In Beyond: Two Souls, you'll do some things you rarely get to do in video games. You'll control a young, frightened girl as she hugs a stuffed animal and tries to fend off nightmares. You'll decide whether to accept beer at an awkward high-school party, and you'll try to pick music that'll impress a group of older, cooler kids. You'll clean up your apartment before a date and decide whether to go in for a kiss when the moment seems right.
Then you'll spend an hour in the shadows, punching out guards on a quest to assassinate a Somali warlord. If you're like me, however, you'll find yourself wishing you were back at the awkward high-school party.
Mainstream video games so rarely explore the mundane. More concerned with the exceptional and the exciting — unlikely adventures, brutal wars, daring escapes — they ignore the commonplace experiences that make up the bulk of their players' lives. And yet placed against a backdrop of blockbuster histrionics, those smaller moments can feel fresh and even oddly exciting. Beyond: Two Souls succeeds, and fails, while vacillating between those two extremes.
Beyond, which comes out today for the PlayStation 3, is best described as a "cinematic adventure game." It tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a young woman with an extraordinary gift, played by Juno and Hard Candy actress Ellen Page. Jodie possesses psychic abilities, which most directly manifest themselves through her tie to Aiden (pronounced EYE-den), a mysterious, invisible spirit connected to her by a mystical tether. Aiden has been with Jodie for as long as she can remember; he's an unknowable and occasionally dangerous presence who follows her around and, with a few exceptions, does her bidding.
Beyond: Two Souls contains multitudes. As an experiment in minimally interactive storytelling, it's unsuccessful at least as often as it is successful. It's a game that a certain subset of open-minded, laid-back individuals will likely enjoy, but one that will almost certainly provoke passionate disdain from an equal number of players. I recommend it, but I don't recommend it for everyone.
It's rare that I've been so conflicted on giving a game a recommendation, or felt so specifically about who might enjoy a game and who might not. So, allow me to break down my recommendation:
You'll probably like Beyond: Two Souls if:
- You're looking for something different, and don't mind some clumsiness.
- You want a low-stress game to share with a friend or significant other.
- You're down with the idea of playing as a teenage girl.
- You don't mind a game that's basically a movie.
- You love Ellen Page.
- You can deal with a little (or a lot) of cheese.
You'll probably dislike Beyond: Two Souls if:
- You wish Heavy Rain had been more experimental, not less.
- You want a game that's challenging and makes you use your head.
- You're freaked out by the idea of playing as a teenage girl.
- You hate quicktime events.
- You don't like Ellen Page.
- You are Ellen Page, and get weirded out by looking at your own virtual doppelgänger.
The story leaps forward, backward and forward again across a 15-year span of Jodie's life, from her early experiences as a 9-year-old to her adventures as a young woman of 24. One moment, you may be playing as 20-something Jodie, hiding out from the cops in a parched desert; the next, you'll see her as a scared little girl living in a government research facility. Sometimes, a mysterious experience in the future will later be explained by a flashback to Jodie's childhood, and vice-versa. It's all very ambitious.
Beyond is, more or less, a SYFY original miniseries that occasionally asks for input from the viewer.
Beyond is the brainchild of French writer/director David Cage, a man known for past experimental games such as Omikron: The Nomad Soul, Indigo Prophecy and most recently, Heavy Rain. These days Cage is perhaps just as notorious for his well-documented, frustrated admiration of Hollywood and his belief that video games need to "grow up."
Cage's Hollywood-envy is in full effect in Beyond — this game is, more or less, a SYFY original miniseries that occasionally asks for input from the viewer. It removes player agency to such a degree that its success or failure rides entirely on its story, which, while by no means terrible, isn't as strong as I'd hoped. The irony of Beyond is that while it often treats Jodie's adolescence with grace and emotional nuance, as a game it can feel somewhat adolescent itself, trapped between the childish histrionics of the Call of Dutys of the world and the more refined work of the best video-game storytellers.
In addition to Aiden — who has no voice and communicates with Jodie through strange ghostly murmurs — the one constant in Jodie's life is a government researcher named Nathan Dawkens. Dawkens, gamely played by Sgt. Elias himself, Willem Dafoe, has been studying and caring for Jodie for most of her life. Their relationship forms a crucial, if ultimately unsatisfying, corner of Beyond's narrative structure.
Page and Dafoe are given top billing on the front of the game's cover, making the Beyond case look more like something you'd pick up at the local video store than at Gamestop. Both actors give strong performances, with Page going the furthest to elevate some occasionally lovely but just as often hackneyed material.
While I can't blame Jodie for being bummed out — her life hasn't exactly been all pony rides and slumber parties — it would've been nice if a bit more of Page's natural charm could have shown through. This is in part the fault of the motion-capture technology Cage so ardently believes is the future of video game thespianism, but which unfortunately still hasn't quite made it across the uncanny valley. Characters, Jodie included, often speak as though they're performing ventriloquism, their lower lips moving while the rest of their faces remain frozen.
Beyond offers players occasional dialogue options, which work similarly to Cage's past games. You won't choose Jodie's exact conversation responses, but rather select from a list: Lie/Evade/Truth, Angry/Reasonable/Threatening, that sort of thing. The game's flashback-centric storytelling can make the conversations a bit confusing — I often felt, particularly in the early goings, as though I didn't know what Jodie would do in a given situation. How could I? We'd only just met, and yet the scene was taking place at her story's chronological midpoint.
The game has clearly been designed to be accessible to players who don't normally play games, significantly streamlining the already streamlined types of input Cage implemented in Heavy Rain. Only a couple of buttons on each controller are required to play, and you can even opt to control the game via a smartphone touchscreen.
Every in-game action requires a minimum of input from the player. You'll walk around in a room with the left thumbstick and flick the right thumbstick in the direction of any of a couple objects marked with a white dot. You almost never have to tell Jodie how to use the object — she'll figure that out on her own. Maybe she'll play a guitar, or read a document, or open a door; for the vast majority of the actions in the game, you'll simply flick the stick and be done with it.
Over the course of the story, Jodie also becomes quite an arse-kicker. (One of the great, goofy joys of Beyond is watching pint-sized Ellen Page open up can after can of whoop-arse on guys twice her size.) When Jodie gets into a fight, time will slow down every time she's about to land or dodge a blow; at that moment, you'll have to flick the thumbstick in the direction she's heading. If you miss your cue, she'll whiff a punch or take a hit, but it won't have too much of an effect on the battle's outcome.
Compared to Jodie, Aiden has a more full range of motion — the benefits of being a non-corporeal entity, I suppose. With a press of the PS3's triangle button, players can hop from Jodie into Aiden's mind and start flying around through walls, exploring ahead, and pushing things around.
Despite the fact that it gives players mostly unfettered access to an intangible being who can fly around its levels, Beyond still manages to feel stifling and claustrophobic. That's in part because the game and its attendant lore lack consistent rules. Sometimes Aiden can stray hundreds of yards from Jodie, other times — basically, when the story requires it — he's limited to travelling mere feet. Most enemies are immune to Aiden's powers but some can be possessed, and others can be killed outright. Most of the time players can take control of Aiden, but sometimes they can't. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it; it's entirely dictated by the requirements of the script. Those inconsistencies feel contrived and remove any lingering sense of agency that the player might have felt. By giving players the illusion of control and then inconsistently allowing them to use it, Beyond winds up feeling hemmed-in and strangely condescending.
To get a better sense of what it's like in action, watch a (not particularly spoilery) sequence from the middle of the game here:
Beyond's lowest point is a prolonged stealth sequence set in Somalia in which Jodie, working for the CIA, is tasked with assassinating a Somali warlord. The writing is flat, the action is unexciting, and it's all typically mired in cliché. On top of all that, it's just so strangely designed. As soon as Jodie comes upon a new group of enemy soldiers, she's given an obvious, scripted way to sneak around them. What is a stealth game if there are no rules and you can't fail? This, apparently. It's like if someone who'd never actually played Metal Gear Solid 4 had a dream about playing Metal Gear Solid 4.
It's like if someone who'd never actually played Metal Gear Solid 4 had a dream about playing Metal Gear Solid 4.
Death, or any other type of failure, is entirely impossible. Leave Jodie hanging in a desperate moment and she'll either save herself or the game will simply linger, eternally waiting for you to rescue her. In Heavy Rain, it was possible to accidentally let a main character die — the story would carry on, but the ending would be significantly different. Jodie can't die in Beyond, and none of the choices you make over the course of the story have a discernible effect on the ending. The upside to this is that you'll never feel too invested in a given choice — you can just make it and move on, content in the knowledge that the game's going to play out the same no matter what.
Perhaps due in part to its piecemeal storytelling, the game often finds unexpected grace in small moments. After the sacrifices are made, the babies are rescued and the tears are shed, you'll find yourself going through intimate, mundane moments in Jodie's life that really do feel interesting and affecting. My favourite of these involved getting ready for an unexpected date: A young man Jodie's interested in will be by in one hour. Her apartment's a mess. Can you tidy up, cook some dinner, and take a shower, all before he arrives? And what about Aiden, who seems grumpy and jealous of this new potential suitor?
And what should Jodie wear?
As strangely fun as it is to hurry around getting ready, even more enjoyable is how the scene plays out after Jodie's date arrives. The two characters make conversation with a believable awkwardness, their rapport loaded with the abrupt conversational shifts and hesitant questions that anyone who's ever been on an exciting first date knows all too well. The cast is never more comfortable than when they're playing casual, and the whole thing feels so welcomely different. David Cage says that video games need to grow up, to put aside the explosions, violence, and ridiculous action-movie scenarios, and in scenes like this one, he delivers.
So it's all the more frustrating that he's larded up so much of the rest of his game with explosions, violence, and ridiculous action-movie scenarios. Looked at in total, Beyond's story is generally pretty fun, but it's often so unabashedly hacky that it's hard to take it seriously. Worse than all that, though, is that it never actually manages to be about anything. For all its inspired moments, I can't name a single unifying idea. Ghosts are scary, I guess?
The game often finds unexpected grace in small moments.
The script is a hodgepodge of The Sixth Sense, Ghost, some sort of off-brand X-Men movie and, of all things, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Cage rarely turns down the chance at a good cliché — at one point, a character punches his commanding officer and says, "Consider that my resignation!"
Other choice lines of dialogue include: A bad guy, terrorised by Aiden: "It's like some spirit, come to punish us for our sins!" Willem Dafoe, with a straight face: "The infraworld will spread through our dimension!" Jodie, taking gracious leave of her co-workers: "I'm gonna go out. I'm desperate for a pee." The Coen brothers, this ain't.
Beyond: Two Souls is at its best when it's telling a coming-of-age story about a strange young woman with an extraordinary gift. So many fascinating games, from Cart Life to Persona to Papers, Please, have embraced the mundanity of everyday life and in so doing, taken us to fascinating new places. That Beyond, like Heavy Rain before it, so often applies its no-doubt generous budget to genuine creative risks makes its too-frequent forays into clichéd action-movie chest-thumping all the more dispiriting.
And yet here I am, giving the game a recommendation anyway. When taken on its own merits as a strange sort of movie/game hybrid, Beyond: Two Souls can be a pretty good time. And the game shines in co-op — one player controls Jodie, and the other Aiden, which gives both players opportunities to mess around in the world, make important decisions, and share the story with one another. If you're looking for a fun way to spend a few nights with your significant other or spouse, you could do a lot worse.
Beyond: Two Souls is seemingly built of contradictions. It's as goofy as it thinks it is profound, but remains enjoyable all the same. It has many small, wonderful things to say about its unusual main character, but next to nothing to tell us about life or death. It does some really cool things on a personal scale, but falls short every time it tries to widen its focus.
This flawed, interesting game's greatest paradox may well be that it can succeed at things few big-budget video games have attempted, while failing so consistently at things less ambitious games accomplish regularly. If David Cage would simply put aside his fascination with the spangly charms of Hollywood and embrace the smaller, more intimate possibilities of interactive fiction, he might finally seize the masterpiece he's been chasing all these years. Until then, we have Beyond: Two Souls: Quiet, compassionate and smart, when it isn't busy being loud, brash and dumb.