US, August 20, 2008 - Ever since the Casting Call technical demonstration was shown a few years ago, PS3 owners have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to learn more about Heavy Rain, the next mysterious and chilling project from developer Quantic Dream. While we originally didn't have any information on how the game would play or what it would entail, I had the privilege of attending a meeting with David Cage, Writer and Director of Heavy Rain, to learn more about the project and even watch a demonstration of the game in action. Although a great deal of material is still a mystery to me, I have to admit that it was pretty astounding to see what Quantic Dream has been up to.
Cage explained that Quantic Dream is interested in stories that can be played, demonstrating subtle emotions in real-time. He prefaced the demo by stating that Heavy Rain will be an adult/mature emotional thriller with five overriding points involved within the design. First, it will be a story-driven experience that is provided not necessarily through cutscenes but through player action. Second, players' actions will have (serious) consequences. Third, the experience will be emotionally driven and will invoke a dramatic response in the player. Fourth, the story and subject matter are very much adult in nature. Lastly, the game will be broadly accessible to a wide variety of players. The challenge will play out in the player's mind, not on the controller.
Cage also clearly noted that the demo we were going to watch was not going to be part of the proper plot of Heavy Rain. It was a special bonus scene created specifically for the demo and would not play a part in the actual storyline. Cage and his team didn't want to reveal anything about the story just yet, besides the aforementioned themes.
Before the demo began, Cage ended his preface by touching on Quantic Dream's idea of a "bending story." You will have full "control" over the story, but the overall plot will never be changed through interactivity. Cage compared it to a rubber band. Although you can stretch and deform it, it will always be a rubber band. The same holds true for the plot of Heavy Rain.
And then the main menu came onto the screen. The subtitle of the demo was "The Origami Killer."
Cage jokingly said that as unsure as the team was about their game, they're completely confident that they've made the best main menu. Despite the light-hearted nature of this comment, I was inclined to agree, because it really was an incredible menu and teased at the experience to come. A close-up shot on a woman's face dominated its background as she looked frantically around at unseen sights. The detail in her eyes and expressions was truly astonishing. I could even see the moisture in the corner of her eyes and the effect was beyond words. Simple white text sat humbly on the bottom of the screen as haunting piano music trickled through the speakers. I could already tell that we were in for a ride. As the game booted up, Cage commented casually that Heavy Rain will never have to load. Once you've begun, you play through the entire game without a single loading segment.
The demo began with a motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic on a rain-swept highway. The woman driving answered a call on a headset as she rode, talking to a co-worker about a lead she had for tracking down a potential murder suspect. The call was brief and established the fact that this woman, Madison, was gutsy and would be willing to risk her life for this chilling story.
Arriving in a small suburban area, Madison dismounted from her bike and removed her helmet, revealing a beautiful young woman with short cut hair and round, expressive eyes. Taking a few breaths, she prepared to investigate the unassuming house that stood before her in the rain. The suspect was a certain Mr. White, a taxidermist, and numerous missing women could be connected to him if the evidence was solid enough.
Then, the player was in control -- with little indication one could actually begin guiding Madison around freely. The first thing I noticed was the incredible camera system, which changed on occasion to different, highly dramatic angles from a number of atypical locations, like from the house down the street. Cage explained that the first innovation we would see was the way one makes Madison move: with a trigger. Pulling a trigger would cause Madison to walk forward, regardless of her orientation. That way, the constantly shifting camera wouldn't disorient the player when they try to move around with a stick. Rather, the stick is used for rotating Madison's head. She'll walk in the direction she's looking, so movement is done in this manner.
The system looked to be a bit disorienting at first (even the gentleman giving the demo got turned around a few times), but it looked very promising and the potential strengths of this unorthodox mechanic are obvious. All of Madison's animations were virtually perfect, as she moved, reacted and looked around with stunning realism. Even her idle animation outside was awesome -- crossing her legs for warmth and holding her hand out in the rain.
Madison looked around the front of the house and checked the mailbox. This was our first look at how the interaction of this game would take place. Whenever Madison would approach an interactive element, a small directional queue would fade into view on the bottom right corner of the screen. Pushing that direction would coax Madison to do that action. Speed and rhythm counted in these sections. For example, you could open the mailbox very slowly or quickly; even though the segment looked like a cutscene, you were still in control.
From just a few minutes of searching, Madison found women's catalogues in the mail and discarded heels in the garbage. With a note of caution, Madison proceeded up to the front door. Most of the following actions were completely controllable during the demo -- even elements that seemed like they were relegated to cutscenes.
On the front porch, Madison knocked on the door but didn't get a response. The next element of interactivity was revealed here, when a separate queue popped up on the lower left corner of the screen. A set of words were written in a circle around the small icon of a controller. Tilting the controller in the direction of a word or phrase would make Madison speak those words. She called out White's name and yelled hello a few times before walking away. After checking a few more things around the front, Madison headed into the backyard.
Finding that the back window was too high, Madison -- again, using contextual directional inputs and movement controls -- moved a few barrels over to the window in order to make it into the house. Tapping a button repeatedly, she forced the pane open and slid inside.
Looking around, Madison made a few notes into her recorder and worked her way though the home. Again, you can interact with a number of different things, but what you do is completely up to you. Madison slowly walked upstairs and -- after noting the creaking floorboards -- proceeded to explore the upper floor. Then the attractive journalist made a chilling discovery.
Upon entering the bathroom, she discovered a body in the tub, blood coating the porcelain like paint. It was here in the demo that I found Origami Killer to be the most powerful. The emotional response of Madison as she nervously spoke into her recorder was incredible. Seeing her eyes dart around and hearing her charming voice suddenly falter expressed the perfect emotional tone.
The investigation came to a close when Madison arrived at the bedroom. It was filled with the corpses of women, properly stuffed, preserved and positioned around the room in utterly twisted normalcy. After taking a few pictures, Madison prepared to leave. And then (of course) the killer showed up at the home. Once he entered the house, the screen split in two and began to show White's actions on one side and Madison's panicked actions on the other. While White went about his daily routine, you needed to decide how to escape alive. Cage explained that there are a number of different actions you could take, but during the first run-through, Madison tip-toed over the creaky floor, snuck downstairs and made it outside. Jumping onto her motorcycle, and, a few well-executed QTEs later, Madison escaped unscathed.
But that was just one possibility. Cage brought the demo back and showed us that Madison could be discovered by White, she could fight him, or she could even die. Seeing Madison fight the knife-wielding killer was pretty thrilling, because buttons associated with particular items on screen would animate on top of those objects. For example, after being knocked onto the bed, Madison madly clawed for something to defend herself with. As the killer reared back, the camera shook around and you could make out a button prompt stuck to the side of a nearby vase. Hitting it in time would cause Madison to snatch it up and crash it against White's head, buying her more time to escape.
My descriptions can't properly convey how atmospheric and emotional Heavy Rain (Origami Killer) was. This is a game you need to experience yourself. Sure, at its roots it's just an adventure game, but its execution is brilliant so far. Cage ended the demonstration by noting that there will be around sixty scenes like that to play through and no matter what happened, there would never be a game over. Even having a character die, the story would continue on and be influenced by your actions.
Heavy Rain will be exclusive to the PS3 and I can't wait to play it from start to finish. The designers of Quantic Dream might have an emotional masterpiece on their hands.
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