Developer Psychology: Thoughts on Heavy Rain

by Tom Ingram

As the game begins, ominously dour budget-Debussy piano music is playing. In 24-style split screen, we see parts of a bedroom with the sun shining broadly through the window, until it gradually resolves into one image. A man is lying face-down in bed, the covers tossed to the side. The game is Heavy Rain, the 2010 story-driven adventure thriller.

I knew coming in to expect very little interactivity, but it wasn’t until I put the disk in the console for the first time that I was warned: the entire thing is quick-time events. I’ve missed out on the whole quick-time event craze, because I stopped playing video games heavily around the time the Wii came out and the few I’ve played since then aren’t that kind of game. So I had an open mind. It doesn’t sound that appealing, but I could be surprised.

As the man in bed wakes up, I am forced to laboriously drag his ass out of bed through elaborate controller movements. Ouch. I then proceed to go through his entire morning routine as the game tries to get me acquainted with the controls. I shit you not, you have to brush his teeth, shave his face, and dry his ass off after he gets out of the shower. Heavy Rain is so “story-driven” it’s sickening at times, and instead of making you sit through the scenes where nothing happens, it makes you act them out. This is particularly frustrating when you miss a quick-time event and have to redo it from the beginning.

That is perhaps the fatal flaw of Heavy Rain. The developers see that there’s nothing for the player to do for ten minutes, so they put in a quick-time event where a character picks his nose or something to break up the monotony. But the nose-picking just draws attention to itself; it can only exist in a game where nothing happens.

Anyway, after wandering around the house being a lazy prick, my character’s wife comes home with groceries. I discover that his name is Ethan Mars*. Ethan is forced to go outside and play with his children who giggle with creepy delight during their piggyback rides. I think the game designers might have broken the cardinal rule of voice-actor hiring: don’t get actual kids to do the kid voices. Kids are, as a rule, bad actors and shouldn’t be trusted with that level of responsibility. Any future game developers take note: if you absolutely need the children to talk, get a woman or John Fiedler to do the voices.

In fact, even though Heavy Rain is a game that would seem to live and die on its voice acting, it’s largely the same quality level you can expect from any video game: shit. There’s only one main character with a decent voice actor. For a game like this, that’s just not acceptable.

After an oh-so-poignant scene of Ethan comforting his son after the death of his pet bird, we cut to a shopping mall. Ethan is told to watch his son Jason while his wife takes his other kid to look at shoes, and upon the instant Jason runs off into the crowd and gets lost. They never bothered to invent a good excuse for this–Ethan simply glances away from his son and when he glances back the stupid kid is off in the crowd.

Ethan catches up with him and then loses him again, simply to underscore how bad a father he is. Jason is wearing a green shirt and carrying a red balloon, so he’s easy to see as Ethan follows him through the mall. You can feel the tension mounting. This game pulls out all the traditional stops–camera angles, tense music, strategically placed obstacles–in order to make you feel that something big is about to happen. It’s downright cinematic. But you’re controlling Ethan using Heavy Rain’s cruel control scheme, which occasionally decides that “left” and “right” are mere social conventions that can be deconstructed, and his movement speed is frustratingly slow.

The environment builds up one idea in your head, and you want to respond appropriately: shove through the crowd, run like hell, and tackle that kid’s dumb ass. But the game doesn’t allow you to, and the result is like watching a movie with great editing and music but really bad blocking.

Anyway, after laborious foreshadowing, Jason is finally run over by a car and we can move on. Two years later, Shaun, the younger Mars son, is Jason’s age. Ethan’s wife has left him (who wouldn’t?) and he’s now living on his own in a run-down house in the ghetto. Their life pre-car accident is sickeningly idyllic, a white-picket-fence existence so exaggerated that it’s almost Lynchian. You keep expecting Dennis Hopper to burst onto the scene and shout, “I will fuck anything that MOVES!” because nobody lives like that unless they’re hiding something.

After the accident, though, Ethan’s life is the polar opposite. They pull out every little trick in the book to show that he’s miserable, brooding, and depressed after his son’s death. Other son is cold and distant? Check. Ethan can’t get any work done? Big check–I know architects get paid well, but if you stop working long enough that your whole office is coated with dust, I’m sure somebody would notice you were missing and at least comment on it. Gloomy weather? Neglect of shaving? Of course. Nostalgic video of the old days abruptly cut off by turning off the TV? That goes without saying.

Naturally Ethan has a beer in the fridge, and I make him open it and chug it down while his son is doing homework. I figure as long as he’s in and in for good, he might as well go the whole hog. When I put Shaun to bed, after dragging Ethan’s ass around the house looking for a teddy bear, I find a letter with no sender’s address and a short note about children who were never seen again. Since the big story on the news is that the “Origami Killer” is on the loose, any sensible person would immediately call the police, but instead Ethan goes upstairs and blacks out, waking up on the street in the rain with an origami figure in his hand.

Wikipedia lists this game as a “psychological thriller”, which is code for “the main character is the bad guy.” Bruce Willis was dead all along, Verbal is Keyser Soze, and it would seem that Ethan is actually the Origami Killer who is (spoiler alert) about to kidnap Shaun. Much as tests in school wind up being a game of “teacher psychology”, where instead of trying to work out the correct answer you simply estimate just how perverse your teacher is and assume that they’re trying to trick you approximately that much, entries in this genre are usually games of “developer psychology”. Instead of actually caring about the story, you’re using clues in the text to guess things about the creators, specifically what they will find surprising. It is a mental exercise of sorts, but there’s really nothing to this kind of story, which is why Shyamalan is only bearable to sixth-graders who don’t know any better**.

So the main character is the villain. The problem is, as it turns out, there are four main characters, and it could be any one of them. We leave Ethan for the moment and turn to Scott Shelby, a hard-drinking private shamus with a loose tie, open collar, and trenchcoat. Shelby is the aforementioned sole main character with a decent voice actor–while the others make bizarre pronunciation choices and in general sound like Britons doing a bad job of pretending to be Americans, Shelby gives me the impression that he’s an out-of-work stage actor with a million credits to his name who needed the money***.

Shelby questions the mother of one of the Origami Killer’s victims and comes up with nothing. As he leaves, someone else goes into her apartment and starts beating her up; Shelby has to fight him off in a pre-rendered sequence full of quick-time events. These pop up a couple times throughout Heavy Rain–they’re a little bit exciting, in a way, but too silly even for Hollywood. As Yahtzee said in his Zero Punctuation review:

But the action is always rather overwrought. It’s like someone came to the understandable conclusion that Heavy Rain is a touch slow at times–in the same way that St. Paul’s Cathedral is a touch indigestible–so they figured they’d better throw in some loosely relevant karate fight scenes.

We leave Shelby and go to FBI agent Norman Jayden, who is investigating the murders. Upon arriving at the scene of the latest, he meets with the local authority, police Lieutenant Carter Blake. Blake is a man with a perpetually angry face exaggerated by a stark circle beard. He gives demanding orders to random policemen who look like they’re already busy, and swears like he feels he’s supposed to. His supervisor will later say that he has “his own methods, but he’s a good cop”, which is an outright lie. I think the writers overestimated how far a character can bend the rules without crossing the line between “roguish” and “dangerously insane”, because he’s clearly a violent thug and just as clearly treated by the other characters as a difficult but basically decent human being.

Jayden has a particularly bad case of slippery accent. He’s supposed to have a Boston tough guy sound (which is completely out of step with everything else about his character, including his name), but he often slips into a neutral middle-American accent with Britishisms creeping in now and then. He also has an exotic drug habit. It’s a plot point that lets the writers knock him out whenever they feel the need to, but let’s face it: they could find other ways to do that. Really it’s just there so there’s something memorable about his aggressively bland character.

After speaking to Blake, Jayden starts looking around the crime scene. Apparently this game takes place in the mystical world of 2012, and police no longer gather evidence by looking at it. Instead, Jayden puts on his crime-o-vision goggles, which can make clues appear as big flashing orange readouts on the ground. After making a token show of effort looking for clues of almost no importance, he leaves.

Heavy Rain poses a difficult problem for the critic because it’s hard to be sure what to make of it. The writing is bad, the game design is even worse, and it’s all based on a fundamentally flawed concept–the idea that all that messy “fun” stuff is ruining a perfectly good story. But as gamers we are used to appalling writing that would make even ad writers blush. Bad design elements exist even in the best games (as I’m quick to point out about Half-Life). So I honestly don’t know if some aspects of Heavy Rain are the way they are because they’re attempting to be subversive, or because the designers are incompetent.

The game’s many waiting room simulations–there is one segment where you literally sit in a chair outside someone’s office and fidget until they arrive–are a bad dramatic choice. That’s incompetent. But they are artistic, in a way. They capture an element of real life, and make you feel it stronger than any other medium possibly could. I suppose that’s subversive. And surely no sensible writer would put that scene in without good reason. But are they, in fact, sensible? That’s not a given. And we’re back to “developer psychology”. Once again, the central question of Heavy Rain is not “Who is the Origami Killer?”, but “Just how stupid are these creators, anyway?”.

Clearly some aspects of the game are, with no qualifications, bad. The dialogue, for instance. It’s not just clunky and awkward. At times it’s so odd that I wonder if the writer is a native speaker of English at all****. The mechanics for choosing dialogue are also pretty awful–it’s hard to read the words floating around your head, especially since you’re on a time limit. Also, at least on my TV screen the square and circle icons look very similar from far away. Showing the words shaking to indicate nervousness or urgency works pretty well, but not well enough to justify making it difficult for me to say hello. But on the whole, I think we should see Heavy Rain as an experiment. It plays with the structure of a narrative-heavy game. Even if it’s an egregious failure, its successes and mistakes are a good learning experience.

The action scenes, despite a flurry of activity, are not that exciting. Not nearly as exciting as a pitched battle in any other game. The reason is that the player doesn’t have full control. When the characters make scripted slip-ups, the player doesn’t feel ownership of the mistake. It’s like one of those annoying scenes in a movie where the blonde girl makes a dumb move running from the slasher. When you have no control, you can accept that what you see onscreen is not you; there’s no need to project your identity, and the mistake is explained: you wouldn’t have done that, but that guy’s an idiot. When you have complete control, what you see onscreen is, essentially, you, and any slipups you make are your own damn fault (for that matter, any victories feel a lot better because you figured it out yourself, without flashy icons). But with the in-between level of control over the characters of Heavy Rain, you become confused. Why is Ethan wandering through the mall like an idiot when he should be barrelling through the crowd hollering his son’s name? That’s what I’d be doing*****.

The quick-time events are a poor choice of mechanic. The fast (read: important) ones are really hard to hit. Screwing one up doesn’t feel like a serious mistake, but I got one character killed by missing too many of them in the same scene. That’s too steep a punishment for too small a slip-up. The game’s choice mechanics, where what you do in one scene can affect the way future scenes are carried out, have a number of problems. Immediately before confronting the killer, I was offered a chance to phone someone. I picked the most logical choice for my current character, even though I knew the person I was calling was already dead. When I got no answer, the scene ended. There was no reason I shouldn’t have been allowed to make another call, but that wasn’t allowed.

The controls, which I believe are central to the enjoyment of any game, are terrible. There is no reason to force the player to hold down R2 to walk. There is no reason walking should be that painfully slow, and there’s no reason it should be so difficult to turn around accurately. The game assumes that you use the two rear fingers to grip the controller and the index and middle finger operate the L and R buttons, but I can’t imagine any way to make this comfortable on a Playstation controller. It puts my rear fingers at an awkward angle and makes the front of the controller less steady. But since the game expects me to be able to hold R1 and R2 at the same time, we get into some pretty strange contortionist tricks.

However, one thing the game does particularly well is scenes of tension, where things have to be done quickly. It’s especially fulfilling because, with the thin barrier between the player’s identity and the character’s, you feel more immediacy than you would watching the same scene in a movie. Although some of these scenes are frustrating, you cannot deny that they are nerve-wracking. Also, this game gives you the freedom to really role-play in the story. You can play any given character any number of ways, and while it won’t affect the ultimate outcome (the killer is the same in every possible ending), it will change everything that happens in the middle. The game adapts itself to your choices, which makes them feel more real.

And in the end, I have to admit that the game pulled me in, fascinating me for the few evenings it took to finish, even though by all rights it shouldn’t have. While Heavy Rain is a failed experiment, it’s still an experiment. In today’s world of soullessly calculated games, that’s the sort of thing we should be encouraging.

* Other characters are named Norman Jayden and Carter Blake. I suppose one day the children from Baby’s Named a Bad, Bad Thing will grow up, and they’ll be our doctors and lawyers. Just wait: any year now, we’ll be hearing about UN Secretary-General Creighton Alexia Mykynzy. [return]

** I have fond memories of The Sixth Sense and I’m sure I wouldn’t like it nearly as much if I watched it again. As a rule, under these circumstances I usually choose to keep the memories.

Thinking about this reminds me of Donald Kaufman’s script in Adaptation. The main character’s brother writes a screenplay called “The 3” in which the twist is that the (male) police officer, the serial killer, and the (female) kidnapped victim are all the same person. The movie ends in a chase scene, and Donald’s brother Charlie asks how that’s possible if they occupy the same body. However, Charlie’s agent loves the script, and calls it a “smart, edgy thriller”. The comparison became more apt when I played to the end and discovered which main character is the killer, tried to make the story up to that point fit this new development, and failed. How I long for the movie January Man, where it turned out, in a shocking twist, that the killer was no one in particular, just some random guy with a problem. [return]

*** It turns out these were completely spot-on. All the main characters are voiced by British people except for Shelby, who is voiced by and modelled after Sam Douglas. Douglas is a stage actor who has had minor roles in dozens of films.

As for the others, there are British people who can do convincing American accents, and vice versa. If you need them, find them. These people are not them. [return]

**** I intended this as a shot at the writer, but apparently David Cage is French and thus presumably not a native speaker of English. Still, especially when writing in another language, you should get someone to check your work out to make sure there’s nothing jarring. [return]

***** Notice that my Half-Life articles are written in the first-person. It’s hard not to identify with Gordon Freeman. On the other hand, in this article, I speak of two separate people, me and the character onscreen. When I got to the point where Ethan had to cut off his finger, it fell flat because I was so frustrated with the game. I cut off Ethan’s finger quickly and remorselessly because I didn’t like him. [return]