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Quanitc Dream delivers a remarkable experience that shifts the perception of video games...
In studios such as Cryo Interactive, Adeline Software and Delphine Software, the French have managed to bring a distinctive approach to video games. They've often stumbled in the dark and have not always managed to create great games, but there's no denying the unique vision and creative style they've brought throughout the years - with games such as Flashback, Little Big Adventure, and Heart of Darkness - while also demonstrating a particular penchant for the stagnant adventure genre.
With a distinct vision and an unshakable courage to go against the grain, the Parisian developer Quantic Dream comfortably fits into this category. The studio gave us an insight into its vision of the type of experiences that video games can offer with the 2005 release of Fahrenheit, which although a slightly flawed experience managed to provide one that accommodated player choice effectively in a narrative driven affair. It's flaws probably weren't helped by a tumultuous development period and constant doubts from the publishers. You get the feeling, however, that the struggle Quantic Dream has faced in the past has honed their determination to create the type of experiences they fully believe in, and thankfully this time around the process appears to have run a lot smoother.
Under the firm vision and leadership of of David Cage, Quantic Dream dares to take a risk at a time when most developers and publishers are afraid to steer away from instantly gratifying action that will guarantee a quick buck. Quantic Dream rips apart the conventional game design rule-book and never bothers to look back. By signing the title early on, we've also got to send our admiration to Sony. The full support of a major publisher has certainly assisted the development of Heavy Rain - having the confidence and comfort that a publisher shares the same vision has evidently benefited the game.
Even more so than Fahrenheit and Omikron before it, Heavy Rain is a difficult experience to categorise, particularly in terms of it not being able to easily sit into the grounds of being a video game. A trophy received early in the game is titled 'Thank you for supporting Interactive Drama', so that seems to be a safe bet. It also appears to be a genuinely heartfelt gratitude in appreciation of PS3 owners paying their money and supporting a risky venture that the studio isn't prepared to sacrifice in order to create something a little more conventional, a little more popular.
From the onset, the difficulty in drawing parallels continues, whether it's the unique control system or the experience that can loosely be bundled under the gameplay category. Further distinction stems from the flow of the game, which follows a closer tempo to that of a movie or a novel. Unlike most video games, Heavy Rain features little to no padding. The flow of the game is a wonderfully paced affair, moving effortlessly between scenes to the next event, revealing important plot details and furthering your sense of attachment to the characters. Typically video games focus on the journey between A and B with a cut-scene to celebrate the start and arrival. Heavy Rain manages to throw this laborious chore in the bin to focus specifically on the events.
Not merely content with ripping apart the design rulebook, Quantic Dream has thrown further caution to the wind with the control setup. Like Fahrenheit, the right thumbstick is used exclusively to interact with the environment and the various objects within it, whereas the difference from their earlier work stems from the R2 button controlling the forward motion of the character. It's a joy not to play a game that requires holding up on the joypad for 90% of the duration to simply move a character through a stage. Admittedly it takes a little time to get used to (as anything new does), but it quickly becomes comfortable. The use of the R2 button effectively acts as an 'accelerator' to your character's motion; a deliberate design choice to handle the awkward moments when the static camera direction shifts, often changing the orientation completely. Although Heavy Rain isn't perfect, it's an effective solution to a dilemma that has plagued the cinematic camera since Resident Evil crawled onto the scene.
The term 'Gameplay' is increasingly becoming harder to distinguish and more and more ambiguous, but in Heavy Rain's case it's virtually impossible to quantify. Interacting with objects borrows a page out of the old-school adventure genre, although it's not heavily slanted in this way that we could easily describe Heavy Rain as following in the same footsteps as Sam & Max or Monkey Island. Opening up drawers that contain nothing made us reminisce of SEGA's Shenmue series; we'd imagine Yu Suzuki would have a crafty wink and nod in appreciation if he ever got his hands on Heavy Rain. But such actions highlight the ease in which Quantic Dream manages to make the mundane beautifully captivating, which helps to lend the overall experience a sense of being grounded on the floor of reality. The controls are split between movements on the right thumbstick that require quick or careful motions; action sequences that are stacked commands in a similar structure to QTE's and a clever approach to the motion capabilities of the PS3 controller without ever feeling gimmicky. Somehow Quantic Dream has managed to feed the atmosphere and the actions through the joypad, conveying the appropriate tone and ensuring you feel what the characters are going through. When a section is designed to be tense you feel it, but equally trivial tasks such as shaking and drinking from an orange juice carton feel strangely satisfying as well.
Dialogue between characters forms an equally crucial component. Choices are often locked off based on previous decisions, which helps to lift Heavy Rain above the typical situation of choosing all of the available options in a routine manner. To accentuate the atmosphere, choices available during tense moments will be blurred or moving at a fast rate and set against a stringent timer, which furthers the sense that Heavy Rain handles conversation in a more effective and stylish manner than anything before it.
It would be silly to ignore the fact that a lot of Heavy Rain's initial appeal comes from the stunning production value, which again reinforces the notion of this being more than just a video game. Of course with examples such as Uncharted 2 we're finally getting into the realms of video games that offer more, however Heavy Rain is in a league of its own in this area. An auteur's command over style combined with technical prowess delivers what is ultimately the finest looking video game we've ever had the luck to sample. Nothing more needs to be said.
Praising the visuals however has to go hand in hand with what Quantic Dream has delivered in terms of the score and dialogue. The soundtrack is key to the atmosphere that Heavy Rain is literally drenched with, while the script and believable delivery reinforces the notion that this is something to enjoy. Occasionally the dialogue can seem a little forced, particularly examples such as a nurse providing hints as to how to coax information from a patient suffering from Alzheimer's. However on the whole, dialogue between characters seems believable and never forms a barrier to enjoying and believing the experience.
But it's not just eye candy, having such believable characters allows you to share a sense of empathy to their cause, which is absolutely crucial to the Heavy Rain experience. You need to jump into Heavy Rain and accept it for what it is to gain the most enjoyment out of it. Once you can share the pain, torture and anguish of Ethan Mars, you'll find the experience all the more engrossing, making decisions while absorbed in the experience instead of making conscious choices as an external player. Although Heavy Rain features four playable characters, at it's core the story is a tragic tale of the lengths a father will go to in order to save his son. At times it's a blend between Seven and SAW and just as captivating as both. The other characters embellish the main plot and provide weight, bringing variety in the form of investigative aspects that dramatise the question of who is the Origami Killer.
That said, Heavy Rain does a good job of actually not letting you feel in control of the main characters. Character based video games typically cast you in the role of the protagonist; even if you haven't got a 36DD chest, you are Lara Croft when you play the latest Tomb Raider; you may not like mushrooms, but that doesn't stop you becoming Super Mario. There's a Hitchcock like sense of voyeurism to Heavy Rain, which is shaped by the fact you play as four different characters, which often are at odds with one another. You get the feeling that the characters have a story to follow regardless of your input, but your goal is to shape and mould the way in which they go about it.
Yet at the same time, Quantic Dream has done a remarkable job of providing choice and freedom in a game that puts narrative, dialogue and characters at the forefront. Much of this stems from the elastic band design that is pivotal to Quantic Dream's work. Having shown us its possibilities in Fahrenheit, Quantic Dream has decided to see just how far that elastic band can stretch with Heavy Rain. Ultimately the answer to the question is: pretty far. The metaphor is a fitting one, essentially you stretch an elastic band around two pegs (plot devices) which are set in stone, but how you get to them - how far you stretch the band - is largely up to you. Heavy Rain has the ability to surprise, which is a sadly missed attribute in most games. On a second playthrough we managed to discover entire scenes that we missed the first time, while the eventual ending can manifest in a variety of different outcomes. It's not a perfect setup; occasionally you're yearning for more freedom in certain sequences or tasks. For some strange reason I desperately wanted to put Maddison's lipstick on poorly in the heavily promoted nightclub scene, but ultimately had to perform the action repeatedly until successful. There's always the niggling question of whether specific scenes have the correct amount of options/interactivity, but this doesn't manage to detract from the satisfaction and enjoyment gained throughout the entire experience.
But this also highlights a further factor that deviates away from common game design: the option not to succeed in a task. Traditionally you play to win (unless you're deliberately trying to throw the game to your less skilled girlfriend/boyfriend/child), whether it's rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser or beating your mate at FIFA. It's all too easy to react immediately to the prompts that flash up onscreen, however the real joy is seeing where the game goes if you don't. This is ultimately manifested in the fact that the four main characters can die and the game will cater to this, adjusting the story accordingly and moving on to its eventual conclusion. The threat of a character's death is a profound motive. On the first time through such sections manage to instill a dramatic determination to save the character at all costs - making sure Lara jumps across a chasm successfully just seems trivial in comparison. Sometimes Heavy Rain challenges you to challenge your own instinct and not just play the game like a reaction test. It's this quality of design and understanding of player choice that ensures Heavy Rain (and Quantic Dream's work in general) should never be considered as a derivative Dragon's Lair clone.
And in doing so, Heavy Rain largely manages to cater to a player's expression yet also manages to make a cohesive, compelling story that hooks you from the start. Yes there's a couple of plot holes and a certain amount of scenes that feel a little more awkward, but the testimony is that Heavy Rain is a rare experience that can be enjoyed by a watching audience and not just the person with the control pad. It's also one that you'll certainly want to play through at least one more time just to see what you missed and perhaps reach a better outcome.
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