Friday, February 26, 2010

Rated M for Real Maturity

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Last year, I wrote about my largest disappointment with the Nintendo Wii: that while it has made great strides toward bringing video gaming into the mainstream, the resulting games have placed narrative complexity and thematic maturity as low priorities. This year, Sony took a gamble on Heavy Rain, a mature, complex thriller that considers story, character development, and adult themes more important than action and titillation. It is mature in that it deals with adult issues and situations without gratuitous vulgarity and sexuality. It is the first M-rated game that I have played which is mature both for the fact that it is inappropriate for children and for the way that it honestly wrestles with difficult, adult problems.

Heavy Rain is a thriller. The story follows the lives of four individuals who each have an interest in tracking down the Origami Killer, a serial murderer. A father, an FBI agent, a private investigator, and a journalist are all working against the clock to rescue the latest kidnapping victim before they die. The story is interesting, if somewhat cliché, and some of the motivations and story hooks are less compelling than others. All told, the plot is serviceable, but not the most impressive thing about the game.

What really blows me away about Heavy Rain is its ability to explore complex emotions and difficult decisions. Over the course of the game, I felt a number of emotions a game has never made me feel before: guilt, gratefulness, hopelessness, and hope regained. I felt concerned about a stranger’s baby. I have no children in reality, but in the game I felt prepared to do anything to save my son. And there was no sign of a simple, black and white moral choice anywhere in the game. Every moral conflict was a complicated one. Every difficult choice felt desperate.

The other major success of the game is its accessibility. Typically, games with mature content and thematic elements are designed with a hardcore video game audience in mind. But the controls for Heavy Rain are easy to learn, and the difficulty settings are based around how familiar the player is with the PlayStation 3 controller.

Heavy Rain has the most impressive quicktime events I have ever played in a game. The action can be chaotic, but it is usually clear what button the player is supposed to push. Best of all, an error in button pushing or joystick moving doesn’t result in an instant failure and the need to restart. Each missed cue results in some small error on the part of the character on the screen; just like in reality, a person can make a few mistakes and still succeed overall. It lends each action sequence an air of legitimacy, and the characters remain human.

One of the other major features that sets Heavy Rain apart is the fact that there is no such thing as a game over screen: every failure remains. Character death is possible, but the story continues without them. Every in-game possibility leads to its own ending. This is a bold move for video games, which typically rely on a lot of replaying and frustration around difficult sections. Unless the player goes out of their way to replay a section of Heavy Rain, they will never need to do so.

Heavy Rain has its fair share of flaws. Sometimes the on-screen options are frustrating in their limitations, leaving very little room for player freedom of choice. The characters are a little too stuck in their ways of thinking, which can be frustrating to the player who thinks of a better solution. And, strangely for a game so focused on story and character interaction, the writing and acting can be weak at times. Oddly, the weaknesses in the acting come mostly from the voice work; the digital characters created for Heavy Rain are the most convincingly real human beings ever seen in a video game. But none of the game's flaws counteract the fact that Heavy Rain is a leap forward for maturity in video games.

It is my sincere hope that Heavy Rain will show consumers and game designers how much more potential there is in the video game medium than they saw before. Heavy Rain is an eye-opening experience; it shows that dramatic, compelling gameplay can be found in everyday experiences and emotions, and that we don’t need to play superhuman characters to triumph in the face of adversity. Heavy Rain is a triumph, in that it opens up to a wider audience without sacrificing its ambitions or the complexity of its themes. I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

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