Some months ago, there was a bit of a to-do in the video gaming world, with the release of Heavy Rain. It was hailed as a heretofore unseen level of artistry in video games, a brave and radical experiment in interactive narrative, the second coming of sliced bread, et cetera. Even I, a dilettante gamer at best, heard about all this and thought, hey, cool, next time I have sixty bucks I'll pick it up.
Video game critics got a bit hot under the collar in re: Heavy Rain, but I noticed one common theme in a lot of the reviews—the thing they were all praising it for was, essentially, not being a video game. This is puzzling, to say the least; when was the last time you read a movie review sucking some movie's dick for not seeming like a movie? If a thing bears scant resemblance to the thing it is, is it that thing? Or, in less opaque/stoned terms, doesn't a video game that's not really a video game, ipso facto, suck?
I decided to take time out of my busy schedule of stalking Gina Gershon and quixotically attempting to impute philosophical depth to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to investigate this thorny question. Not having the money to shell out to buy the game—and not necessarily wanting to piss away sixty bucks on something that one of my critic icons said this about—I borrowed the game from my good friend and frequent collaborator Gyda Arber and got to work.
Now, the reason I'm writing about this game on a movie blog is because, as every critic in the fucking universe pointed out at the time, Heavy Rain really is more like a movie than a video game. Its plot—a serial killer is terrorizing an unnamed city (“shot” in Philadelphia), leaving behind origami animals, and ONLY ONE MAN (actually four: a really unlucky father, a grizzled private eye, a cracked-out FBI agent with some cool gadgets, and a sexy girl reporter) CAN STOP THE MADNESS—is just a smidge too hackneyed for any movie made after about 1995, but it has echoes of a lot of those movies (Se7en, for one, but I have to admit the one it really reminded me of was the one where Keanu plays a serial killer and James Spader has to catch him; an ex-girlfriend made me watch it and got pissed that I spent the whole picture giggling at how bad it was).
Where Heavy Rain rises above the tawdry retardation of its source material is in its execution. The visuals are stunning: the motion-capture acting is genuinely expressive and affecting, the environments are rendered meticulously, with exquisite attention to detail, and the “framing” of the “shots” is such that Robert Richardson, Chris Doyle, Emmanuel Lubezki, et al would nod approvingly. The way the expository cut scenes are “shot” and edited make you feel like you're watching a good movie, and the action scenes (where you, as the player, press buttons when prompted to get your character to do things like dodge bullets, smash lamps over bad guys' heads, kick dudes in the balls, etc) are edited like it's a movie. A really good movie.
But technique is only half the battle. It helps to be crazy, to have balls, to be a little pretentious . . . yes, my dear friends and loyal readers, it helps to be French. You might not guess from his name, but the game's writer/director David Cage is French. And oh my does it show. After the opening scene, it's literally raining for the entire rest of the game (“Puisque la pluie symbolise l'humeur des caractères, et est une métaphore pour les horreurs ils confrontent”), there's a whole bunch of gratuitous nudity (“Puisque seulement un Américain voudrait porter des vêtements toute l'heure”), and there's a particular way the French worship fucktarded American movies (“Puisque ce qui est assez bon pour Godard et Truffaut devrait être assez bon pour n'importe quel Français raisonnable”) that no one else could ever—or would ever want to—pull off. This is why France rules. They're not that great at soccer (this year) or war, but boy is their idea of a good American movie gloriously weird.
That's how the single stupidest cliché in cinema, the serial killer, is elevated from crippling handicap (seriously, there are a total of two good movies ever made about serial killers: Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en. That's it, end of debate. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a good movie but it's in a different category, title notwithstanding) to, amazingly, an asset. Because David Cage is French. The spin on stuff—the forensic procedural part of the plot with the FBI agent has him collecting fingerprints and DNA and shit, but doing so with a futuristic pair of sunglasses that gives him a Terminator-style computer readout of the info, for example—makes otherwise stale material fresh.
Another (not exclusively, although they do this quite well) French asset in Heavy Rain is that a lot of the dramatic elements are carried to extremes only a nation of largely atheist Catholic intellectuals could imagine. The main character, Ethan Mars (note also, weird nomenclature with an utterly non sequitur reference to a Howard Hawks movie) is, at the beginning of the game, a happily married architect with two cheerful, rambunctious sons. Before you even figure out how the controls work, however, Ethan loses one of his sons in a crowded mall and then watches as he's hit by a car and killed. Cut to montage of rainfall, urban squalor, grim-faced people with rain on their faces, over the credits. Two years later, Ethan is divorced, unshaven, depressed, late picking his surviving son up from school. Ethan's also going to a shrink and experiencing weird blackouts, during which he has no idea what he's doing. During one of these blackouts, his surviving son disappears. Could it be the “Origami Killer”?
We're then introduced to asthmatic, low-rent private investigator Scott Shelby (modeled after and voiced by the guy who played the cop in the Clive Owen/Vincent Cassel disappointment Derailed) and FBI profiler/possessor of awesome gadgets Norman Jayden, who is (barely) hiding an addiction to fictional drug Triptocane, aptly named in that its effects seem to split the difference between LSD and cocaine. Here be more Frenchness: layered characters, even if those layers are fucking stupid.
As Scott, you go around collecting evidence on behalf (you claim) of the victims' families. As Norman, you collect evidence, butt heads with the local PD (whose lone avatars are a violent, rule-averse sociopathic prick and a preening political lizard captain) and every five minutes or so have to wade through withdrawal-induced hallucinations where you have to decide whether or not to get high.
A ways into the narrative, for no apparent reason, Madison Paige, an extremely attractive female character, is introduced (more Frenchness: they do love ze byootifal wooman) who, two seconds after you gain control of her, you can actually have her go take a shower, where you can actually get her naked, and where she stays and luxuriates for quite some time.
Her purpose in the grand scheme of things remains mysterious almost until the end, where she's revealed to be an investigative journalist. This does nothing to make her seem less redundant or dispel any of those “Is she only in this game to show tit . . .?” questions you inevitably ask yourself, but she is extremely attractive. She's curvy in a way that's kind of a naturalistic version of an anime fetish object (this is, after all a video game, and a video game designed by French people), is very pretty, and in the lowest blow of all, she has short hair and rides a motorcycle, leaving me in the awkward position of being like, “No, she absolutely belongs in this game! She's not superfluous at all! In fact, Madison's boards are my favorite boards in the game, and it's not even because of the gratuitous nudity!” and leaving myself open to the customary facepalms and accusations of pubic cognition that trail me everywhere I go.
Ethan is given a series of increasingly brutal tasks by the Origami Killer to demonstrate how far he'll go to save his son (who is being held in a storm drain; with all the rain, he'll drown in a couple days if Ethan fucks up), and each time he passes the test, he gets more of the address where his son is being held, so if you pass with full marks you get the complete address. Since these tasks are so brutal (in one, Ethan has to crawl on his hands and knees through broken glass and then navigate a labyrinth of live high voltage electrical wires; in another he has to chop off one of his own fingers, Yakuza-style) Ethan is pretty fucked up afterward, leaving Madison, who just happens to have checked into the same motel as Ethan because she has some kind of insomnia that only lets her sleep in motels (which is so fucking stupid I'm almost impressed), to nurse him to health, bandage his wounds, develop a crush on him, and eventually, as Ice-T so poignantly phrased it, get butt naked and fuck. If you choose to.
That's another much-hyped aspect to Heavy Rain, the ability to affect the narrative by making choices. Like, you can decide as Scott to intervene when the convenience store where you're buying your asthma inhaler gets robbed. You can decide, as Norman, to get high or not (though if you get high every time you have a chance, as I of course did the first time through, you OD before solving the case), you can decide to keep your clothes on or not as Madison, and you can decide whether or not to chop your finger off as Ethan. Among many many other choices. Generally, though, the choices are between “Are you an unobservant, lazy, unscrupulous shithead?” and “Are you aware, alert, and a non-shithead?” except in the case of Madison and her tits, where your choices are “Do you like tits?” and “Wait, what the fuck is wrong with you, everybody likes tits.”
You can fuck up and get killed as any of the four playable characters. One of them is the Origami Killer. There are all kinds of stupid heavy-handed hints early on that it's Ethan, but since the first rule of whodunits is, it's never the obvious culprit, we know it's not Ethan. Even though Norman is otherworldly and a drug addict, he fights with the killer at one point, so it's not him. And since during that fight, Norman didn't get smacked in the face with a bare tit, the killer isn't Madison. And since Scott is in the other room when the nice old pawnshop geezer gets killed by the Origami Killer, and since a whole bunch of Scott's inner monologues, his own thoughts, with no one else listening in or anything, express surprise at turns the case is taking, it can't be Scott.
Except . . . it is Scott. This is the one narrative flaw that I can't write off to French people being aliens. Playing through the game subsequent to having Scott be unmasked as the killer, you can see how his actions can be interpreted as him gathering up all the evidence that he's the Origami Killer to have it be destroyed. His wild goose chase subplot where he's “convinced” that some zonked rich kid is the Origami Killer comes out of nowhere. Falling for the hooker (whose son he fucking killed) is weird. The montage where you're shown how it is that, in spite of saving babies and showing genuine kindness and stuff, he's the killer kind of reminds me of the episode where Nikki and Paulo were killed on Lost, where there are all these scenes from things that happened seasons 1 and 2 where they were retrofitted into the scenes as if they'd actually been there the first time around. No. They weren't there. It didn't happen like that, just because the writer(s) decided it did.
Oddly enough, I would have been fine with Scott's backstory—having to watch his twin brother die because his father was a putz—if it was what had motivated him to be a PI. Except he isn't really a PI, he's an ex-cop who's a fucking serial killer. Goddammit man.
Still, even the sub-Shyalamanic twist of having Scott be the killer doesn't negate the genuine entertainment to be found in Heavy Rain. And, in spite of what all the critics (and its creator) said, it doesn't fuck up the experience going through a second time. Even though David Cage said, in an interview:
“I would like people to play it once…because that’s life. Life you can only play once...I would like people to have this experience that way. . . I'm fine with [reloading to avoid a bad result], but the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it's going to be your story. It's going to be unique to you. It's really the story you decided to write . . . I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it.”he nonetheless made a game that withstands multiple replays. Maybe this is just where he and I differ. I like exploring all the different possibilities arising from one moral (or otherwise) choice. I tried once through where all the good guys were either dead or in jail and the kid died; that one had an interesting denouement, because I'd forgotten to let the hooker die and she ended up blowing Scott's brains out right before the closing credits.
The disappointment of the killer's identity notwithstanding, Heavy Rain is a massive achievement. Not because it's some kind of revolutionary video game (which it's not), but because it is the single most French thing ever created. It sounds better in theory than it is in reality. It's kind of pretentious. There are tits. It's basically a ten-hour serial killer movie where the audience is, to varying degrees, both star and director, and that's the beret on top of this particular croissant. There is nothing more French than imputing aesthetic and cultural value to the most unaesthetic and culturally devoid movies in America. Not to give CPR to a dead cliché, but Jerry Lewis is a case in point.
It'll be interesting to see if video game developers follow on the path of Heavy Rain, and how much narrative becomes a part of video games, and whether the increasing sophistication of hardware leads to increased sophistication of content. One thing we don't have to speculate about, though: there is a movie adaptation of Heavy Rain in the works, due for release in 2012. It remains to be seen whether something whose cinematic value is largely that it isn't cinema will work as cinema. I'm thinking . . . nuh uh. Or, no, now that I think of it . . . something that post-modern could totally work. In French.