In Heavy Rain, writer-director David Cage only somewhat fulfills the goal of crafting a humanistic murder mystery. Like Fritz Lang’s M, the game regards a serial child killer from an empathetic standpoint, especially in the second half, when the player reenacts the childhood event that links the murderer’s present-day psyche to parental apathy. Some of the other characterizations aren’t so uniquely or provocatively detailed, but the mechanics of the frequent on-screen button and motion prompts counterbalance this flaw. Throughout, the player not only guides the protagonists past adventure-game tropes (chases, clue-gathering), but also through common chores (setting plates on a table, cooking eggs) that, even in the face of despicable crimes, reveal the everyday altruism that binds people together.
You typically control one of four protagonists: Ethan Mars, whose son is the killer’s latest victim; Scott Shelby, a private eye on the killer’s trail; Norman Jayden, a drug-addicted F.B.I. agent who’ll stop at nothing to solve the case; and Madison Paige, a photojournalist and insomniac who gets caught in the middle of everything. Cage’s direction and script treat both Ethan and Scott with great sensitivity. Ethan’s tragedy is partly his struggle to emotionally connect with his wife and remaining son, while Scott exudes a quiet vulnerability that’s most powerfully illustrated in the regret on his face when he leaves a home where the innocence of a baby is juxtaposed against beer bottles on a table and a mother’s failed suicide.
Elsewhere, Norman, an investigator who’ll do anything, including harming himself, to close the case, suggests an amalgam of crime-fiction clichés. Cage, though, vividly allows Norman’s surroundings to become a visual corollary of his obsession, specifically through a pair of sunglasses that puts the cool investigator in mesmerizing outdoor locations and a glove that lets him sift through evidence with motion-controlled illusions. But Madison’s characterization isn’t so easily redeemed, as the game dubiously goes out of its way to get her naked. One scene, wherein she takes off her clothes in order to trick a sleazebag into letting his guard down, is even punctuated with her own token girl-power refrain: “That’s what I call kicking butt! You go girl!”
Heavy Rain often rebounds from such cringing missteps through Cage’s thoughtful approach to quick-time events. The games that it influenced, The Walking Dead and Until Dawn among them, primarily use QTE prompts for the purposes of simply advancing the action through world exploration, puzzle solving, and making “moral” choices. But none come close to matching the almost wacky concentration on human activity (brushing teeth, shaving, the calling out of a child’s name inside a mall) or variety of inputs that Heavy Rain asks for, including but not limited to single-button presses, quarter and half motions, and multiple buttons held in the proper chronological order.
The game is always concerned with telling a story rather than selling us the gimmick of player agency.
This design allows Cage to magnify how small practical activities, like the changing of a child’s diaper, leads to the formation of bonds between individuals. It’s a way of having audiences thoughtfully consider human feelings, such as Scott’s growing compassion for a neglected child, that are far removed from the predictable sense of relief or accomplishment one may feel after enacting QTE violence or gathering evidence.
Heavy Rain, originally released in 2010, also heightens the meaning of its violence through clever conceptual and aesthetic flourishes. At the start of the game, Cage illustrates the relationship between Ethan and his sons via a fake sword fight, but the swirling camerawork lends the scene a striking graveness, forecasting the dissolving of this family unit. Later, the video-game contrivance of only being able to hold a single item is milked for suspense: As Ethan places tools one by one on a table to prepare himself for the amputation of his own finger, the sequence morbidly anticipates how each tool might be used for the impromptu surgery. Split-screen images elicit a unique nervousness during action sequences in which you must pay attention to the on-screen prompts while being drawn to another part of the screen. Comparing Cage to film director Brian de Palma downplays how well the former can manipulate a player’s, rather than a viewer’s, eyes.
When the identity of the child killer is revealed, one might have a difficult time justifying the narrative contrivances and misdirection. But Cage’s insistence on connecting his characters through emotional and psychological pain lacks cynicism, especially if one ignores the presence of offensively one-dimensional side villains like a corrupt mechanic and a psychotic doctor.
Despite its missteps in characterization and plot, Heavy Rain is always concerned with telling a story rather than selling us the gimmick of player agency. This integrity is best illustrated in the fact that Cage doesn’t litter the game with condescending commentary about your choices having consequences (the creators of Game of Thrones, Until Dawn, and Life Is Strange should take note). At one point, you can spare a person’s life as Ethan, who’ll state, “I’m not a killer.” Rarely does a game involving such a decision come with a moral sentiment as strongly communicated.