David Cage is a man of deliberation. Where most developers don’t bother much with characterization or dialogue interaction, he revels in it. Rather than pointing a gun at someone to solve all problems, he prefers to create characters that use their heads. Hell, in game from Cage, you may not even be solving a common problem, from a game design standpoint—say, getting past or around an obstruction, or fighting your way out of a situation. Instead you might just have a conversation with someone. It could even be something as simple as making dinner for your son.
This is exactly what makes a game like Heavy Rain so polarizing, not to mention a ‘threat’ to the status quo of the typical games-as-big-business mentality that so often bottlenecks the medium. Simply put, it isn’t the same old thing. The game isn’t an entirely new concept—Cage and his dev studio Quantic Dream used a similar design model, taking the tenets of adventure game and changing the parameters to affect how the storyline plays out in 2004’s Indigo Prophecy (and to some primitive degree in the Dreacast-era Omikron before that). Heavy Rain is essentially an evolution of this somewhat-freeform adventure design, but one that’s generally more sophisticated than its last-gen predecessor. That Sony has put so much effort into getting the word out about this one shows their faith in the project, a surprising move considering just how different Heavy Rain is compared to just about any other game out there. In many ways, it’s about as far away from the status quo as you can get, despite a story revolving around four people’s relationships to a series of serial killings.
These are the more nuanced elements of the game, however. What’s also intriguing about Heavy Rain is how Cage has continually stressed that this is a game for mature players. The reactionary response to this has been crude and obvious: what about the sex? Where’s the nudity? But to keep an ejaculatory focus on this aspect alone completely misses the point of what the game is actually about. Cage is right—Heavy Rain is made for adults. But it’s because of its overall emotional maturity, and, later, psychological anguish, that makes it so. We get a glimpse of this from the game’s opening, actually, as architect Ethan Mars, one of the four main characters in the game, gets ready for the day in his beautifully designed home. After getting out of bed, showering, shaving and brushing his teeth—all of which are handled with on-screen contextual commands that float around your character—Ethan makes his way downstairs to greet his wife and two children. It happens that today is tenth birthday of the Mars’ eldest, Jason, and after Ethan speaks to his wife about party preparations for that afternoon, he decides to go outside and to roughhouse with the boys. Once outside Ethan can pick up either Shaun or Jason and zoom them around the back yard on his shoulders, have a fake lightsaber duel with them, and pick up one each with his arms. It may be a pretty typical day in upper middle class America, but in terms of gameplay this is anything but. Even so early on in the game, you can already start to feel the emotional connection Ethan has to his family.
Later, after tragedy strikes, Ethan is sitting on park bench with Shaun. He tries to get him to open up, but his son is distant. With a little effort, he teaches Shaun to throw a boomerang, and in an effort to make him happy, buys him candy. It’s clear that the boy is still troubled, but temporarily feels better. Again, the empathic power of a father trying to re-connect with an offspring Cage is conveying is hard to ignore. Ethan himself is even a wreck, no longer caring enough to shave or dress with much care. A near-constantly updated internal monologue is available for you to see what the character is thinking at any time, and in this scene, Ethan silently worries about his deteriorating relationship with Shaun. It’s these little things that resonate with you in Heavy Rain, which is as much about the characters themselves as it is about telling a story. While the game clearly plays at and borrows heavily from cinematic conventions, Cage’s refusal to stick entirely to tightly edited scenes of action is admirable—the kinds of day-to-day scenarios of real-life humanity seen here are rare in a medium that’s more often than not driven by primal, competitive design sensibilities.