Here comes the rain again

Hang on, weren’t computer games about (male teenage) wish-fulfillment? Weren’t they about pretending to be overly-muscular he-men carrying weapons the size and weight of Texas, or knight templars wielding enchanted swords, or cocky, ersatzIndiana Jones explorers making sexy small talk while exploring dark tombs looking for the Whatsit of Certain Doom?

Instead I’m spending time in front of the telly running after my son, knowing I won’t get to him before something horrible happens. I spend time shaking the controller so that my overweight on-screen avatar shakes his asthma inhaler, then I press right on the analog stick so he actually takes a puff of his medication. And all the while the rain keeps pouring down.

Heavy Rain is a weird game. It’s derivative: the atmosphere is pure Seven, which is nowhere as obvious as when I visit a suspect’s apartment and the man, a religious nutter, has crucifixes hanging from his ceiling like so many Little Trees car air fresheners, and the music sounds like Howard Shore’s B-sides. The characters lack subtlety and their dialogues often clunky. There’s something almost laughable about how hard the game tries to be melancholy, weighty, tragic. And the gameplay feels like a mix between Dragon’s Lair quick-time events (press R1 now not to get knocked out by the prostitute’s choleric john!) and one of those hipster-witty, highly meta indie games mocking the usual epic dick-waving of video games by making you do utterly mundane, pointless things: yes, you can open the fridge, take out a carton of orange juice, shake it (wouldn’t want all the pulp to remain at the bottom of the juice carton!) and take a gulp, but it won’t get you any closer to finding the Origami Killer. In fact, I’m a couple of hours into Heavy Rain and most of the interaction I’m offered is of the juice-carton or asthma-inhaler shaking kind. There are important decisions (do you shoot a suspect? do you foil a robbery?), but they don’t make up the bulk of the game. Is this some weirdo wish-fulfillment for pretentious, self-aware dweebs approaching middle age – an ironic power fantasy for the disillusioned?

The thing is, though, the gameplay, allowing for actions veering between boringly banal and surreally pedantic, works in one important way: it puts you in the role of the character you’re playing in a most effective way. Heavy Rain provides the player with agency that precisely isn’t of the “I am a Jedi!” kind, which is always essentially “I am myself, but I am also invincible! Take that, 3rd grade bully who’s become an Imperial Stormtrooper!”; instead it makes it easier to slip into the skin of depressed father Ethan Mars or asthmatic private investigator Scott Shelby. It’s a bit like acting, where it can be the small actions and gestures, irrelevant to the plot, that make a character come alive – it’s the bits in between the showcase fights and high-tech investigation, between entering a suspect’s apartment and fighting off hooded intruders, that make the player empathise.

I’d hesitate to call Heavy Rain a good game. I’d definitely not want other games to copy its gameplay. But as an experiment in the potential and the limits of agency in gameplay, and in player identification, it’s fascinating. And I want such experimentation to be possible not only in small-scale indie games but also in Triple-A titles. Just like L.A. Noire, Heavy Rain may get quite a few things wrong, but what it gets right it does in ways that few other games have even attempted.