I recently finished Heavy Rain. What makes this game so frustrating in my view is just how close it comes to being something special but falls painfully short. I don't think this is an example of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Quantic Dream didn't overreach; they just built a shoddy set of wings. I argue the core, the foundation of Heavy Rain is sound. It just fails in the execution. Join me as I Monday morning quarterback my way through Heavy Rain and tell somebody else how to do their job. Obviously, there are going to be lots of spoilers here, so be warned.
Reading the playable character's thoughts:
When the game finally reveals the killer, it's supposed to be an amazing twist. With a good twist, however, the clues should hit you right face the next time though. Think of a film like Fight Club, of the first Knights of the Old Republic. When you go back, you can see how an especially clever person just might be able to piece it all together on his or her own.
In Heavy Rain, however, the killer sometimes essentially lies to himself in his internal monologue where the player happens to be dropping eaves. Some have suggested the thoughts system should have been removed all together. That's one choice but I believe it could have still worked in the hands of a stronger writer. The killer's thoughts could have been shaped in a more ambiguous way so as not to feel cheap and dishonest after the reveal.
The mysterious case of the psychic reporter:
I don't understand why it's supposed to be a big twist reveal that Madison is a reporter. Some players will never get that reveal and her character then makes next to no sense. Instead of Madison checking into a random hotel for insomnia, they could have included a scene with her following Ethan to the hotel from his house. This would've been more interesting for the player if Madison had her own agenda and therefore a real plot arc. She starts out trying to get the inside scoop on the latest victim's father. Then she begins to think he might be the killer. She eventually figures out he's not, falls for him, and aids him in her own way.
David Cage's previous games, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy did a great job of this before the story derailed. One of the playable characters was wanted for a murder while the other two were detectives investigating the crime. The player had to consider the motivations of each character and in some cases ended up creating difficulties for the other characters (and by extension themselves) later. It's a great concept that could've applied to Heavy Rain, giving the Ethan/Madison scenes more tension depending on whom the player was controlling.
This would've also given Madison the chance for an extra scene or two with FBI agent Norman Jayden or private investigator Scott Shelby. Madison could've tried to interview Lauren for her story. Scott Shelby happens to stop by to pick her up on the way to the cemetery scene and Madison talks to him for a moment. After the cemetery scene, we find out Madison was there, having followed them, and now knows to find John Sheppard's mom. This way, she scene where the killer is revealed to her would actually make sense.
Drop it like it's plot
If only there had been a single scene to explain Ethan's dreams of drowning victims, the blackouts, and the origami, I could've forgiven such cheap diversionary tactics. But the fact Cage just drops these plot devices when they become inconvenient is inexcusable. Beyond that, what the hell happens to Ethan's ex-wife? She also disappears half way through the story. Maybe she was the one folding the origami and putting it in Ethan's hands. She ran off with all the plot resolution, never to be seen again.
My Ethan also killed a man. At the end, the police issued an apology for accusing Ethan of being the killer and granted him a full pardon. Ethan should have to face consequences for that sin. Even if faced trial and got off on self defense in the end. At least address it somehow.
Bioware executes the whole moral choice thing far better than most. Dragon Age especially does a great job of giving the player plenty of murky and difficult decisions without clear consequences. Player agency and narrative can be combined to tell a good story. I think where Heavy Rain goes wrong is in where the branching decisions are placed. In Dragon Age or Mass Effect, the awkward and cheesy love scenes only pop up as an option if the player steers the story in that direction. Why on earth does the option for Ethan to get it on with Madison pop up right after he says his son is the only thing that matters? Take out that line and put in a few choices earlier to steer the plot in that direction and you're fine.
Just go for it!
As ambitious as Heavy Rain is, perhaps it didn't go far enough. Many years ago, I saw a play called Shear Madness. It was a comedy whodunit. Right before intermission, the victim is killed. At this point, the house lights come up and all the characters on stage acknowledge the audience, breaking the fourth wall. The actors stay in character and answer questions from the audience about motivations, clues, etc. In essence, the audience is the detective. At the end of this little Q&A, the audience has to vote on who they think the killer is. And every night the audience is right. The second act plays out differently depending on who the audience decided was the killer. Everyone has a motive, means, and opportunity and could reasonably be the killer.
I was hoping for something like this out of Heavy Rain where not only would the story play out differently for each player, but the killer would be different as well. Perhaps instead of trying to make an interactive film, Cage should have made an interactive play.
I've gripped a lot here, but I still liked Heavy Rain. It's just frustrating to see something with such potential fail. As a child of the late 80s and early 90s, I have a soft spot in my heart for classic adventure games like King's Quest, Gabriel Knight, etc. Quantic Dream's offerings seem like the natural evolution of that genre. Sometimes I like to let the interaction take a back seat to story, even in my video games. But don't go that route unless your story is solid enough to support the experience. Cage has some good ideas, he just needs to be accountable to somebody. He reminds me a lot of George Lucas, actually. The best Star Wars film is Empire. Lucas had the story outlined but had others write the screenplay and direct it.
We've all seen what happens when Lucas tried to write and direct on his own. It's hard to tell your boss his script sucks or has holes. I know if I worked at Quantic Dream, I'd be weary of telling Cage to fix his script. It takes a damn good writer to work without the net of an editor or superior and Cage just isn't up to the task.
I look forward to Quantic's next game. Perhaps they'll take the criticism of Heavy Rain to heart and build upon their interesting foundation. Or maybe a more capable studio will take a stab at it. Either way, I'd rather have interesting failures than another cover based space marine third person shooter to deal with.