by Josh Harmon, Associate Editor, published on October 8, 2013 - 08:00am
Sony wants you to know that Beyond: Two Souls is a lot like a movie. On the front of the box, the names of its two stars, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, sit in big bold letters above the title, just like youd see on any poster down at your local cineplex. Back in April, portions of Beyond were screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, making it the second game in history (after L.A. Noire) to be awarded that honor. At this years Gamescom, the publisher bought ads around Cologne that boldly declared, Press X for Blockbuster.
The parallel may be a shrewd marketing moveafter all, far more people watch movies than play games, and bringing non-gamers into the fold only serves to increase salesbut Im not certain its the most appropriate comparison. In practice, this latest effort from Quantic Dream and writer/director David Cage plays out less like a film and more like a big-budget television show. The games story is broken down into a series of disordered vignettes, each chronicling a different event in the life of heroine Jodie Holmes, whos linked to a supernatural entity known as Aiden. While there are dozens of these segments, most clock in under 20 minutes, with a handful of longer ones that make up the bulk of the games running time.
As a result, these larger arcs feel an awful lot like discrete seasons of a TV showrelatively self-contained, but still contributing to Jodies broader journey from lonely, alienated girl to empowered and independent woman. And like almost any TV show, there are good seasons and bad seasons, curious subplots that wind up going nowhere, and bit-part actors that pale in comparison to the talented leads. But that heavily serialized, meandering nature also makes for a fascinating and refreshing way to structure a videogame. Theres no big bad to chase down, just windows into the life of a human being, gradually building up a fuller picture of who she is and how she got there. Its different in a good way, every bit as subversive as Heavy Rains detective story was formulaic.
The thing is, when you bring in top-tier Hollywood talent and place so much emphasis on your movie-ness, youre inviting direct comparisons between your work and the modern cinema and television landscape. Beyond cant live up to that standard on interesting structural choices alone. Thanks to stellar motion-capture and rendering technology, it certainly holds its own on the visual front, with superbly framed shots, impressively emotive performances, and stunning use of depth of field.
In the narrative department, however, things stack up less favorably. The pacing and tone are all over the place, ranging from amped-up spy thriller to gritty, bleak drama to supernatural action, with stops at just about every genre intersection along the way. Its never entirely clear exactly what the game wants to be or what its trying to say. Equally clumsy is a pivotal scene in the final act, which relies on a sudden character turn thats unbelievable and wholly unearned by the script. The game does include some truly well-crafted scenes throughoutas well as some magnificent moments from Dafoe and Pagebut theyre better in isolation than as part of any whole. Its not for nothing that, of the six different endings I played through, only two felt even remotely justified by the events leading up to them.
As a native French speaker, Cages writing has always seemed decidedly foreign to its American setting, and thats still the case in Beyond. Heavy Rains biggest problemits largely European actors struggling to convincingly portray Philadelphianshas been happily resolved with better casting decisions, but the occasional odd word choice and Europeanism still slip through the cracks. Dialogue can be awkward, unnatural, and weighed down by unnecessary formalities and jargon. Beyond that, a few things are just completely incongruous. In one scene, for example, Jodie needs Aiden to find something on the second floor of a building, but she keeps referring to it as the first floor. (Europe traditionally uses that term to denote the level above the ground floor. In America, this usually refers to the ground floor itself.) It only took me a minute or so to realize what was going on, but that brief disorientation pulled me out of the experience in a big way.
More concerning is a later scene, when Jodie has a vision on a Navajo reservation showing the U.S. Cavalry attacking the natives by burning teepees. The Navajo never lived in teepees. Those were the Plains tribes, all of whom lived several hundred miles to the northeast. As someone with Native American ancestry, that gaffe fails my sole criteria for a respectable portrayal of Indians. Ive made peace with all the played-out mysticism (though Beyond ticks that box, too) and white saviors (another big checkmark here), but I cannot abide anything that reduces dozens of distinct cultures into a single, flimsy stereotype. I dont think theres anything sinister behind itits entirely possible the clip is clumsily showing something that took place far away without any attempt at explaining whybut the way its presented in-game is problematic, to say the least.
Much has been made of Beyonds improved gameplay, which goes to great lengths to dismiss the one-size-fits-all quick-time events of Heavy Rain in favor of more natural interactions. There are still onscreen button prompts from time to time, but the majority of your interactions with the world have been streamlined into gestures performed with the right analog stick. Whenever a white dot appears near an object onscreen, you simply push the stick in its direction, and Jodie performs the relevant action. Combat is handled slightly differently, but with the same basic philosophy. During a fight, the action will slow to a crawl, with Jodie in the middle of a movement. Your goal is to complete that motion with the analog stick.
Ive read complaints in previews that this approach to combat is sometimes unintuitive, with cues that dont always make the desired gesture immediately apparent. Thats somewhat correct, but its also the primary reason I enjoyed Beyonds fighting sequences. Whether or not it was intended as such, I think its an excellent way to make combat feel organically tense. Rather than simply breezing through every fight unscathed like a superhuman, youll take your share of blows along the way. Unless youre truly awful at it, though, there wont be any negative impact on your story. Even if you lose, there are no fail statesthe game just adapts to the outcome of the fight. Its not for everyone, Im sure, but its far from the total disaster others have made it out to be.
The other significant addition to Beyond is the ability to take control of Aiden at the press of a button. In addition to being able to fly through walls, he can also perform his own set of basic interactions with the world, knocking things over, messing with electronics, choking enemies, and even possessing people. If that sounds remarkably open-ended, Im overselling it. Everything is very context sensitive, and there are usually only a handful of ways to resolve any scenario. You cant, for instance, simply possess or choke out anyone you encounteronly explicitly marked targets. Despite being such a foundational part of the game, Aidens just not all that interesting. As a way to introduce a bit of gameplay variety and lateral thinking, its not a terrible choice, but he quickly begins to feel like an extension of Jodie that can reach places she cant.
Far more impressive is the fact that Beyond dedicates itself to providing a surprising number of one-off gameplay experiences. A few mechanicsnamely the gesture-based melee combat and using Aiden to solve environmental puzzlespop up throughout the whole game, but a lot of what youll be doing is limited to a single segment. You ride on horseback exploring a fairly sizable sandbox once, and only once. You pilot a submarine, ride a motorcycle, and engage in cover-based stealth exactly once. While the story that links these events may feel a bit disconnected, the gameplay variety has the opposite effect. By refusing to ham-fistedly repeat segments over and over, Beyond creates experiences that feel truly cinematic. After all, no action movie is just one long gunfight or one extended car chase. Its about the peaks and the valleys, the transitions between differing and compelling set pieces. Beyond may be the first game that understands that concept and delivers on it in a significant way.
Ultimately, I dont know if I agree with every creative decision in Beyondor even most of thembut I cant help but respect its audacity. No one with Quantic Dreams resources or technological know-how is trying to push the boundaries of the medium like this. Few projects even come close. As a simple exercise of thoughtful exploration, of deliberate trial-and-error, Beyond is indescribably invaluable. Its successes and failures provide more insight into the potential of interactive storytelling than a million gory first-person shooters could ever hope to. Im happy it exists, and Im happy to have played it.
But after more than 15 years of innovation and feedback from players and critics, I wanted Beyond to feel climactic. I wanted it to be the moment Cages artistic vision was finally realized in one complete, cohesive, and satisfying experience. Instead, its another flawed experimentbetter in some ways, worse in others, but never entirely comfortable in its own skin.
Verdict: Thanks to a script that shifts gears too often and too rapidly, Beyond: Two Souls never really hits its narrative stride, but David Cages latest effort is still worth a look if youre a fan of his singular approach to interactive storytelling.
The Good: More of the bold, genre-defying design work that makes Cage an industry icon.
The Bad: A stumbling storyline with a less-than-satisfying resolution.
The Ugly: Digital Kadeem Hardison has more teeth than a great white shark.