An Improbable Conceit: The Importance of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls

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An Improbable Conceit: The Importance of <i>Heavy Rain</i> and <i>Beyond: Two Souls</i>

Until last month, I had never played Heavy Rain. Old fart that I am, I believed the game launched only a couple years ago. (Turns out, Quantic Dream released the game in 2010—which, to me, still qualifies as “just yesterday”).

I had also, until last month, never played Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s 2013 follow-up to Heavy Rain.

Last month, my husband Ted and I played Beyond: Two Souls together in “Duo Mode”—Ted playing Ellen Page, and I playing her ghost-friend Aiden—in one single sitting. We had a blast.

Since I so enjoyed Beyond: Two Souls, and because I am also a huge fan of “noir,” Ted insisted we play Heavy Rain right away.

Heavy Rain, we did not play in a single sitting. I’ve lost count but, in total, I think I fell asleep seven (!) times. (Every time criminal profiler Norman Jayden appeared onscreen I would immediately fall unconscious, as if by hypnosis. I couldn’t stay awake long enough to even feign interest.)

Yes, Heavy Rain—a critical darling of 2010—put me to sleep, repeatedly. I must be in the minority, here; the original PlayStation 3 release averages a Metacritic metascore of 87, which is pretty damned high. Some might even say… too high. Suspiciously high.

But in all seriousness, those spectacular scores only prove that reviewers-of-six-years-ago were eager for videogames to aspire to new heights and depths, to achieve something greater, something more nuanced than whatever triple-A games had yet accomplished. (Meanwhile, the late film critic Roger Ebert—at his charming best when at his most cantankerous—contended unto the very end that videogames can never be art and, in holding to that assertion, probably did more to evolve the games form than any single game release ever could.)

I’m willing to allow that Heavy Rain is an important game, important for people to see and play—but few games can profess to be “art,” unfortunately. And Heavy Rain is not one of those games.

My catalogue of complaints is interminable. From the very outset, I was startled by how “paper doll” Heavy Rain really looks—how much Quantic Dream’s technology has improved within a few short years, maybe.

Mechanically, too, the game is just so stilted, so awkward. (I now understand what people mean when they joke about “press X to Jason”; during what ought to’ve been a tense sequence in Heavy Rain, I laughed so hard I cried.) Then, later, during a romance scene, I started chuckling about “oh God, what if it’s a series of complicated quicktime events to unhook a bra”—and, seconds later, I stopped chuckling, because that is exactly what the player is made to do.

Heavy Rain’s lead protagonist, Ethan Mars, suffers from agoraphobia, we are told, and he is also given to fits of blackout-panic—presumably brought on by his having inexplicably misplaced not one but both sons. His new best friend Madison Paige suffers from insomnia and night terrors. The aforementioned criminal profiler, FBI agent Norman Jayden, is a closet drug addict who suffers from some futuristic form of DTs. (That Jayden’s drug problems are right out of Jeff Noon’s early-’90s cyberpunk novel Vurt comes as jarring, since there are very few indicators otherwise that Heavy Rain occurs in the dystopian near-future.) Finally, there is Scott Shelby—private eye!—who suffers from… asthma. Hooohhh-kay.

In lieu of fully-realized characters, Heavy Rain cast is a pile of illnesses.

I can appreciate the attempt, however misguided, to give individual protagonists unique moral flaws and failings. It ought to make them seem human and damaged. But flaws are not 1:1 substitutes for actual characterization; meanwhile, illnesses are not analogous to flaws. To be sure, this is all-too-common fiction “shorthand”—the hardboiled hero has a drinking problem, the nervous dame smokes, a Joyce Carol Oates character will compulsively pick at her face—but, in this particular instance, it all falls flat.

Rather than humanizing the leads or making them relatable, shorthand instead only serves to underscore how flimsy these paper characters really are. (This is nearly word-for-word the diatribe I launched into mid-game. I paused the game to show Ted my copy, purchased “used,” of The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, a book that lists human behaviors and personality profiles. It’s a wonderful book; just flipping through it, any reader can feel a story coming together. The book itself opens with an entire first chapter about striving to create a cohesive, consistent, empathetic, believable character. “This is how easy it is!” I yelled at nobody. “Buy a book!”)

In my now-month-old Heavy Rain notes, I have written, in capital letters, “AN IMPROBABLE CONCEIT.”

What did I even mean? Damningly, I have no idea. Did I find it improbable that Madison Paige, a photojournalist for the America Tribune (?), is able to afford a ginormous loft apartment? Was I referring to Paige’s entire scene in the nightclub? Was I referring to Ethan’s suspicious blackouts? Norman Jayden’s VR glove? Was I referring to the whole game?

WAIT. I remember now: The anonymous murderer kills his or her young victims with, spoilers, rain. (Heavy rain, if you will.) So in love was Quantic Dream with their own beautiful, glistening, computer-rendered rain, they elected to make it the murderer’s métier. Good lord.

Then there is the improbability of the city itself. In most noir fiction and cinema, the city gradually reveals itself as the true “main” character: harsh, unfeeling, gray. Heavy Rain tries to tap into that with its own depiction of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, it is not a believable Philadelphia. Instead, it is a benign Big American City, a fangless Anyplace, USA. (Husband Ted, a native Philadelphian, correctly identified the city, actually!—then very quickly recanted, deciding it was nothing like Philadelphia after all. When I told him he’d been right the first time around, he was stunned.)

I missed the last several minutes of Heavy Rain, in fact: When the murderer’s identity was at last revealed I literally roared in anger, then promptly fell asleep—as if my very consciousness were rejecting the game-narrative’s conclusion. I snorted awake ten minutes later, still irate, “What’d I miss?” (Then I went on to lament to Husband Ted that the game should’ve been magnificent, that a complete do-over is impossible.)

Earlier this month, Heavy Rain Remastered arrived on the PlayStation 4. It’s no revelation—few of the game’s original faults are addressed—but, having so recently played the PS3 original, I was shocked by how good the game really does look in high definition. The upconversion doesn’t absolve any earlier misdeeds, no, but the whole thing looks very nice.

This is all my way—admittedly, a rather roundabout way—of recommending Beyond: Two Souls Remastered, which was rereleased late last year.

Perhaps you missed the game the first time around, back in 2013. That’s understandable. The game originally elicited middling scores from critics—unfairly, I would argue.

Where Heavy Rain was a clunker in every conceivable way, Beyond: Two Souls mostly excels. All the elements that ought to have made Heavy Rain magnetic in the first place return; everything that weakened Heavy Rain has either been excised or refined.

Quantic Dream must’ve been very proud of Heavy Rain; Beyond: Two Souls is what happens when a studio is willing to learn, to be self-aware, to kill its own ego. It’s a profound reimagining in terms of design, of UI, of writing and characterization. Technologically, it’s a leap ahead, as well.

The game itself is told in a series of vignettes, explaining in asequential flashbacks the grief and loss each main character has suffered. These characters are believable and sympathetic. Each makes a sort of coherent sense, has actual reason and motivation behind each onscreen quicktime interaction.

Once again set in the near-future, this pulpy supernatural sci-fi has a much stronger sense of place than Heavy Rain did. When the main protagonist, Jodie, does eventually end up in the nameless Big American City, this time the “city” is no static backdrop. Jodie is stranded there, and the city is populated with friend and foe alike. At last the city represents “liminality”—impermanence, transience—and it is a dangerous place. At last, settings are treated as seriously as characters are.

Even Aiden—essentially Jodie’s telekinetic “superpower,” a specter who is never seen or heard—is a fully-formed character, despite his being silent and incorporeal. He (yes, he!) has his own feelings, opinions, and motives. To develop a character with intent, traits, backstory, from literal thin air… it’s ambitious in a way Heavy Rain would not have dared.

An interesting juncture in the game’s story: At one point, the player has the option to trap some teen bullies in a house and then, disturbingly, to set the house on fire—with the teens still inside. Because we were playing in “Duo Mode,” and because I was playing as the ghost called Aiden, the decision fell on me. I locked the teens inside; I set the house on fire. Husband Ted shouted “No! No, Jenn, stop! What are you doing! Stop!” while, simultaneously onscreen, Jodie was shouting, “Aiden! Stop! Please stop, Aiden!”

I wouldn’t stop. I gritted my teeth. “Bullied as a kid,” I muttered to both of them—to Ted and to Jodie—as I exacted my revenge. “No real-world consequences,” I whispered. Let me have this one, please.

As the scene concluded, Ted—my saintly Ted—turned and looked at me in abject horror. I stared back at him.

I defy you to find another game with any similar moment of grim self-analysis.

The game doesn’t always “work,” of course. I would find myself struggling when, at another plot juncture, Beyond: Two Souls attempts to corner the player into ending an ill parent’s life. Having already gone down this path in reality—having long ago become resentful toward any movie or TV show or fiction that might use this unhappy scenario to “further a protagonist”—I found myself, not “triggered” but, instead, insulted by the ham-fistedness of what should’ve been sensitive material. “Perhaps these writers have never lost a parent,” I remarked at the time to my husband. This in-game event was, to me, not a “setpiece,” but an annoyance, an obstacle to playing through the rest of the game.

There are other, similar narrative mistakes, too. The homelessness plot doesn’t always work, for one. It comes off as tone-deaf: The sequence of events is supposed to be illuminating, and the game itself may have good intentions, but these scenes—intended to be “gritty”—smack of class tourism instead.

Mechanically, the game works a whole hell of a lot better than Heavy Rain did. Both protagonists ably move across the screen and, for the most part, will do as the player tells them to do. This time player agency is not an afterthought to the game’s narrative; there is little feeling here of “directing a movie.” Some rooms are almost too alive, too interactive, and the amount of player-choice can feel undirected and dizzying. This time, too, there are real action sequences—on-rails, yes, but much more frightening than in Heavy Rain, and often with higher stakes.

Beyond: Two Souls still has its quirks; this is a Quantic Dream game, after all. In one overly-elaborate scene, Jodie is tasked with making dinner for a guest (or not! Player choice!). Having not yet played Heavy Rain at the time, I turned to my husband and quizzically wondered aloud why the game had suddenly turned into the next generation of Cooking Mama.

Technically, the game astonishes. I’ve never seen anything quite like it—a reaction, I assume, many stunned players must’ve had to Heavy Rain back in 2010.

There is the odd facial animation: Any time Jodie smiles, Ellen Page’s cherubic visage contorts into an inhuman, bared-teeth grimace, as if the dots on her face during motion-capture hadn’t worked correctly and so the animators decided to just “wing it.” (Willem Dafoe, easily one of our greatest living stage actors, fares especially poorly—so poorly that I began to suspect he was too busy with other projects to make it back to the studio for mo-cap “re-takes.”)

And yet, more often than not, there are all these wonderful moments of theatricality where Virtual Actor Ellen Page has the subtlest, shyest reaction—the minutest shadow of a frown crossing her face, a darting back-and-forth of the eyes, a shallow breath—all these incredible glimmers of humanity no videogames animator could ever think to program or reproduce.

And then there are the tears that roll down our lead protagonist’s face. Jodie, badass as she may be, is given to crying jags—inexplicable, until we remember how proud Quantic Dream are of, uhhh, water. Here, it works. The tears ring sincere, authentic, because they look authentic, rolling believably and glittering prettily.

Yes, Beyond: Two Souls ultimately attempts to force its player into choosing the game’s “true” ending. But the game also, refreshingly, lets the player decide which ending is “best”—even when that “best ending” isn’t necessarily what the writers clearly had in mind. (Compare to the episodic Life Is Strange, a game that pretends to track player decisions but ultimately settles on one of very few game endings.)

Am I contending that Beyond: Two Souls is a work of art? Absolutely not. But I would argue that, between this and Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls is the better game.

Beyond: Two Souls is its own little masterpiece. If Heavy Rain is important, then Beyond: Two Souls might be a little bit more important.

Jenn Frank is Paste’s assistant games editor.

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