Heavy Rain Deeply Flawed?

According to a recent article on MCV the adventure gaming legend Charles Cecil – he whom created the exceptional Broken Sword series – made the following statement in regards to Heavy Rain:

“When I finished it, I still thought it was a work of genius but deeply flawed.”

He was referring to something rather spoiler heavy, so hit the jump for our opinion on his opinions and the opinions we have of the area that he shared his opinions upon.

Last warning, this will be VERY spoiler heavy.

So anyway Cecil was commenting on how he thought that the game was deeply flawed, but in what way?

Well to put it bluntly he didn’t like the reveal of Scott Shelby as the Origami Killer.

In more detail he said:

“Without spoiling anything, you discover something at the end that’s incredibly important about one of the characters you’ve been playing, which creates an incredible disconnect between the audience and the character – and I think that is deeply, deeply flawed.

“It would have worked in a film, it’s a great film technique but it should never have been brought over to games, and David and his team should have probably seen that. But I do think it’s a brilliant game.”

Now obviously he was writing publicly and didn’t name Shelby, but here’s the thing. I have to totally agree with his sentiments on this matter. I make no attempt to hide the fact that I adore Heavy Rain, and will easily rank it in my top 25 gaming experiences of all time, but the reveal of the killer is something that I found incredibly jarring from the overall effect the game had.

See from the off-set the game sets up to suggest that Ethan Mars *could* be the killer, and this works as we are immersed in the character and when he has blackouts he awakens with Origami in his hand/pocket. This is a big hint towards the character being a killer, and no other playable character is seemingly capable/motivated enough to kill. Obviously this misdirection – which incidentally David Cage himself states that there is no actual reason for, merely a McGuffin to create intrigue – is explainable in the overall context of the piece, but the game allows you to try to prove Ethan’s innocence, all the time actually – and quite unknowingly – covering up Shelby’s guilt.

When the pieces start to fit together – my first realisation of Shelby as the killer came when the club owner was murdered, and even then it was only confirmed when I went into the ARI at the station and looked at the watch – it makes sense, but suddenly I felt detached from what I felt was my personal favourite character. I had been spending a lot of time investigating the killings as the Private Detective, genuinely wanting to help the people involved in the tangled web of the Origami Killings, when in actuality I had been manipulated by Shelby in the same way other characters were. Now this is the point that I have contention with, as I see Heavy Rain as a game whereby you are immersed in the characters, a press of the L2 button gives us a chance to hear our ‘thoughts’ and yet at no point was Shelby seen to be thinking of anything to do with the case. Now this could have been explained away if he genuinely felt that he was doing good, but I don’t think that is the case here, evidenced by the fact that the visit to the Typewriter shop is nothing more than an evidence removal mission after it is pointed out to Shelby that the typewriter used to print the letters which were sent to the victim’s fathers may have been unique. We as a player are duped into thinking that this may be the key to the case, but instead we are duped by both the game and Scott.

Personally I would have preferred to have known that Shelby was the Origami Killer from the outset, and then have the option of testing Ethan, while removing evidence. This way it could have given us a chance to really control the events, when instead we are in control of everything but the main focus of the game itself, which is why I think that I have to agree when Cecil states that it would have worked perfectly within a film, which is true. The fact that a character that we are asked to immerse ourselves in could have salient pieces of information withheld from us as a player is key to the ‘flaw’ of the game, as instead we are given the false impression that Ethan Mars himself may have something to hide, which is covered by the amnesia, trauma and blackouts. This is a far more interesting plot arc throughout the game and yet because of the information we didn’t have early on in the game it feels too convenient for the plot holes to be left gaping, while this other, unknown quantity is seemingly there instead.

Of course it is easy to pick holes in any game, and I don’t want anyone thinking that this makes Heavy Rain anything less than a modern masterwork, but I do think that it is one filmic quality that just doesn’t sit right with the rest of the game. Had it been any other title, than I dare say it wouldn’t even garner a mention, but in the context of such immersive personalities it seems off.

Similarly it seems that Cage always intended for Shelby to be the unknown quantity, as he explains in this Joystiq interview:

This is something I really enjoyed in the writing. It was to make sure that every single thing of Shelby had these double meanings, and that if you don’t know he’s the killer, it’s fine, it makes sense. But if you know, it takes another meaning. I really enjoyed that and think it worked most of the time and, in fact, when you play it, you discover that in one of his first scenes, when he goes to Hassan’s shop, one of his choices in the dialogue can be, “I also lost someone I loved,” when he’s talking to Hassan. And, in fact, this is the key to the story, because he’s talking about his brother and this is why he killed everybody.

So, there are clues here and there that you may notice or not, but once you know, definitely there are different hints that weren’t there. So it’s not coming out of the blue, like, “Oh my god why is he the killer?” There are reasons and if you play again, there are different things that give you clues about this. But, at the same time, very few people discovered he is the killer before we reveal it in the game. That was really a pleasure, because when you work on something that is a whodunnit kind of mystery, if people know after half an hour — “Oh, of course I knew it was him” — then you’ve lost. But here, everybody loves Scott Shelby.

See he seemed to want a murder mystery, but I can’t get past the fact that it is a murder mystery where not only are you controlling a character who thinks he ‘may’ be the Origami Killer, but at the same time you are also controlling Shelby who is the Origami Killer, and you have no control over that at all. Similarly the end sequences of the game remove Shelby from your control once his identity is revealed, which I think is almost a shame.

It should also be noted that Writer/Designer Emily Short felt similar upon completion of the game:

I felt the strongest interest in Scott Shelby, who from the outset conveyed more personality than the others. Ethan, Madison, and Jayden all struck me as more or less blank slates. We get very little information about any of them other than their weaknesses, at the outset: we learn about Madison’s insomnia and fear, Norman’s addiction, Ethan’s family tragedy, but little about their strengths, their likes, their social networks. (Possessing a magic evidence-finding glove does not count as a personality note.) Shelby alone gives much evidence of having pre-existing friends.

Then there was the acting and visualization. Shelby’s body language and face expressed a patient world-weariness, and his willingness to keep fighting in the face of his own handicaps — asthma, weight, age, world-weariness — made me sympathize with the guy.

The interactivity supports that view. Shelby gets a more nuanced range of choices than the other characters. Where Ethan faces purely contrived serial-killer challenges and Madison has to puzzle over such doozies as “should I administer first aid to this severely wounded man?”, Shelby gets to negotiate his way through a tense hold-up situation, empathize with grieving parents, patch up a suicidal woman and look after her baby.

Though a few of his options are a bit plot-contrived (do you give the life-saving pills to the man who suddenly has a convenient heart attack?), for the most part they seem plausible. I replayed the sinking-car scene until he succeeded in rescuing Lauren (a wrong guess about the controls had me save only Shelby the first time around) because it seemed inconceivable to me that this character, the character I’d developed in tandem with the game’s authors, would ever leave a woman to drown.

He even gets the most expressive range of body-language actions, with scenes in which he can lean indifferently against a wall or sit sympathetically next to his interlocutor. Those options are sometimes open to other characters as well, but are most systematically implemented for Shelby.

Shelby, in other words, is the most humane of the protagonists, and the one for whom I felt my choices were the most genuinely defining. I was okay with the other characters being killed off — even arbitrarily, even senselessly — if my favorite hero remained alive.

If you’ve played the game, you know where this is going. The twist ending, the discovery that Shelby is the Origami Killer — that felt like a betrayal.

Not because it was unexpected, not because I’d been successfully gulled into caring about Shelby — I could live with that, and movies play those tricks all the time — but because that twist negated the meaning of every truly interesting choice I’d made in the game up to that point. All that time I thought I was at least getting to craft one character, I was being played.

There are ways to make that work. I’ve played games before where it turned out that the protagonist was not the hero, or where the player’s agency was much less than it originally appeared. But it doesn’t work in Heavy Rain, where so much of the story and gameplay are built around the concept that choices do matter.

If the rumours of DLC giving more of a back-story to how Shelby went from boy who plays on construction sites to child-murderer and parent-torturer are true then this will in some ways give us a chance to play with that knowledge in place, and I am pretty sure that it will be all the more satisfying for it.

On my second play-through I must admit that I found it suddenly very difficult to play as Shelby and be as considerate as my first play through had allowed me to be. Instead I walked away from the apartment when Troy turns up, and felt no pangs of guilt, because at heart I knew I was the killer, and I knew that as a mother, Lauren was a prostitute, and clearly Shelby had selected her son for these reasons. There would be no interest to my ‘murderer Shelby’ in making her life any better when her husband had failed to save her son. This instantly changed the way I play the game, and I would like to say it was for the better in some instances, as I knew the intentions I could be more calculated, more efficient. In short, with the knowledge of Shelby’s true identity the game did not lose anything, instead it made me more focused upon trying to understand his motivations, beyond the testing of parental responsibility.

Either way, the game went out with the decision made to hide the truth and I respect that, the game was not my creating, and if I were to jump on my high-horse I should also instantly condemn Avatar for having the plot from Ferngully, but it was the experience I felt at the theatre that made Avatar the great movie experience, and Heavy Rain should shine on the rest of its qualities, of which there are many. I just feel that what Cecil pointed out simply amplified my original feelings, but it won’t be stopping me playing through again, nor will it deter me from recommending the game to everyone I know.

Edit: It appears that while writing this article Charles Cecil also commented upon the original article to clarify his feelings, all of which I think we got correct in our understanding, but is presented for your information purposes below:

“I regret any sense of negativity that has been portrayed – I thought that Heavy Rain was a masterpiece, and would have been very proud to have written it! My frustration was with (what I consider to be) those flaws that stopped it being even better. The withholding of privileged information (information that the protagonist knows, but the audience doesn’t) needs to be handled particularly carefully in a game because of the associational relationship that a player has with the character that they control. In a film the use of privileged information is a valuable tool to create tension – in a game it risks creating a disconnect between the player and the character if the player would have done things differently, had they known that information – because, effectively, the player/character behaves illogically. (*spoiler warning*) To me, the withholding of such critical information about Shelby, even though I was controlling him, was a flaw. Furthermore, while I was to excited that Ethan, unbeknown to himself, may have kidnapped Sean in a schizophrenic state, this powerful setup never had a payoff (at least not for me). The fact that this game has created such debate is testament to its importance as a piece of interactive fiction. Once again, congratulations to David Cage and the team at Quantic Dreams.”

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One thought on “Heavy Rain Deeply Flawed?

  1. great piece there, i do agree with you on how the game ended as it didn’t have much of an impact on me as much as the rest of the game

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