Heavy Rain is like a painting best viewed from a distance. I could run with the emotions of the moment, as though it all made perfect sense. Once you analyse the details it's clearly full of holes and falls apart.
I will certainly stand up for Heavy Rain's potential and vision. But there is something more than just that. I'm an easy target emotionally, but it wasn't just sensitive people like me who were affected. I watched friends trying desperately to overcome a stressful situation. They were caught up in the moment just as strongly as I was. There's a power to that, however easy it may be to pick on the game's flaws.
There are many flaws I can't defend, and wouldn't try. But something I believe helped my Heavy Rain experience immensely was not interpreting everything literally. It's (mostly) a real world setting, yes, but I find it's more concerned with painting an emotional picture than a logical one.
For example, consider the scene early in the game, where Ethan loses his son Jason in a shopping centre.
The shopping centre is not a situation you can control. It's leading to an inevitable conclusion, as part of setting up the game. That's always a bit disappointing to play through, knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do to change the outcome, but I at least prefer it to sitting through a cut scene.
Once we realise Jason is missing, suddenly the shopping centre crowds become ridiculously overwhelming, and pushing through them is difficult. Everyone seems to be carrying a red balloon like Jason was, causing us to rush around all over the place. It's not realistic in a literal sense. Where did all these people come from, and why are they so determined to get in my way?
I didn't interpret it that way. Instead, I considered it a representation of just how stressful it feels to lose your child. It forced me to feel that panic along with Ethan. It also reminded me a bit of how overwhelmed I sometimes feel in crowds, so I made a connection there.
Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) both have several scenes dealing with forms of irrational or over-the-top anxiety. Those are really challenging ideas to get across, so I have to give them some points even for attempting it.
In Fahrenheit a couple of scenes focus on managing claustrophobia through carefully controlling the speed and regularity of the character's breathing.
I can only speak for myself here, but I connect this sort of thing to the (thankfully rare) occasions when I've had a full blown panic attack. It's overwhelming, and so out-of-control I can't see any way down. The stress just keeps rising, until it honestly feels like I might die, or at least pass out. I wouldn't wish the feeling on anyone.
In the midst of that panic there is still a logical part of my brain that knows exactly what's happening and tries to find a solution. At that point it doesn't really seem like it's doing any good, and it takes a while for the feedback loops to settle. Breathing control is probably the most obvious thing I can try. It's a huge effort to exert control and slow things down when everything is determined to speed up, rush out of control, and break me. It can take a long time, but eventually my control will always win.
Game controls can't really replicate that experience, and I doubt anyone would want them to. But I've still been impressed by what Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain have achieved in this area. Clicking buttons to keep a character's breathing slow and regular was at least partly like the logical part of my brain trying to exert control and convince me I could calm down if I'd just damn well focus.
I don't have claustrophobia, but when controlling Carla Valenti I'll accept that in that moment I do, and I need to be the logical part of her brain and help her through it. It's not actually much of a stretch for my imagination. Even my real life experiences of controlling panic feel a little abstract, like I'm looking at myself from the outside.
In controlling Ethan Mars in Heavy Rain I signed up for a different kind of panic. The game openly focuses on the question of how far I would go to save someone I love. I decided early on I'd run with it and do absolutely whatever it took. I accepted a desperate, unstable Ethan. His actions don't have the rationality of a stable individual.
In deciding I'd be prepared to do anything without limit I embraced a descent into serious mental illness. Some later game scenes are more clearly symbolic rather than literal, allowing us to understand some of Ethan's desperation and loss of control. I did accept the challenges he went through as actually happening, but there is plenty of room for his mind to exaggerate. Crawling through a tunnel of broken glass probably feels much longer than it actually is.
I can't think of many other examples of games going to a lot of effort to represent anxiety and panic. There is also the Haunting Ground approach of a sanity or panic meter. If Fiona gets too scared the player loses some control over her. Vision blurs, menu access is impossible, and she'll try to run. With limited control the player needs to try and keep her out of danger until she calms down.
Haunting Ground freaked me out before it had a chance to really panic Fiona, so I haven't experienced this. I'd like to try again at some point. I'm sure other games must have taken this approach, but I can't think of any off the top of my head.
Having some personal experience dealing with panic probably helps me connect with these games. I do have to wonder how well it works for others though. What do you think?