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SummaryInteractive movies in the 21st century have come a long way
The GoodInteractive movies were this big thing in the 90s. It started off when people came up with good ways to compress videos made out of images with big, simple shapes of the same color - read: animated cartoons. Enter Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace.
Then, with the advent of the CD-ROM came the games that used live-action footage, shot with various levels of production value. Some were incredibly cheesy, some actually well made.
But the bottom line was the same - the game was playing back a video, and based on the user input (which was often as simple as clicking on a spot, or moving the joystick in one direction), it would branch off to another movie. Some games like The Daedalus Encounter tried to lighten it up by adding traditional puzzles to the mix so the gameplay was taking turns between movie playbacks and completely random puzzles, but after a few years, these kind of games faded away. They just sucked once you got over the hype of the “great graphics”.
Enter Heavy Rain. At its core, it’s an interactive movie, with some sections having almost the same lack of complexity as the aforementioned ancestors. But it’s a different league.
First off, the graphics are not pre-recorded, they’re rendered using a normal 3D renderer. You get to move the player in any direction you want. Once you get close to objects of interest, you can interact with them by making a certain movement or button press with your controller.
But what sets Heavy Rain apart from the rest is the narrative.
I’ll admit that Heavy Rain may as well be called Heavy-Handed. David Cage certainly didn’t spare any tricks to tug on your heartstrings, including lots of Mickey-Mousing. But I have to say - it works. Especially if you have kids.
The story revolves around Ethan Mars, having lost his elder son two years prior, whose remaining child is now abducted by the Origami Killer, a serial killer who targets young boys and drowns them after a few days of captivity. The story cycles between four playable characters, each chapter played by one or two of them.
And here lies the brilliance of it - each thread is pretty independent (although they’re all about the hunt for the killer), they all intersect at one point or another, with the inevitable climax that ties it all up. While the progression is pretty linear, some chapters do offer decisions that will make profound changes to the rest of the storyline. In fact, every character could die at one point or another, but the story will still continue.
I’m in awe as to how the David Cage was able to take the somewhat restrictive format of a linear interactive movie and add so much diversity into the story. There are 18 different epilogue segments that will play out based on what you did throughout the game!
From a technical point of view, the game is a milestone. The graphics are fantastic. The characters look stunning, and Quantic Dream likes to point that out whenever they can - the loading screens are close-ups of the characters, looking nervously around, moving their eyes.
The soundtrack does its part to sell the cinematic experience. Like in any good real Hollywood movie, it’s an absolutely integral part in sealing the atmosphere. It was scored by Normand Corbeil, who did music for lots of big movie productions.
The BadLet's not beat around the bush - it’s an interactive movie. You play the chapters in the given order, and you do what you have to do. Sure, you can walk around within the constraints of the current scene (which is typically one or two rooms), and there are a few extraneous objects you can play with (you can turn the light switch on and off! Whee!), but other than that, you’re basically being dragged along. The story will not progress until you do what needs to be done, and there are few options beyond that.
There are two parts to the gameplay - the normal parts where you walk around and basically just go through the motions, and the action parts with Quick Time Events, where failing will possibly get you killed, or make you miss out on something... or just ends up with a different animation. In fact, many sequences seem utterly important (like an action-packed shoot-out)... but the consequence for failing is simply a slightly altered scene. After that, the story moves on as normal.
There are dialogs too, but many of them are of the Mass Effect variety, meaning that you just go through all possible conversation topics until nothing is left - without ME’s blue/red options that have long-term consequences.
Now I mentioned how gorgeous the graphics are. And really, they are. But I’m simply upset about Guillaume de Fondaumière’s decision to claim that they conquered uncanny valley. Um, no, you haven’t. Not by a long shot. Some faces look fantastic, some just look good. Some animations are great. Some look incredibly unnatural. But they’re still wandering deep in uncanny valley.
The team is based in France, and as such, much of the voice talent is from Europe. Most of them did a good job putting up an American accent (and they’re overall good actors), but in many cases you can still tell they’re not really native speakers.
Speaking of which - there are other Frenchisms that made it into the game. The boys go to school on Saturdays, last names are often spelled in all caps. This is a bit perplexing, given that the team seems to have done decent research otherwise and created a beautiful version of what appears to be Philadelphia. Another Frenchism, by the way, is the unusual amount of gratuitous nudity, although I shouldn't necessarily mention that in the “bad” section.
The game also has a dynamic mixing system for the (fantastic) soundtrack to play the right music whenever that's appropriate. That however sometimes results in an abrupt start/restart/stop/change of music. It's usually not bad, but still noticeable.
The Bottom LineInteractive movies have come a long way. I really enjoyed Heavy Rain. A major part of it was due to the subject matter - it’s an intriguing tale that any father can relate to, without any absurd supernatural nonsense (like in Quantic Dream’s previous Indigo Prophecy) or other otherworldly gimmicks (other than the FBI agent’s sunglasses that can identify people by their footprints and detect chemicals in the air).
The scenes have been polished meticulously, and the developers have made the most out of what could be done. In one scene, a character has to do something very courageous. Yes, it boils down to pressing one or two buttons, and as always, there are prompts on the screen to indicate exactly what needs to be done. But the controller is vibrating wildly as the character’s heart races, the on-screen prompts shake and twitch, the camera is unsteady and handheld, and then there’s of course the blood-pumping soundtrack. It’s an immersive experience.
The replay value is relatively low. Of course you’ll want to replay some chapters to trigger different sequences and endings. But chances are, you’ll look up the remaining endings and death sequences on Youtube, where they’re all available.
Hardcore gamers are likely to snub this title. It’s just a different kind of game. It’s barely a game at all. It’s a story, very well told, and the audience gets to be some of the characters. I enjoyed it immensely.