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.