At the end of one glorious summer’s day I stayed up all night playing Heavy Rain with my friends. This was one of the most amazing gaming experiences of my life, and I want to say a few words about why it was so great, why it worked so well as a four-player experience, and about the hardest choice I had to make. My friend Greg Buchanan was one of the group, and he got us all to write up our experiences. He has compiled them as a forthcoming journal here, which gives a broader perspective than my article here. I owe Greg, and the rest of the group, my profound thanks for sharing – and creating – this fantastic experience. This article is aimed at those who’ve been lucky enough to play the game, as I discuss some of the best moments and why they worked so well. For everyone else, I’d advise against reading what follows, as it’s full of spoilers. Use the time you would have spent reading to watch the trailer below, before going out and finding someone with a PS3 to play it with. Assemble a group of four friends and play through the night – you’ll have an experience you won’t forget.
The game was designed to be played by a single gamer, who controlled each of the four main characters in turn. But we split it up, with each player controlling a fixed character for the course of the game.
I chose to play as Ethan Mars because his role as a father seemed interesting, and because it seemed that he would have to make the central choices of the game. I definitely chose the right character – his experience was nothing less than epic. Ethan’s game was centred around a question: “How far would you go to save your son?” This made for a thrilling game, with Ethan presented with a series of horrible scenarios to endure – or inflict – in order to find the clues to lead him to his son.
Playing Heavy Rain through the night with friends, in a single sitting, made this an incredibly rich, intense, claustrophobic and atmospheric experience It became both more and less personal – I was more insecure about my decisions because I knew I was being judged for everything I did. Every slip-up, every controversial decision I made, I felt the disappointed eyes upon me (and the occasional heckle). Being able to experience something of what it must be like to be in the public spotlight, in a safe environment, and only for a few hours, was a unique experience. Towards the end of the game, the force of emotional expectation upon me, along with my fatigue, made me choke. This was certainly one of the most powerful artistic experiences of my life, and this post should hopefully give an idea of why Heavy Rain is a highpoint in the canon of interactive works. Its intensity, atmosphere, subversion of player expectations, and the type of choices with which it presents the player, make it a classic.
Whilst the main storyline itself, and the decisions involved, were fantastic, I may have enjoyed some of the inconsequential aspects of the game most. The section where Ethan is looking after his son, and has to decide whether to talk to him, make him do his homework, or let him watch TV – doesn’t lead anywhere in the long-run, but presented me with a really novel set of difficult choices. And any decision you make is probably a bad one. I really enjoyed another of the game’s early sections, when Ethan is waiting in the park with his son. Trying to connect with him was a heart-rending experience, as I, as a mere player-interloper on a lifetime’s emotional baggage, desperately tried to wrench their relationship to a more positive direction. But the parameters of my actions were determined by Ethan, and his limitations. When I eventually got the two characters playing together, I felt a rare sense of achievement. I’d fought against the way events were meant to turn out, and triumphed; I’d taken my potential for improving the situation, within the parameters set by Ethan’s relationship with his son, and maximised it.
A quick note on presentation – this game knew how to craft atmosphere and tension, and how to create genuinely climactic moments. Heavy Rain has learnt a lot of tricks from film noir, and represents a massive leap forward from David Cage’s previous game Farenheit. This meant that the climactic moral decision of the game for Ethan Mars had the sufficient sense of occasion.
I was very impressed by one of the artistic points made by the game, which it revealed through the revelation of the identity of the Origami Killer. (If you’re still reading and haven’t played the game, please stop now. Serious spoilers afoot.) For the murderer to be a player character was a real shock to me. I implicitly, naively, trust the player character, assuming their back-story to have been uneventful (why else would the game not cover it?) and that they are essentially a blank slate that we can direct to our own ends. The fantastic thing was that Shelby’s game had started before ours had. I did not once question his motives as a private investigator, assuming that “This is the sort of thing that private investigators do”. I can only imagine the sense of betrayal, or of frustration, that a player who has been controlling him feels when they realise.
The most difficult choice I had to make in the game came towards the end. Early on, I’d decided that in order to enter into the spirit of the game, and because a father would probably be willing to endure it, I would put Ethan through the depths of personal misery in order to save his son. I was certain that I would not kill another to do so – so when I was presented with this choice, it was something of a non-event. I was going to find my son, but I was not going to change who I was to do so. Putting Ethan through pain was a sort of catharsis; perhaps in endurance there would be self-improvement, and a way of improving their fragile relationship. But I would not have Ethan’s morals compromised by this experience. I wanted him to grow, not to regress. This made the final moral decision very tricky indeed.
By the time I had to decide whether to drink the poison to save my son, I had ended up sympathising more with Ethan than with the child I’d been looking after for the whole game. I’d forced Ethan through life-threatening situations, forced him to harm himself, and subjected him to the harshest of pains. My slightly inconsistent diction in the article so far is indicative of the fact that by this time my experience of the game had become second-person rather than first-person. In other words, my character was not simply an extension of myself. He was a person in his own right, and I felt responsible for looking after him. His game – his life – was not going to end in heroic death. After all the pain I’d put him through I was not going to do anything less than steer him through to the optimum outcome. I was going to make sure that he damn well had his cake and eat it. Anything else would be a betrayal.
I gazed at the vial of poison and thought it all through, reflecting on my experiences in the last eight-or-so-hours. I drank in the exquisite, tragic atmosphere of the situation – a rare and wonderfully significant experience, massively augmented by the social playing experience – and walked away defiant. Of course, this made me a monster. Part of me was keen to do this because it made things more challenging, part of me because it was unexpected and hard-line, and the biggest part of me because it felt right.
The idea of messianic, redemptive sacrifice is big in our culture. Christ died for our sins and was resurrected triumphant, redeeming mankind. This incredibly powerful narrative is deeply embedded in our social consciousness. We tend to think that sacrifice is necessary to obtain something meaningful, and that somehow the implications of difficult choices can be transcended. In other words, we secretly hope that we can overcome the loss of sacrifice and enter a better world. That wasn’t an option for Ethan Mars. Taking the poison would have killed him, and represented an ultimate failure in my duty of care as a player. It would also have meant that his game ended in failure – the relationship between father and son, which was what I was fighting for, would have been lost.
Given Ethan’s tireless, heroic work collecting clues throughout the game, I knew I could find his son without taking the poison. I’d bent to the will of the Origami Killer all through the game, and it felt horrible to put Ethan through this. I was determined that I could win without bending my convictions to taking a life, and this applied just to Ethan as it did any other character. More so, in fact.
I’d had enough of treading the path laid down for me by the Origami Killer. All through the game the choice was either to keep walking straight ahead, or to stop. I raged against the logic of the situation. I loathe being trapped, and wanted to transcend the parameters that the killer was trying to force me to think with -ie “you die or your son dies”. I decided that the parameters of my choice were nonsense: we could both live. I chose to stake everything on out-gaming the killer.
Of course, had I taken the poison, a different version of the narrative would have played out. I would have committed Ethan to die on the behalf of another. I would then have learnt that the poison was fake. Ethan – and I – would have returned to life, mighty and all-conquering, like Christ. So Ethan’s most difficult decision is incredibly powerful whatever choice the player makes.
Even without taking the poison, I had collected enough clues to solve the mystery and save Ethan’s son. As things worked out, having been gaming for eight hours through the night, I made a wrong call. Had I been thinking clearly, my gutsy risk-taking would have been vindicated. As it was, my mind was foggy with fatigue and emotion, so I screwed up and drove to the wrong location. A banal and miserable failure. Ethan Mars’ game ended crying outside a Chinese takeaway. I’m sorry.
But I don’t have any regrets.