Some of the hardest moments in life come not from what is said, but rather what is not. Everyone can confess to a memory where they think “if I had just said this” or “If I had one more minute to tell them…”, and yet we must struggle onward carrying that one message we believe could have changed everything. The human element to a story is the soul that gives meaning to the entire experience, and it is precisely that in which Beyond: Two Souls wishes to convey. Underneath the complicated and sometimes frustrating story-telling scheme, there is a beautiful, yet tragic tale thriving with emotion and brimming with a desire to share it with the world. Unfortunately, David Cage’s narrative creativity is stretched too far with non-linearity, diluting the emotional impact and, quite simply, making what could have been a fantastic two-hour movie into a 12-hour obstacle course.
Beyond: Two Souls is what the gaming community has started referring to as an ‘interactive drama’, in that Quantic Dream sought to create a video game experience that is profoundly emotional while keeping the player as an active participant. While this was proven difficult to achieve in their prior efforts with Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, both titles pushed the boundaries of what kinds of stories can and cannot be told through video games. While Beyond does reach new heights in motion-capture performance and emphasizing emotional response, the overall experience is far more dramatic than interactive.
Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a little girl psychically tethered to a supernatural force she calls Aiden. Invisible yet always present, Aiden is the other half of Cage’s opus. Protector and assailant, guardian and schoolyard bully, the story of Beyond unfolds through 15 years of Jodie’s life and how she desperately fights to live a normal life despite being connected to an entity she never fully understands. The story jumps between different chapter of Jodie’s life, sometimes going from young adult to six year-old child. Cage tries desperately to weave a linear tale through non-linear means, thus giving the experience a disjointed and schizophrenic feel to it. Jodie’s story is also burdened with so many genres that it suffers from an identity crisis of sorts, never fully able to focus on one main element and provide depth. Just when it starts to feel like a horror story, it violently turns into a sci-fi game or an elaborate action sequence.
Much like Heavy Rain, Beyond is a story told through a new evolution of quick time events, with very little puzzle solving or personal logic required. While the idea was to tell Jodie’s story through the player’s hands, it comes off more as a simple mechanism through which the story is told, rather than being discovered. Even the game’s camera provides blatant clues as to where to go or what to do next, instead of the player figuring it out on their own. While it’s understood that such a mechanic was meant to help the player along, the underlying effect detracts from the ability to immerse the player into the story.
From a technical perspective, Beyond is beautiful, imaginative and very polished. Quantic Dream spent ample time to ensure that every subtle moment played out just as they wanted to. As a result, there are some moments that are profoundly touching, due in no small part to the motion-capture performances of Ellen Page, Willem Defoe and the rest of the cast. They help infuse sincerity and humanity into the quiet moments and when they are at their darkest, a quality not easily obtained in video game storytelling.
Playing Jodie and Aiden are two distinct processes, with Aiden being the more interesting option. In the more intense moments, Aiden becomes the natural option to switch to in order to save Jodie or stop whatever obstacle is present. Although Jodie has her share of action, Aiden has the ability to pass through walls, move objects, and even possess people to obey to it’s every whim. Objects and people are given a colored hue that helps the player understand the extent to which they can manipulate their environment, as not everything (or everyone) can be influenced.Yet again, Quantic Dream provides blatant clues as to how Aiden is supposed to help Jodie in certain situations, almost eradicating the need to think about your next move.
Although Jodie is capable of combat, the entire system is simplistic and slow (literally). Almost every encounter ends up being a mixture of button-mashing and right stick maneuvers based on how Jodie is moving. While this sounds simple, reading Jodie’s body language is easily the most confusing part of the game, as it is never explicitly stated if she must move into the combat (such as blocking a punch or kick) or avoid incoming harm (such as rolling or jumping away from something).
Jodie’s conclusion is open-ended, as David Cage is wont to do with his stories, but even in this avenue it feels as though the player is cheated in some manner. Throughout the entire game, the player has the opportunity to choose what Jodie does. And while that may convey the idea that the player has some kind of input on what ultimately happens to Jodie, it does not change the outcome of the critical points that tie the story together. On one side, you have the freedom to choose what she wears or what she cooks on a date, both of which can affect the outcome; on the other, you can choose whether or not to save a man’s life as he is dying, but it will not change the final outcome. Even when faced with Jodie’s most important choice of all, the narrative will still end as similarly as possible, with some form of resolution coming to Jodie and those close to her. With a story so mired in the nebula between life and death, there is too much room for ‘gray area’ endings that do not answer every question or give every character hope. After all, in a topic as sensitive and difficult as death, why can’t we live with an ending that leaves us with questions?
I wanted to love Beyond: Two Souls for many reasons, the largest of which being how we are so often left with questions without answers. The interplay between life and death–both emotionally and mentally–is an ever-changing palace filled with questions and no answers. Although Beyond: Two Souls is not a good video game by most standards, it boldly asks questions and postulates futures that few people have the courage to entertain. It is easy to feign ignorance toward impossible riddles, but to attempt an answer toward life’s greatest mystery through a video game is not only bold, but admirable as well.
See you in the next level,