Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Five Best 2010 Games: Heavy Rain

Lists. I don’t know why, but I love them. And if everyone else can do them, I asked myself, why not me? So, prompted by being asked to name my three favorites this year, I’ve elected to take a break from the TV stuff, go two better, and do a top five. On this day, it is Heavy Rain.

So far, I’ve raved over a game where you ride a Cyclops while fighting a living mountain, and one where you can take a break from fighting space wasps to get it on with an alien babe. I have no illusions, they are not subtle affairs. Games tend not to traffic in subtle. There’s a school of thought that says they can’t, and are best served as a detached assemblage of mechanics with no narrative pretensions. “The princess is in another castle” should be enough, shouldn’t it? I hope that school of thought doesn’t win in the end, and Heavy Rain gives me hope it won’t.
            Heavy Rain is a challenging, daring affair that defies easy classification so strongly, the question “Is this a real game, you know?” became an obnoxious cliché. There weren’t systems in the conventional sense to learn, instead there are scripted sequences with prompts to use every capacity the controller has to vaguely replicate whatever action is happening on screen—sometimes including such feats as brushing teeth and setting a table. It splits narrative between 4 controllable characters, each investigating the case of a serial killer from a different perspective—personal, professional, mercenary, and inquisitive. Should any of those characters die, the game goes on without them.
            As a result, Heavy Rain was the most intense experience I had all year. By keeping the story grounded, the characters mundane sorts, the atmosphere visceral, the game sold tension and fear better than any other I’ve yet played. Heavy Rain asked me to do ugly, harrowing things in pursuit of the Origami Killer, and each one drew me further into its bleak world. The small details and moments demand attention and thought, which is another aspect of the game I adored—it’s a game for readers. The story is, yes, above-average thriller stuff, but the way the pieces can tumble into place reveal a vast range of thematic possibilities. In my playthrough, authority was empty and inept, leaving the civilians to overcome their weaknesses to save the day, which they did. Someone else might have played the opposite, where the police are the only ones capable of preventing the unspeakable. Maybe someone else had everyone working perfectly in concert, maybe someone else suffered total defeat by a cruel universe that gives the worst beasts of man’s nature free reign. To see that requires attention to details, to see how small actions in the previous scene inform the present scene. What sort of father do you make Ethan be, and how does that reflect on his actions later? These aren’t the sorts of things game people expect to have to deal with. That Heavy Rain expects them to gives me hope.
            Oh, and the music is pretty sweet, too.
Quasi-Celebrity Appearance: I can't say, most of the actors are very obscure and French.
Purest Moment: When the controller flew out of my hand as I tried to steer an out-of-control car, forcing me to scramble to retrieve it from my floor, shouting "Shit! Shit! SHIT!", before I died.

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