For me, Heavy Rain was a botched attempt at real emotional storytelling. It's mindless inane plot, coupled with its abysmally bad voice acting undermined its sensationalist attempts at tugging at heartstrings. However, when I play The Walking Dead: The Game, I can't help but feel like it's essentially just Heavy Rain done right. Okay, that sort of minimises both games, but it's still not far from the truth.
At first glance, both games feature a similar story, with one overall goal: protect the child in your charge. This is both the player and character's motivation, and if those don't match up perfectly, you get a disconnect. Whilst both stories feature everyman protagonists, I never really felt like I was Ethan Mars, or any of the other playable characters. When I played The Walking Dead: The Game on the other hand, I felt like I really was the main character. This isn't because I could relate to him, or that we were a lot alike, though both of those things are true to some extent. No, the reason I could project myself unto Lee Everett and not Ethan Mars was because I cared more about his plight. For the duration of the plot, we had a singular common goal, a shared motivation. Even though the final episode has the same basic premise as Heavy Rain, I was much more invested than I ever was trying to save Shaun. In fact, both episodes have scenes in which the child goes missing, and the protagonist searches for them as they call out their name. One had me genuinely frightened. The other made me laugh at what would eventually become an annoying meme.
Making someone care about fictitious characters is an uphill battle. It doesn't matter that they're children, and that they're innocent. You have to create a very real character for me to believe in. The reader, the audience, the player, the whatever, are there to enjoy the plot you crafted. You have to show them a good time. At no point does the player have any kind of obligation to feel anything for your characters. That's exactly what if felt like with Heavy Rain: an obligation. I was saving Shaun because I had to, not because I wanted to. In both cases, I must save them (or try to, at least) in order for the story to progress, but with Clementine, I wanted to save her. I was so immersed in the story, I forgot there was one. For my brief time with The Walking Dead: The Game, I was the main character, and all I wanted was to keep Clementine safe. Even though the set-up for both games is very much the same, I didn't feel anything for Shaun, because Clementine was an actual character, whereas Shaun was merely a MacGuffin, an object to drive the narrative forward.
Portrayal and Motivation
A big part of this is how each child character is portrayed. Shaun's scene in "Father and Son" is actually a pretty decent portrayal of a depressed child and an estranged father. At least, it was when Shaun wasn't saying anything. Silence can be louder and more profound than any statement. This is especially true when you can't get a proper voice actor. Here's the thing: child actors suck. For every Haley Joel Osment, there's a thousand Jake Lloyds. This is a difficult hurdle in cinema, but not in animation. Even if the writing in The Walking Dead: The Game was as bad as Heavy Rain's, Clementine would still be more bearable, because she's voiced by an actual actress. You know, one who can act? Max Renaudin (Shaun) and Taylor Gasman (Jason) play all four child characters in Heavy Rain, and they're easily the worst out of the entire cast. I'm not exactly a huge fan on France, but their nationality isn't what bothers me. Well, technically it is. Child actors are usually pretty bad; that's obvious. It's hard enough for them to naturally act in their native tongue. Whilst fine actors in their own right, Leon Ockenden and Pascal Langdale couldn't handle faking an American accent. What makes you think a child can do it? The result is utterly disastrous and immersion-breaking. I can't believe anything Max is saying, because he's clearly not able to do an American accent. It's completely unnatural. They needed to hire an actual American for the job, or a better actor.
Clementine is the polar opposite of this. Easily giving the best and most convincing performance of the year, Melissa Hutchison easily won the "Best Performance By a Human Female" VGA award in 2013. Largely in part to the game's stylised graphic novel art style, Melissa Hutchison could slip in and make us believe she was a child in danger, in need of saving. She doesn't have a distracting French accent that makes her sound like a monster. She's a real human being, one who was able to make me weep like a little girl. The only real distraction was that nagging reminder that Clementine is Marty McFly's grandmother.
To be fair, both performances had me in tears. It's just that the ones from Heavy Rain were from laughter.
Writing and Characterisation
No game is perfect, but The Walking Dead: The Game comes pretty close. In terms of writing and plot progression, it's clearly superior to Heavy Rain. Instead of paper thin clichés, the former gave us real people, with believable motivations and actions. Heavy Rain was a story that was clearly trying to hard. It shot for the stars and burnt up in the atmosphere. It wanted to be a masterpiece, but ended up being a mediocre melodrama that would have failed entirely in any other medium. It's only saving grace is that it's a video game, because as a novel or movie, it would have fell flat.
The Waking Dead: The Game on the other hand, takes the story from another medium and showed the world what video games can do. It's a testament to the power of pathos and storytelling. Heavy Rain is a clunky combination of clichés and ham-fisted sensationalism. It desperately wants you to pay attention to it's "emotional" storytelling, but forgets to tell an actual story. It only ever uses "emotion" as a buzzword, whereas The Walking Dead actually delivers. It's subtle, powerful, simple, and sensible. It's delivery is completely natural.
This is most evident in the climax of both games. Both stories feature a mysterious antagonist. The execution for the reveal of the Origami Killer however, is completely botched. No, it's worse than botched. It's just insulting. This twist feels like it's there for its own sake, just because the writer wanted a Shyamalanian twist at the end. Of course, this completely conflicts with the character's motivations and actions. You simply can't have a mechanic that allows you to read the minds of characters and have a playable antagonist without telling us they're the antagonist. There would be nothing wrong if it was revealed early on that Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer. However, instead of dramatic irony, we're stuck with just drama.
With The Walking Dead, we get a much simpler, more realistic reveal. The Stranger is just some guy. He's no one special, just a regular everyman like Lee, trying to get by. His life was torn apart (literally), and he had only himself to blame. He's a walking tragedy turned madman. He's a complete psychopath. Unlike Shelby, his motivations are straightforward, his actions consistent. If The Walking Dead: The Game was written by David Cage, Kenny would have turned out to be the guy who kidnapped Clementine, and you'd still meet him at the climax.
Heavy Rain made me burst into laughter. The Walking Dead: The Game made me burst into tears. The former wanted to move the medium forward, but it was the forgiving nature of a relatively young medium that ended up saving it. The latter however, actually did, because of its subtlety. It wasn't trying hard to be something it's not. It helped bring the adventure game genre back from the dead, and showed everyone the potential of the medium. Therein lies the difference between these two games; one had potential, the other embraced it.
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