Beyond: Two Souls aims to be something different. In a market packed with shooters, adventure games and action games, it’s creator, David Cage, has described it as “like four movies or something.” As such the focus is on spectacle and story, but what room does that leave for gameplay?
In Beyond: Two Souls players experience the life of Jodie Holmes. Jodie is a young woman linked with an invisible entity called Aiden. Players constantly switch between Jodie and Aiden as various scenes from Jodie’s life play out. Aiden can be scary, he can be mischievous, but most of all he’s your most important ally throughout the 8-9 hour title.
It’s an interesting experience. Defying anything that represents traditional gameplay, it’s more easily compared to a movie or ‘choose your own adventure’ book than to other video games. As such, it divides opinion according to how invested in the story you become. A lot of people will find the genre-hopping irritating. At times it’s a tense thriller, other-times horror, it’s science-fiction and action heavy, all with heavy dollops of drama.
For those comfortable with the constant genre switches, further issues emerge with just how little importance the player has. It’s unlikely to be noticed the first time you play, you’ll interact in scenes, making what seems like a truly independent story. You’ll panic when the game ups the tension, you’ll frantically focus on making sure every button press in accurate to make sure everything goes as well as it possibly can. It’s in revisiting Beyond, when you want to do things differently, that an awkward stumbling block becomes apparent. The player really doesn’t matter.
Contextual quick-time-events represent the majority of player interaction, whether playing guitar, cooking dinner, or beating an enemy. Flicks of the right thumbstick or holding down a combination of the face buttons is the way to accomplish tasks. Timing and careful attention initially appear vital to progression. The screen slows, and the player must direct the thumbstick in the direction of Jodie’s movement. It’s not a bad idea, but the dizzying camera and sometimes awkward angles make it difficult to tell which direction Jodie is going.
As detached entity Aiden, things are a bit different. Aiden is able to float around areas completely unseen and can interact with them in a variety of ways. Blue dots represent things he can manipulate. Often he can ‘blast’ things, for example shattering tv screens, or knocking down out-of-reach objects. Aiden can also use his abilities on people that glow orange, temporarily controlling them or choking them.
Aiden is very interesting. Initially playing as him feels fresh, having different ways to interact is very enjoyable and engaging. Using Aiden in the best way possible creates it’s own set of challenges. Unfortunately, like the rest of the game, there comes a time when the illusion of freedom is broken as you realise that your decisions or skill carry very little weight. You’re forcibly redirected to anything the story doesn’t want you to miss.
The narrative is non-linear. Rather than a straightforward progression in time, scenes from later in Jodie’s life are broken-up by scenes from her childhood. Skipping back and forth between through memories is an creative style of delivery, it allows the action experienced by grown up Jodie to be interspersed with less exciting, more poignant moments from her childhood. Though it staves off potential boredom, it also contributes to Beyond’s biggest flaws.
Regardless of what actions you take there aren’t any important changes to the story. During my second run I tried to make the experience as different as possible. All I found was slightly different dialogue and minor alternative moments. The future is already set and established because of the narrative style. There are a handful of enjoyable moments to encounter that may have been missed, but the impact of discovering them is minimal.
Quantic Dream’s previous game, Heavy Rain, had different characters with intertwined plots, and how you played altered the outcome. It was easy to miss clues, characters could die if the player failed some QTE’s. Every decision and every action had genuine consequences that changed the outcome. Sadly, that’s not the case with beyond.
For one thing, Jodie Holmes can’t die, the narrative insists she ends up in certain places in a certain way. Failure is nothing but slightly different moment that put you back where you were. I tried hard to alter outcomes, chose different options, deliberately played badly, the results were either a moment taken out of my hands that still allowed me to continue, or the camera forcing me back to where the game wanted me. Even doing as little as possible, still moved the narrative forward. The lack of importance of player participation removes the importance of the player. If a player isn’t needed, Beyond doesn’t need to be a video game.
There are good moments, at times the story is enjoyable. Jodie and Aiden’s relationship is intriguing. Sometimes they hate each other, sometimes they work in complete harmony. There’s a reoccurring power struggle between them, Aiden will often act out and completely ignore Jodie’s wishes. There’s also a few Aiden-shaped plot gaps, but most people will be able to ignore them.
The cast headed by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe put in great performances. The nuances of their deliveries make voicework in many other games seem sub-par. Jodie’s hardships, her desire for independence, her longing to fit in, and struggles to reconcile what she is with what she wants, are all delivered with notable skill by Page. Dafoe’s driven, caring, and conflicted paranormal scientist is a character guaranteed to fascinate you.
As well as the great acting, superb sound and graphics will make the first play through a worthwhile experience. It’s only when you start to scratch at the surface that you notice Beyond’s limitations. Complete insignificance of player agency is an issue I can’t get past, I wish I could though, because Beyond represents a potential future for more artistic and meaningful story delivery in games.