Immersion: Where Heavy Rain Fails
I love Heavy Rain, I really do. It contains an interesting story with an ever-changing plot line that adapts based on player input. Entire chunks of the story are added or removed based on whether a character lives or dies. The control scheme, while it takes some getting used to, works well to allow the player to make those decisions in a fairly life-like and logical manner. The characters themselves, sans any voice acting faux pas, are deep, memorable and really do a good job of getting you to relate to them throughout the story.
The problem with the game is that it doesn’t meet the standards of giving you the full, immerse experience like the developers expect it to, at least for me. While it gets many things right and what it does get right makes for a very enjoyable experience throughout, it just doesn’t succeed in making me a part of the world. There are good and bad sides to this, as I will explain.
Why doesn’t it immerse me? For a few reasons, the lesser of which are technical. The game has atrocious loading times, especially for taking the better part of half an hour to install a massive amount of data to your PS3’s hard drive. I would assume that would cut loading times drastically. Apparently not. I’d hate to see what the loading times would be if it didn’t have a mandatory install and you could play straight from the disc. My mind gets disconnected from the game every time a load takes more than 10 or 15 seconds, which is quite frequently the case. To keep me immersed, you would have to have a very smooth transition from one chapter to the next. Perhaps my attention span is that of a gnat, but I’m thinking that the load times really shouldn’t be as long as they are.
Another reason the game fails to immerse me isn’t necessarily the fault of the developer, but Heavy Rain is riddled with technical issues, from audio skipping, syncing issues and even corrupt save files. The game locked my entire PS3 up the other night, forcing me to replay a good chunk of the current chapter I was on. Luckily my save file was intact, but replaying that bit just threw off any sense of immersion I would hope to receive.
Those are the two negatives there, but they’re both technical issues, for all intents and purposes. There is a larger issue at hand that is either good or bad, depending on how you look at it. For the sake of immersion into the world of Heavy Rain, however, I’m going to say it’s bad. The problem is that the game focuses too much on the characters and character actions and not enough on making you feel like you’re really there and a part of the world. I can tell I’m going to have a hard time describing what I mean.
I feel the game focuses too much on the individuals and their actions that those things are all the player sees or cares about. You do have segments of the game where you have free control over the character and you get a chance to take in the detail in your surroundings, that isn’t the issue. The issue is that they are either too short or you’re required to have one specific goal and everything – from the character’s thoughts to the NPC dialog – leads you in that direction so, in a psychological way, you feel you can do nothing else.
Let’s take the first night club scene as an example, and I’ll try not to spoil anything major. In this case you’re controlling Madison as she searches for a dude named Paco in the Blue Lagoon night club. You have one major goal here – talk to Paco. To talk to Paco, you have to get his attention and, to get his attention, you have to make Madison sexier than she already is. Every thought she has leads you to the direction of the bathroom – “I have to get Paco’s attention”, “I have to find somewhere to change”, etc. It is almost as if there is an invisible force at work propelling you to go into the bathroom, unbutton her shirt, rip half her skirt off, ruffle up her hair and put her make-up on, even though there is this huge night club to explore. Once that’s done, you immediately want to know how Paco reacts, so you go right around the corner and start dancing for his attention.
The problem here is that the focus is so much on the character and her actions that you tend to actually forget about your surroundings and do just what you’re supposed to do. This lowers my immersion into the world and makes me think that, in some way, this entire experience comes down to a set of actions and reactions to get to the next story point.
In a way, that sounds contradictory – of course that is what you have to do to progress the story. However, other recent games like, say, Mass Effect 2, manage to have similar “trigger points” to progress the story, while giving me the freedom to actually be more immersed in the universe in which I’m playing, so much so that everything in the real world seemed to fade away around me for hours on end. I could explore the environments with no psychological need to move forward every second of the game. I could get to know the people of a planet and how they might live, thus making me feel more involved and deepening my immersion in the world as a whole. In Heavy Rain I’m constantly reminded that all that is required to progress and even enjoy the experience is to move the story directly forward without stopping to smell the roses.
“But Chad,” you wonder, “You’re always talking about how much character development and interaction is key to a deep story and providing a connection to the player in some way.” Yes, I am. Heavy Rain is a special case, I will admit that. In my review of Divinity II I mentioned that many of the characters seem to be in the world just to be there, even some of the main characters and NPCs. They have no feeling of having any idea what is going on, no purpose beyond delivering their lines and being done with you. At the same time, the environments were very well designed and pulled you in. In Heavy Rain it seems to be exactly the opposite – the characters are very well written and designed to the point that the environment itself seems to fade away and not even matter.
This, my friends, is why I don’t feel as immersed in the world of Heavy Rain as I probably should or as much as the developers want me to be. In addition to the technical issues that plague the game and interrupt the pacing, the larger issue at hand is that I don’t feel connected to the world, to the environment, only to the characters and their actions that propel them to the next plot point. Like I mentioned at the outset, I really like the game, it is one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in quite a while, but there is something missing, and for me that is this sense of immersion.