A man chooses…a quicktime slave obeys
“You pick up Armin Shimerman’s performance as Andrew Ryan in BioShock and hold it up to the light. You carefully inspect it for creases, stiffness, and visible seams. Amazed, you put it down again and stand back reverently, because you suddenly realize that you’re in the presence of greatness.”
Two years later…
“You pick up the entire cast’s performance from Heavy Rain and hold it up to the light. Shrieking, you run from the room in horror, because you suddenly realize that it’s worse than you’d feared — it is, in fact, the end of time, and garbage is all that has survived.”
If you liked Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit, stop here. If you liked BioShock, continue from here.
This is the first time I’ve had a game’s presentation ruin the experience for me. Normally, that would be a noteworthy accomplishment, but I guess once you consider that Heavy Rain is not really a game, but an “interactive film noir,” it all makes a kind of murky, poorly acted, badly written sense. Incidentally, this observation is coming from a guy who spent about a hundred hours last summer with Sacred 2: Fallen Angel, so I can say without guile or reservation that piss-poor presentation is generally not a deal-breaker for me.
When presentation is all you’ve got to offer, when your gameplay consists solely of mashing buttons, pushing sticks, and shaking the controller at prescribed times, you’d better be sure that the presentation is polished, buffed, and polished again to rival the sheen on a ferengi bartender’s skull bumps. This includes, but may not be limited to, hiring voice actors who can, you know, fucking act with their voices.
Two of the four major characters in Heavy Rain are voiced by people for whom American English is a second language, and it shows with every stiff, stilted line of dialogue. Since the game is plainly set in Standard Generic City, USA, it would have been nice to have heard more than one or two native voices, which might have introduced a microbe of verisimilitude to the experience. Instead, because of the sophomoric writing and the horrible acting, Heavy Rain feels like an imitation of what someone might expect from an “interactive film noir” (words which, by the way, shall not appear on this blog outside the isolating confinement of quotation marks), with scant attention paid to details of setting and background. If your game is set in the US, even after localization for different countries, you ought to be able to accurately depict such minutiae as the proper number of digits in a phone number.
Look, if you want to make a movie, then make one. If you want to use French or British voice actors, then do so, but for appropriate roles; with all the Americans running around out there, there’s absolutely no reason to have British and French actors speaking with bad American accents and vice-versa. Leon Ockenden, I’m specifically looking at you here, with your portrayal of Norman Jayden. (I’ll see what we can do about Gwenyth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.)
There’s no greater insult to gaming than when developers like Quantic Dream consistently strive for the validation of another medium (film, books, theater, oiled hamster tossing, whatever) by making a game with mechanics as shallow and unsatisfying as those found in Heavy Rain, and then trying to pass it off as some sort of evolution of story presentation. Guess what; take away the wonky controls and the pigeonshit quicktime events, and all you’re left with are various versions of a very good-looking, clumsily written movie, with acting straight out of a high school Our Town audition. My ’66 VW Beetle and its three working cylinders had better timing, for cryin’ out loud.
A game can survive bad presentation as long as its other ducks are squarely aligned and squeaky clean. A game like Sacred 2, for instance, makes up for its laughable presentation with excellent collection and leveling mechanics, along with cramming enough content onto one DVD to keep you busy for hundreds of hours, if you’re determined to see everything the game has to offer. It sports a level cap of 200, which would take several playthroughs in order to achieve.
Even the venerated Deus Ex is guilty of wielding some of the worst acting this side of silent films, especially with regard to its Asian voices and the protagonist, JC Denton. Deus Ex’s saving throw comes in the form of superior gameplay and the fact that the miserable voice acting is bolstered by some of the finest writing — both story and dialogue — that you’ll ever find in a game. Also, Deus Ex is thematically sound without bashing you over the head with its own intentions, as is the case with Gears of Wars’ oft-exhorted theme of “destroyed beauty” and Heavy Rain’s “how far would you go to save someone you love?” Each of these purported themes has been repeated by the developer ad-nauseum, though neither is truly a theme; background, perhaps, for Cliffy B.’s testosterone-fueled shooter, and character motivation for Monsieur De Gruttola’s “interactive film noir,” but neither developer’s statements are themes in the proper sense of the word. Moreover, if you’ve got to state the theme of your work for your audience, over and over and still over again, you’re doing something seriously wrong in your presentation.
Heavy Rain is not a bad game from a technical standpoint. The controls are often frustrating, though perfectly suited to its thoughtful, adventure-game style, and it’s one of the best-looking games that you’ll find on the PS3. Initially, I looked forward to a change of pace from games like Mass Effect 2 and BioShock 2, but Heavy Rain grew so tedious in terms of both gameplay and presentation that it quickly became a chore to play. In order for the story to be the primary motive for playing a game, it must be presented in a fashion that makes it possible for the viewer/player to credibly suspend disbelief, and in Heavy Rain, this simply doesn’t happen — its ham-handed writing and amateur acting provide two insurmountable hurdles between what might have been a great game, and something that’s merely a mediocre interactive…whatever.
Games — along with those who might shell out $60 for someone else’s work — deserve better than this.