It’s not the evolution of game narrative
Fact. However much Heavy Rain eschews the traditional A to B linearity of video game storytelling, the fact is that its stripped-down interaction mechanics make it much more an evolution of cinematic narrative than of video game storytelling. This isn’t a game where skills or problem solving will usually be required (more on that latter point in a bit). It’s a game in which you experience an unfolding story rather than play through it in the traditional sense.
Imagine a film in which you can reach in and touch the world you’re watching, or hear how certain events make the characters feel on a personal level. That’s what you’ve got in Heavy Rain. It’s a movie which uses interaction in order to create a greater connection and sense of empathy within its audience.
And in that respect, it works fantastically. You’ll feel a strong personal bond - even a relationship - with the game’s better-written characters. Their personal quirks and foibles become believable and reassuring and the sense of who they are as people is unquestionable.
Similarly, the already stunningly-rendered game world becomes all the more real for a bit of hands-on exploration. It’s amazing how much the mundane actions of digging through a fridge, taking a piss or even changing a baby’s nappy can add to your bond with the story, particularly when they’re completely optional.
The more visually cinematic Heavy Rain becomes, the more obvious its design philosophy is. Watching a split-screen image of a film protagonist struggling to escape a building while the enemy prepares to enter would be a tense experience already, but when the hero’s fate depends on your physically tense button mashes and stick flicks, it’s suspense on a whole new level.
Above: The perilous results of Heavy Rain's more demanding QTE inputs
The QTE commands frequently even approximate the physical actions your character has to make in the game world, further adding to the immersion, even if a few become so unnecessarily convoluted that you can occasionally run the risk of running out of fingers part way through. 'Augmented cinema' would probably be the best term to use to describe Heavy Rain, and as a sensory experience there’s nothing else like it around today.
It’s not an adventure game
Those of you hoping for a grand renaissance of the good old point-and-click are going to be disappointed. You see while Heavy Rain steadfastly follows the old genre trope of identifying and interacting with usable items and characters in the immediate environment, you’ll rarely ever have to think about what to do with them.
Rather than finding the right object to pass an obstacle, you’ll usually just investigate your surroundings until you find the element that moves the plot along. It’s no more taxing than eliminating the villagers with the filler dialogue in order to find the quest-giver in a JRPG. Need to find a route out of a locked room? Just fulfil the QTE requirements of each possible exit until you trigger the one that actually works.
Heavily beset by the enemy? Don’t go looking for a hidden weapon. Just hit the right QTE buttons as the scene plays out and things will roll along of their own accord. Heavy Rain is all about soaking up the rich atmosphere and intrigue of an evolving story. If you can reconcile yourself with being more of a passenger than a driver, you'll find yourself dragged into proceedings very quickly.
When the rare problem-solving sections do arise, they’re welcome indeed, and very well thought-out. There’s no need for awkward video game logic in Heavy Rain. Just think like a real person in a real situation and the answer will present itself pretty quickly.
It’s strange how such an innocuous and simple design decision can make a game so refreshing, but Heavy Rain’s problem-solving is logical, smooth and natural in a way few games ever manage.
It’s not just a great big cut-scene
While you won’t play through Heavy Rain’s world in a traditional sense (don’t expect to manually aim a gun any anyone, or navigate the environment as kinetically as Nathan Drake) , it’s actually a good deal more involving than you probably expect.
As you explore the potential of each environment you’ll have full manual control over your character. The control scheme is a strange blend of old-school Resident Evil and a driving game, in which you hold down R2 to walk in the currently-faced direction and use the left stick to turn your character in transit. Mercifully, all directions are relative to the player, not the character, and the fact that you only need to tap the left stick rather than hold it means that the system works very well in handling Heavy Rain’s automatically switching camera angles with the minimum of fuss.
The one drawback is that movement can be sluggish, with human beings feeling a little like dump trucks at times, while twitching around like over-zealous ballerinas at others. Certainly, there was one occasion in which we inadvertently sent our protagonist off on a whole new story thread just because we got arrested while spectacularly failing to manage to cross a road. Hardly heroic.
As for the numerous hands-off sections, in which your character’s actions play out automatically and your QTE inputs simply dictate the success or failure of a certain action, they feel much more immediate than you might expect. Thanks to some sharp cinematography, canny direction and the illusion of spontaneity afforded by the branching action scenes (even a successful fight can take two or three different directions before you win), Heavy Rain’s combinations of button taps and stick tweaks can feel as gratifying as lining up a headshot in real time.