As gaming has matured, countless arguments have broken out over whether the medium can ever transcend itself and become art. Many people will point to Heavy Rain as tipping the scales, but that’s pointless. It’s doing something far more important, by being the first game to live up to the Mature rating.
Heavy Rain plants you in the role of four crucial but not vital characters in the midst of a cinematic thriller. Psychologically scarred architect Ethan Mars undergoes a series of dreadful trials to save his son from the Origami Killer. Drug-addicted FBI agent Norman Jayden must determine the killer’s identity before Mars’ son drowns. Photojournalist Madison Paige gets too close to the story. Heavyset private investigator Scott Shelby tries to unravel the mystery on behalf of the grieving families. (Should your actions cause any of them to die, the game won’t end; it goes on without them.) The carefully orchestrated story would play out brilliantly on a movie screen, but it proves far more engrossing as interactive drama: “What would you do for the one you love?” is the central question for player and character alike. It’s easy to become emotionally invested in these flawed characters. And isn’t that a far more valuable experience than an arbitrary debate on the nature of art?
The boldly unorthodox navigation through scenes is managed via context-sensitive quick-time events and the ability to hear your character’s thoughts as events unfold and you explore. Buttons let you take different approaches to conversations, start fistfights, or engage whatever else is at hand. It winds up feeling like regular life.
While so many other games straddle the uncanny valley to make onscreen characters look uncomfortably real, Heavy Rain’s sublime acting and conceit of omniscience probes interesting new territory by pointing out how truly mechanical we all are, constantly weighing the pros and cons of every decision, and assessing how every interaction with others makes us look. Subsequent playthroughs present the opportunity to pursue different paths of action, yielding new wrinkles and sequences in the story. Although Heavy Rain tends to nudge you back in the same general direction in the end, the horrifying scares and raw tension mined throughout ultimately speak to the story and how it’s told.