Editors Note – Two things! First, the following are my thoughts on the ending of Heavy Rain. There are MASSIVE SPOILERS that start almost immediately. Stay away if your planning to play the game and haven’t yet. My review of Heavy Rain is spoiler free, and is actually the second thing I want to mention. If your someone who doesn’t care about the spoilers but is not familiar with the story of Heavy Rain, the review gives you a basic outline that will help you greatly in understanding whats below. So check that out first.
Heavy Rain plants the idea of a playable character being the villain very early on. Main character Ethan Mars has blackouts. They start following an incident in which he and one of his two sons are hit by a car, resulting in death for his son and a massive head injury for him. He will sometimes find himself coming too in the middle of a street, holding an origami figure in his hand. The “Origami Killer” whose identity at this point is a mystery, has been kidnapping and eventually drowning young boys.
I don’t need to break out any fancy charts and graphs for you to see where this is going. OMG! ETHAN IS THE KILLER! Of course he isn’t. It’s too obvious. The game, wisely I think, uses this to build drama in the character of Ethan. While we as video game nerds see past this easy solution, it’s understandable we as Ethan can’t. When Ethan’s other son goes missing it enables the game to deliver some powerful scenes of Ethan questioning whether any part of himself, even ones he has no control over, can harm the son he loves so much.
An important part of Heavy Rain lies in the idea of the player becoming the characters. As I discussed in my review, choice plays a huge role. The player’s choices are basically the entire game. The story can branch in totally different directions depending on how you respond to situations. A promotional poster for the game, produced by developer QuanticDream themselves, sums it up nicely: “How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?” The key word in that question is YOU. To help the player feel this way the game goes to far as to have a key mechanic be the ability for the player to press a button to listen to the thoughts of the character they are controlling. The characters voice narrates his or her own inner monologue.
These ideas in the game are established very quickly, within the first two hours of game-play. Sadly, the ending takes these ideas and totally destroys them. When I first finished the game I considered the ending to be mildly annoying somewhat sloppy writing. Now, as I write this a month after finishing the game, I realize that the last chapter of Heavy Rain goes completely against what the preceding hours of action were trying to accomplish.
So, for all of you screaming “WTF WAS THE ENDING ALREADY?!”, a quick summary! Playable character Scott Shelby, retired police officer turned private eye, turns out to be the killer. The time spent directly controlling Shelby has you looking for clues about the Origami Killer and following up on leads, usually by questioning the victims family. In (video game) reality, Scott as a character is revealed to be obsessed much more with the victims parents (in specific, the father) than the actual boys he’s abducting and killing. In posing as a private eye investigating the murders, it gives him access to the families of the victims. The story goes deeper and is more involved than what I’ve given you here, but this is enough information to see the issue I’ve been foreshadowing for a solid three paragraphs now.
There is a specific scene, in which the player controls Scott, that is the root of the entire problem. As Scott, the player goes to visit an old school style print shop. The man who runs the shop is the only guy in town who fixes old typewriters. Scott goes there (with the mother of one of his victims no less, although of course not you as the player or her know he is the killer at the time) because of the discovery that the killer is typing notes he’s leaving for the families on a typewriter. Scott hopes that there are so few people using typewriters anymore that he might be able to dig up some info on the potential killer. As Scott, you question the owner about it, and he remarks that he has records of all his repairs and if you will just give him a minute, he’ll head to his office in the back and retrieve them. Off the old man goes! As Scott you walk around the shop, looking at various knickknacks, until after about one minute Scott thinks, “He’s been back there a while now, I better go check on him.”
So you walk into the back, turn a corner into his office area and…..EGADS! He’s dead! The owner is lying in a heap on the floor, a pool of blood beneath his head, as the sound of rain comes through an ominously open window. The first thing I did was run to the window and look outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fleeing killer. Unsurprisingly, you see nothing.
Of course your saying to yourself “Hold on there Elrood! You just spent two paragraphs before this one explaining that Scott is the killer! Who offed the old guy?” (Actually, you would never say that. There is no way you would ever remember what my dumb internet handle is.) The answer is: You did. Scott. You whacked him right in the head with a big old heavy typewriter. You don’t actually get to see that until the ending of the game. When Scott is finally confronted and called on being the Origami Killer, there is a Sixth Sense style flashback scene in which it clearly shows Scott murdering the old guy.
Thus, Heavy Rain cheats the very system it created. I did not murder that old man. I walked back to his office to check on him and found him dead already! It couldn’t have been me! The first thing I did was look out the window for the killer! Scott being the killer fails that system.
One issue is it makes the buildup of Ethan Mars as an unreliable narrator illegitimate. The game shows that there are periods of time where Ethan cannot account for what he was doing. He doesn’t know and more importantly, the player doesn’t know either. I really tried to focus when I was playing as Ethan because the game made it clear that the only time I could one hundred percent trust him as a narrator and source of information was the time I spent with him directly. Heavy Rain had to go out of its way (such as making it known to the player that Ethan was having blackouts very early on or Ethan’s inner monologue having him question himself on the reliability of his own memories) to present Ethan as an unreliable narrator.
That is a lot of effort in crafting a character. I was ready to have Ethan be doing crazy blackout stuff when I wasn’t controlling him. What I was not ready for was Scott murdering somebody while I was controlling him. Not only was I controlling him at the time but I didn’t even see it happen or more importantly, choose for it to happen. There was no moment where I walked Scott into the old mans office, the camera cut away to something else for a few seconds and I heard a thump and a scream, then cut back. There wasn’t even a moment where I was forced to watch a cut scene in which the murder took place, which still would have been strange given how every other “big moment” of the game had you making a choice of the outcome. As Scott, you literally step into his the office and see the crumpled body. There is no other alternative.
I’m left with a grainy flashback scene in which I see myself commit a murder. That I know I didn’t do. In a game that is about making choices and asking how far you are willing to go, I’m sad that in the end, the game answers for me.