Video Game Review by Michael Louis Calvillo
As a gamer with 25 years of gaming under my belt, I’m always looking for a fresh experience. From age 10 – on, I’ve played every kind of game under the sun and though there have been plenty of stinkers along the way, I’ve always looked forward to picking up the sticks, dimming the lights, settling in, and starting a new adventure. But lately, for some reason or another, I just can’t seem to get into it. I sit on my couch and stare at my systems and…well…I’m not in the mood. I’d rather veg out or read or write.
A few months back I took advantage of a GameStop sale, purchased two games, got a third one free, and then proceeded to tear through Gearbox’s BORDERLANDS (which was pretty cool and will get reviewed soon). Then I started the next title, played through about half of it, then lost interest and let it go. The half complete game (EA’s disgusting, but fun, DANTE’S INFERNO) and the as yet un-played title (Rockstar’s RED DEAD REDEMPTION) are currently gathering dust.
So, what gives? Am I finally growing up? Am I ready to retire my systems and move on? I hope not. I still read gaming magazines and I still find the industry vastly interesting. I still even feel that little thrum of excitement when I read about some cool future-tech on the horizon. Oh, and regardless of what’s going on inside me, I’ll never give up my Singstar (you’ll have to pry the mic from my cold, dead hand); the PS3 (XBOX 360 with my Rockband library) stays.
Maybe the monotony has finally caught up with me? There are only so many similar games I can trudge through. The aforementioned DANTE’S INFERNO is visually arresting, but it’s yet another GOD OF WAR clone. I played through three volumes of GOD OF WAR and still want more – the storyline and the game mechanic kick mucho butt. DANTE’S INFERNO is a good little sheep. It does what it’s supposed to do and it does it well, but I’ve been there, done that (and done that and done that), and I guess I’m over it. Same with Rockstar’s RED DEAD REDEMPTION. It’s one of the best reviewed games of the year and I’m sure it’s every bit as wonderful as the geeks say, but I’ve played every edition of GRAND THEFT AUTO, and I’m just not too jazzed about sinking another fifty hours of my time into the same old same old.
Okay. Wait. Hang on a sec. To be completely fair, I actually stopped this review, blew the dust off the RED DEAD disc, and put about two hours in. Now that I’m back, I can attest that it’s a beautiful, beautiful game, and I can fully appreciate the artistry that went into it (come on, Roger Ebert! I love you, but you need to do more than concede – you need to wake up!), but in the end it’s GRAND THEFT AUTO with horses. I prefer running down hookers and drug lords with cars to chasing outlaws on horseback (a personal preference, I know), but still, regardless, I’ll keep at it (if I can get myself motivated to do so) and see if it joins its predecessors in burrowing its way under my skin.
Maybe this particular gaming cycle has finally run its course. Consoles generally gives us a good four to six years of entertainment before making way for shiny new systems, but with the current generation’s online capabilities, the holy trinity (Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo) keep issuing firmware updates and developing add-ons (Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move are due in the next few months). They’re trying to squeeze every last dollar out of their aging tech and while this generation’s games are world’s better than the ones that came before it and on and on, it’s definitely time for new consoles and new games that make the current crop look as dated as they are becoming. Come on, you greedy bastards! Let your techies unveil their latest and wow us!
Anyway, right before the Gamestop sale got me down, I played a game that really got me going. Maybe it’s to blame for my funk. It did what a great game is supposed to do – it sucked me in and kept me up long past my bedtime. When I wasn’t playing, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Ladies and germs, my I present…Quantic Dream’s HEAVY RAIN.
Whew, just typing the name I feel a resurgence. I can see a light. Like all forms of media, when things stagnate, it takes an Auteur to work their funky vision and shake up the status quo. HEAVY RAIN’s lead designer, David Cage, has done just that. While system makers milk old tech for all it’s worth and developers keep grafting new skins atop old engines, Cage and Quantic Dream are building the future.
The game first caught my eye way back in 2006 when some demo footage was shown at E3 to tout the power of the PS3. The non-playable demo, called The Casting, featured a virtual actor staring directly into the camera waving a pistol around. The character displays a crazy range of emotions and the footage was pretty compelling, given the games on the market at the time. It looked great, but then, here we are in 2010, and for the most part today’s game graphics are all rarely less than stellar. This generation’s game machines are powerhouses when it comes to rendering visuals and whether you like or dislike the look of a game has more to do with stylistic choice than shoddy design. Games cost way too much to make and the suits aren’t willing to pony up for subpar graphics. Gameplay makes or breaks a title, but visuals sell it.
So, when HEAVY RAIN came out, I wasn’t clamoring to be the first in line. Like The Casting demo, it looked great, but I’m not a big fan of interactive movies. Visions of Sega CD’s NIGHT TRAP or point-and-click adventures like MYST kept me away. I hate games where you just watch then click something or make a decision ala a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. I’d rather just watch a real movie or read a real book and I figured HEAVY RAIN would be more of the same. The reviews (all positive, mind you) warned that it’s not for everyone (after playing, I have to vehemently disagree – I think that ANYONE who gives it a chance will walk away thoroughly impressed).
Okay then, where to start? Cage and his team have crafted an innovative piece of gaming art. HEAVY RAIN is different from anything you’re playing and I’ll even go so far as to say it’s better than anything you’re playing. At its core, it reminds me of Cinematronic’s Don Bluth animated 1983 coin-op, DRAGON’S LAIR. For those of you in the dark, DRAGON’S LAIR was basically a beautifully animated cartoon with branching narrative paths. All a player was tasked with doing was hitting the joystick up, down, right or left (maybe diagonal too, but it’s been a long while since I’ve given it a go) in response to an onscreen prompt. If you hit the stick in time, your hero, Dirk the Daring, passed the level and move on to the next animated clip. If your timing was off or you flubbed the action all together, Dirk would die. It was basically a big memorization exercise, but it was totally worth it, because it was so wonderfully drawn that you had to absolutely see the next scene.
So it goes with HEAVY RAIN. Gameplay is basically DRAGON’S LAIR dragged into the modern era. You walk your character around and talk to other characters and gather clues to a compelling murder mystery, all the while following onscreen prompts and moving your control sticks this way or that or pressing and holding buttons in (sometimes weird) patterns. Cage’s genius here is that in innovating, he hasn’t come up with some convoluted control scheme. I’m a hardcore gamer and like using every button on the controller, but sometimes simple just works better.
Like DRAGON’S LAIR, HEAVY RAIN is less about game and more about story. Ordinarily, I would balk (though I loved DRAGON’s LAIR, its follow up, SPACE ACE, proved it a one trick pony). I like a nice balance of the two (hence my dislike for interactive movies), but the Quantic team gets it right and it all works very, very well. The narrative centers around the Origami Killer, a serial murderer who abducts boys, leaving an origami figure at the scene of the crime. The boys don’t actually turn up dead right away because the killer times his actions with weather patterns, storing his victims in storm drains, allowing the rain to drown them. You take control of four different characters, all tied to the mystery in a different way. The game is structured like a feature film, jumping between the characters and turning the screws for maximum emotional impact.
You spend a lot of time guiding your characters through menial tasks – opening cabinets, cooking breakfast, playing catch with your kid – and at first I was little reticent. Boredom threatened. But hot damn, as it all comes together these small actions actually endeared me to each of my four avatars. The game isn’t about loud, frantic action; instead, it’s filled with quiet moments of characterization that really stay with you. It’s kind of like a video game gone art film.
The central characters – a father desperately trying to save his son, an FBI agent investigating the elusive killer, a reporter with insomnia, and a worn out P.I. trying to crack the case – really get under your skin. I actually came to care about them and when those oh crap moments hit (there are a number of doozies), they hit hard.
I played HEAVY RAIN during my summer break (Teaching rules!) and once I got going I couldn’t stop. I put in about sixteen hours over the course of three days. Though things started off a little slow, the game hooks you with its intriguing premise. About half-way through, I lost one of my characters (I ended up losing three of the four). There’s no “game over” screen, no chance to replay actions. Once a character dies (because you screw up) they’re gone and that’s that. The narrative jumps to one of the surviving characters and carries on. This really screws with you, because more than any video game I’ve ever played, you really do invest yourself emotionally. By the end, I actually felt like crying (I didn’t – I’m sensitive, but not that sensitive). The storyline is dark and haunting and while the credits rolled I sat there a little stunned, kind of like I did after watching David Fincher’ s movie SEVEN for the first time.
So, look, maybe I’m in a funk. The new semester has started and my mind is constantly on teaching and writing and these poor video games are feeling the squeeze. Maybe once I’ve settled in and gotten back to the grind I’ll be ready to tackle more of those familiar brawlers or the sandbox titles that I’ve loved and hated over the years. In the meantime, David Cage and his team have restored my faith. HEAVY RAIN is something special. Buy it now!
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Louis Calvillo