Heavy Rain is an interesting beast. I think Michael Abbott succinctly sums up my difficulty with it from an emotional standpoint. It was a game to which I felt connected, but not in the ways the game desired from me. Yes, I was tense, but felt so because of how the cutscenes were presented, and due to the anticipation of the QTEs. With that caveat aside, I wanted to look at one of the central themes of the narrative and how it affected me, and what it says about the world they were trying to write and the one they managed to present. Heavy, heavy spoilers ahead.
Ethan Mars loses his son Jason. Jason gets lost in a mall, Ethan chases him, and then, when Jason crosses the street to reunite with his father, a car comes tunneling toward him; Ethan jumps in front of him, shielding him, but still losing his child and ending up in a coma for six months.
The loss of Jason is perhaps supposed to be a traumatic event that is supposed to evoke sympathy, but the game is pulling a diversionary tactic. In the early scenes, Jason’s brother Shaun plays second fiddle to Jason’s birthday party, yet at the scene where the family sits down at the table, Ethan is tasked with finding out where Shaun has disappeared. He is upstairs, crying over a bird that has died, which sets up rather dense foreshadowing when Ethan instructs him that these things happen, and life isn’t fair.
As it stands, there was not much chance to create an emotional attachment to Jason, who sets up the emotional impact we are supposed to feel for Ethan due to the threat of losing both his sons. As an aside, Ethan’s running around the mall is not aided by the voice acting, which sounds stilted and very poorly edited every time he shouts out, “Jason!” While the pace is frenetic, the camera frantic, and the scenes somewhat blurred as you push through the crowd to find the red balloon you bought Jason, there simply wasn’t enough of a connect or time spent in making me care about the child at stake.
Contrast that with Shaun, who becomes the primary focus of the game. Our next meeting with him shows him as a sullen kid who just wants to watch television and be left alone. You can follow a schedule: give him a snack, get him to do his homework, et cetera. Mundane tasks, and he won’t open up to you, until you get him to bed. Here is where the trick starts happening.
Most of the characters are never fully lifelike, but in a comparative analysis, what we are given with Shaun is both more time and a chance to see his life. The empathy I felt for him was over his situation: parents separated, brother had died, and he is already seen and labeled as a sensitive child–a particularly negative connotation for a boy, unfortunately. It was how he was perceived that caught my interest. His quiet nature coupled with his desire for his stuffed animal before he goes to bed tell us about what needs he has, despite his withdrawn attitude to Ethan’s queries.
It is when you play with him on the playground that I became hooked to his story. His laughter, his joy in play, his desire to have fun. These were traits that made sense, and the fact that I could aid in them meant something to me. Did they mean something to me as Ethan? No. I felt no particular connection to the avatar I controlled, and while I could see what Quantic Dream had hoped to achieve, it was not pity for him I felt.
The game focuses on fatherhood, but as with Scott himself, I feel it deludes itself in what it seeks to prove about it. I found the story of the young boy and what must have been going through his mind much more interesting. Then again, I have no children.
Therefore, when I wanted to connect with the tale of parents, and I know all too well the tale of the distant/alcoholic father, I found it oddly strange that the mothers in this game were primarily absent. Kramer speaks for his son and protects him, Shelby’s mother’s absence does not seem to affect him so much as that of his connection with his father (and yet all of his primary interests stem from her, another nail in the coffin of how I disconnected from his story), and both Jason and Shaun’s mother seems like a plot device rather than a person who exists as a mother. The mothers who are present are the ones left with the aftermath of their husbands’ needs to prove themselves in increasingly dangerous trials.
In many ways, the game feels like a macho contest of wills between Jayden and Blake, and Ethan and Scott. Which is also why Madison feels like a more interesting, if problematic character–particularly as both she and Shaun are the ones navigating both very much within and outside these spaces. Maybe Heavy Rain does emulate the world entirely too well.