[7 November 2013]
According to a recent interview with VG247, Beyond: Two Souls Writer and Director David Cage very much considers his latest game as a discrete experience from Heavy Rain: “We didn’t try to replicate Heavy Rain, because we would have just done Heavy Rain 2. We really wanted to create an experience that would be different.” The game does diverge in places dramatically from its predecessors. Cage has critical reasons to separate the two titles. Over the years, Cage has built up a healthy group of naysayers and critics, partially for his overly-optimistic faith in “more pixels” and partially for his heavy reliance on cinematic design choices in his games.
However, we do the game a disservice by thinking of Beyond independently from Heavy Rain. What can appear arbitrary or strange in Beyond is better understood as a response to or evolution of ideas implemented in Heavy Rain. As a companion piece, it is easier to appreciate Beyond as an improvement for Cage and an evolution in his body of work, contentious though it may be.
In one of Heavy Rain’s Saw-like challenges, Ethan, one of the game’s four protagonists, weaves his way through live electrical wires. As Ethan bends his body and holds it in strange positions to slip through the gaps in the line, the game asks you you hold down a series of seemingly arbitrary buttons, each corresponding with Ethan’s careful movement. The result is an act of hand gymnastics as you stretch your fingers across your controller without letting the others slip from their position. It’s a silly but admirable attempt at abstraction in hopes of evoking some relationship between your awkwardly placed fingers and Ethan’s desperate acrobatics.
These feats of dexterity still appear in Beyond: Two Souls, but far more rarely and in a very much simplified form. Jodie, the game’s lead character, can climb walls or jump off ledges by following certain button prompts or the occasional controller shake, but most of the time, actions are determined by simple directional movement of the right stick. Jodie rarely attempts such complex maneuvers as Ethan’s. Instead, the emphasis on directional movement seems an attempt to divorce the experience from the physical presence of the buttons in a way that Heavy Rain failed to do. Cage is streamlining the interactive process in Beyond to emphasize his devotion to the cinematic, clearing away some previously clunky components.
The evolution of the action scenes between the two games highlight Cage’s design process in particular. In one scene in Heavy Rain, the game’s detective chases a suspect through a store. In the chaos, you are asked to shake the controller to toss a chicken, and then, in response to a huge button prompt, press left to pursue your target. The sequence, visually, is outlandish and recalls the “Press X to Jason” meme that earned the strange relationship between interaction and narration so much attention.
Action in Beyond: Two Souls, while occasionally just as ridiculous as its predecessor, more generally uses visual cues in animation to convey mechanical intent. If an enemy is swinging a punch at Jodie, the game triggers slow motion and, without any on-screen prompt, asks you to move the right thumb stick in the direction that the character moves. Press right as Jodie tries to block an attack. If you’re too slow or move in the wrong direction, the block fails. As a result of this visual movement based system, you become hyper aware of Jodie’s physical form and flow. Cage’s attempt to tie the play experience to the action on screen is greatly improved in his latest attempt. That being said, it has the side effect of drawing your attention away from the events on screen and towards Jodie’s movement alone.
These design decisions may have come from Cage’s intent to focus on one primary character in Beyond. Aiden, Jodie’s spiritual companion, is very much a secondary character and actually behaves far more like the player’s avatar within the fictional world than as a discrete persona. Aiden interacts magically and maneuvers through the environment like any other in-game camera. Since Jodie can see through his eyes (although he doesn’t really have any), the way she interacts with the world through Aiden is the same way we as players interact with the world through Aiden. Again, Cage bonds players closer to the game’s protagonist through the narrative environment that equates Jodie’s experience with our own. Considering some of the sloppier first-person scenes in Heavy Rain, Cage has come far closer to his player-protagonist ideal in his latest attempt.
The actual narrative in which these protagonists find themselves in has improved more slowly unfortunately. At its worst, the writing in Heavy Rain is nonsensical and sophomoric. Likewise, Beyond: Two Souls features some painfully awkward chapters. The romantic meanderings through the story, particularly the Navajo section of the game, feel completely out of place, and the motivations for some of the primary characters, especially Nathan, feel rushed and poorly implemented.
That being said, Cage rightly chose to abandon the multiple characters and protagonist mortality angle from Heavy Rain. Jodie carries the game and therefore is not as easily dispatched as, say, Madison. Cage and his team at Quantic Dream still maintain Heavy Rain’s efforts at offering diverse perspectives and environments by hopping around Jodie’s life in small vignettes. Instead of using a variety of characters, they use a variety of Jodies in essence.
Despite Cage’s best efforts, the game’s conclusion still comes off as messy. Erik Kain from Forbes is right to call the disjointed story a “parlor trick”, a failed attempt to hide poor storytelling. But even so, it is an act of deception meant to address Cage’s known weaknesses. Whereas Heavy Rain’s conclusion was frankly an outrageous mess, by moving around various points in Jodie’s life, Cage attempts to establish proper motivation for his characters before pivotal story beats. Something he failed to his earlier attempt. In light of Heavy Rain, the decision to break the story apart at least makes sense, whether or not you consider it a success.
While David Cage has only released two widely played games, he has become a contentious spokesperson in the games industry, as though he claims to have found the solution to all of the industry’s problems. Playing Beyond with his other work in mind though, Cage seems more like he’s making all this up as he goes along. Beyond: Two Souls is far from perfect, but it is a concerted effort by a games auteur to improve his own work and come closer to some personal vision. As Cage says of his own writing over the years, “it’s been a very interesting process.” As such, considering Beyond as anything but another stop in this process, another ongoing attempt by David Cage to grow as a director, undermines the value the game and the designer offer to player. Beyond may not be a critical darling, but as a cultural artifact, it stands out as progression amid so many other triple-A titles that feel mostly like iterations of the same design repeated over and over again.