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How Heavy Rain has lowered the bar for game narrative

5:00 PM on 03.02.2010 // Jim Sterling

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Heavy Rain released last week and hopefully, by now, everybody's had plenty of time to play and complete it. This is good, because for a long time now I have had many criticisms of Heavy Rain's story and had been unable to truly express my major problems. Now that people have played the games and I can talk to these people without fear of sharing spoilers, the time has come to truly dissect Heavy Rain's narrative.

Rather than deal with the two-dimensional characters, the rushed relationships between them, and the awkwardly forced way in which Origami Killer suspects are created, I want to focus instead on Heavy Rain's worst and most glaring fault -- the Origami Killer himself. This revelation, and all the problems it causes, absolutely wrecked the plot for me, and was easily the biggest reason that myself and many others refuse to hail it as a masterpiece.

Obviously, huge spoilers are contained in the rest of the article. If you have finished Heavy Rain, or don't intend to play it, feel free to read on.

First of all, let me put a misconception to bed. I don't hate Heavy Rain. As a game, Heavy Rain is absolutely fine, which is why I said it was good in my review. I never said the game was terrible, and I never told anybody not to play it. I enjoyed playing Heavy Rain. However, judged as a piece of fiction -- as a story -- Heavy Rain is awful. If it were the movie David Cage so desperately wishes it to be, it would be laughed out of a film festival and torn to shreds by critics who are used to far better. Hell, even as gamers, we are used to better stories than this. 

The game starts slow, begins to get quite interesting in the middle section, and very nearly achieves something special. However, just when things are really ramping up, Quantic Dream throws in one of the worst twists ever seen, pulled from the bowels of M. Night Shyamalan's most convoluted nightmares. 

Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer. 

Wait, what? The overweight asthmatic in his fifties whom we play as for a majority of the game? WHAT A TWIST! 

Of course, that's the reaction Quantic Dream was hoping to achieve. The developers of Heavy Rain had attempted to pull the wool over our eyes and dazzle us with something we could not have predicted. For a few gullible people, it worked. They were so amazed at this highly innovative approach -- to make our very own hands guide the Origami Killer unwittingly -- that they failed to see not only how predictable such a move would be, but also ignored all the plot holes, red herrings and blatant lies that the game included up to that moment. 

First of all, let us tackle the idea of a player character being the killer. It was predictable. I called that the moment I started playing. The game even introduced the idea to us by unsubtly attempting to make players believe that Ethan Mars, another playable character, was the killer. Ethan's blackouts, and his outright statements that he was the killer, were not only part of a vary obvious and underhanded attempt to fool the player, but also helped to telegraph the "twist" of a player character being the shocktastic antagonist.

Speaking of Ethan's blackouts, were they ever explained? Not during my playthrough, and not during the playthrough of anybody else I know. I mean, outside of an "oh he's got trauma which we'll mention in a brief aside to try and cover up this deus ex machina and then we'll never mention it again LOL!" Such an integral plot device ought to have been definitely addressed, cleared up, and had more of an impact on the story rather than be used as a cheap excuse to cover the game's own bullshit, should it not? Not in Heavy Rain, apparently. Not in this alleged tour de force of a videogame narrative. It was nothing but a flagrant deus ex machina, one that was then conveniently tossed out of the story once it became an inconvenience. Not only is this intellectually dishonest, it's downright insulting to assume that the audience would happily forget such a significant part of the plot in order to play along with Quantic's rather convoluted conclusion.

Speaking of the game's dishonesty, let's get to the most duplicitous crime the game commits. While a player character being the killer is predictable, it could still have worked quite well and even been hailed as a masterpiece, were it not for one major problem: the game allows you to read player characters' thoughts. Throughout Heavy Rain, you are constantly able to press a shoulder button to read Shelby's mind, and not once does he EVER mention the fact that he's a child murderer, which you'd think would be a predominant thought in the mind of a child murderer who murders children. In fact, he thinks only like a detective trying to catch the Origami Killer. Yeah, that's what he's pretending to be, but why is he pretending it to himself? 

His actions and feelings don't seem to add up, either. He feels genuine sympathy for other characters, even though serial killers are not known for their ability to empathize with fellow humans. Just take his relationship with Lauren, the mother of one of his victims. His feelings toward her never indicate that he might be worried about, y'know, hanging out with the mother of a kid her killed. At worst, his feelings toward her are summed up with the thought, and I quote, "I don't do partners too well."

There is one scene in particular where Shelby has a chance to get rid of Lauren, when she storms out of the car during an argument and says she'll find the killer on her own. Rather than let her go, Shelby feels bad for her, brings her back, and even gives her his coat to shield her from the rain in a touching scene that just wouldn't happen. Shelby seems to have a habit of doing this, too. In moments where he could get away with evidence, which is apparently his goal, he seems to dig himself into a deeper hole. There's a scene with Mrs. Bowles, another mother of a victim, who has attempted to commit suicide. When Shelby sees the suicide note, he laments and curses, and then hurries to save her. The Origami Killer would surely be elated and let her die, giving him full reign to search her trailer for evidence without fear of getting caught. Instead, he potentially incriminates himself by reviving a witness and risking not having an opportunity to search the house without raising suspicion. 

Going back to Shelby's thoughts, there are too many deliberate red herrings to name, but a few that I took note of are highly conspicuous in the fact that a serial killer would simply not think them. Here are a few prime examples:

  • "I need a rest, I haven't been sleeping since the murders started up again" -- would he really refer to his own work as "the murders," not only in such an incriminating tone (I've not heard of many serial killers so honest with themselves), but in a way that very clearly implies that they involved somebody else?
  • "All the newspapers are talking about Shaun Mars, the kid who disappeared" -- again, it's so impersonal. Why would he refer to Shaun as the kid who disappeared when he knows exactly where he is?
  • "Can't breathe with all this goddamn rain. I hope it stops soon" -- considering Scott uses rainwater to kill his kids, he obviously doesn't want the rain to stop soon. Why would he tell himself that he does?
  • "Maybe she knows something about the circumstances surrounding her son's death" -- nobody but a private detective thinks like this. If he were the killer, he would not, in such a roundabout way, reference the murder like this. Not unless he's trying to fool someone, and since this is an internal thought process, he can only be breaking the fourth wall and trying to fool the player.
  • "Said he didn't wanna talk. Might've known something" -- said of the father of one of his victims. Considering Shelby knows exactly what he's sent to the fathers, he knows exactly what he "might've" known.

These are just some examples of the thoughts Shelby has, and none of them make sense. There are only two reasons for Shelby's thoughts to be so impersonal and staged. Either Quantic Dream knows nothing about how serial killers or even real people think, or Shelby knows he is in a videogame and is deliberately thinking things to throw us off the scent. Neither are really very good excuses, and one of them means the game is dishonest. 

The fact of the matter is, the whole mind-reading gimmick was clearly a bad idea because it completely undermined the big plot reveal. You can't delve into the thoughts of a serial killer who hasn't been revealed as a serial killer without those very thoughts making no sense whatsoever. You can't do it without simply ignoring common sense or outright distorting the truth. 

Then there are examples of evidence that don't work. The killer is determined by Madison and Ethan to be in his forties. Indeed, Scott Shelby was meant to be a child no older than ten in 1977. Why, then, is Scott Shelby clearly a man in his late fifties? Sorry, but don't try to tell me that the character model for Shelby is supposed to represent anybody below the age of fifty. If we're to believe that Scott Shelby isn't on the wrong side of fifty, then I'd say that's a stunning indictment on Quantic Dream's graphics department. No, they were able to construct the faces of the other characters perfectly well. The only explanation that makes sense is that it was another deliberate attempt to lazily hide the truth. 

Ultimately, Heavy Rain falls victim to its own ambition. It tried too hard to be clever and overshot. Not everything has to have a grand plot twist, and frankly I'd have preferred to see an NPC revealed as the killer. Sure, it may not have been as "shocking," but at least it would have been sensible, and that is more important to me than some gimmicky and hamfisted attempt to surprise. Perhaps something like this could have worked with more care and attention, but it seems that Heavy Rain favored quick fixes and discarded plot devices to actually dealing with any fallout from its plot twist, and anybody with a mind of their own ought to be smart enough to figure that out. 

If Heavy Rain is truly the pinnacle of videogame narrative, then I fear our standards are horrifically low. Sending out the message to publishers that this is what we consider an artistic triumph is terrible. Games can do and have done better than this, but we've now set the bar incredibly low. The high praise for Heavy Rain has effectively sent the message that game writers don't have to try and create a tight, cohesive story. All they need to do is clumsily copy a bunch of classic movies with less than half the care and attention to detail in order to trick people into thinking their game is mature. The overall message seems to be this -- what would be unacceptable in a movie is okay for a videogame, because gamers are fucking stupid. 

That's really not the message I'd like to see gamers sending. 

Jim Sterling, Former Reviews Editor
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Destructoid reviews editor, responsible for running and maintaining the cutting edge videogame critique that people ignore because all they want to see are the scores at the end. Also a regular f... more   |   staff directory

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