As my few readers may already know, I’m the #1 fan of David Cage and his game studio Quantic Dream, which produced the greatest, wokest game of all time, Detroit: Become Human (posts about it linked here and here). About a month ago I begrudgingly began playing Heavy Rain, considered the studio’s second best/most popular game next to Detroit. The game, like Detroit, boasts a 9/10 ranking on Steam and pretty positive reviews on other sites.
I am a few hours into Heavy Rain and, while I don’t plan on criticizing its story or writing before finishing it, I want to talk about something that slapped me in the face from the very start of the game. THE DESIGN.
Never before have I encountered such a gold mine of shitty game design. I earnestly went into the game hoping to have fun, but every aspect of this game’s design makes it hard for me to even play it. Disclaimer: I am a musical theater major and I’ve never formally learned anything about game design, and these are just my opinions as an avid game player.
The first thing I noticed was that WALKING was especially annoying. In most first or third person games you control your character’s walking with one of the analog sticks on your controller. However, in Heavy Rain, walking is more like driving a car in Grand Theft Auto: you “steer” with the analog stick and hold down a trigger (R2 on the ps4 controller) to Initiate The Walking. I truly don’t understand this choice. It’s not pleasant having to always hold down an extra button when I simply want to move. I don’t see any reason why Quantic Dream made this choice when walking is the same simple mechanic in every other game. It’s irritating when I am suddenly in a scene where I need to start moving under a time limit, and I forget that I need to Activate Walk Mode and hold R2 instead of simply just moving. It may sound like a petty complaint, but I think it’s bad game design to arbitrarily make a common motor function more complicated than necessary. It also doesn’t add anything to the gameplay experience.
2. The Camera
In many third person games, you can control the camera angle with one of the analog sticks on your controller. In Heavy Rain, the camera angle changes automatically like five times in one room, at random times. This messes with your sense of direction, because while the camera angle is switching up every 10 seconds, you’re still controlling your character’s walking (while holding R2 of course) in relation to the previous camera angle. If the camera was previously showing your back, then suddenly switches to showing you from the front as you’re walking, it totally throws you off. In an attempt to be cinematic and engaging, the game only becomes more frustrating, especially during scenes where you’re under pressure to be stealthy or move quickly.
Heavy Rain often requires the player to interact with their surroundings to move the story forward. The screen displays a series of arrows next to objects, pointing in the direction you need to flick the analog stick in order to interact with them.
The problem with these arrows is that they aren’t labelled. This isn’t usually so bad, but sometimes, it’s really unclear what your character is going to do if you follow the arrow. This has the potential to make the gameplay even more excruciatingly slow. For example: you swipe upwards to make character get out of bed. Game plays 10 second cutscene of you getting out of bed. Game displays an arrow pointing down near the bed next to a table. You swipe downwards, thinking you’re going to interact with an object on the table. It turns out you’re making your character get back into bed. Game plays 10 second cutscene of you getting back into bed. You need to swipe up again to get out of bed. Game plays 10 second cutscene of you getting out of bed. This happened to me multiple times and felt like torture.
The dialogue in this game is PURE HELL. AGONY. It nearly makes the game unplayable for me. When your character is speaking to another, you are given up to four dialogue choices that can be triggered using the corresponding button (X, O, square, triangle). However, dialogue options are presented as small text that constantly SWIRLS around your character’s head at speeds ranging from fast to really fast. This makes it difficult for players to even read the choices. Even when there is no sense of urgency in a scene, the dialogue options zoom around like your mind is tense and racing. So something as simple as asking my son whether he wants to ride the swing or the seesaw feels like torture because I need to activate laser focus mode on my eyes and squint at the screen to literally chase down the dialogue choices to be able to read what I’m doing.
There is often a time limit on choosing dialogue, and if you take too long, your character defaults to a bad response. However, there is NO INDICATION anywhere on the screen of whether there is a time limit or not, nor of how much time you have to answer. Even worse, your character is usually under pressure when there’s a time limit, causing the dialogue options to shake erratically and spin faster. The text also gets blurry and fades in and out. Because that’s how thinking works in real life!
The video above shows a scene like this. Your character’s son has just gone missing, and the police ask you to recall the day he disappeared as accurately as possible. Now, this isn’t that difficult of a task. I can remember what color coat my son was wearing no problem. But when you have ten seconds to respond, and you can’t even read the options, it becomes unnecessarily hard. It’s frustrating when a game’s design screws you over, regardless of whether you could correctly perform the task or not. Making the game illegible doesn’t add anything to the gameplay. It doesn’t feel more immersive. It’s just stupid.
I’m not nearly finished with Heavy Rain, and I genuinely went into it hoping to enjoy it and be engaged in the gameplay and laugh at it with my friends. While the bad writing and acting is still funny, the game design so far makes it really painful and slow to play. I’m expecting the story to get more exciting later on, but unfortunately the bare bones design of the game is BS and won’t get better.
I think games with decent design are fair because they clearly communicate to the player what happens when you press a certain button. They use simple controls that make sense and add to the experience. They are not more complicated than they need to be. They are also legible. They are, as many game critics have said, “easy to pick up but hard to master”. I feel like this isn’t too much to ask from a game. Because these simple things are what allow the player to enjoy the experience. It boggles my mind that Heavy Rain couldn’t do this. I expected better from David Cage! (No I didn’t).