Heavy Rain director David Cage has been a busy man here at GamesCom 2009. Not only did he give a keynote address about the current state of games as a viable art form, but he also made an appearance during the Sony press conference to announce a new character in Heavy Rain, the upcoming story-heavy adventure game exclusive to the PlayStation 3. That new character was the focus of a Heavy Rain demo led by Cage earlier today. The character’s name is Ethan Mars, a man who recently lost one of his sons to a tragic death and now finds himself intertwined with the rest of the game’s cast in an effort to make sure the same doesn’t happen to his other son.
Heavy Rain is a very atypical game in the way it focuses heavily on the everyday interactions between characters that you wouldn’t expect to see in video games. You’ll often go for long stretches at a time without anything resembling action or physical threat playing out on the screen. Instead, you'll navigate your way through conversational and behavioral choices that affect the way the rest of the game’s story plays out. In the case of the demo we saw today, Ethan Mars is spending a night at home with his son Shaun with the player given a choice between playing the caring, responsible father or the distant, emotionally detached one.
At one point, Ethan was a perfectly happy guy, with a wife, two sons, and a job as an architect. Now, he’s lost one of his sons, he's no longer married, and he carries all the visible signs of a depressed, detached figure who’s unsure of what to do with his life. His son Shaun has grown fairly independent thanks to having a father like this, but the choice is still yours to continue on like this or not. In this scene, Shaun is on the couch watching cartoons. You can either go off somewhere in the house and do your own thing or strike up a conversation with Shaun about school to see how he’s doing. You can also offer to make Shaun some dinner, which later leads to the choice of whether to make him something healthy like roast chicken or something easy like microwave pizza.
The consequences that stem from your decisions don’t all have the same level of effect. You might choose not to get Shaun a snack when he returns home from school, but the result there is that he simply walks into the kitchen when you’re away and gets his own. Later on when it gets late, you might tell Shaun it’s time for bed and, after he pleads for a little more time, choose whether to insist he listen to you or let him watch TV for a bit more. If you insist, he’ll go to bed angry and stage an angry emotional outburst at you when you go up to say goodnight. If you let him watch TV for a couple more minutes, he’ll be happier with you and try to console your depression when you go up to his room. Or you can do something else entirely and let Shaun fall asleep on the couch after not talking to him at all.
All these decisions play out in a unique interface that feels like a dramatic movie complete with changing camera angles, close shots of characters faces, and split-screen views of characters when they become separated. But on top of that are stark white graphical instructions with options available to you. These include dialogue options that swirl around your character when the moment to say something comes up, as well as analog stick indicators like a box with an up arrow letting you know you can get off the couch by hitting up or another box letting you know you can open the refrigerator door to explore dinner options by hitting left. In some cases, these controls are tied closely to the emotion of a scene, like when you’re given a flashing arrow as you’re closing Shaun’s door after wishing him goodnight. If you quickly jam the stick, you’ll slam the door, which might make you seem angry. But if you gently move the stick, you’ll slowly close the door and appear much gentler.
Later in the story, Shaun goes missing, and his disappearance sets Ethan on a quest to find the Origami Killer--a notorious serial killer making headlines all over the city. The rest of the game’s four main characters are also out to get this killer, and that’s the string that pulls Ethan into the plot that connects all these people and the game as a whole. Cage says that the decisions you make early on in the game in scenes like the ones we’ve just described carry weight well into the story and affect your relationships later on in several different ways. What sort of effects might those be? It’s a bit of a mystery at the moment, but you can expect to find more details leading up to Heavy Rain’s 2010 release.