Buried somewhere within the 10-hours or so of rubble that lies in its wake, I experienced a wildly engaging game that in many ways felt like a logical step forward for developer Quantic Dream (led by director/writer auteur David Cage) and their unyielding desire to fuse video games and film in a sort of tightrope walk of interactive storytelling grace. But the cold, hard truth is that Beyond: Two Souls eventually suffocates beneath the crushing weight of its own stubbornly unrestrained ambition.
It’s frustrating to experience a game that becomes so alive and soars so high in its early hours only to crash in the nonsensical plotting and restrictive gameplay that plague its second half. I suppose that this is a compliment, though, as some games never even get off the runway. It just becomes such an ordeal to assist Beyond: Two Souls in its unyielding push to gradually destroy itself. Somewhere along the way, perhaps when you least expect it, it will become obvious that by playing it further you are complicit in its march toward complete self destruction. In many ways it is appropriate that a game about the illusion of player choice eventually requires the player who has given it life to help it euthanize itself. At first, it hurts to say goodbye, but by the end of the experience it becomes hard to truly care. Were you ever that important to this chain of events anyway? No, not really.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
Beyond: Two Souls’s story unfolds as a series of twenty-one vignettes that trace the life of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), a girl who has a strange connection to the “other side” via a spirit named Aiden that has been tethered to her since birth. These chapters follow Jodie as an abandoned eight-year-old girl to a twenty-three-year-old burgeoning adult employed by the CIA, briefly stopping at her awkward preteen and rebellious adolescent years along the way. Willem Dafoe plays Nathan Dawkins, a researcher at the Department of Paranormal Activity who acts as Jodie’s caregiver and attempts to understand her mysterious link to the other side with the help of his caring, eager assistant, Cole Freeman (Kadeem Hardison).
The real problem here is that David Cage has decided to tell his opus out of chronological order, with little more than a timeline to introduce and mentally place us in each playable chapter. One minute you’re Jodie, an eight-year-old girl traumatized by unseen forces and hugging a stuffed bear for comfort, and the next you’re a CIA-trained killer eliminating a high-profile target in Somalia. Just when you’ve settled into a period of Jodie’s life, the plot whisks you to another time and locale altogether, and then back again, with an eagerness that eventually becomes exhausting.
And it’s a shame, too, because most of Beyond: Two Souls’s strength takes shape during its quieter moments. Take, for instance, an early scene in which a young Jodie longs to play with the neighborhood children, though she is forbidden to do so by her distant foster parents. When she disobediently engages in a snowball fight, we experience her longing for human connection and its temporary relief. Or when a destitute Jodie picks up a guitar and beautifully sings to a group of passersby for change, allowing us to share in her misery and eventual triumph.
But these moments buckle beneath the weight of larger, action-packed set pieces that do little to ignite or service the story. Perhaps I get it: Cage was worried that players would lose interest if they were forced to fill the shoes of a pink-pajama-clad girl for the first three hours of his game’s length, so he threw in a bit of early action to keep them hooked. The interesting thing, though, is that this approach has the opposite effect. When the guns start firing and the helicopters start exploding, it’s difficult to feel more than a strained obligation to push onward due to a lack of cause and effect to these events. Instead of the game naturally progressing to large-scale moments, Cage randomly drops you into them and expects you to draw the chronology yourself, which drains the immediacy and impact from the story.
But as the game progresses and the story becomes stranger and stranger, it becomes all too apparent that this narrative jumbling has a troubling purpose after all: to mask the multiple plot holes and gaps in the game’s narrative logic. As the camp piles on, any trace of believable story evaporates, leaving only layers of espionage, governmental conspiracies, coming-of-age transgressions, domestic drama tropes, and abundant spiritual symbolism. And that’s not even the half of it. If presented in order, these nonsequential chapters would perhaps raise even more questions than they already do, so why not just further scramble the story and hope that a lack of causation can cover up lazy storytelling and absurd drama? I get it.
For a game that holds player choice to be paramount in its success, it’s quite ironic that Beyond: Two Souls’s narrative has you play future events that drain consequence from the moments that precede them. It’s hard to fear for Jodie’s well-being when you know that things will be just fine in a later chapter of her life that you’ve already experienced. Eventually, it’s difficult to feel like little more than a spectator forced down the path that Cage himself has paved, illuminated with choices that have little consequence in how they impact the overarching story of Jodie’s life.
Sometimes less really is more. And sometimes the loudest bang is the one not heard at all.
Beyond: Two Souls’s presentation is simply incredible. The lighting effects, character animations, score, sound design, and texture detail are all indisputably first-rate, and it is evident that Quantic Dream have squeezed as much power as they could from the PlayStation 3’s seven-year-old hardware. Each milieu is wonderfully realized as the game treks from meticulously detailed interiors such as the living rooms and bedrooms that occupy Jodie’s early life to the dark woods and blisteringly hot desert that frame her wandering later years. Environmental effects such as rain and snow are also painstakingly crafted, and it is easy to slow down and admire each scene’s overpowering attention to detail.
Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe lend convincing vocal and physical work to the two leading players, with Page in particular reaching new heights of video game performance. Her portrayal of Jodie is at once conflicted, lonely, vulnerable, and resilient, made all the more convincing by the exceptional performance capture technology that evokes the actress’s every nuance. In many ways Page is the game’s saving grace, though it is difficult not to lament what could have been had her talents been used to service a more restrained and focused story. For all the leaps forward that her presence provides, the elephant in the room begs that this nagging “what-if” question be answered. As it is, though, Page presents the player with enough reason to push onward through Beyond: Two Souls’s less coherent and sillier moments, always providing a lively and sometimes unintentionally humorous sense of conviction to the proceedings, no matter how awkward they become.
In service of such beautiful graphics, the PlayStation 3’s engine does not always keep stride with Quantic Dream’s vision. Throughout the game you will encounter multiple frame-rate drops, some of which temporarily wrestle the events into an unplayable state, especially during the countless automatic saves that occur during the game’s multiple chapters. A few times I questioned whether or not gameplay had frozen completely only to have my concerns alleviated moments later as the screen kicked back to life. In the end, it’s a relatively small inconvenience for what is arguably one of the finest-looking games on the PlayStation 3.
Old Dog, New Tricks
The gameplay primarily focuses around the interplay between Jodie and Aiden. With the press of the triangle button, you can switch from Jodie’s perspective to that of her watchful specter’s, whose abilities allow him to possess or kill other characters in addition to performing destructive interactions with the environment. The game dictates who Aiden can inhabit or kill, though never explains why these limitations exist. When his point of view has been triggered, the player is able to float through various areas, though certain walls and doors are penetrable while others are not, which again calls attention to the game’s restrictions. It’s usually Jodie who will ask Aiden for help, a vocal cue to the player to toggle his perspective and search for whatever action will allow the story to advance.
Aiden can also heal characters’ wounds by having the player focus two orbs of light over an injury with the thumb sticks, and he can even channel recreations of events through Jodie by linking himself with another person or object via a stream of light that penetrates her mind. The latter gameplay mechanic allows for some memorable events that creatively illuminate backstory in occasionally moving ways. Later, though, as Jodie tries to piece together the events of various calamities, the effect becomes overused and clumsy.
Jodie’s movement is mapped to the thumb sticks, and action unfolds in moments that occasionally require the other buttons for assistance. Frequently, a white dot appears that requires you to push the right thumb stick in its direction to make Jodie perform a certain action. This is required for standing, sitting, reaching, pouring, and drinking, which actually comprise a great deal of the gameplay. It’s interesting just how often players are called upon to assist Jodie with the most mundane of tasks, as though Quantic Dream have padded their story with unnecessary gameplay simply to provide an illusion of player agency. No need for a pause screen when you can refuse to press up, forcing Jodie to remain in a state of artificial suspension until eventually you, and subsequently Jodie, comply.
Mostly absent are the controller-mapped quick time events that were intrinsic to the gameplay of Quantic Dream’s previous game, 2010’s magnificent Heavy Rain. Now, during hand-to-hand combat and other moments of peril, time slows down, and the player must logically complete Jodie’s action with the right thumb stick in an attempt to follow her intended movement. This works in theory, though it is often difficult to discern whether or not Jodie is moving toward or away from something, mainly due to the clumsy camera that warps the game’s perspective.
No worries, though. Rarely will you feel the pang of failure. Whereas Heavy Rain punished players for inaccurate response times to its increasingly delirious and complicated control system, Beyond: Two Souls will guide you to its big events regardless of your ability to align yourself with its mechanics. Certain smaller moments might play out differently, but that’s all that will happen when you fail. Occasionally Jodie will be hit or shot or stabbed, but Aiden will always heal her, and she’ll always push onward no matter the circumstances.
As a result, it is difficult to feel like there is much at stake in Beyond: Two Souls. Part of the genius of Heavy Rain was knowing–or, perhaps more importantly, thinking–that its characters could be killed. There, each fight and altercation was all the more suspenseful and immediate because death lurked around every corner, whether or not it was a legitimate threat. Not to mention visual cues would signal a player’s failure to comply with the game’s demands, which increased in complexity as the story progressed. In Beyond: Two Souls, a prolonged chapter late in the game finds Jodie preparing for a date. She must cook dinner, pick out a dress, and clean up her apartment, actions housed inside gameplay with nothing more than push-here, push-there complexity.
And that’s the real tragedy here. There is no sense of progression to the gameplay, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if the story left in its absence could carry the game. But that just isn’t the case. You’ll never feel your hands playing Twister like you did during Heavy Rain’s more complex and agitated moments.
Instead, Beyond: Two Souls mistakenly substitutes simplistic gameplay variety for a building sense of mechanical complexity. You’ll learn how to stealthily take down enemies and take cover during the game’s training-montage tutorial only to use those same mechanics for a later mission that occurs more than six hours into the game. You will not be able to use them a moment earlier. Aiden will kill and possess the people the game highlights for you without ever altering the complexity or choice of these signposted events. Those who can be possessed are highlighted in orange, while those to be killed are surrounded by red. Have at it.
This lack of innovation and creativity weakens what could have been a more varied and interesting gameplay feature. For better or worse, you discover most of what Beyond: Two Souls offers, both in terms of gameplay and difficulty, during the opening chapters of the game.
During a late moment in Beyond: Two Souls, Jodie has to blow something up, and you will be tasked with getting her where she needs to be in order to accomplish this. There will be a path there that only the developers at Quantic Dream know, and you will find yourself at the center of a route that diverges down three separate corridors. Select the wrong one and Jodie will stop at an invisible wall, consider something, and turn back to the starting point. Walk down another incorrect path, and she will do the same thing. And when you eventually select the right route, you will be one step closer to finding out exactly where Quantic Dream have prescribed you to go.
Where most linear games mask their intent with creatively designed architectural hurdles (debris, locked doors), Quantic Dream have decided to create multiple invisible walls that call attention to their restrictiveness. You must play as they have preordained, with inconsequential differences in story paths attempting to overshadow these larger restrictions imposed upon the player. There is little room for exploration. And, just like Heavy Rain, there is no “Game Over” screen. But at what cost?
And that’s how playing most of Beyond: Two Souls feels: safe and guided, with little room for consequence, error, or risk. It’s natural for players to want to test a game’s world, to discover what is and is not possible within the confines of the established rules the game developers have laid out for them. But Quantic Dream have restricted things considerably. You might be able to pick out Jodie’s music selection at a party or pick a dress for her to wear on a date, but forget about feeling important in the grand scheme of the story. Ultimately, the decisions you make amount to little more than one of several endings that feel rather tacked on and inconsequential.
Beyond: Two Souls, in the end, feels like a regression for Quantic Dream and auteur David Cage, whose brilliant Heavy Rain had enough innovative gameplay to mask its muddled and incoherent story. Here, what made their previous effort so enjoyable has been largely stripped away, and the emphasis on story left in its absence piles on the pulp and camp so thickly that it becomes increasingly difficult to care about the outcome. Regardless, it is worth a look for players seeking something new in gaming so long as it approached with tempered expectations. If you enjoyed Heavy Rain, this is not a step forward, and you are likely to end up disappointed. And if Heavy Rain wasn’t your cup of tea, Beyond: Two Souls is unlikely to change your mind on Quantic Dream’s unique approach to gaming.
Quantic Dream deserve applause for trying something bold and new, and perhaps it’s a bit too easy to criticize them for flying too close to the sun. Kudos for making a game with a self-sufficient, relatable female protagonist, but this is something that The Last of Us did more successfully and to much greater emotional effect earlier this year. That game Quantic Dream wants to make, one that seamlessly fuses interactive storytelling and gaming to dizzying new extremes, is still out there, somewhere. Here’s to hoping that one day they finally pull it off.