Beyond: Two Souls is a remarkable achievement for David Cage and Quantic Dream.
The double-edged sword that is the central conceit of Jodie Holmes’ story is mirrored in the divisive relationship Quantic Dream has with gamers and critics. Forsaking intensive gameplay mechanics for glittering cinematography and pared-down controls has both set Quantic Dream apart from the pack and made the studio notorious. Without fail, the developer has sparked intense debate about player agency in a medium distinguished by its high levels of interactivity.
Lavishly presented and containing brilliant performances by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, Beyond: Two Souls will split audiences just as 2010’s Heavy Rain did, ostracising those who do not accept its gripping story taking primacy over rigorous gameplay.
Beyond is about a young woman called Jodie Holmes and her struggle with that which makes her unique but also a weapon, an oddity, and a tortured soul. Jodie has an unbreakable connection to an invisible spirit she calls Aiden, something that causes her to be institutionalised from a young age, away from the normal life she so desperately desires. Aiden too often lashes out and appears to be as frustrated as Jodie is with his predicament, but he is also fiercely protective of her, to the point of killing anyone who tries to harm her.
Played out in memories set in non-chronological order, Jodie goes through a metamorphosis that gamers don’t often get to experience. Through the course of Jodie’s life players will see her deal with the central fact that she will never be alone because of her unbreakable connection to Aiden, and equally alone because of Aiden.
It’s an exciting premise that’s full of possibility and intrigue, but Beyond: Two Souls is peppered with deliberate design choices that may vex experienced gamers. The world that Beyond is set in has many limitations and confines due to its cinematic nature. Players are not encouraged to explore on their own and challenge is non-existent. Being funnelled through to the next cutscene is not to everyone’s taste, but in Beyond’s case, this can be made particularly frustrating due to the world of possibilities presented by including Aiden.
Because of his invisibility, Aiden can eavesdrop on other characters. He can also knock things over, smash things and make things explode, not to mention choke, possess and heal people. But only when Beyond says he can. Beyond teases an interesting toolbox, but when players instinctively reach for it, Cage and company frustratingly snap the lid shut on their fingers.
Beyond’s controls are much the same as Heavy Rain’s. Banal tasks such as taking a shower, cooking a meal and packing a bag are still there and still clunky. Players must flick the correct stick or hit the right button as the prompts direct. However, there are a few welcome changes, for example, the distinct lack of quick-time events marring the game’s exceptional visuals during combat.
Instead of a flashing X invading the screen to ensure players press it to avoid catastrophe, the action will slow down to prompt player action. As a skilled hand-to-hand combatant, Jodie can hold her own in tense situations if players know when to dodge and where to aim a hit. For instance, if a fist is heading in Jodie’s direction, players move the right or left stick to get her out of the way or launch a counterattack. However, the consequences of failing in these situations are non-existent, apart perhaps from a few cuts and bruises in the next cut scene. The game will continue to roll along its preordained path, regardless of whether players engaged in the battle or left Jodie to fend for herself.
Herein lies another problem. The illusion of player agency in Beyond is very thin in each sequence. Players appear to be inundated with choice, but they’re hollow, meaningless ones, such as which item to pick up first. It won’t affect the outcome of the game. When faced with dialogue options, if an option isn’t picked, the game will pick the conversation choice that will keep the game ticking along, propelling players to the next cut scene.
The disjointed storytelling style Quantic Dream has utilised to help players into the shoes of Jodie Holmes takes some getting used to. Players will jump from sequence to sequence, as diverse as going from a CIA espionage mission to playing with her dolls as a child. There is no flow to Beyond. The single useful instance of moving from Jodie’s present to her past is in a satisfying CIA training montage where players learn to control Jodie and Aiden, effectively equipping players with everything they will need to see Beyond through.
But that’s as good as it gets. Moving from chapter to chapter is as jarring as stopping a rollercoaster ride during a vertigo-inducing drop.
Sometimes the chapters barely fit together, and they unabashedly parade stereotypes past the noses of players. One “episode” felt as if it were lifted from Visceral’s Dead Space: a dark corridor riddled with jump scares, and all of it completely out of context. As soon as the vignette was over it was like it never happened.
Beyond succeeds in making players care for Jodie. It’s a compelling story, filled with heartache and drama seeping out of every polygon, but it also does an excellent job of excluding every other character in the game. Tonally, it fits with Jodie’s ostracism from everyone around her, but it comes at the expense of Willem Dafoe’s character Nathan Dawkins. Dawkins cares for Jodie after Jodie’s terrified parents leave her with him. He is important to Jodie, second only to Aiden, and yet Cage underutilises Dafoe, and does not develop his character enough.
So the choices Quantic Dream has made may seem at times incomprehensible, but it does not make the game any less important. It shows the developer’s improvement and the industry’s fierce desire to welcome new gamers into the fold, particularly those inclined to think of videogames as childish time-wasters. Beyond: Two Souls is the game David Cage wanted to make, one that isn’t suffering from the Peter Pan syndrome he insists the industry is suffering from. It's an unintimidating access point that should be encouraged in the industry, especially if it wants to grow.
This piece of work is not about massaging the reflexes of experienced gamers but those who would be gamers. Beyond: Two Souls may not be the best example of interactive storytelling out there but it is pretty close. There is so much potential here.