Playing God [Beyond: Two Souls]
While many throw around the title of the “Citizen Kane” of video games, Beyond: Two Souls strives for something else. More accurately, the Forrest Gump of video games. What Jodie Holmes’ journey lacks in extraordinary people and places, it makes up for with introspection into a unique view of life and death. There’s warfare, hobos, self-harm, and a distinct feeling of being different that other unkind souls are keen to exploit. However, instead of shrimp there’s Chicken Curry; instead of outer space there’s the afterlife; and instead of a “box of chocolates” moment there’s fulfillment of a murderous promise.
Quantic Dreams is not your typical developer of video games; more and more they lean toward interactive fiction, but with only three games published, they have staked their claim. Beyond is a superior experience to Heavy Rain in nearly every way. Gameplay is often context sensitive and avoids tedium more often than not. Its storytelling is nonlinear, but the story finds a greater semblance in this state. It’s almost like chronology was holding David Cage and his team back. A tighter focus on each offers more thoughtful vignettes. An emphasis on the supernatural certainly helps, too.
The titular “Two Souls” refer to Jodie & the entity linked to her, Aidan. Chapters focus on Jodie, but allow or require players to become Aidan to interact with the environment to help, harm, or merely advance the story. This is a game that delivers the feeling of choice without really offering much (e.g., The Walking Dead, Mass Effect 3), but its structure and the variety within offer a great degree of illusive authorship. This all begs the question: how much do our choices (play) really affect a life (the game)?
In an early section of the game (both chronologically and temporally) we are asked to explore Jodie’s powers via an experiment overseen by Nathan Dawkins (Willem DaFoe). It’s a typical affair – which card is this person holding, knock these blocks over – something you’ve likely seen before. As early in the story as it is, it harkens back to the thriller tropes Heavy Rain relied on throughout, but as this moment links to the next and the next, the subtle twists of Jodie & Aidan’s interactions build into something more nuanced. Jodie’s life features time on a ranch in the desert, covert ops missions, a stint living in a hobo camp, a knuckle-whitening trip into a C.I.A. lab filled with hostile entities, and more. On their own, these sections sound like they’re trying too hard, but playing through them creates a successful – if strange and occasionally heavy-handed – journey.
In the middle of Beyond’s story, Jodie is absorbed from the Dept. of Paranormal Activity into the C.I.A. and a training montage occurs blending quick-time event combat, supernatural gameplay, and slow-mo reaction commands. Sound straightforward?
Well, it is. Beyond: Two Souls is not a difficult game. I never encountered a fail state. It’s also the least game-like of the Cage productions. It recognizes what it is and makes effective use of minimalist gameplay. Where The Walking Dead is an active interactive fiction, Beyond is passive fiction; most of its prompts can be ignored and the story will progress. The relative lack of choices delivers urgency and impact to the ones that are present.
A hefty weight comes with whether or not to torture others, or a final act mercy killing (cleverly hidden behind an understanding of the game’s mechanics). It’s moments like these that make the experience worthwhile. Deciding whether or not to use your powers is a prevalent theme that gives the game its gameplay, & these tremendous moments. If Beyond hasn’t earned your attention, these choices will merely wash over you, feeling like barriers instead of milestones. Your opinion matters to David Cage, but they don’t to the thing he made. So the question of whether or not Beyond: Two Souls is worth playing is never far from the cynical part of your brain.
This urge is irked on by severe issues with the use of Aidan and movement in general. I often fought against the limited camera and fixed spaces, twirling Jodie like a silly ballerina until she was free to grab a stool or walk through a doorway. Floating around never quite feels “right” & gives the greatest agency to break your motivations as Jodie; this is largely due to the inconsistent distinction between Jodie and Aidan. Sometimes it feels like they are one, others like they’re distinct. Does Aidan act independently? Or are you fulfilling Jodie’s desires telepathically. A final twist sheds some perspective, but adds another layer of speculation to Beyond’s unique, but muddled perspective on the afterlife.
It’s an aspect of the game that deserves many words that I can’t afford here. Otherwise, motives of characters are mostly clear, believable, or serviceable. Odd conflicts arise toward the end of the 10 hour experience, but your choices can mitigate some inconsistencies with, for example, a Nathan Dawkins subplot that carries far too much weight for as shallow an introduction as it gets. Of course, a lot of this comes down to acting and how the player receives performances. Most of Ellen Page’s performance is good to great, but she often feels like an odd duck in military garb or in fight scenes, despite this being contextualized (if unevenly).
In combat, she rarely seems powerful enough to strike powerfully, but is capable of manipulating the movement and mass of those she’s clashing with. She’s powerful, and vulnerable, and clever all at once. Her performance is human, and that’s perhaps the game’s saving grace – with one caveat. It feels like Ellen Page. Jodie Homes may as well be an alias. She so rarely manages to transcend the capture aspect of performance capture, but it doesn’t really break the experience.
Another major issue I have with Beyond is the way its characters react to supernatural occurrences. As Aidan, you have the ability to shift objects, knock down doors, kill or possess enemies, all manner of supernatural occurrences. The reactions by the corporeal range from outright terror to mild interest. Aidan’s effect on surroundings is substantial; for the most part, this isn’t papers falling off a desk. It’s doors slamming, lights breaking, and chairs being thrown across the room. In these moments Beyond feels the most “game-y” and the most broken. How do I make this guard wake up? Throwing that chair didn’t work, etc. More genuine reactions would allow for consistent experience, which Beyond struggles against.
Jodie’s journey is exceptional, intriguing, clumsy, and heavy-handed. Same as David Cage’s other subjects. Beyond: Two Souls handles its themes of life and death far better than Heavy Rain or Indigo Prophecy dealt with psyche, murder, and expectation. With Beyond, Cage manages to answer how much our choices affect a life, both on narrative and meta-narrative level. From showering to playing guitar; from saving a life, to controlling one linked to your own. To this end, play is limited and flawed, ranging from monotonous to triumphant. Beyond: Two Souls succeeds at capturing a life.
It feels like I’m playing God.