Last night, I started playing the beginning of Heavy Rain. Based on what I’d read about the game so far, what I had expected was a new type of experience in games, one leaning more toward what director David Cage calls “interactive drama.”
What I found was something more intense.
(Mild spoilers for the first 30 minutes of Heavy Rain follow.)
Ethan Mars is one of the four main characters in Heavy Rain, and his story is the first one you’re exposed to. The prologue of the game takes place in a rather ordinary setting. You’re taught how to manipulate the controls in the context of Ethan’s son’s birthday. You wake up, take a shower, get dressed, work a little bit, and play with Ethan’s two sons in his backyard.
A picture is painted—that of a successful architect, with a loving wife and two sons, who lives in suburbia, works out of a studio in his home, helps his wife with the groceries, and has trouble opening a cabinet in the living room. The scene is that of a sunny day. You can take a walk around the yard, look out the front door, and even lay down on the grass and enjoy the moment.
Between this opening scene and the dramatic turn that comes next—the shopping mall scene—the first teases you see of Ethan’s life and that of the game world of Heavy Rain are filled with light and color. The characters may have concerns, but things look generally optimistic and bright.
The moment that closes the prologue changes everything. After a sequence where he tries to find his son in a busy mall (and can’t), Ethan is forced to dive in front of an oncoming car in a desperate attempt to save his son’s life. As the prologue concludes, it is clear that he is unsuccessful. The closing scene is Ethan’s son’s bright red balloon floating into the air while the cries and pleas of his wife are heard over an astonished group of onlookers.
After the credits, you are reintroduced to Ethan two years later. He is unkempt: his hair is a mess, he hasn’t shaved in a while, and he has moved to a broken-down home in the city. His wife is nowhere to be seen. You spend your next moments picking up Ethan’s younger son from school, fixing him dinner, and helping him with his homework, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to be around Ethan—he barely responds when talked to.
And it’s not just the interactions that give you context. The city is a place where a heavy rain falls without pause. The sky is a foreboding grey, rumbles of thunder are heard in the distance, and the color (as you can see in the screen above) has been leeched out of Ethan’s world. It’s clear that either he has given up, or everyone else has given up on him.
It is not often that a game puts before us a protagonist who is so beaten, forlorn, and exasperated. It’s hard for people to associate themselves with a character who appears to be going nowhere. But in this case, in around 30 minutes of “play,” the prologue of Heavy Rain gives you a context for Ethan’s development (or regression, if you want to see it that way). Losing his son changed his life for the worse—as I imagine it might for a great many people.
As a father, this had an astonishing amount of impact. It makes you think. What would your life be like if it were you going through similar circumstances?
It is a refreshing change of pace that a game has triggered these feelings and thoughts. I also know from what I’ve read that things are only going to get worse for Ethan; I’m interested to see how far this experience pushes the bounds of storytelling.