Movie viewers will be disappointed. Video Gamers will feel let down. I don’t care. Heavy Rain is an incredible piece of digital entertainment. It may not stand so strong when compared in terms of mystery writing, to action films, or even when compared to blockbuster video games. That doesn’t really matter, though; Heavy Rain is none of these things. It is, however, awesome in its own right. It is not, as some critics might say, a glorified “choose-your-own-adventure;” it is an engaging piece of digital entertainment that falls between existing genre lines. But let’s not get carried away, either. This is not the first example of video games art.
For the 5-6 days I spent playing Heavy Rain, it entranced me hours at a time. Even when not playing the game, its themes and mechanics crept their way into my thoughts about the world around me: when opening a lock, I had an urge to spin my fingers around in a circle in the same way one might do in the game; when opening the fridge, I imagined the swift heave with which one performs such actions in the game; in conversations at work, I even imagined my words in terms of “aggressive,” “funny,” “convincing,” and other such stances one may take in Heavy Rain.
Of course, actually turning a key and actually opening the fridge are much more complex and fruitful actions than their in-game counterparts. Conversations, too, are far more subtle, layered, and open-ended than anything a software developer is capable of mimicking. Nonetheless, the fact that players must deliberately perform these actions in the game naturally leads to introspection and reflection upon the minute details that make up the cause and effect relationships of our real lives.
I share these anecdotes not to indulge the reader in my obsessive psychoses (those psychoses can certainly be found elsewhere in my writing), but to illustrate just what kind of game Heavy Rain is. Never in my years of playing video games – all the way from Mario on the NES to Call of Duty on the PS3 – have I ever, ever imagined myself hopping on little frowny-faced mushroom men or leaping for cover with an AK47 in hand. Heavy Rain, by contrast, imitates the everyday banalities of life so accurately and so engagingly that one cannot help but re-examine oft-overlooked actions. It is not the next great leap in “art imitating life” or “life imitating art” in the spirit of Oscar Wilde and Plato. But its experiments in mimesis and diegisis are remarkably rife for contemplating the ways our simple actions result in little awarenesses and realizations that accumulate over time to form larger stories. I do not think that Heavy Rainis the grand rebuttal to Roger Ebert’s challenge that video games cannot be art, but I do think it is a strong step in the nascent world of artistic creations in digital media.
When discussing Heavy Rain with friends, I found that all of us kept unintentionally calling the game a “movie.” It is unfortunate that an innovative piece of software, pleasantly situated between existing genres, inevitably falls into unwanted comparisons with those genres already in existence. How does it rank as a detective story? Badly. Is it as entertaining to watch as a movie like Memento? Far from it. Does it engage video gamers as intensely as Call of Duty? Sadly, no. That said, I spent a great deal of time engrossed, entertained, and reflective with it. I have no doubt that many unfamiliar with the tropes of video games will feel confused and frustrated with a story that grants partially agency over the characters, but reveals little about their internal thoughts, and strips away your control at crucial moments. I am also aware that its open ended story on-rails will feel constraining to those who prefer the stories of the real world or of great fiction writers. I am aware of all this, but I stand my ground: Heavy Rain is awesome. Its prickly peculiarities are not the result of failing to meet genre standards; they are the result of a new and innovative manipulation of digital media. If you haven’t yet, buy it and play it.
If I were rating this game in the grand scheme of things, I’d give it an A-. On Amazon, I’m giving it 5/5 stars because anyone reading this review is likely thinking about buying a video game, and this is simply better than the alternatives on the PS3.