One of the most brilliant things about Heavy Rain is the game's insistence that you live out the lives of its characters. This is not an intense, dramatic game at every passing moment -- Quantic Dream's breath-taking project is much more than that. Heavy Rain puts you in the shoes of its cast and let's you live every moment of it... even the moments in-between.
Here at Gamescom 2009, located in the heart of Cologne, writer and director of Heavy Rain, David Cage, revealed the final two characters in the main cast of four: Detective Scott Shelby and Ethan Mars. I wrote about my introduction to Detective Shelby earlier in the show, but I knew little about Ethan besides what Cage mentioned during Sony's press conference. I had the opportunity to sit down with Cage as he walked me through the opening moments of the game, which feature Ethan Mars, two years after a terrible tragedy strikes his family.
You see, Ethan Mars was a successful architect. With a beautiful wife and two healthy children, you could say that Ethan had a perfect life -- or as close to perfect as our lives can get. But one day, while out at the mall with his wife and kids, Ethan's older son Jason gets away from the group and runs onto a nearby road. Before Ethan can dive forward and push Jason out of the way, a car strikes the boy and he's killed. This horrifying scenario was born out of Cage's own frightening experience with his wife and son (where his son was lost in a mall), though fortunately Cage's family didn't have to suffer through the same fate.
The next scene in Heavy Rain takes place two years after Jason's death. Ethan is now a single parent, wearily supporting his surviving son Shaun in a broken-down house. This scene is a perfect example of something that would never normally be playable in a traditional videogame. It starts with Ethan standing outside a dreary school, rain pelting his shoulders as the now scruffy, dark-eyed father waits for Shaun to finish his classes. This scene struck me with its heart-wrenching cinematography and painstaking attention to detail. Seeing Ethan's face in the rain is one of the more powerful images I can remember from my experiences with videogames and for good reason -- Quantic Dream knows how it's done.
After Ethan drives Shaun home, the player is given complete control of the father and is free to do whatever he or she wants. You can move Ethan around the house, interact with a good number of the objects in the extremely realistic home, and choose to either take care of your son or ignore him. There is no set path to take and players can decide (to an extent) how to develop Ethan and Shaun's relationship. During the demonstration, Ethan asked Shaun about school, did the laundry, tossed a ball around in the backyard (in the rain) and then prepared his son's after-school snack and dinner. Yet another fantastic touch is that, when heating up Shaun's pizza in the microwave, Ethan must wait in real-time for the microwave to finish heating the food. All the while, time is steadily passing and the house sinks into a depressing darkness.
The entire scene is filled with an almost agonizing amount of tension and depression; players are immediately plunged into the aftermath of Ethan's life-changing experience and it's really quite profound. My absolute favorite moment of the demonstration was when Ethan makes his way upstairs into his bedroom and away from the nostalgic sound of Shaun's cartoons. While in his bedroom, players can choose to sit down at the edge of the bed, alone, and watch as Ethan folds his hands and remains motionless. You can almost see the sorrow hidden behind his face. The scene is complemented by melancholic music that plays gently in the background, which really drives home the emotional nail.
Yes, interactions in Heavy Rain are mainly simply directional queues and button presses, but players are given control of how they want to approach the scene and everything in the game is done to propel the narrative forward while delivering a nearly unprecedented amount of emotion. For a few moments, I felt like Ethan Mars.
And it hurt.
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