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The Guardian Review - Beyond: Two Souls
PS3; £39.99; cert 16; Sony by Nathan Ditum, published on Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 15.49 BST
"Can a video game be art?" asked David Cage, the writer and director of Beyond: Two Souls, at the recent Bafta annual games lecture. I suspect he already knew the answer was yes, or at least he would have done if he'd ever heard the intro music to Streets of Rage 2, which more than comfortably satisfies the most useful definition of art I've come across, formulated by Scottish author Alasdair Gray: anything that stimulates people into "thinking about their feelings, and feeling about their thoughts". The complication being that, in reaching laudably for emotive, meaningful content, Beyond lurches so forcefully towards cinema that a more pertinent question for us to ask is, "Can this art be considered a video game?"
Beyond tells the story of a young woman, Jodie Holmes, who for unknown reasons is tied to an entity called Aiden. Her life is presented as a fragmented timeline, jumbled moments from tender infancy to defiant adulthood stacked upon each other non-chronologically. Players if that is the right term control both Jodie and Aiden during most of these scenes, hopping to Aiden's hovering perspective with a button press, gradually piecing together a story of laboratory experimentation, CIA induction and subsequent rebellion.
So why wring hands about whether or not it's a game? Because there's not much gameplay. Beyond is technically extraordinary, and certainly one of the finest looking things that run on PS3, but its points of interaction are building block-simple. Mostly they involve guiding Jodie through conversations with simple choices, or activating pre-determined physical motions with single button presses. Exploring scenes with Jodie or wandering through rooms (and walls) with Aiden grants more obvious freedom, but there is nothing skill-based here. You can only be better than someone else at Beyond if you shift the regular expectation of what "better" means to experience the story more profoundly, perhaps, or to unobtrusively input button presses to allow the story to continue smoothly (and absolutely not raise and lower Jodie's can of beer repeatedly while saying "Emotion" in a thick French accent).
So, Beyond might open up a troubling, legitimate gap in our use of the term "video game" to describe all interactive electronic media (or, you know, it might just be a starry-eyed evolution of the point-and-click adventure). More urgent is the issue of whether it's worth your time, and on this point it helps that Beyond looks fantastic. This isn't just a result of Quantic Dream's technology, but the artistic eyes behind it, and like the studio's previous game, Heavy Rain, Beyond is a triumph of both visual imagination and image quality. Like discontented Saturday night spouses we often complain that games have the ability to take us anywhere yet we always seem to end up in the same brown, dark corridors. Beyond gives us flair and spectacle a warm, autumnal park at sunset; a still sheriff's office with dust motes illuminated by moonlight; a long, hazy road stretching through a baked orange desert.
But the core of Beyond is its story. Beyond is a predominantly narrative experience that has introduced elements of interactivity in order to heighten the emotional involvement of the player/viewer/interactee. One is only as enjoyable as the other, and both are imperfect, clumsy, and occasionally maddening, and yet somehow still compelling.
It helps that while Cage talks so earnestly about meaning and art he finds himself endearingly, irresistibly drawn to hokey sci-fi plotting. As talk of "the other side" and gateways built in government facilities take centre stage, it's clear that Beyond is exploitation dressed as art house if not full-on Roger Corman, then at least John Carpenter, genre nous mixed with sporadic intelligence. This is no bad thing, as the juicy hook of this sci-fi pitch who is Aiden, and where did he come from? provides the mystery that gives the narrative its driving momentum.
But there are significant problems of choice and agency. This single hook is problematic when compared, say, with the multi-threaded structure of Heavy Rain. There Cage's writing weaves together an ensemble cast whose choices and interactions cumulatively represent a significant set of potential outcomes. There are substantial, plot-changing decisions (and mistakes) to be made, tension borne of consequence, of knowledge that each of those characters can die. Beyond features expensive Hollywood star Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes, a single protagonist essential to the narrative, which consequently must be driven in a largely pre-determined direction. This means choices are limited, or often (even more infuriatingly) illusory, which in turn means that there is no grander interactivity to compensate for the lack of moment-to-moment mechanical control.
And yet, as flawed and constricting as this format can feel, it still offers some extraordinary experiences. Many of Beyond's most touching moments are non-essential in narrative terms, and only discovered through exploration like Jodie singing a mournful song on guitar as she busks for dinner money as a freezing down-and-out, or infant Jodie in her bedroom trying to play make-believe with dolls only for her real imaginary friend to disrupt her game.
Beyond deserves credit for presenting us with ideas and situations few other games (especially of this budget level) would touch, or even think of. The disrupted doll play is just part of a series of scenes in which young Jodie struggles to come to terms with her unique ability Beyond is strongest here, in these early years, capturing the mannerisms and heartache of childhood with pinprick accuracy, turning a neighbourhood snowball fight into a rush of escape and excitement. When an older Jodie joins the CIA, she becomes a physically commanding action heroine admittedly, the action moments aren't particularly fun to sort-of-play, but my young daughter, catching a glimpse of this section, fist-pumped at the very idea of a leading lady who can handle herself. Later, in a disorienting change of pace, several minutes are given over to Jodie alone in her apartment, preparing for an imminent dinner date a rushed tidy, a flick through a cook book, a frantic decision about what to wear.
The complicating factor is that, as well as doing things no other game does, Beyond also does some things really badly. There's a teenage party scene which seems like an excruciating parody of what teenage party scenes would be like if they were all written and conceived by middle-aged games designers (rule breaking, sexual frisson, rejection it's Carrie in five clanging minutes). There's a lengthy portion in which Jodie lives with some Navajo indians ("Because they're a bit mystic too" seems the general reasoning). And the climactic escalation of Beyond's final scenes will be familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of Brian Yuzna's films, the works of HP Lovecraft, or derivative cautionary science fiction in general.
All of this makes it difficult to plot the quality of Beyond on a regular scale. It's technically extraordinary, but mechanically base. The quality of its drama is wildly inconsistent, with elegant emotional moments followed by clumsy cliche. And it contorts itself in service to a story that's both deeply derivative but also reliably compelling. It's a maddening flux of excellence and overambition that rejects many overplayed conventions of big-budget gaming, but fails to provide a comprehensive alternative. Beyond feels like an unfinished and often unconvincing theory of where games can go next. It is not the way forward, but it might help show the way for others, and it's worth exploring for yourself.