Before I start talking about Heavy Rain, I want to talk about what other people have said about the game. I went to Metacritic and picked out four random reviews fr0m the respective categories of green, yellow, and red; the colors of good-itude, or something like it.
The first review is from Gamepro and it’s the kind of shit that you would expect. Vapid writing that sucks off the game in all ways possible. It also makes the claim that Heavy Rain transcends some kind of user-game barrier of emotion and physicality, which actually made me laugh. The second review is from IGN, which I read as the most “average gamer” website. I feel like whoever reviewed the game didn’t actually play it, though, because the assertion that “everything fuels the plot” is dead wrong. There are several episodes in the game that have little to do with the plot, and they simply function to make the 2D characters even more 2D, despite what IGN’s reviewer says. Those were the “green” reviews that I read.
I could probably stop writing as soon as I link to this review by Destructoid, because I agree with it nearly 100%. The game does some cool things well, but the plotting and gameplay suffers so much from the “vision” of the creators that it ends up being so much crap. This quote sums it up well:
Heavy Rain wishes to be compared to movies, but it is very lucky to be a videogame, a medium where a poor narrative is more readily forgiven. When compared to movies, Heavy Rain not only falls short, but is almost embarrassingly sub-par. Hell, compared to some of the leading narratives in videogames, Heavy Rain is below expectations. Less demanding players may be tricked into thinking the game is telling a brilliant story simply because it’s not telling the kind of story that gamers are used to seeing, but make no mistake: its naive conclusions and impossibly weak characters would get Heavy Rain laughed out of any serious film festival.
That review was a yellow one. The red one, by Gamecritics, is probably more positive than the Destructoid one, so I feel like Metacritic lied to me.
I’m not going to summarize plot. You can read the four reviews that I just posted for that. I have two specific problems with the game: narrative and depictions of minorities. I think that the Destructoid review covers the ground of the former fairly well, so I think that I’ll talk about the latter for the bulk of this post.
The creative engine for Heavy Rain is entirely, if I’m reading correctly, male. There isn’t a single female listed on the IMDB page for the game, and that makes a lot of sense to me. My girlfriend and I played the game side-by-side, watching the narrative play out in that movie-esque way, and we were both bothered by the way that women are depicted.
Sure, I get it, the main female character, Madison Paige, is attractive. She’s a “serious journalist” who works for a newspaper that gets mentioned once in the game. Fine. That’s what I like to call “paper-thin writing,” but it’s not like that’s any different from the rest of the game. I’ll even accept that she’s the kind of sexy, ass-shakes-while-she-walks kind of girl. I’ll even accept that she has her ass looked at by several male characters on-screen. My real problem is that she fulfills female functions in the narrative, and that’s the only reason that she is there. She’s there as a stereotype, and I don’t like that at all.
She plays nurse to Ethan Mars, the main character, in a very literal way. She fixes his wounds when he gets back from various trials, and at one point she’s even there to help him “let off some steam” in one of the most awkward and plot-pointless (interactive) sex scenes that I have ever seen. She’s capture twice in the narrative by psychopaths, one of which attempts to force a power drill into her vagina. She whores out her body in one scene in order to extract information. Among all of this, I can predict the response of 90% of the “gaming community,” whatever that means.
“This is a psychological thriller narrative, she gets stereotyped, so what?”
The problem is that we absorb information via stories. We learn acceptable behavior from the media that we consume. We live in a rape culture that crafts stories that subjugate, stereotype, and commit violence against women.
Let’s look at the women of Heavy Rain one more time, with specific deference to the violence that happens to them. Beside Ethan’s wife, a character with no impact on the plot, the first woman in the game is a prostitute that you have to save from an abusive John. The second is Paige, who is assaulted and killed in a dream sequence at the beginning of the game (unrelated to the plot). The third is a woman who commits suicide. The fourth is the mother of the Origami Killer, an elderly woman with Alzheimers that feels like she failed her children.
That’s it. There are only four women featured in the plot of the game, and something horrible happens to all of them. While I’m not going to play a numbers game of violence of victimization, I think agency needs to be talked about.
There are two facets to it: player-controlled agency and the agency of the game world. The player pushes the narrative of Heavy Rain along, diverting it along different rivulets that all lead to the same big river. The player has the option to move laterally a little in the plot, but just like the review said above, you can put the controller down and the game will play itself.
The agency of the game world is something else entirely. The men of the game world have options: Ethan can save his kid if he wants, Scott can investigate how he sees fit, and Jayden can do as he pleases in the police sphere. They all have options in their narrative. The women don’t. They have violence committed against them without temper, and they always end up being saved by the men of the game. The amount of “male comfort” in the game makes me uncomfortable.
African-Americans don’t get off easy, either. There are a total of two Black men in the game (no women). One is a giant criminal strongman who attempts to kill the FBI agent. The other is a story “magical Negro” who lets you play the killer’s story in flashback, one of the shittiest storytelling mechanics I have ever seen.
What did I learn from Heavy Rain? I learned that minorities need to be better-represented in creative positions of game design. I think that games like Heavy Rain reinforce a kind of subtle patriarchy. The main consumers of video games are unequivocally white males, and I think that HR makes them feel safe. The world is, though confused, pretty black-and-white. There are some bad guys and some good guys and everyone plays the role you would expect them to. Black people are there for service, women are there for sex, and everything is hunky-dorey while you listen to Top 40.
I also take back my previous statement. Heavy Rain is not good art, or even close to it.