Splitting the Difference: Heavy Rain, Videogames, and Film

Note: Minor Spoilers for the game discussed below.

This is going to be a long one.

Films are not videogames. Videogames are not films. Nobody should try to make videogames function like films for the very same reason you wouldn’t try to adapt a painting into a stage production: because it won’t work. Videogames seem to think they owe something to the other mediums, whether it’s hiring “real” writers to write for your game (Dragon Age 2, Gears of War 2, etc.) or submitting your game to film festivals (L.A. Noire).

There is one game, however, that proves how silly and how wrong this line of thinking is. That game is Heavy Rain.

David Cage, the main creative drive behind the game, insists that you take it seriously as an interactive film, not a videogame. This is insulting to the medium of videogames; a man in charge of making videogames is telling us to treat it like a film, which leads me to believe that he has a lack of understanding for both what a film is as well as what a videogame is.

Film and videogames are completely different means of telling a story. A film tells you a story in a relatively short amount of time, typically in an hour and a half to two hours, usually with three acts, in which each scene must add to the story, theme, or characters of the film. It begins, it heats up, it ends. It has a certain amount of time to do things, and it accomplishes its narrative goals through its script, acting, cinematography, set design, lighting, and everything else that adds to the mise-en-scène of the film. Film is film for a reason.

Videogames are a different beast altogether. For one, they are typically much longer than your average film, usually clocking in over 6 hours. The narrative is expressed through the script and characters, but most importantly, it is expressed through it’s gameplay; how the player interacts with the game. The mise-en-scène of a film involves using every element on screen to express visually and aurally what the film is about. In the same way, a game must tell you what it’s about through its use of connecting gameplay actions with the thematic elements of a story.

For example, Braid is a game about a man making mistakes, therefore the chief goal of Braid is to solve puzzles. In other words, a game about a man with problems is about solving problems. There are many layers to Braid’s gameplay and story, and each are connected through the way it has you interact with the game itself. Time manipulation is the main way you solves puzzles, and this adds to the theme of a man who is haunted by his past mistakes. Tim’s ability to control time is juxtaposed against the game’s ultimate message that time, no matter how much Tim can bend or shape it, is linear and unforgiving.

This is how videogames function.

Heavy Rain asks you to forget these basic rules of both film and videogames, or rather, David Cage and his team thought that these rules were holding us back from something greater that can be accomplished through the amalgamation of the two. Cocksure, blind, but still admirably brave, they failed to do what they set out to do. They failed because as far as I’m concerned, you not only can’t do this, but shouldn’t.

First of all, Heavy Rain fails as a videogame. The gameplay says nothing about the themes of the narrative, nor does it express the characters in any way beyond the broadest strokes. Not only this, but it commits the chief sin of a videogame: it’s boring. Oh sure, games don’t have to be roller coaster rides or even necessarily fun, but they have to able to keep you interested, and Heavy Rain fails to do so far too often to justify its playtime. The few exciting moments in the game are exciting indeed, but there are perhaps three moments of actually interesting gameplay packed into a game that is nearly 10 hours long.

The game mainly revolves around four different characters. You have a father, a private investigator, a cop, and a photojournalist. Each character is controlled in two ways: in third-person and in elaborate quick-time events. The third-person sections handle awkwardly and lazily, characters turning slowly, their weight shifting like water sloshing about a ship as you turn and step. When tasked to do something in third-person, the game instantly becomes almost unplayable, not out of actual functionality, but more of principle: walking in a videogame shouldn’t be a chore.

The quick-time events, which is how Heavy Rain functions most of the time, handle much better. Often, the events have you doing listless and meandering tasks, including playing with your poorly-animated and voiced children, helping your wife with groceries, brushing your teeth, scavenging dirty, poorly-light crime scenes for clues, and checking into hotels. The tedious nature of your actions doesn’t help either, with many thing asking you to repeatedly tap buttons over and over again, mocking you as you fail despite the fact that the presentation sometimes fails to highlight what you actually need to do to advance.

The point is that the gameplay of Heavy Rain stands in sharp contrast to its story; they don’t mesh in the way they should. Instead of speaking to a theme, they are a means to an end. QTE’s are used because there would be no other way to play Heavy Rain, which should have halted development right there. Instead, it flails about for hours upon hours, asking you to do increasingly boring things with sparse bits of interesting action scenes thrown in. It doesn’t change that Heavy Rain’s gameplay says nothing about its story and oftentimes harms it.

For example, one of the big selling points of the story is that one of the four characters may indeed be the killer the game has you chasing. The game doesn’t lie to you and you are indeed playing a killer for many parts of the game. However, it makes no sense that you should. Within the game, you can click in one of the thumbsticks at any time to see what your character is thinking; it’s meant to help organize your thoughts on the case, hint you towards what you may need to do, or comment on what’s happening in the game through the eyes of that character. As you can assume, the killer never thinks of the fact that he is the killer.

Although this begs the question: why not? Nowhere in the game does it suggest this character has any mental illness to make him not know he is the killer. He is fully aware of his actions. So why is he not thinking about them? Why does he think things that make no sense in the context of him being the killer, like, oh I don’t know, wondering who the killer is. Or feeling sorry for the victim’s families, or any other number of things the killer would never think.

So why include this mechanic in the game? All it does is create a major hole in the plot and hurt the building of that character’s personality. A gameplay mechanic is harming the story. This shouldn’t happen in videogames. There are countless other ones.

The game leads you to believe, at any time, your character can die if you fail to act properly in a scene. While this is true, its implementation is half-hearted. Instead, there are exceedingly few instances where this can occur (as in I can count them on one hand) and they are telegraphed quite heavily, breaking the illusion that videogames are supposed to maintain.

See, you’re usually not supposed to know you’re playing a game when you play one. This is called immersion. Heavy Rain is not immersive. At all. From all of the plotholes created by the gameplay, the technical hiccups, the awful voice-acting, and the consistent failures on the part of the controls, Heavy Rain fails to immerse in its world. Games can do all kinds of things to ruin immersion, almost every Bethesda game for instance, but they succeed by selling you on the world and making it interesting to interact with it, and Heavy Rain doesn’t do this.

However, this is all would be forgivable, even looked upon as charming, if the narrative of Heavy Rain was good. It’s not.

Heavy Rain’s narrative is many things. It’s confused, poorly-acted, poorly-written, over-dramatic, often non-sensical, and just plain dumb. Heavy Rain is dumb. It asks you to take it seriously as a film, but as a film it’s awful. It aspires to be on the same level as a David Fincher film or a good Brian DePalma film but it can hardly constitute a poorly-made Brett Ratner flick. It’s not even as good as bad thrillers starring Jim Carrey. It’s a mess. An awful, wretched mess.

It fails as a film because the digital avatars it calls actors fall face first into the uncanny valley. Their stiff, unemotive faces fail to accentuate the suspense or drama of the scenes and their inability to do so takes away from the story in a major way. Yet again though, this is nothing new to videogames. A good script and voice actors that can express that script well could solve this problem. Unfortunately, the script is dull and redundant, and the voice actors fail consistently. Whether it’s over-pronouncing lines, falling flat, or going in and out of accents (I’m looking at you, Norman Jayden), the voice-acting fails to uplift the stiff animation and also fails to bring life to the dull script.

Although if there was one problem that instantly torpedoed Heavy Rain, it’s how little sense it actually makes. There are enough plotholes to sink a battleship, with many existing simply to cheat the narrative into going the way it needs to go. The number of scenes that exemplify this are endless, so I’ll simply choose a few obvious ones. For instance, the police believe Ethan, the father, is the killer. However, why they believe this is never explained. In fact, it makes no sense because Ethan was in a coma when the killings began. He was in a coma for six months and the killing started three months into it.

The police think it was him because the writers need a way to have an ending where Ethan can be shot dead by the police, the ultimate irony given he is innocent. However, they don’t hide the fact that the police are completely incompetent at all and don’t seem to actually know how police officers function in reality in the first place. For one, Jayden’s partner not only physical abuses Ethan during an interrogation (which is illegal), but also pulls a gun on him when he gets angry (which is really illegal). His punishment for this is to be sent out of the room. In real life, this man would be fired on the spot or at least put on suspension.

The police also think that you can just shoot unarmed, nonthreatening civilians. Ethan, after saving his son, walks out of the warehouse where he found and saved him, leaving his son behind (he sets him down to open the door and then just walks out without him…okay?), and sees that the police have surrounded the building. Despite the fact that he is obviously innocent, despite the fact that they have no reason to want to shoot him, and despite the fact that he is not only unarmed, but has his hands in the air, they shoot him to death without even yelling “freeze”.

There are moments like this throughout, including ones that literally make no sense in any way, not just failing to meet the standards of reality itself. Madison, the photojournalist, is with Ethan in the warehouse during the trials. Ethan is severely injured, has limited time to find his son before he dies, and is for all intents and purposes, not attracted to Madison. However, this doesn’t stop her, having previously never shown any significant attraction to Ethan, to go in for kiss. The option to have sex is then given. Why?

It not only takes away from the story from a character standpoint (what is their motivation for doing this?), but it makes no sense in any way. Why would you want to have sex now of all times; Ethan’s son can die in any moment, and might already be dead for that matter, and instead he’s going to fuck some chick he hardly knows?

No, Heavy Rain. No, he won’t. And since the game asks us whether or not he should, the game makes the mistake that has plagued countless other games. They have made characters with personalities that are separate from the player’s, and then gave the player the option to make them perform actions that completely go against the character’s nature.

I’m sure you get the point by now (hopefully you do, considering the praise this game gets for no particular reason from major publications), but the point is that Heavy Rain represents the most ambitious effort to make a videogame and film hybrid, and it completely and utterly fails on every level. It does so not only through its own ineptitude as both a game and a film, but also fails because it simply can’t overcome the fact that films and videogames are completely different entities.

Videogames have succeeded at taking influence from films before (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, L.A. Noire), but they are indeed games, not interactive films. Those games understand what they are and they draw the line very clearly and succeed because of it. Heavy Rain does not because it does not draw this line; it’s too full of itself to think it doesn’t have to and too dumb to even come close to succeeding.