City 16's Top 10 Games of 2010: #6

Gaming in 2010 – and I’m stretching my poor dysfunctional memory to breaking point with this generalisation – seemed primarily concerned with letting players explore and make their own fun in vast worlds, reviving old genres with a modern twist and – the perennial favourite – shooting men in the face with guns.

What it didn’t seem too concerned with was advancing the cause of gaming as an art form. With few exceptions, the narrative drive of games was largely reduced to the level of Hollywood blockbuster, cheesy exploitation piece or sometimes foregone entirely for pure arcade gaming action.

The major big-name exception to this trend places right here at number 6:

Heavy Rain

There’s an achievement that pops up toward the start of Heavy Rain,

Interactive Drama
Thank you for supporting Interactive Drama

It speaks to the weird disconnect between two distinct styles of gaming: one which embraces achievements, leaderboards, multiplayer and other distinctly gaming miscellany and another more concerned with what games can do when pursuing a story, and how that pursuit differs from what books or films can achieve. Certainly their are games that manage to pick the best elements of both, Uncharted 2 for example, but it’s a stark reminder that no-one’s really doing what David Cage is attempting, certainly in the realm of big-budget major publisher releases.

Perhaps then it’s easy to understand both the hype and the derision given to Heavy Rain before it was released. Those that criticised it did so for being a pretentious electronic choose-you-own adventure book, minimising player agency by giving nothing more than a series of quick-time events to drive its story. Those that praised it marvelled at the idea of a game that accepted failure into the story, continuing on to create a tale unique to the player. Certainly both points apply to Heavy Rain, to varying degrees which is perhaps the thing about this type of game: to enjoy it you have to be the sort of person who could enjoy it. More than most genres what leaves some cold will be looked on in awe by others.

But, if you can enjoy Heavy Rain, would you? Oh yes.

It’s an incredibly grown up story for a game, free from the typical sci-fi, fantasy or macho tales that are typical of the medium – Quantic Dream’s own previous efforts included. Instead things start slowly, allowing the player to become invested in the relationship between the game’s lead character Ethan Mars and his children before unraveling their lives. The game may have been mocked for it’s ‘press X to Jason‘ mall scene but, whatever the actual mechanics of it, the emotional impact works exactly as intended.

In fact the predominantly quick-time event based control scheme doesn’t hinder the game at all. All game controls are based around abstraction. Pressing X to Jason is no less ridiculous than pressing R1 to fire a .50 cal rifle. Where the majority of quick-time events fall down is that they don’t offer consistency – it’s a shift in abstraction that’s jarring to the player, sacrificing previously held levels of control for easy to choreograph cutscenes that give the player illusions of interactivity. In Heavy Rain not only are the levels of control consistent throughout – gesture controls for most scenes, face buttons for conversation and quick-time events for action sequences – but failure to complete one of the action sequences doesn’t result in a game over screen. The game will carry on, the story altered by their failure or death.

Despite the many ways in which your playthrough could vary from other players, it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the overall outcome, with only a few variations seemingly available – most from an after the game series of ‘what the characters did next’ cutscenes. But there is a level of personalisation even without this gimmick. The attitude you take in the relationships you come across, and the effort and mood with which you perceive events in the game all lead to a unique experience, even if they have no real effect on subsequent scenes. No two playthroughs are alike, even the ones that achieve exactly the same ending.

Of course, it would be nice if the game made sense. A couple of gaping plotholes sour the experience in retrospect and in a whole bunch of scenes the game is openly lying to you, probably as a limitation of the mechanics rather than an actual clever response to late game events. In a game primarily concerned with telling a story these missteps could be catastrophic but the core narrative of a father’s struggle to find his son is well told and, simply put, there aren’t enough games like this out there to let such negatives drag it down.


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