Beyond: Two Souls, a Supernatural Thriller for PlayStation 3|
by Chris Suellentrop, published on October 7, 2013
David Cage, the writer and director of Beyond: Two Souls, a thriller released on Tuesday for the PlayStation 3, starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, is among the most divisive figures in video games. Thats partly because of his outlandish pronouncements about the future of the medium, like when he said last month during a lecture to the British Academy of Film and Television that developing an algorithmic Martin Scorsese artificially intelligent software that imitated Mr. Scorseses camera style and recreated it on demand would be an interesting way to improve video game storytelling.
Its partly because of Mr. Cages backward-looking emphasis on borrowing techniques from cinema to try to tell better stories in video games. And its also because Mr. Cage, who is the founder of the French studio Quantic Dream, seems to think that his games are the only ones about something other than killing.
But mostly hes divisive because his games are a weird mixture of wonderful and awful. More precisely, theyre weird in their wonderfulness and in their awfulness. How you feel about Mr. Cage and his work depends largely on which weirdness you think is dominant.
In his games, the interactive scenes about the mundanity of life you might find yourself directing a character to brush his teeth can be transfixing, and theyre unlike anything else in big-budget video games. Yet the sometimes leaden writing (and, in earlier Quantic Dream games, acting) may lead you to wonder how you could be engaged by something so terrible. At times, Mr. Cage and his collaborators appear to be creating a performance-art project to prove the power of interactivity by isolating it in relief against intentionally ham-handed narrative elements. At other moments, these games can provide, as the writer Tom Bissell said of a scene in the 2010 mystery Heavy Rain, Mr. Cages previous effort, maybe the most electric, traumatizing feeling Ive ever had while playing a game.
In Beyond, the player mainly controls Ms. Pages character, Jodie Holmes, a young woman saddled and blessed with a connection to a silent, otherworldly creature called Aiden. Mr. Dafoe plays Nathan Dawkins, a research scientist and father figure who is studying Jodie for the government. Scenes from Jodies life, from ages 8 to 23, occur out of chronological order. Players will find themselves doing unusual things for a video game: deciding whether to wear a dress on a date, whether to drink beer and smoke pot at a party, or whether to kiss a boy and let his hands roam Jodies body. In one scene, you are prompted to decide whether she should attempt suicide. There arent many games in which the playable character is told, Dont you look pretty today? Nor are there many games with a female protagonist that arent at least partly interested in urging you to leer at her backside while you play.
Unfortunately, many of the scenes with the adult Jodie are more conventional and more disjointed, akin to a series of TV episodes in which she wanders the earth like Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. She helps mystical Navajos in the Southwest battle a creature from the spirit world. She lives for a time with homeless people under a bridge. She befriends a child soldier in Mogadishu. The games final act at least as I experienced it, for Mr. Cage says there are 23 endings is an underdeveloped mess.
The controls are simple, almost gesture-based. While I did not test this feature, Mr. Cage says the game can be controlled with swipes on a downloadable smartphone app, as well as with a conventional PlayStation controller.
With characteristic understatement, Mr. Cage has called the system an interface that will allow you to play life. Flick up with your right thumb stick, then to the right, then mash the X button a bunch of times, and young Jodie draws a picture. Flick right to drink. Flick left to eat corn on the cob. Theres little consistency to the control scheme, which involves flicking at white dots to watch something happen. Text on the screen offers instructions or choices. This makes Beyond very approachable, but it also means that players never develop the sense of dexterous mastery that most games provide.
Instead, the game play is really about making decisions and watching them unfold. Should Jodie play with dolls? Should Aiden choke Jodies adoptive father? Should Jodie exact vengeance upon teenagers who banished her from their party?
Those 23 endings notwithstanding, the choices dont seem to have much effect on the story. In the scenes that I did replay, the emotional beats were basically the same, regardless of what I instructed Jodie to do. My repeated efforts to rebuff one character after misguidedly kissing him seemed to have no effect.
But choice is wildly overrated in video games. Interactivity does not demand that all games become Choose Your Own Adventure stories. The decisions you make in Beyond are still significant, and they allow for a collaboration among player and designer that isnt possible in other forms of storytelling. The point of the choices in Beyond is not to make the game replayable but to make you emotionally invested in the story.
Yet other recent games have done this more successfully. If you are curious about video games that treat you as an adult and are emotionally cathartic, play Journey, Papo & Yo, The Walking Dead and Gone Home, to name a few.
Beyond: Two Souls is a misstep for Mr. Cage and Quantic Dream, but its failings are not the result of the limitations of Mr. Cages preferred medium. That it is interesting at all hinges on its interactive nature. It would be one of the worst movies youve ever seen, even though Ms. Page and Mr. Dafoe give fine performances.
Theres still something mesmerizing about what Mr. Cage is trying to achieve, even if the gumbo endemic to his work is seasoned with too much awful and not enough wonderful this time around. I cant help but look forward to playing whatever he makes next.
Beyond: Two Souls, developed for the PlayStation 3, is rated M (Mature, for players 17 and older). It has cop killing, drug use and lots of swearing.