Heavy Rain received immense critical praise for being an experience that elevated video game storytelling to a new level. In this article, we'll look at why that is and what we can learn from it.
Warning: Massive story spoilers for Heavy Rain follow.
Before we go into talking about Heavy Rain, we need to specify exactly what I mean by narrative, and specifically how it differs from plot.
There are many differing definitions and opinions online about what the two words mean (trust me, I looked) and there doesn't seem to be a consensus about the exact difference. So, for this article, I'm taking what I found to be the most commonly used definition of these two words. In the end, it’s not important; what matters is that we have a good definition for the sake of this article.
Plot is simple: it refers to the sequence of events that occur throughout a story - the bullet points of the story, if you will. Narrative, on the other hand, refers to how the plot is told. This encompasses character development, atmosphere, emotional or moral subtext, and all the other fun stuff that make up a gripping story.
O Heavy Rain, Thy Narrative Is Sublime
Heavy Rain is often lauded as one of the heavy hitters of storytelling in the video game world. In fact, the game is often referred to not as a game, but as an interactive movie. This comparison stems from the hands-off nature of the game's Quick Time Event-heavy gameplay, but it's also due to claims that the game's narrative being up to par with what is found in film.
I strongly disagree with that claim.
Heavy Rain may be akin to an interactive movie, but this movie can hardly be considered high quality. When judged under the same guidelines as a movie - that is, not taking its interactivity into account - Heavy Rain rates particularly badly for a number of reasons.
Firstly, though they are technically impressive, the performances of the virtual actors are not up to par with what you would expect in a good film. The potential is there for future greatness, but the technology in Heavy Rain creates virtual renditions of actors which unfortunately do not even remotely compare to the rich and subtle performances that real actors give in quality cinema.
It wasn't perfect in Heavy Rain, but Quantic Dream is making huge progress with virtual acting.
To the game’s credit, this quality gap is surprisingly small for most of the leading roles, but many secondary characters unfortunately deliver lackluster performances. For whatever reason, children in particular suffer this fate, with many of the virtual kids landing firmly in the uncanny valley.
Also, at least in the English version of the game that I played, Heavy Rain is riddled with weird accents, even in some of the main roles. The game’s French origins can clearly be heard with some obviously non-French characters having French accents, and a few of the fake American accents are cringeworthy.
See what I mean about the accents?
Secondly, Heavy Rain provides weak motivation for the protagonist’s actions. The entire story is centered around a father trying to save his son, but the child in question is only briefly seen in the game. The non-presence of this kid, as well as the aforementioned uncanny valley creepiness when he is present, means the narrative does very little to make the viewer/player sympathize with the plight of the main characters. Instead, it relies on simply telling them that they should care and hoping that’s good enough. This is not good storytelling.
Finally, the very plot of the game itself is far from great, with some obvious plot holes and a lackluster twist ending. The fact that Ethan Mars (the father of the aforementioned son) constantly wakes up from his blackouts with an origami figure in his hand (the sign left on victims of the Origami Killer, the game’s primary villain) serves as an effective red herring, but is never explained.
Why do I always wake up with paper in my hands?
Plot holes are not unusual in stories, but this one is absolutely enormous and the coherence of the game’s plot is really hurt by it. Also, the detective turning out to be the killer is not a creative or unique idea by any stretch of the imagination.
No, Seriously, It Is a Sublime Narrative
Anybody who has played through Heavy Rain will have read the last section and acknowledged that everything written there was true, but also that everything written there absolutely doesn't matter at all. If you've played Heavy Rain, you know it has an incredibly engrossing narrative, and one that you’d judge to be on par or even better than many movies. This is because you don’t watch Heavy Rain, you play it - and this changes everything.
First of all, being in control of a character - in essence being that character - adds significant weight to any decision that character makes while not under your control.
Heavy Rain is a game all about multiple perspectives; there are four main characters you control throughout the game, and the way the different perspectives intersect is the backbone of the storyline. Apart from simply being a cool way to tell a story, this perspective switching, coupled with the fact that you determine the actions of these four characters, really helps the plot feel more interesting than it actually is.
The best example of this is in the ending: more specifically in the aforementioned plot twist. The detective actually turning out to be the killer, as I said before, is not exactly a new idea in storytelling, and normally wouldn't elicit much shock or interest. However, in Heavy Rain, the impact of this revelation is enormous, because for a big portion of the game, you were the detective.
Being a detective, your role when playing this character is typically to investigate the various murders the Origami Killer has committed. Out of all the characters, the detective does the most obvious work towards trying to solve the mystery behind the crimes, and all this is done under your control. What you don’t see or control, however, is the time when the detective is actually doing anything related to being the Origami Killer.
Playing the game, you'd never suspect this guy's role.
This massive disconnect between the way you see the detective behave and the way he behaves off-camera is made much more shocking because of the fact that you were controlling his actions when he was on camera. Rather than this revelation feeling like a simple misdirection based on showing only a part of a character’s life as it would in a film, it comes off feeling like a betrayal on the part of the detective, which is a much more powerful emotion. The fact that you can then kill the detective, a character which mere moments ago represented yourself, while under control of another character, makes all of this even more potent.
Second, knowing that things could have gone differently, or that the player can affect how they will unfold in the future adds suspense and drama to the narrative that otherwise wouldn't have been there.
Heavy Rain is a video game, not a movie, and for this reason is an experience all about choice. Characters can live or they can die; mysteries can be solved or they can be left as eternal question marks; and love can be found or it can be lost, all based on how the player chooses to play the game. This, more than any other aspect of the game, excuses the limitations of the plot and elevates Heavy Rain into a new class of experience.
Unlike what one would expect, however, this doesn't only matter in the context of how Heavy Rain managed to elevate branching storylines in games - it also matters on a moment-to-moment level. Knowing that the series of events you are experiencing is a direct result of the actions you took adds suspense in a way few movies ever could. Decisions seem like they have more weight, every bad thing that happens to the characters feels like a failure on your part, and every one of their victories feels like your victory.
It's impressive that Heavy Rain can make deciding what to think about when you can't sleep feel like an important decision.
Unfortunately, in the case of Heavy Rain, the system isn't as open-ended as it originally seems, with many branching paths culminating into only a few different possible outcomes. But go through it only once, as it was intended to be played, and you’d never know. David Cage, the director of the game said this about the subject:
I would like people to play it once ... because that’s life. Life you can only play once ... I would like people to have this experience that way. [...] the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is to really make one thing because it’s going to be your own story. It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decide to write ... I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it.
All of this ties in perfectly with the third and one of the most interesting ways the gameplay in Heavy Rain strengthens the narrative. The inability for the player to fail or retry, even though getting desired story outcomes can be difficult adds tension to the narrative even in the most mundane of moments.
This idea isn't new to video games; this basic principle is what drives the entire genre of permadeath roguelike. However in Heavy Rain, through attempting to tell a dramatic and suspenseful story, the effect is taken to new heights.
There’s a particular part right at the beginning of the game where you lose track of your son in a shopping mall and are tasked with frantically searching for him. For a video game, this is an incredibly lame sounding task, but is made much more tense by the fact that short of restarting your system before the game saves (don’t do that, that’s no fun) you only have one try to find this kid or he will be lost forever. This makes this moment really tense, and helps elevate the atmosphere of the narrative in a way that tense music and sad looking actors never could.
This is the only interesting way to watch this scene. Trust me though, it really is very tense when you actually play it.
In this particular instance, the kid will get hit by a car on the street and die no matter what you do, but as a player you don’t know that and it doesn't affect the quality of the narrative. Of course, this example also serves to illustrate the last point about branching storylines sharing the same outcome, but it wouldn't even have close to the same effect if the player were given the option to try again had they failed. The fact that some outcomes can be very difficult to achieve also adds greatly to this effect.
But I'm Making a Platformer...
So we know why Heavy Rain works, but what can we learn from it, and how can we apply this to our own games in other genres? Not every game can accommodate branching storylines (let alone the manpower for such a massive undertaking) and permadeath simply doesn't work for many game genres.
These examples were specific to Heavy Rain, or any other game in the interactive movie genre (not a lot of those), but there is still one huge lesson we can learn from it that can be adapted to almost any genre: gameplay needs to work with and complement the narrative in order to elevate it to new heights.
This can be done in two primary ways: creating gameplay with narrative significance, or creating a narrative with gameplay significance. These are distinct options, and one of them is probably very feasible for most of us while the other is probably not.
Gameplay with narrative significance refers to any form of gameplay which has significance to the way the narrative plays out: Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, or any other game with a branching storyline. For lots of genres, and for almost any small-scale developer, this isn't really an option. Doing this type of thing in a meaningful way often requires an amount of work that grows exponentially with the game's length.
What can be achieved by most, however, is narrative with gameplay significance: narrative that has significance to the way the gameplay plays out. Basically, this means a narrative that affects or explains the way the game plays.
The most obvious example of this type of thing is seen in many games which have a themed respawn system, such as the New-U Stations and Vita Chambers in Borderlands and BioShock respectively. It may be a small touch, but having something as inherently incongruous with tension in combat as unlimited lives be explained through the narrative really helps the world seem more alive and real, versus simply having respawns or checkpoints act as a shadow clouding an otherwise sensible story.
The simplest things can make all the difference.
Another game that does this in an interesting way is Bastion. Aside from being entirely narrated, Bastion has one other cool little case of narrative with gameplay significance. Near the end of the game, you are tasked with saving a certain character who is wounded in battle. If you chose to save him, you are forced to carry him through the rest of the level unable to use your weapons, changing the game’s focus from shooting to dodging for a little while. This is a great example of gameplay and narrative working together to create an experience that makes sense narratively but is also fun to play.
In the end, video games are interactive experiences, and this allows for the exploration of a whole new realm of storytelling: merging the interactive with the predetermined nature of traditional storytelling. There’s a lot that can be done in this space, and only a few games, Heavy Rain included, have really scratched the surface of what is possible. Get cracking, we've got a lot of work to do.