On Beyond: Two Souls

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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). 

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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,

Gray

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On Heavy Rain…

Rather than discuss more flagrant bulletins, I wanted to take note of the near completion of this upcoming “collaboration”. I use that term in a means of procurring a more elaborate sense of idea about what this title is and has the potential to be.

is it a game? Some would argue so, but from what I have read, seen and filtered through my own cortex of quick judgements, I feel Heavy Rain is to be more of an exploration of human choice and response. While driving the narrative of a serial killer with a fascination for paper cuts, HR peaks my curiosty by restructuring  a “game over” screen into a twist of the player’s imagination. When your character falls, you’re not berated with bloody letters or a taunting Joker exclaiming “you done wrong boy”. Instead, we must interpret that sequence into a proverbial “let’s tell the story a little differently”. From there, you finish the tale without your protagonist in tow. This mechanic, lofty and infinitely rewarding as it may be, bears the dilemma of accounting for a near limitless number of narrative variations that depend solely on how the player wants his experience to be. In a way, HR is attempting to be the first game that is truly customizable to the player’s free will; the final frontier of video game narration I’d say.

My knee-jerk remarks mostly fell within the realm of skepticism, but we gamers will always initially fear what we cannot define. When I connect this idea with the mechanic of choosing the character’s actions and reactions, the blurry picture started to take much needed focus. I was almost stunned to notice my sheer giddeyness when I first saw the character action tree in progress. With several options constantly floating in and out of the character’d mind—and with such a huge spectrum of topics and thoughts, many of which don’t even relate to the scenario at hand—I was impressed at how well it mirrors one’s own mental processes on even the most mundane afternoon. If I were to try and create a tree that encompassed all of my thoughts and opinions on any given day, I’d probably lose track somewhere between watching the Avatar preview for the 100th time and looking at more Asian porn (though, I’ll admit I’d like to see someone try and develop a program that can encompass all that). I cannot honestly admit that this title will achieve instant acclaim in the eyes of critics and committed fanboys, but I hope that many reviewers will take a step back and look at what this game is, rather than what it is not. Video games that take such bold leaps in any field have rarely climbed the ranks of video game greatness, but they were the forerunners of the titles we cling to so dearly, and I think HR will fall victim to this as well.

But, then again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing…unless you’re a console exclusive…oops.

See you in the next level,

Gray