The blockbuster video game veers from action fantasy to realism

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

After years of teaching its fans how to blast space aliens or clear a room -- counterterrorist-style -- one of the video-game industry's latest ambitious titles is trying to push a different set of buttons in players' heads, with an interactive experience closer to "The Silence of the Lambs" than "Doom."

In a stereotypical blockbuster video game, players are motivated to do well mainly so that they can get to the next level and blow up more stuff. In "Heavy Rain," the motivation is a little different. Sure, you want to get to the story's next chapter, but you're also supposed to care about the characters as more than a set of programmed pixels. I have to admit: It worked on me.

An interactive hunt for a serial killer, "Heavy Rain" is a new and brisk-selling game that flouts most of the conventions of its medium by offering a choose-your-own-adventure experience that emphasizes story over action. Yes, there's a gun or two, but pulling the trigger can be the wrong decision. Players will spend far more time thinking than fighting as they try to catch the culprit, who strikes only during bad weather.

Video game creators sometimes worry that their medium is going to end up stuck in a pop culture ghetto. And although "Heavy Rain" isn't perfect, it's been widely hailed as proof that video games can offer something other than the simplistic power-trip fantasies that are prevalent on the shelves at the local electronics store.

Some of the most memorable moments in this title are staged in mundane settings, despite a few action-heavy scenes as the tale hits its third act. Who knew it could be a gut-wrenching experience to chase a distracted kid through a crowded mall? And who ever expected to change a virtual diaper while spending quality time with their PlayStation 3?

The worlds in video games are typically stocked with first-aid kits and ammo, but not this one. In a series of chapters, a cast of characters from a young FBI agent to a tubby private eye to the father of the latest potential victim pursue their separate but interconnected investigations. It's possible to make a wrong step and get these folks killed; unlike in other games, they don't get back up afterward. Likewise, this bleak tale offers a variety of endings, some upbeat and some positively depressing.

Thanks to this consequence-heavy environment, things seem to weigh a little more than they do in the average game. Play "Heavy Rain" and you'll have moments of panic, dread, paranoia and claustrophobia that you won't find in any other video game. This is groundbreaking stuff, no doubt, though there's also a measure of boredom and frustration mixed in there, too.

I swore off the game for a few days to pursue the quicker, reptile-brain thrills offered by other titles, after growing annoyed with "Heavy Rain's" control scheme. In one scene, for example, the kidnapped boy's father, Ethan, has to crawl through a tight tunnel lined with broken glass. He's not really sure the tunnel has an exit, and neither is the player, for that matter. Crawl too quickly and he'll cut his arms. Stay put and his thoughts get jumbled as panic sets in. The player is right there with him, but there's a fresh layer of madness added on when the wonky controls send him wandering down the wrong path, and the game's camera clumsily adds to the confusion by flicking from one perspective to another.

Flaws that are commonplace in other video games are a little more jarring in a title that is so much more ambitious. Virtual characters sometimes walk into invisible walls, staring blankly ahead as they reach the edge of the game's turf. And your virtual colleagues don't mind or pay any notice if you closely invade their personal space -- or if you have your character shout declaratively at the wall, for that matter. At another moment, the game's software froze in a glitch that is nearly unheard of in console video games.

Many action games are described as being on "rails," meaning that you don't have any choice about a character's progress: You're basically taking a thrill ride to one preset destination. "Heavy Rain" does a laudable job of making it feel like the rails are off, though this isn't an entirely open world. A couple of times, I "cheat" and reboot the game console to push for a different outcome, only to find that a scene's end result was preordained.

Overall, the game's story doesn't end up being quite as solid or compelling as some of its cinematic sources, such as "Se7en." Regardless, it's an accomplishment, and gamers will be talking about this title for years to come.

In the end, I save the day -- that's not a spoiler, because your mileage may vary -- but not without losing a couple of the main characters on the way, despite my best efforts. I feel guilty about letting those characters down, and so weird for feeling that way.

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