape. Ugh. In another, a mad scientist ties her up and attempts to stick a power drill between her legs. Double ugh. (Apparently you can avoid this but in my game, I couldn't.) In her third big scene, she "sexes it up" and dances to get the attention of a guy who has information relevant to the case. By this point, I'm just rolling my eyes. The rest of the time, she mostly plays nursemaid, tries to prevent Ethan from being caught by the police (again, why??) and tries to kiss him for no good reason. Lots of other gamers have written about the weakness of Madison's connection to the plot and the flimsiness of her motivation so I won't go too much more into that, although I definitely could, it makes me feel very ranty.
When she goes to the night club in an attempt to seduce one of the potential bad guys, she gets invited to his private room. At that point, you can hear her reservations if you listen to her thoughts: "Madison, this is the stupidest thing you've ever done!" No shit! Going alone to a known criminal's lair after you've survived a couple of rape attempts? For a guy whom you just met and who won't tell you what's going on? No thanks! I think I'll go back to taking photos of fancy furniture -- and maybe report all this to the police (although the game doesn't give you that option). So I told my Madison to be sensible and I marched her right out of the club without doing anything rash. I was really happy that the game let me do this...
...Until the very next scene, which referenced the "crazy bitch" who had almost killed the evil sleazeball! Unless some other attractive-but-dim-witted photographer also happened to encounter the fellow on the same night and somehow left Madison's fingerprints all over the crime scene, because it wasn't me. My Madison left before it got crazy. Basically the game ignored my actions and forced Madison to go through with something I thought she should never have done. So, I guess player actions matter as little as Madison's motives.
And that's the big hole in this game (and in other extremely narrative games): when the illusion of choice breaks down, it's better to not even have choice. Don't tell me that my actions in the game will have an impact when what you're really saying is that my actions will have an impact *as long as they fit into one narrative you've already constructed.* And please make that clear to me -- for example, if I were taking Madison out of the club without fulfilling an object that the narrative required, have Madison stop me with a re-iteration of her desire to complete the objective; or make her motivation come across so strongly to me that I can't imagine not fulfilling the objective.
Anyway, it's always easier to be the armchair designer, of course; and games this big and complex will have these issues -- not strictly bugs, I suppose, but logic loopholes. And I do appreciate the technical achievement this game represents.
Now, let's get some real female characters written whom we can truly root for!