Interactive Audio Crimes in Heavy Rain

How OCD am I? I refused to fold the piece of card that came with Heavy Rain in to the intended origami figurine because I didn’t want to inflict any creases on it and, instead, recreated it, warts and all, using a blank piece of paper. That’s special :)

I came to Heavy Rain having already decided I wasn’t going to like it. Much of the footage shown over the past couple of years was so incredibly derivative (cinematically speaking – it made no attempt to disguise the potent musk of Fincher, Demme, Hitchcock and Lang) that the project seemed to be proudly shouting “I contain no new ideas whatsoever”. Which would be a hard argument to loose in terms of the story, art direction and soundtrack. However, the way the gameplay in Heavy Rain allows you to interact with its story, characters and environment does offer experiences and feelings not often encountered in a game, which was a pleasant surprise, and it is for this reason that the game is worth checking out.

The audio experience in the game is pretty good overall. Quite a lot has been made of the acting in the game but, frankly, it’s a real mixed bag (which could be optimistically seen as an improvement to the norm, but unless it’s all good we clearly haven’t got our shit together on this front). Interestingly, the interactive conversations have consistently poorer performances than the stuff which just plays out in the scene, which makes sense given how hard it is to stay on target whilst performing branching conversations. I suspect what people have been responding positively to is the facial capture which is pretty impressive, if not particularly new – I love that the actors with speech defects have this accurately reflected in their facial mocap. However, there are several aspects of the presentation of the audio in Heavy Rain which really stood out to me as being not up to scratch. Some of it is understandable and useful as stimulus for discussion, but some of it is just plain disappointing. What follows isn’t meant to be critical of the audio personnel (assuming they are aware of these issues and would have made them better if they had the resources), lord knows I’ve committed plenty worse audio crimes in the past, they’re simply observations and thoughts I had whilst playing the game.

  • The opening shot of the prologue had a dog bark and that first piano chord play on top of each other which I found to be pretty clumsy – the dog bark should have followed after the piano chord. The bark is nice however; it immediately gave the sense of a warm family home before I even new where I was (knowledge of the game’s story from reviews probably helped here, I suppose you rarely come to a game with zero expectations or prior knowledge). Contrasted against the sadness of the score this felt bitter-sweet which is a rather sophisticated feeling “for a game”, especially in the opening seconds. This dog bark thing annoyed me so I restarted the game – turns out it was serendipity and must have been a random stinger or random start point in the ambience track. However, the concept of a rather linear interactive experience being ruined because of a lack of control over the audio is intriguing – we don’t currently have a nice easy way of telling a sound “be random, but not right now please”…

  • Pressing start brings up the good ol’ reliable Start Menu (interesting that the ol’ chap is rarely used to actually start things these days – a good example of why controllers are totally baffling to newcomers to the medium). The menu has a nice “heavy rain falling on a puddle” visual effect, and there is a suitable transition sound to lead you in to the menu. It’s strange then that when you press the select button you are taken to the Controls page (again, why is it called select and never used to select anything? The X button is pretty much always used to start and select stuff on the PlayStation [although in some countries, such as Japan, for cultural reasons you’d be pressing circle]) which, despite having an identical visual effect, has a weedy dry transition sound rather than the lush wet one which scores the Start Menu transition a million times better. Actually, it’s worse than that – the sound which plays on entering the Controls page also plays when entering the Start Menu, it’s just that the start menu has an additional sound thrown on top. Just about every game ever-ever suffers from these kind of messy UI sound issues. That’s because UI code is uniformly a total nightmare spaghetti junction of legacy filth – you often can’t easily add a sound to this mess without having to hack it in in several different places, all of which makes the whole thing even more likely to have problems especially once the code gets tweaked in ignorance of the sound hooks. Gah. My favourite UI audio cock-up is the same sound playing on top of itself – best case scenario is it plays back twice as loud (I love how that is “relatively good”), worst case scenario it plays back all phasey (either because you are adding a bit of random pitch shift or because the sounds get called on consecutive frames). Brilliant. Even the X-Box 360s dashboard menu does this kind of stuff. Gotta love how uniformly slack our UI sound is as an industry (and we’re the experts! Doh!).

  • The game has some really nice foley (e.g. resting your arms on the balcony railings outside your room in the prologue) but it also has some “missing” foley as a result of the mix (your footsteps on the balcony are completely inaudible in the prologue which makes your character feel a bit floaty and fake). I wonder how they’re mixing this stuff – global falloff? That’s fine 90% of the time, but you really need to be able to tweak it on a per-camera basis as each shot has a unique context which may need to be acknowledged in the mix – “far away = quieter” doesn’t really cut it when you’re trying to be cinematic. There’s also some crappy foley at times – the footsteps are incredibly inconsistent, varying between subtle and varied to inappropriately clompy with limited sample sets. There’s a bug in the hall landing of your house (again, in the prologue) whereby the footsteps start nice and subtle, but if you try and go downstairs and come back they change to something else entirely (possibly the “carpeted footstep” or “shoe footsteps” rather than the previous “barefoot footsteps”), but it’s interesting simply because it A/Bs the difference between nice subtle foley and the rubbish overt foley we are used to in games. Every subtle foot movement now has a great sodding clomp sound on it. I took my dude outside where he got attacked by a passing bee or giant invisible hornet – there was no buzzing sound, just the sound of my manic feet clomping away. Brilliant. The worst foley crime in Heavy Rain, however, is the ****ing clapping – whenever anyone claps in this game it is deeply upsetting. Good foley grounds your characters in their world, bad foley only serves to remind you of the artifice of what you are looking at – this is just as true in linear media as in games.

  • The reverb effect applied to the “in your head” VO is inappropriately nasty – really toppy and ear-bleedy.

  • The speed-dependent dynamic interactions aren’t scored effectively with sound. For example, the sliding door in the bedroom does not adapt to the speed that I move it at, there is silence and then a one-shot sound event plays. If I’m moving the door slowly then the result is the sound finishing a second before the door actually closes. Interestingly, there’s a point in the animation where it doesn’t matter what speed you are moving at and the door closes at a set speed – this is the point the sound should have played at. Hell, that was probably the idea, but if your system is based on timing rather than designed to deal with the dynamic interaction you are setting yourself up for a fall when the designers come along and change everything (which you know they’re going to do). Similarly, when shaving, there is a one-shot “shaving” sound that plays irrespective of how long the razor spends in contact with my skin. I appreciate that getting this right is a bit more work, but given the importance of this mechanic to the game I think this is a bit of a let-down.

  • Coming out of the Start menu always results in a momentary loss of audio for a few frames just after the game (and audio) has resumed. This is the kind of stuff you have to put up with when people outside the audio department don’t really care about the audio and they are more focussed on shipping the game than maintaining the quality of the player’s experience. There’s no way they would have shipped the game with a bug that caused the screen to go blank for a few frames after coming out of the Start menu, but for some reason it’s OK for the audio experience to be a bit shonky?

  • A beautiful, sad ending to the first half of the prologue was ruined by an audio fade-out that didn’t finish properly and just got cut off mid-fade. Criminal. All that time and effort gone in to making this scene do its thing, utterly shat on by poor audio presentation (and frustrating for the audio team because this probably isn’t their fault). This didn’t happen again, though I found some of the fades to be a bit fast (linear fades are never going to sound good TBH).

  • This one is the daddy of all crimes – providing only two voice samples for the “shouting the name of someone who is lost” sections which crop up four or five times throughout the game. I don’t care how this came to be, there really is no excuse – it’s a really poor design decision. It makes me properly physically angry, shouty and bitey. And just to tip me over the edge, the same samples are used again later in the game in a totally different context. This could have been nice – reusing the assets may have subtly reminded me of the emotions I was feeling earlier in the game, but that can’t happen when the only emotion I’m feeling and remembering is anger at the game itself.

  • Trophy announcements appearing just at the end of a chapter, the annoying chirpy sound ruining the poise of the moment. To be fair, this afflicts all console games these days, but it’s especially jarring here – there isn’t really a good time for this event anywhere in this game, which begs the question “why bother”?

  • The mix is good 99.9% of the time in Heavy Rain. But occasionally it’s insanely bad, and always at incredibly inappropriate moments. At one point my virtual wife was berating me for being a bad father but I couldn’t hear her because the background walla in the police station of people muttering and writing notes with pencils was louder than the dialogue. I entertained the idea that this was intentional, perhaps my character “wasn’t listening”, but nothing else in the setup of the scene backed this up. Weird. The very last scene in the game was similarly ruined by the fact that the music was louder than the characters talking to each other.

  • One of the most common crimes was the lack of transitions between music cues. You expect this kind of naïve implementation in a LittleBigPlanet level, you do not expect it in a finely crafted cinematic score. The music was always appropriate but the lack of transitions from one piece to another was so incredibly jarring it consistently took me out of the experience.

  • The other consistently annoying thing is the way that if you “fail” one of the quicktime events you have to restart it and put up with audio that is 100% identical. This wasn’t a big deal most of the time for me, but on those handful of occasions where the UI completely fails to communicate exactly what you are meant to do (the infamous cutting off your finger scene being one of the worst culprits) and you are forced to repeat a sequence a dozen times before you work it out, the repetition in the audio becomes incredibly annoying. It’s OK that the animation/mocap is the same each time, I’m too busy focussing on the UI to notice, but it’s really weird and annoying that your character makes the same breathing sound every few seconds – it feels like an unexplained time-warp rather than them/me simply “having another go”.

  • Finally, my favourite crime by far was the sound of an idling car engine playing over the top of David Cage’s screen credit even as said car had pulled away in to the distance. Oh the sweet, sweet irony. To be fair, it’s pretty quiet, but the idea that any film director would let that slip or that any film sound person would even dare to allow such a thing to happen is totally beyond comprehension.