“They want me to brush my teeth,” I gawked, looking at the controller like it had suddenly sprung bristles and minty white paste. “They want me to brush my gorram teeth.”
And in that moment, I realized that Heavy Rain was one of the most brilliant games I'd ever played--And I'd barely gotten two minutes in.
Heavy Rain is a PS3 game that can only be defined as an interactive movie. The plotline follows four POV characters: Ethan, a devoted father recovering from a tragedy; Norman, an FBI profiler with a dark secret; Madison, an investigative journalist suffering from insomnia, and Scott, a middle-aged ex-cop who eats, breathes and sweats badass. The link that binds them together is the Origami Killer, a serial murderer who has chosen his next victim, forcing our heroes to race against time to piece together the truth and save a child's life. Gameplay is handled mostly through a series of quicktime style directions onscreen that match the “movie” events. For example, driving the wrong way down a busy road will force you to weave left and right, using either the analog sticks or by tilting the controller. It's a very unique method of control, and the one that immediately lept out and grabbed me.
There is a huge amount to like in Heavy Rain. The Quicktime fight sequences are intense. The characters are likeable. The story is one of the best I've ever seen in a video game and features both the most heartwrenching intro and the most devastating reveal I've ever experienced in any media... though to be fair, part of its power came from the game mechanics themselves. The gameplay is alternately atmospheric and exciting, and the whole thing is incredibly immersive. I could easily fill a whole article with my waxing lyrical on plot twists, chases, climaxes and fights, but I won't.
Instead, I want to talk about brushing your teeth.
One of the things that really stood out about Heavy Rain is the mundane little details of life, and how the game mechanics themselves draw you into them. You don't watch a cutscene while your hero sticks a toothbrush in his mouth and rubs it around in a vaguely cleansing motion. You MAKE the vaguely cleansing motion yourself. Suddenly there's an immediacy there that most games don't have. There's no little thing your character does that you don't help them with. Not only that, but thanks to the game's unique controls, it ends up being fun. Call me nuts, but shaking your controller up and down while Ethan fights cavities is awesome.
Another cool little detail is how you can pretty much sit in any chair or on any bed in the area, and in some cases lean on them. So what? Well, you can often do this during dialogue cutscenes, allowing you to pose your character however you see fit as the conversation goes on. This little detail really gives the whole thing a cinematic quality as well as a very subtle way of expressing your character's nature. Do you pace while the detective interrogates a suspect? Lean forward and brace yourself on the back of the chair, looking tense and uncomfortable. Or do you sit and relax, looking confident and assured? The game might not change based on what you do, but it still makes the whole thing feel more personal thanks to it being so shockingly mundane.
By far one of the best mundane moments has to come in the first quarter of the game, when Ethan is at the park with his son Shaun. First, you show him how to throw a boomerang by whipping the controller back and forth. Then you jump up and down on the seesaw. Then you push him on the swings. INTENSE EPIC ACTION! Any other game (and a lot of gamers) would find this all ridiculous and kiddy... except when you stop and realize that the scenario you are playing is a father reforging a bond with his son. When I realized that, I almost had to put the controller down for a minute. They took a simple action like pressing a button to push a swing and turned into an emotional and genuine moment. With every motion on the controller, you strengthen the bond between parent and child, to say nothing of the bond between the player and the characters. To have a game that codifies love and redemption in the buttons of a controller is... beyond awesome.
Heavy Rain is not a perfect game. The animations can sometimes be awkward, the voice acting is spotty at best, and occasionally the directions aren't clear and result in you doing something you didn't want. But for all its flaws, it is not only an excellent game but an important game, because it really shows how game mechanics and the controller itself can be used to create deep and genuinely emotional moments far beyond, “shoot bad guy with gun” or “jump on platforms.” This is the game I would give to Roger Ebert and all the naysayers who say that video games cannot ever hope to be narratively or artistically engaging. This is the game I would give to people who say video game writing will always suck compared to movies and books. This is the game I would give to anyone who claims that whatever immersion games offer is nothing more than escapist fantasy.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have some teeth to brush.