How Beyond: Two Souls Fails Where Heavy Rain Succeeds

Warning!: This post contains spoilers for Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. If you’re not familiar with the stories of those games, read on at your own risk.


The latest bout of “interactive fiction” from developer Quantic Dream takes a lot of what that studio has been trying to achieve for years to its natural conclusion. The game includes some phenomenal capture technology and acting from a largely phenomenal cast. Visually, it’s gorgeous, and it often trades in subtlety of performance and human nuance that games rarely achieve. When you watch the characters of Beyond: Two Souls interacting, they really do, quite often, look and act like human beings should. That’s cool.

And yet, despite what seems like an enormous budget and flood of hype surrounding Beyond, it’s simply a failure of a game, especially compared to Quantic Dream’s last outing, Heavy Rain. Opinions may be mixed on Heavy Rain, which itself has many problems, but despite Beyond’s technical leaps forward, Heavy Rain is a superior bit of interactive fiction. For one thing, Heavy Rain has (at least some) character development; for another, it has stakes. Where Beyond: Two Souls is a movie you can’t really alter, Heavy Rain is a stage play where you’re allowed to improvise — and fail.

Panned by many critics (you can read Ross Lincoln’s review here), Beyond struggles with storytelling on a profound level. Its nonlinear nature torpedoes character development at every turn, and it’s filled with non-sequitur scenes that sometimes suggest writer David Cage has never encountered children or isn’t really familiar with how love works. While it’s true that if you don’t like Heavy Rain, you’ll likely hate Beyond on some new and horrific level, Quantic Dream’s earlier attempts at creating its brand of games show that all hope is definitely not lost — provided Quantic manages to stop taking steps in the wrong direction.

Playing the Puppet

All games with any sort of narrative are pretty much foregone conclusions the moment you pick them up. The game is directing you to a certain place, and though you might change how you get there, you’re really only enacting a script written by someone else — even if it’s a complex script with a number of variations you may or may not choose. Games are at their most effective when you can’t see the rails, or when the game is open enough to let you shape your experience from an emotional perspective, even if you can’t really make real changes.

Heavy Rain leaves the player a little room to shape their experience in a number of ways, but probably the biggest is the chance for failure. With four controllable characters available throughout the narrative, Quantic Dream wisely allowed the player to screw up so badly that the protagonists could die — and the game would continue on without them.

That meant that all your quick-time events, your careful explorations of the environments, even your menial showers and shoe-tying and whatever else, could actually be important at some point. Heavy Rain positioned itself in such a way that suggested that everything had significance, even if it was just a little extra time spent with the characters. Information revealed in your investigations might come up later, it might not. Preparations made at the right moment felt as thought they could pay off. There was a premium placed on paying attention, in getting immersed in Heavy Rain’s world — because that world included consequences.

There are no consequences, really, at work in Beyond: Two Souls, and it’s painfully obvious at every turn that how you enact each scene makes absolutely no difference to the flow of the story. If you don’t want to be a petulant child-ghost that tortures people, the game makes you into one, even if you don’t play along with it’s senseless fits of Aiden-rage during moments like The Experiment and The Party. You’re not that character, the game reminds you repeatedly. So why does it bother making you play as that character, if your being there adds nothing to the experience?

Similarly, even though Beyond is packed with heavy action moments, it makes no real difference whether you’re a well-trained ass-kicker or you get the snot beat out of you at every turn. There’s no incentive to complete the game’s interactive portions with any skill. So again, what’s the point of holding a controller if you’re just watching anyway? Heavy Rain had its flaws, but at least it effectively utilized interactivity to draw players into the drama. Beyond: Two Souls feels as if its grudgingly making use of interactivity just because it must.

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6 Comments on How Beyond: Two Souls Fails Where Heavy Rain Succeeds

Syn

On October 24, 2013 at 9:48 pm

I feel like the author of this article stopped playing after about 2 hours into the game. The questions about Jodie’s motivations and character are revealed throughout the game (or, determined by the player’s actions)

This isn’t done through standard exposition, however — so sure, you’ll have lots of questions. It’s a fairly common narrative device called in medias res – or, starting in the middle. And for some people, I guess this might not sit well in an interactive game.

If you’re given a choice to make, you might feel likes you don’t know enough about yourself to choose. But this might be a problem for an amnesiac, which Jodie some what hints at in the prologue (and, of course, the vignette style game progression).

Beyond Two Souls reminds me of a PC point-and-click adventure actually, in many respects: gameplay, style, critical reception.

Personally, I absolutely love it.

Phil Hornshaw

On October 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm

@Syn

Oh, I *got* the story. It wasn’t that the story was told in a disjointed way, it’s that it barely made sense because of it. We were constantly bouncing to new scenes that would establish motivations for old ones, or new set pieces that really didn’t make sense in the larger narrative. Beyond isn’t really a game that’s ABOUT anything, which is the major issue. There’s no arc to Jodie as a character because the game only sets up any useful information about her immediately before it’s relevant, and then forgets about it. We see this all the time — she has trouble forming relationships because kids were mean to her (in the god-awful, nonsensical, super-cliche party scene), and then she doesn’t. She has trouble with intimacy presumably because of the weak bar scene, but then she doesn’t. She is in tune with the spirit world and then it’s never relevant again. She’s unsure about how she feels about being used as a tool and then she uses other people (and Aiden) as tools. She doesn’t want to be a killer and then she kills everyone — and then she says “next time I’ll kill everyone.”

It’s not that Beyond: Two Souls leaves a lot of questions, because it doesn’t. Its problems are not plot holes, they’re just abandoned story threads and arcs that don’t go anywhere. Jodie doesn’t change over the course of the game, she just gets tired and beat up. The choice at the end is barely one because there’s no relevancy to her as a character.

Quantic Dream has done these things better before, is the point. Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy both play with memory in an effective, much more worrisome way. Both games developed characters about whom you come to care, or can at least relate to. How can you relate to Jodie when she’s a killing machine one minute and angry at being used as a killing machine the next, or emotionally unavailable one minute and then propositioning the same guy with apparently no baggage the next? I finished the game and never felt like I *knew* Jodie, because she was constantly different — not changing as a person over time, just being a different person dependent on the situation. And that makes for weak storytelling.

No

On January 10, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Syn’s comment is just…a holocaust of wrong. Intellectually lazy, self-indulgent dogma at its worst.

The story in this game is meaningless. Absolutely, completely meaningless. David Cage needs to stay the hell away from writing in future.

Great Ape Fruit Juice

On January 11, 2014 at 5:37 am

Phil, if anything you’ve been far too kind to Heavy Rain. Most notably, the idea that it has character development. All that really changes is the context and the environment in which the characters operate, but the characters themselves never learn a thing.

Ethan is already a broken man at the beginning of the story, not including the prologue which is too short to really affect anything. You could just as easily begin the game with Jason already dead and it would make no difference since we’re given no time to get to know what the Mars family’s lives were like beforehand or what their characteristics were. All we know is they live in suburbia, Ethan’s an architect, he plays with his sons in the garden and his younger son has a pet budgie that dies. These aren’t character traits, they’re just events and details. We don’t know anything about any of these people except they’re comfortable in life. The one thing we do discover is that Ethan’s older son can’t understand basic commands like “don’t walk away from us,” instead interpreting this as “leaving the shopping mall and cross the road for no reason other than to further the plot in the most transparent way possible.” Since he dies in that scene we never get the chance to find out WHY he’s this stupid at the age of 10, and since Ethan suffers brain damage trying to save him the game basically hits the reset switch on his character anyway so it was entirely pointless. So for all intents and purposes, the story of Heavy Rain begins two years after Jason’s death, and Ethan’s already on the verge of breaking down, trying to come to terms with Jason’s death and also trying to be a good dad to Sean. By the end of the story, regardless of the choices you make – none of which can result in Ethan’s death until the epilogue, even if you TRY to kill him off, so even the idea that failure is a consequence that alters the course of the game is at best selective and at worst a dishonest marketing ploy – Ethan doesn’t appear to have learned anything. His big epiphany at the end, if you get him to save Sean, is that he loves him. Something he clearly already knew anyway since, you know, he’s his father. There’s nothing to suggest that he’s really learned anything from Jason’s death or from his experience, and the only slight change we see in him is during the epilogue where, in the happy endings at least, he’s happy again. That’s not development within the story, that’s just a necessary reaction to his new environment (i.e. not pursuing a serial child murderer any more and I guess the idea is that feeling like he’s saved his second son has made him come to terms with his first son’s death, though this is never really hinted at either except one conversation with Madison where he says he thinks he set up the kidnapping himself as some sort of test because he has blackouts where he wakes up with origami figures in his hand which is never explained…seriously, this writing is all over the place) and a bit of catharsis to end the story. Ethan learns nothing during his trials, he was already willing to risk his life to save his kids as evidenced by him leaping in front of a car to try and save Jason – which is even mentioned during the final mission by the antagonist! So there’s no change, no development, just a series of scenes which happen to have the same protagonist in them.

Madison doesn’t do anything. All we know about her is that she’s a journalist and she can’t sleep well. Again, neither of these are character traits. We don’t know what makes her tick, what turns her on, what intimidates her, what her ultimate motivations are, nothing. The fact that she can die before the end but Ethan and Scott Shelby can’t says it all, she’s not needed. And her sex scene with Ethan just comes out of nowhere and is another example of Cage’s immaturity in trying to look adult by having a mature sex scene that has no basis within the story whatsoever. It’s there for the sake of being there.

Norman…well, there’s not even much to say about him. He’s so clichéd that he could act as a thesis on what NOT to do in fiction writing. He’s the obsessed cop with a vice. He’s a fish out of water, a lone nugget of morality and idealism in an otherwise cynical and corrupt department. We’ve seen this time after time and there’s nothing new or interesting done with his character. Again, Cage mistakes a detail of a character – in this case, Norman’s a drug addict in withdrawal – as a trait. It isn’t, it tells us nothing about him. Not to mention, some of the worst plot holes in the game relate to Norman. The biggest brainfart of the lot is how Norman can sneak Ethan, a suspected murderer who previously had a huge manhunt on him, out of a busy and guarded police department and not have it affect the sequence of events IN ANY WAY. The only thing that changes is that, if you didn’t turn the camera off, his colleague yells at him. A totally binary, arbitrary difference that doesn’t even take place for about ten or fifteen scenes after that, before which his escape isn’t even mentioned by any single character in any single scene. And, like Madison, Norman can die and have it not affect the plot at all – other than to have it mercifully remove a few scenes and shorten the pain – whereas Ethan and Scott MUST make it to the end even if (in the case of Scott) you leave him in a submerged car for over five minutes without touching a button or have him dragged out of a mansion by violent security only to wake up in his office without a scratch on him. Again, Norman is clearly an afterthought and it’s so obvious it’s insulting.

And speaking of Scott, this is the biggest ‘up yours’ to mature storytelling in the entire game. Scott is the only engaging character and the only one who threatens to develop in any meaningful way. He claims to be investigating the serial killings on behalf of the families of the victims, and during the game he meets the parents of some of them as well as starting a semi-romantic relationship with one of the mothers. While he’s already capable of defending himself and others at the beginning, he never looks overly vicious, but when someone tries to murder him and the mother in the aforementioned car sinking scene he goes on a rampage. He’s the only one you feel like you could get to know somewhat and seems to have complexity – he comes across as warm and sincere, wanting to do things the right way, but sometimes having to bear teeth in order to stay in control. Unfortunately, he’s ultimately RUINED by the decision to reveal him as the serial killer, creating so many plot holes in the process as well as showing him up as a totally unreliable narrator and thus the story itself as unreliable. It’s bad enough that the game misleads you by having a scene in which he’s in a typewriter shop and ‘discovers’ the owner’s been killed only to later show that he snuck off and killed him (in a really dumb way that had no certainty of death) while we were focusing on the mother, then had to pretend TO HIMSELF that he didn’t know who did it because the audience needed to be fooled, regardless of how much sense it made. It’s another thing entirely that you can actually listen to his thoughts throughout the game, and they’re all really boring things like “I should check the file on that kid who died” and so forth. If he was really responsible for this, his thoughts would either be calculated ideas on how to disguise his crimes further or, if he was crazy, a jumbled mess of nonsense.

Of course, defenders of this nonsense always say two things – that he’s mental so it doesn’t matter about logic, and/or that they couldn’t have his real thoughts as it would tell us too soon that he was the killer. First, anyone who thinks that just because someone is psychotic or sociopathic that they don’t need any sense behind their actions clearly doesn’t understand either storytelling or the ailments themselves. Just because someone isn’t operating on normal rationale doesn’t mean there’s no reasoning behind what they do, and some of the most interesting and complex characters ever written have been crazy or borderline crazy. Scott isn’t a crazy character, he’s a normal character that, like Ethan, has the reset switch pressed on him to service the plot. It’s not like there were any clues, at least not ones that any reasonable spectator or writer would consider a ‘clue’ (“he was a cop! That’s how he could abduct the kids!” doesn’t count) – the game simply lies to you about who he is. That’s dreadful writing. Second, why even include the option to read peoples’ thoughts if you’re just going to deceive the player as to what’s a real thought and what isn’t? It’s not like any of the other characters have important thoughts anyway, so why have the feature at all? In fact, if you’re going to have this system where you can read the characters’ minds, then just tell us from the start that Shelby is the killer and let us read his psychotic imaginings. That would actually be a lot more interesting. But no, Cage needed to have his big twist, which is now so commonplace that it no longer bucks the trend, it’s close to being the trend.

Heavy Rain is the Crash or Derek of videogames – lazy and clichéd writing that, rather than bother with hard stuff like ‘continuity’ or ‘important character interactions,’ just makes the story as histrionic as it can and hopes you’ll like it because of its idea instead of its content. It’s regressive to the industry as is all of Cage’s work.

LesterK423

On June 3, 2014 at 1:04 am

“Phil Hornshaw said: she has trouble forming relationships because kids were mean to her (in the god-awful, nonsensical, super-cliche party scene), and then she doesn’t. She has trouble with intimacy presumably because of the weak bar scene, but then she doesn’t. She is in tune with the spirit world and then it’s never relevant again. She’s unsure about how she feels about being used as a tool and then she uses other people (and Aiden) as tools. She doesn’t want to be a killer and then she kills everyone — and then she says “next time I’ll kill everyone.”

Yeah sure! It all depends on one’s perception of what one imagines who Jodie is and what she is. I don’t think she has trouble forming relationships, I think she’s a kind-hearted individual who doesn’t particularly liked those specific teens, nor she should like ‘em, they’re trash. If she has trouble with intimacy because of the bar scene, and then “she doesn’t (anymore) later on, it’s because years have gone by and she is strong and overcame these issues. The spirit world is always connected to her life, to anyone’s life, whether they know it or not, whether they had a spirit (like Aiden) in their lives or not and lost him/her. She doesn’t appreciate killing people like Gemaal and Salim’s father by being used as a tool by the C.I.A., but she has no problem killing trash who want to kill her instead of leaving her in peace ? Anyone in their best senses would defend themselves.

I think people who hated Beyond: Two Souls lack intelligence and the ability to understand the character(s) in their own perception. Jodie, Ryan, Nathan, Cole… all of them, they are what you want them to be, in your mind and in your heart. People without intelligence want the script to give it all to them in a silver platter. They don’t want to have to think or feel for themselves, they want everything ready and handed to them. The same people give a 10/10 to G.T.A. V, because G.T.A. V has “amazing” story, and they also give a 10/10 to CoD, because they’re ignorant fools like the Columbine kids who love to “shoot stuff”, because “shooting is cool, we kill people”, and story/plot is meaningless then to these real dumb games.

Ascot

On June 3, 2014 at 3:44 am

Literally everything LesterK423 said is wrong. Literally every single fatuous point he made. He uses conjecture to explain the plot, then has the audacity to claim that those who actually want a coherent story are just unintelligent, the same moronic argument made by defenders of BioWare after the laughably broken ending to Mass Effect 3. Wanting everything explained and wanting some sort of story are not the same thing, deal with it. He also says it’s our fault that we can’t understand the characters, even though Phil and several others have pointed out that the story itself gives us NO REASON to understand them, either because they’re bland and undeveloped or, in the case of Jodie “I’ll kill everyone next time even though I’ve just killed everyone anyway durrr durrr” Holmes, completely contradict themselves in ever scene. And then this idiot shows his complete lack of research and understanding by making a false assumption, that those who hated the game must love Call of Duty and other uninspired franchise games, when this site has done more to break up the media circle-jerk of EA and Activision than any other.

In short, LesterK423 has no valid reasons for enjoying Beyond: Two Souls, let alone crying that someone gave an incredibly concise and far criticism of it. He’s basing his incorrect, uncultured and uneducated words entirely on fallacies and on the same smug, narcissistic desperation to come across as ‘mature’ in a medium often self-conscious about being seen as still being childish. People like LesterK423, and his idol David Cage, are exactly why the medium is going to remain infantile and static, confusing superficial nuance and emotionally manipulative clichés with involving plots and engaging characters, then just kicking the table and spamming the keyboard with aimless whining about how it’s everyone else’s fault that the game doesn’t make sense, because they didn’t MAKE it make sense in their heads.

This is the sort of lazy-minded intellectual incontinence that needs to be eradicated from the games industry if it is to move forward. And if LesterK423 and his hilariously misplaced egotism can’t deal with that, then they can just do exactly what they’re doing now – convince themselves that they’re on a higher plane than the plebs because they made grade-school level things up in their heads to explain away the holes. They won’t be missed by any true gamer or any true lover of literate and story.