David Cage’s creative mind gives birth to another classic
Beyond: Two Souls is a game about a woman who is torn between life and death. She is tethered to a ghost-like entity named Aiden who has been with her since she was born. She both loves and hates Aiden; he’s both her constant companion and the one who stops her from living a normal life. In one sequence, when Jodie is a punky adolescent, she pines about her desire to be like other girls her age, even though her connection to Aiden makes her special. Beyond: Two Souls has a similar problem, it’s torn between emulating the style of other games, and embracing its own nature as something mysterious, beautiful, and even frightening to some.
Beyond openly admits to the player that they only have a limited affect on the narrative.
What’s most distinct about Beyond: Two Souls is its unique narrative style. The story is told in segments from Jodie’s life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. You play these sequences in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth between different points in time. This mode of presentation is both a strength and weakness for Beyond when compared to its Quantic Dream “interactive fiction” predecessors Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain was a tightly paced thriller that thrived on tension, and instilling on the player how profound each choice was, how every action had to be weighed against future consequences. Beyond openly admits to the player that they only have a limited affect on the narrative. You’ll play segments from later in Jodie’s life and know for certain that no matter what you do during the earlier parts, some characters will die, some characters will survive, and her life is largely already written for her. You won’t have to regularly make such consequential decisions as whether to lop off your own finger to save a family member. Beyond is more of a detached experience, and this was initially one of my biggest disappointments when comparing it to Heavy Rain.
Like Heavy Rain, a great deal of Beyond’s action comes in the form of Quick Time Event sections, in the classic Dragon’s Lair “push a button when prompted” style. With the game designers wanting to minimise the game’s interface as much as possible, many QTE segments are based on pushing the right analogue stick in the direction you expect Jodie to punch, block, dodge or perform some other action in. Sometimes, though, this isn’t as intuitive as it sounds, especially when ducking and diving over rocks and trees in a dark forest, or avoiding shadowy, indistinct demons. Still, no matter when I screwed up for lack of clearly defined prompts, I didn’t die once in my entire playthrough. Beyond is a very forgiving game, even on its highest “I play games often” difficulty setting, and there’s very little consequence for failure as in Heavy Rain.
The drama of the constant hectic choices and possible grim outcomes in Heavy Rain are replaced by the desire to piece together Jodie’s life. The segments you’ll play through are linked together in such a way as to gradually reveal more about the mysteries behind Jodie’s origins and her link with Aiden. Many “levels” in Beyond revolve simply around gathering information. There’s potential for teamwork in how Aiden can bring important objects to Jodie’s attention, float through walls to eavesdrop on conversations, and even help Jodie speak with the dead.
Beyond is a more ponderous game than its predecessors, you could even call it slow in parts. This is particularly so in the “Navajo” sequence where Jodie does farm-work and spends long stretches riding across desert plains. The jarring way Beyond switches between flashes of panic and stretches of placidity results in an inconsistent experience, but in this way, it resembles life. Beyond makes no secret of its goal to emulate the erratic tempo of everyday life, and I admire how earnest it is in this goal.
Aiden’s relationship with Jodie is the most interesting part of Beyond from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint. With a simple press of the triangle button, you can see things through his disembodied perspective, and by locking onto a hotspot, you can manipulate the environment in a variety of ways. There’s a sequence where Jodie is preparing for a hastily arranged date with a CIA colleague where, as Jodie, you’re hurriedly choosing which dinner to make, cleaning the apartment and considering if you’ve got enough time to take a quick shower. As a jealous, Aiden though, you can either watch passively or choose to try and ruin the date, smashing up the apartment with your telekenetic powers while Jodie awkwardly tries to make conversation. Aiden is made all the more interesting as a character in how he’s protective and helpful to Jodie, and also
possessive and demanding. He never says a word beyond creepy indecipherable whispers and scrawling things on walls and mirrors. He’s a deeply enigmatic presence who walks a fine line between mischievous and malevolent, and it’s
largely up to you to decide which way he teeters.
There’s points where you can get rather scarily lost in exercising Aiden’s powers. Even the first gentle tutorial of Aiden’s powers can potentially turn into a scene out of The Excorcist. I got carried away experimenting more and more with his abilities, cracking windows, knocking over tables and smashing equipment as a terrified lab assistant tried to run screaming from the room. When a teenage Jodie goes to a birthday party, underaged drinking is not far behind. When she gets betrayed and bullied by her peers she has the option to set Aiden on them. There was particular wicked glee at getting back at the adolescent bullies, even though there was a feeling of vague horror at myself just as I was about to potentially set the house on fire. Still, Aiden has an equal capacity for benevolence, and can heal the wounds of Jodie and her friends. Aiden’s unpredictability and inscrutability, and his status as a barometer for the player’s maliciousness definitely made me want to uncover more about him.
Unfortunately, Beyond is at its weakest when it loses confidence that the story of Jodie and Aiden is interesting or important enough in its own right and decides to throw them into situations with global implications that we’ve seen in countless other games and movies before. One large thread of Beyond’s plot is how Jodie is pulled into a CIA training program to be used as a kind of psychic soldier. This entails a good bit of action where Beyond plays like a poor man’s Metal Gear Solid. When Jodie is sent to kill an African warlord, you’re given a limited but functional interface to hide behind cover and perform takedowns on enemy soldiers. The issue is that the system is so threadbare, there’s pretty much only one way to get through any situation. Jodie sneaks and fights, Aiden possesses, force-chokes and distracts, depending on the colour of the hot-spot presented. Unlike the aforementioned MGS, you have very little capacity for creativity.
There were moments I felt like I wanted to yell at Beyond to stop trying to be just like other games and just be itself.
Likewise, there are also other tiresome elements during a sequence involving a fictional psuedo-communist Eurasian country. I couldn’t help but feel like the entire game was just languidly going through the motions with last-minute escapes from explosions, and America cursing villains who contrive to leave our hero a chance to escape from their clutches. Beyond, at points, brings its focus away from an intimate story about a girl and her ghost, and decides it needs to start ticking all the boxes in the big book of action game clichés. There were moments I felt like I wanted to yell at Beyond to stop trying to be just like other games and just be itself.
It’s a testament to the daring scope of experience that Beyond tries to convey, that Jodie’s military misadventures are still only a small part of the game. Beyond is at its best when you find yourself in places and situations most games don’t let you experience. The section where Jodie is homeless is a good example; walking the snowy streets, you have to make decisions about whether to steal pennies from a broken payphone, eat leftover pizza from the garbage or even consider offers of money for sex from predatory men. Through the adversity, the humanity of the other homeless people Jodie befriends really shines through. It’s a stark, beautiful and well realised section, and it is refreshing to see that in a medium so focused on catering to power fantasies, a big budget game puts such effort into empathising with the powerless.
Despite Beyond being mostly a well-conveyed tale, it’s not without its issues. There are moments when the tone of a scene shifts jarringly into melodrama. Occasionally there’s a line of dialogue that sounds odd (like a quirky Frenchman writing an American character, one might say). Nonetheless, the performance from Ellen Page as Jodie is so strong it largely overrides these dramatic speedbumps. Jodie progresses from a curious child, to a rebellious teen, to a mature adult, but she never ceases to be a likeable character through all her changes. She’s sardonic, but not cynical. She’s strong, but she doesn’t deny her strength sometimes comes from others. Likewise, Willem Dafoe turns in a great rendition of Nathan Dawkins, Jodie’s scientist father figure who raises her and helps her harness her powers.
One of the most typical criticisms of Beyond is the perceived lack of interactivity. While it is true Beyond can be rather funnelled, your ability to interact with your environment is usually pretty high. Jodie can interact with practically anything you come across, and if Jodie, can’t, Aiden probably can. From playing with dolls as a child, to thrashing her electric guitar as a teenager, to drinking a glass of wine as an adult, a lot of times you’re doing things just for the sake of doing them. It’s these subtle touches that have always been present in Quantic Dream’s games that really heighten the sense of immersion in the game world.
The choices you make tend to be of the more compelling sort; the decisions you make with your heart, not with your head. Does Jodie trust a stranger? Does she seek revenge when she’s wronged? Does she end an awkward moment of romantic tension by kissing one of the many hunky guys she encounters? Beyond is one of those particularly unique games where the focus is ultimately on investing the player emotionally, not on being a perfect refinement of one of the big genres.
Lead designer David Cage’s games often come under fire for not being very “game-like”, but I wonder why people still care about these definitions so much. Playing Beyond really gave me a sense of Jodie’s life, and dare I say; how it feels to be a woman. A real woman, not some scantily-clad sex-bomb with a body of a pornstar and the combat prowess of a superhero. At times it could make me feel vulnerable, manipulated and discriminated against in a way I don’t have to deal with in my everyday life. It also reminded me how it feels to have that desperate hope someone might accept you for really you are. And yes, I know how schmaltzy and uncynical that sounds. But you know what? Beyond is a big-budget game that asks you to accept it on its own terms and actually let it make you feel something. There’s something to be said for that.
Beyond: Two Souls is a sincere and heartfelt attempt to tell a brave and ambitious story, and one that lets you shape it along the way. Despite its uneven presentation and odd narrative hiccups, it provides an experience unlike any other. The only thing that holds it back is that it is sometimes tentative to embrace what makes it special. By the end of it though, when I’d lived an entire lifetime with Jodie, I’ll openly admit I had to blink a single manly tear out of the corner of my eye. Beyond is a game about life and death, and Jodie’s is a life well worth living.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Playstation 3 (Reviewed), Playstation 4, ; Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment ; Developer: Quantic Dream; Players: 1 ; Released: October 8th, 2013
Full disclosure: This review is based on review copy of Beyond: Two Souls purchased by the reviewer