I’ve spent most of the last few days playing Heavy Rain on a borrowed PS3. It’s a brilliant game and much better than Fahrenheit (The Indigo Prophecy) which I played through for the first time in the last few months. The plot and set pieces are genuinely exciting and the eventual reveal of the killer is really well handled. Their identity is probably guessable too, though I didn’t figure it out, which is the sign of a well written detective story. Graphically it really shows off the power of the PS3, and the acting is really good for nearly all of the characters.
Unfortunately the overriding feeling I was left with at the end was anger. One of the selling points of Heavy Rain is that any of the characters can die and the game will still continue. In my case this meant I spent the better part of two days playing through the story, only for one of the characters to die literally 20 minutes from the end. It wasn’t even a ‘proper’ death. If you’ve played the game you’ll know the section and character, but basically during a fire I couldn’t see where I was supposed to be going or where I was standing, and thanks to the controls (which I hadn’t got used to even by the end of the game) I walked into the flames one too many times and burned to death. After two days of playing. David Cage’s story did it’s job and I got really involved with the world and the characters, and in the end I didn’t care whether Shaun Mars got saved, or whether the Origami Killer got caught or not, I just knew that one of main characters had died, that it was my fault and that (going by my ability at the game up to that point) I should have been able to stop it.
Of course you can load a chapter and replay from that point onwards, and see what would have happened if you’d done things differently, but it’s just not the same. The experience you get when you first play through a game is always going to be the one that sticks with you, especially with a game like Heavy Rain where you don’t replay sections or redo choices if you change your mind. At the moment I genuinely feel like the game was ruined for me 20 minutes from the end, and it was my fault.
I’m sure there’s a lesson in game design here, but figuring out exactly what isn’t easy. I don’t think Heavy Rain should have removed the ‘character dies – plot continues’ feature. Knowing that your characters are in genuine danger, knowing that if you mess up they will be removed, adds a lot more tension to the game. The problem is a big balancing act. If Nathan Drake goes charging into a squad of four heavily armed soldiers and attempts to take them out with his fists (which seems to be my brother’s method of playing Uncharted 2) it’s a life threatening situation, but it doesn’t carry a lot of risk because failure only means going back to the last save point, so you never feel too strongly about the decision or consequences. Put the save points further apart and suddenly the activity becomes much more exciting because the cost of failure is much higher. Heavy Rain is taking this to the extreme – all the dangerous sequences become much more thrilling because there’s literally the entire game riding on the outcome. Clearly this is good for immersion, but the cost is also huge.
This is an unusual thing in gaming. It’s not a regular game over of the “You died, load your last game?” kind – in those kind of games death is expected and a natural part of the game. It’s not the same as, say, a death sequence in an adventure game, because that’s a clear cut “You made a mistake, game’s over, go back in there and do it right next time” – your wrong turn is clearly labelled and your punishment is outside of the game world in that all it means is you don’t get to see the next section of the game. It’s also not the same as a traditional ‘bad ending’ because those tend to be replayability devices along the lines of “Well, you got to the end of the game but you didn’t do x, y and z, so why not go back and try and do them next time”. Heavy Rain says “You made these choices and these mistakes, and this is the consequence. Live with it”. I guess that’s a pretty mature take, but it’s pretty gutting when you’re on the wrong end of it.