“How far would you go to save the one you love?” asked Heavy Rain (opens in new tab) creator David Cage - repeatedly - during the promotion of the game’s PS3 release. Personally, I never knew the answer to that question. When Heavy Rain appeared on PS3 back in 2010, my life was a little different: not quite free from all responsibility, but certainly a lot less emotionally attached than it was before I became a father. With the game receiving a re-release on PS4 (opens in new tab) this week, I decided to revisit the gloomy story of Ethan Mars and friends with my own fresher perspective on life. The game hasn’t changed much, but I have.
For me, the stand-out moment has always been ‘the lizard’ scene or, as it’s more popularly known, ‘the bit where Ethan cuts off one of his fingers’. It’s one of those rare, special moments in video games where you can’t quite believe what’s happening to you - a brutal choice set to a time limit that ratchets up the stress of the situation to near unbearable levels. In the game you can opt to make the self-mutilation much easier / harder on yourself by selecting from a number of different implements. The most painless path is to drink some booze (to numb the pain), make a quick clean cut with the cleaver, and then cauterize the wound with a metal rod that you’ve heated on a stove.
Even this ‘clean’ method is deeply unpleasant. You’re chopping off a part of your own body for a clue that may or may not lead to your kidnapped son, Shaun. It’s a very permanent, very painful thing. And there are no guarantees it will yield results - only the word of the Origami Killer who is manipulating you remotely. It’s a test of your emotional threshold, and the impact it has on you depends on how committed you are to the core premise of being a father who is hoping to rescue his son.
Back in 2010, I was pretty blasé about the whole thing. Like many of you, I had a good old rummage around the abandoned apartment looking for various objects that I could use to lop off Ethan’s pinky. I wanted to be entertained by the game; wanted to see how far I could push it. A rusty saw? Yeah, that looks like fun. Pliers? Ouch. A pair of scissors? Look out - we have a winner.
In 2016? Well, the story is a little different. While I’m already aware of all the options available (having sampled them previously or watched them on YouTube), I’m increasingly tense this time around. Because it matters more. Not in the context of the game, but to me as a person. In Ethan’s shoes - as ridiculous and extreme as his situation is - would I be able to go through with it? Me, as a real person? Would I chop off my own finger to save my own son? What if scissors were the only option? My horrifying realisation is that I would. And I’d do worse.
This fresh perspective gets applied to every single scene I play out as Ethan. No, I’m not saying I’m special and have a higher understanding of Heavy Rain because I’ve suddenly spawned an infant… but the game now pushes buttons inside me that were previously out of reach. The game hasn’t changed, but I have. While there are other shocking moments to be played out in Heavy Rain, none hit home quite as hard as the finger scene. Perhaps the final clue, dished out for making Ethan drink poison, would have had more of an impact on me if I didn’t already know that it wasn’t actually poison. That decision seems more binary and ‘game-like’ somehow, as if it’s more about choosing left or right, rather than testing your emotional limit as a human being. And the opener where Jason dies? It’s before you gain true control over Ethan and can reasonably respect him as your on-screen persona, so the emotional attachment is yet to be made because you’re passive in the experience.
Of course, you can opt to simply refuse the demands of the Origami Killer. No finger-chopping, no clue as to Shaun’s location. It’s a valid choice, and you can still finish the game without it, but for me it isn’t an option. Knowing it exists as a possibility, though, is perhaps more terrifying than taking a finger - you can choose to be selfish or cowardly, and that’s a valid human response too. It’s a darker instinct to save yourself at the expense of your offspring, but it still exists inside all of us. The fact that David Cage recognises this (intentional or not) within Heavy Rain is perhaps the greatest triumph of the whole scene. You can choose to fail because it’s a response that - hand on heart - some people would make in that situation.
And the true price of failing to slice off your own finger during the ‘lizard scene’ isn’t a slightly dodgy end to the game, or one less Trophy on your list… it’s the realisation that you’ve gone as far as you can to save the one you love.