I don't know if there’s ever been a game that's divided my heart and mind quite like Beyond: Two Souls.
My heart tells me Beyond was created with the honest intention of using medium of interactive entertainment as of means of generating a powerful and impassioned response from the player. My media-drenched brain, however, is quick to find fault whenever Beyond tries to strike at the player's soul. Beyond's ideas and execution of those ideas are occasionally inept and sometimes brilliant, but often come off as an unstable in-between overloaded with emotional ephemera, predatory clichés, and unconscious behavior. But, damn it, through it all my heart grew three sizes anyway. The question is; what exactly makes Beyond a valuable experience?
Beyond's non-linear narrative jumps back and forth between twenty years of Jodie Holmes' life. The creative indulgence that makes Jodie's story varied and interesting is her symbiotic bond with a ghost-like "entity" named Aiden. Aiden is tethered to Jodie and his potential as a partner (or slight adversary) is Beyond's central gameplay hook. He can move through walls and listen on conversations, manipulate or destroy objects in the environment, and even take over - or asphyxiate - certain humans. Beyond details Jodie's relationship with Aiden from her early life at home, gives way to time with paranormal researchers Nathan Dawkins and Cole Freeman, carries over to her to her rebellious teenage years, and finally goes straight through to her recruitment with, employment in, and alienation from the Central Intelligence Agency. If nothing else, Beyond is grand in scope.
One of Beyond's opening chapters is also its most telling in what, both mechanically and figuratively, lies ahead. Deciding it’s important for a teenage Jodie to socialize with people her own age, head researcher and surrogate father figure Nathan arranges for Jodie to attend a co-worker’s daughter’s birthday party. At the party, once the girl's mother leaves, Jodie has the option to pound warm beer, dance to music, and get to know one of the boys in attendance. The situation sours when Jodie's birthday present is rejected and (I would say "inexplicably" but I was subject to similar random acts of intense hatred at that age) the kids decide to haze Jodie and lock her in a closet under the stairs. Using Aiden to bust the lock, Jodie can walk away or take revenge.
I took revenge. At first I used Aiden to move a few cups. Then I started tipping chairs over. Soon I was throwing knives at and stabbing the boy who insulted me, and then I knocked over a candle and lit the living room on fire. Only when the kids were pounding at the door and about the die of smoke inhalation did I let them out - and that was also when Nathan arrived to pick Jodie up. He looked horrified, and it was then that I thought of Nathan smiling as he dropped me off, assuring me that the girl would like the gift, and seemed genuinely proud of the girl Jodie was becoming. He misread the situation, but his selfless interest in Jodie's well-being and earnest attempt at making her life as normal as possible seemed genuine. And in a selfish act of revenge I burned someone's house down, almost killed people, and ruined everything.
This was the closest Beyond got to affecting me emotionally. The context and tension is borrowed from Carrie and while this singular instance isn't a problem, Beyond's constant reluctance to come up with original scenarios will grate on media-savvy players. For example, there's another vignette where Jodie has to live with homeless people and learn their day-to-day reality and winds up rescuing them from a burning building and somehow delivering a baby. From befriending a child solider in a war torn African country to finding redemption amongst modern day Navajo, Beyond is an emotional vampire eager to drain context from any number of clichéd scenarios. A style all its own is completely absent.
It's an odd comparison, but I initially responded to much of Beyond the same way I responded to Meet the Parents. In the latter I liked the general idea and often found it funny, but I couldn't help but see every scene as a vehicle to ruin Ben Stiller's life; "How much crap are they gonna put this guy through?" was a constant thought. Likewise, Beyond indulges Jodie in ideal scenarios and then challenges them with a considerable tragedy. Nothing is easy for her, and each scene becomes a game in waiting to see what's going to go wrong and how she’s going to deal with it. Technically, "how much crap are we gonna put this person through" is the backbone of any adventure (or videogame), but Beyond's careless transparency allows the player's mind to wander too far away from the intended narrative.
The crazy thing is how intensely impassioned Beyond is in investing the player in these sequences. I didn't care for the idea of Jodie finding redemption amongst an outlandish Native American ceremony, but as it was happening I was hopelessly and honestly captured by its moment. Likewise, I knew what the end-game was going to be in the child soldier vignette but I was no less remorseful and regretful when it played to its inevitable conclusion. Beyond doesn't always hit its mark (most of the horror sequences are awful), but its kitchen sink approach to the gamut of relatable sentimentality is bound to connect here and there.
At the same time, Beyond is also subject to a humiliating lack of perspective. Sometimes it's because Quantic Dream can't seem to get out of its own way. Performing button sequences to avoid translucent ghosts seemed ripped straight out of Indigo Prophecy, and assaulting an otherwise helpless naked woman in a shower was already shamefully exploited in Heavy Rain. Offense was also taken at the suggestion that mental hospitals are audibly identical to zombie-filled haunted houses and the idea of a white person almost instantly solving a problem that’s been plaguing Native Americans for decades, but these are the lessons cinema has taught us, and Quantic Dream isn’t one to reject their embrace.
Then again, Beyond provides a suitable amount of choice to some rather heady subjects. When Jodie prepares for a date, does she treat it with casual indifference or does she obey the traditional dinner/date model? Will she relieve the suffering of a loved one through uninvited and assisted suicide, or will she let them be? Can she be honest with perceptibly well meaning people, or will she lie and remain evasive? Is murder a fitting punishment for the suggestion of impending sexual assault? Beyond is going to filter Jodie down the same road regardless of most decisions, but minor sequences help shape the player's interpretation of Jodie - and the ultimate path that she decides in the end.
From its inception Beyond was marketed and discussed as if it were a film, and Quantic Dream's David Cage has made no secret of his desire to create "interactive drama." Putting Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe at the forefront of that campaign not only added legitimacy to Beyond's image, but also promised a solution to one of Heavy Rain's worst problems; competent acting. For Page's part, her likeness as Jodie is uncanny, her motion capture appears natural, and her vocal performance is believable, relatable, and sincerely performed. She's fed some absolutely dreadful lines throughout the game, but it doesn't feel like she's treating them with any less respect. Dafoe is solid in his support role as Nathan Dawkins, but my favorite of the remaining cast was Kadeem Hardison as Cole Freeman, Nathan's assistant. His relationship with Jodie is honest one hundred percent of the time, and the guy's smile is big and bright enough to crack through any of the darkness in Jodie's life.
Looking the part aids Beyond in generating a cinematic presentation. While initially disorienting, the low-to-the-ground and shaky camera following Jodie feels vaguely more human than the traditional third-person view. Likewise, an original score timed to coincide with explosive action, and somber (if not derivative) vocals accentuate more tender moments. It also doesn't hurt that segments of Beyond look (sorry) beyond what the PlayStation 3 is capable of producing. The Navajo sequence at the desert ranch, running through a forest in a storm, and the quality of the facial animation place Beyond just above everything else on the current console generation.
Though Beyond has been projected a film and occasionally looks like one, it's not entirely comfortable in that medium. The constant need to punch the player directly in the face with its themes leaves zero room for subtlety. Beyond's non-linearity makes it feel a bit like a puzzle, but when credits role there's little doubt how everything fell into place. Had I not played Gone Home or The Last of Us this year I wouldn't have expected much else, but with those under my belt I've come to value a game saying less while doing more. In this regard Beyond's general plot feels more like a made-for-TV movie than a gifted film. Thankfully we're dealing with a game and neither of those two labels.
Beyond's approach to interactivity, while similar to Quantic Dream's past work, diverges from what is traditionally defined as gameplay. A refinement of what we saw in Heavy Rain, Beyond is more focused on acute reaction through basic input than it is finger-twisting complexity. Jodie's movement during exploration is a traditional (though somewhat disorienting) third-person affair, but any sequence that demands a response breaks down into series of directional presses. Time slows in the heat of the moment, and if the player presses the direction Jodie's body is moving, it will result in Jodie performing the correct action. From blocking incoming attacks and dishing out moves of her own, to jumping over obstacles and dodging projectiles during sequences of escape, quite a lot is accomplished through simple directional input. There are also a few sequence of mashing or combining particular buttons, but they're relatively infrequent.
It should come as no surprise that the entirety of Beyond can be played with a smart phone or tablet. Somewhere along the way Quantic Dream must have evaluated the DualShock3 as inhibitive, or an otherworldly obstacle unfriendly to non-gamers. I have no idea if they were right, but by downloading the Beyond app players can access a virtual button layout and perform every necessary swipe via a tablet’s screen. Personally I found it camera control unwieldy and the entire tablet experience vastly inferior to a controller but, then again, I'm not a part of an older or younger generation that was built from the ground up with tablets in mind.
Reactive input is a fine means of dealing with Beyond's more active moments, but there's also plenty of time to slow down work out its finer points. This is where Aiden comes in. Mechanically speaking he's two dots affixed to each analog stick. Contextually speaking, Aiden is almost everything. He can be a shortcut when Jodie's in need of money, short-circuiting an ATM. He can be a life saver, causing explosions that eviscerate every cop in site. He can scout the potential carnage on the other side of a wall. He can break a fence, allowing an eight year old Jodie to get in a snowball fight. Aiden's presence can heal wounds and create an impenetrable shield, rendering him the Swiss army knife of personal guardians.
Most enjoyably, Aiden can be left to his own devices to screw with things in the environment. Certain chapters can play out completely differently based on the combined actions of Aiden and Jodie. When a 16-year-old Jodie wanted to go out for a night, Aiden helped by controlling the body of supposed chaperoning staff member. Initially I screwed that sequence up, either through Jodie's dialogue options or Aiden's choices, and the party was over. On my second playthrough I chose my words differently and wound up playing through a significant, completely new-to-me sequence at a bar down the road. It’s also worth mentioning that Beyond can be played cooperatively, leading to an interesting dynamic if both players have different ideas of how Aiden should aid Jodie.
If Aiden's bad at anything, its consistency. He can only take over the bodies of certain people. He can only kill certain people. He can only move through certain walls. He can only manipulate certain things at certain times. He can make Jodie completely invincible only when the plot demands it. If no rules were set in place then we wouldn't have a game here, obviously, but the degree to which Aiden is prohibited makes Beyond feel more rigidly lined to its otherwise invisible rails. That being said, there were still plenty of instances where Aiden's help produced surprising (and sometimes horrifying) results, and those are the very moments in which Beyond thrives on its ideas.
What makes Beyond valuable is its willingness to create scenarios with the specific intention of generating an impassioned response from the player. It doesn't always work and it's never remotely subtle, but few of its monster-budgeted peers even try to explore similar ground. When the credits rolled, I wasn't thinking of Beyond's unabashed failings, but rather the consequence of a decision that inevitably leaves someone behind. Neither choice is intended as outright solution, and it was there I found the nuance and variation I had been searching for. The entire game is aimed at that point, and emerges in a much better light than initial impressions might declare. Beyond paints a much healthier picture if it’s seen through until its end.