Daddy Complex

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.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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2 Responses to Daddy Complex

  1. Fin says:

    Madison is the only female character I like in this video game so far (I’m about four hours in and there haven’t BEEN a great deal of women in it). The problem with my saying that is that Madison has only been in one scene so far. I was starting to feel like they forgot there were supposed to be four characters.

    As for the voice acting…looped monotonous “Jason” took me out of the experience at the mall. Obviously, the character didn’t care too much that his kid had disappeared, so I stopped making him say anything and looked for the balloon.

    I still think this game is gorgeous and I’m happy I’m playing it, but I think it may be remembered more as an usher to a slew of noir “choose-your-own” games that do a better job of executing the “genre” rather than a really great classic game to play over and over again.

    With that said, I still haven’t finished it and could change my mind.

  2. That’s true about how the game gave players the space to care about Shaun after rushing things with Jason – I hadn’t thought about it that way.

    It was nice of the writers to give that concession to character, because I found that with much of the game (and in that scene, too, to some extent), I had to use my imagination to take things the final 30% from “I see what they’re going for” to “I am emotionally engaged.”

    I’m happy to let my imagination make a game better than it really is, so it wasn’t work that I did begrudgingly. But it’s tough to ignore the fact that the things the game had to say about fatherhood almost always felt undercut by the way it said them.

    I thought that Madison was a bit of a cipher – her motivations for going so far out of her way (even dying!!) for a stranger seemed thin. All she said was “As a girl, when my brothers got hurt, I would play the nurse.” Maybe that was left purposely vague so that players might still suspect her of being the killer?

    A commenter over on Melodico suggested playing the game through with the french language track and english subtitles. He said that helps do away with some of the stiltedness.

    When I do get over my frustration with the last 30 minutes (and I will – it’s easing by the day), I might try that.

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