How Beyond: Two Souls Fails Where Heavy Rain Succeeds
Though not everyone is a fan of Heavy Rain’s characters — there’s the often-irritating FBI agent Norman and the oft-irrational father Ethan — they’re characters who develop over time, and for whom incidents of the past affect who they are in the future. Ethan’s entire struggle is informed by an early moment in the game when his son is killed. Madison is willing to put herself in danger to break stories and be great at her job. Scott Shelby, painfully treated as he is by the game’s “twist,” has those moments of raging against violence enacted against women that codify his character.
To what does Beyond: Two Souls’ Jodie react in any meaningful way? Each of the game’s scenes feels disjointed from the others such that it’s impossible to tell. Are her intimacy problems mid-game born of that painfully obvious near-rape experience in the bar? If so, why doesn’t it affect her later? How does she feel about being a weapon neatly unholstered by the CIA and others at the times and places of their choosing? How does she feel about Aiden coming to her defense and hurting and killing people? How does she feel about killing in general?
There are a number of moments in Beyond that ought to be hugely effectual to Jodie’s character, and yet they just disappear into the ether. In the same bar scene, Jodie uses Aiden to possess her friend, Cole, the lab assistant who has been a constant in her life for about a decade by this point. It’s an incredible violation — she literally takes over his body (or at least, she sanctions that action) and uses him as a puppet and tool. In those moments, Cole is reduced to something completely inhuman by someone he trusts.
That’s a big. Goddamn. Deal. Jumping into someone’s head and driving them around against their will — that’s likely to stick with them. You’d at least think it would make them avoid you at the weird psychic lab Christmas party. Yet Quantic ignores it, and it has no effect on either Cole’s character or Jodie’s. Their relationship is unaffected, and in fact, Cole comes to Jodie’s aid later and risks getting in trouble again.
Change Over Time
What cumulative effect there might be to Jodie’s experiences is lost by Beyond’s idiosyncratic storytelling approach. In an attempt at novelty and perhaps at linking disparate events in Jodie’s life in some meaningful way (Jodie’s memory is breaking down at the end of the game, so ostensibly it might make sense to relive them in an associative way), Beyond’s story is told completely out of order. And that results in us knowing and understanding very little of what makes Jodie who she is.
For instance, early on we see Jodie fleeing armed police without knowing why. Later, we understand that Jodie took on a mission in Somalia and was used to assassinate someone she considered innocent. But that information does nothing to inform what kind of person Jodie is in either scene. We know Jodie is willing to murder a HUGE number of people, specifically police officers who are just doing their jobs. So is Jodie a good person, or not? We don’t ever really know — we only see her reacting in a given moment, and we never know why.
We know a great deal more about the characters of Heavy Rain. Ethan, for instance, is a broken man in the game’s final scene, exhausted and beaten. We know why he does the things he does, for the most part. That the writing is sometimes weak and often sends him off to do stupid things in service to the plot — like wander out toward the police and get gunned down — doesn’t diminish the fact that we at least get him as a character.
The plot in Heavy Rain doesn’t always work in service of the characters or of a strong, logical story, but it does deliver on its attempt at interactive drama much better than Beyond in every comparable way. Quantic Dream may yet have something exciting in its interactive dramas, given the premium the studio places on things like story, performance and character. But the studio can’t just make movies with controllers attached, or expect well-known actors to fill in the gaps where characters are meant to be.
Quantic Dream is searching for the perfect confluence between interactivity and narrative, but as Beyond: Two Souls demonstrates, it still hasn’t found it. The answer isn’t in hiring actors with more accolades or adding more dots to their faces during motion capture — it’s in writing fiction that players want to interact with, and that rewards them for doing so. Heavy Rain at least gets that part right. Hopefully whatever comes after Beyond: Two Souls will remember that lesson, too.