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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2010

Game review: Heavy Rain immerses players in dark mystery

BY SETH SCHIESEL
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The big storm has been raging for days. The winds around the eaves make me lonely, melancholy, and yet my guilt forces me forward in search of redemption.

I have probably spent 10,000 hours playing various sorts of electronic games. But no single-player experience has made me as genuinely nervous, unsettled, surprised, emotionally riven, and altogether involved as Heavy Rain, a noir murder mystery inspired by film masters such as Hitchcock, Kubrick, and David Lynch.

Heavy Rain, developed by Quantic Dream in Paris and released this week by Sony for the PlayStation 3, is a brilliantly engaging example of nonlinear storytelling, one that unfolds all around you as a direct, if often obscured and subtle, result of the choices you make and don't make. Unlike most games, it offers no way to lose, per se. And depending on your point of view, there may be no way to win, either.

In terms of eye-hand coordination or "gamer skills," Heavy Rain is negligible, even trivial, in its challenge, which will offend twitch fiends. Yet this is no simplistic "Choose Your Own Adventure" for children. This is a wrenching, often disturbing, almost entirely gripping experience for grown-ups. The easy, intuitive controls should make it accessible to what ought to be Heavy Rain's audience: adults who want a glimpse of the future of interactive entertainment, a future when characterization, writing, and emotional connection are more important than combat mechanics.

Heavy Rain is one of the few games set in an approximation of the real world. The game takes place among the gray mists of a nasty, wet, sodden autumn in the rundown industrial precincts of Philadelphia. (The game doesn't explicitly reveal the name of the city, but the clues and resemblance are clear.) The Origami Killer has been abducting young boys, who are then found dead, drowned in rainwater.

This story is told through the perspectives of four people: an FBI agent, a journalist, a private investigator, and, most important, a parent. Ethan Mars is the happy father of a perfect family, with a beautiful wife and two beatific young sons.

Of course, there would be no game if things stayed perfect. In fact, things go very wrong for Ethan, and Heavy Rain becomes the story of his journey - and yours - to rescue what little he can of his life.

The four main characters that the player controls are the keepers of secrets and demons within their own lives. What exactly happens to them, even whether each lives or dies, is up to you. Heavy Rain was built around a 2,000-page script written by its main creator, David Cage, but as a player, you experience only that part of the script that is relevant, as a result of your actions over the roughly 10-hour narrative.

The voice acting is uneven. Taken in isolation, the voice performances can sound stilted at times, perhaps because English is not the first language for some of the actors. But the motion-capture work and facial animations are expressive and impressively emotive. The music and sounds, too, are incredibly important in creating the chilling sense of dread that is Heavy Rain's stock in trade.

The overall presentation draws heavily, even reverentially, from the visual and storytelling vernacular of film. Cage has clearly gleaned from movies such as Rear Window, Eyes Wide Shut, and Blue Velvet that a major part of creating intimacy lies in cinematography. Many third-person games (where you see your character on screen rather than inhabiting it from a first-person perspective) are shot from a sort of top-down angle. That view gives the player a more tactical sense of the environment but often does not create a strong sense of immediacy.

Most of Heavy Rain, by contrast, is portrayed from virtual cameras at ground level, at the same height as the characters or even below them. As in most films, you can never quite see an entire room at once, and so you are never quite sure in what direction the action will unfold.

In its exploration of the psychology of the sociopath, Heavy Rain owes more than a bit to novelists such as Thomas Harris (The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal). Perhaps the most interesting element of the story is that the emotional weight of Heavy Rain is almost entirely bound up in Ethan's sense of responsibility for his sons. For the player, the game hangs on your concern for children. No other game in recent memory has forced me to reach for a blanket at 11 a.m. because I am literally shivering in nervous tension. And no single-player game has made me feel as profoundly connected to the outcome of a story I cared about. Cage and Quantic Dream have put the world on notice that the future of video games may be closer than we thought.



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