Wednesday, 26 May 2010

How does Heavy Rain relate to Classic Adventure Games?

With my recent re-playing of several classic Sierra titles, it got me thinking about the charges levelled at Heavy Rain. Talk of it not being a real game, but being an interactive movie.

Firstly, let me qualify this article. Of course, there are many comparisons you could draw between a game like Heavy Rain and traditional Adventure Games. For example, logic puzzles, investigation and dialogue - to name just three. And whilst it is true puzzles exist in Heavy Rain, and the player must investigate clues to lead to a conclusion - these never felt to me like a direct link to early Sierra Adventures, for example. Puzzles are simple and straightforward, not so much taxing as simply a process. And then we have the dialogue - obviously adventure games and dialogue trees go hand-in-hand. But not so with very early Adventure titles - Sierra and Infocom games had little in the way of back and forth conversation. And the dialogue system used in Heavy Rain is a mess - although the difficulty in selecting the phrase you want to speak seems to be a design feature, to ramp up the tension.

When compared to the early Sierra games, and I'm thinking of Space Quest in particular, certain sections of Heavy Rain are very similar in style and pacing. Now, I hear you ask, how can Space Quest and Heavy Rain share the same style? Of course - they are light years apart in terms of graphical and audio presentation. Control method is hugely different also.

I'm talking about the atmosphere and speed of the game, though.

Heavy Rain forces the player to be almost constantly on-edge. You know that there is undoubtedly a time limit on what you are trying to do as the characters around you go on with their lives at their own pace, and you could easily miss your opportunity if you don't hurry up. I'm sure you will agree, this was certainly the feeling you almost always felt when playing Space Quest or Police Quest, for example. In those early parser games, you never really felt safe - there was always a niggling feeling that you should get going and not take too long, or else you might meet a grisly end.

The same rings true in David Cage's latest blockbuster. You will feel ill-at-ease when exploring an empty apartment.
The user feels suspense and even, perhaps, fear, when you know the killer is close. Despite reservations regarding the iffy voice acting and somewhat limited set of interactions in some in-game areas, the game fulfills its promise of a tense gameplay experience that mirrors that of a Hollywood thriller.

One of the finest examples of this tension can be found in the first DLC chapter: The Taxidermist. The chapter is definately too short, with limited interactions again, and character models appear somewhat limited - as this was in fact an early test scene, that was released as a demo long before the game was finished. But where it succeeds is when you find yourself playing as Madison, thrown into the house of a suspect. You quickly become disturbed by the stuffed animals and terrible state of the home. Later discoveries upstairs confirm your fears you have stumbled into the den of a killer. Not to spoil things too much, but soon the players fears that they could be discovered at any time are preyed upon and you are in a race against time to avoid your own horrible end. This is handled flawlessly, and I could really feel my heart-rate rising and my grip on the gamepad tightening.

One of my readers pointed out that this isn't just an Adventure Gaming convention, and that most action games will use this technique. Unfortunately, I feel the truth is that most action games strive to create this atmosphere, but more often than not, cannot achieve it. I hadn't felt that same sense of urgency to work out a logic-based conundrum since my early days playing AGI Adventures. An action game will want to create a sense of panic - but I thin that the feeling of having to solve a puzzle or investigate a lead, whilst under time and mental constraints, is certainly a strong link, harking back to early Sierra products.

In The Taxidermist there are, if I remember correctly, five slightly different resolutions you can explore, and the trial and error style of play you must adopt to accomplish these is reminiscent of early Adventure Games also. Just as where is Space Quest 1, upon finding yourself alone on the spaceship with your shipmates dead, you have no idea where to start, but know you have to start soon, Heavy Rain pushes you also to play like that. You won't find a solution - or at least - the best solution, on your first attempt. As Roger Wilco, you were forced to save early and save often - the Sierra motto. Only this way could you progress in an atmosphere laden with nerves. It is a similar case with Heavy Rain - you have three checkpoints you can restart from, and in this relatively short chapter, these allow you to realise where you went wrong, and return to that point.
Then, in both games, you will re-try a different solution, in the hopes of a safe escape.

As I mentioned before, some scenes seem very sterile - interaction is at a minimum, where actions performed in other similar rooms may not be available and this can cause disappointment when we realise we aren't quite in control of everything that happens, as we were promised by the game's creators. Why can I open one drawer, but another not?
Design choices obviously, but they do limit the scope of a game that lauded full immersion. Voice acting also, as mentioned earlier, grates at times (especially grief-struck mother Lauren), and the twist at the end can come as a disappointment, or a revelation - depending on how you personally accept it. It works, but there are obviously cracks in this major reveal.

These are minor points though in a game where tension is king. The claustrophobic atmosphere and forced pace create an uncomfortable gaming experience, but one that you are unlikely to forget. True, this will undoubtedly put some players off. Others will be entangled in the twisting storyline and shady cast, feeling that the decisions they make in-game are important and will really change the outcome of the case. Fortunately for Heavy Rain, it seems to have paid off, and sales quickly exceeded expectations.

David Cage has created his own sub-genre. It sits between interactive fiction and Adventure Games - taking elements from both, but perhaps it still hasn't perfected the blend, but on the evidence of Heavy Rain, he will get another chance.
Roll on, Fahrenheit 2.