We need to talk about David
David Cage is not a very good writer. For all the efforts he has put in with Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, and now Beyond: Two Souls, he seems incapable of delivering a consistent story that does justice to his admittedly noble ambitions of genuinely emotional storytelling. In previous outings he has failed in this endeavour pretty spectacularly, regaling us with the sort of bottom drawer fiction that would embarrass even the most pathetic of failed authors. Poor voice acting, incredulous jumps in logic, horrible clichés masquerading as characters, and ham-fisted romance, made it very hard not to find all his lofty talk, not to mention his status and position within in the industry, really rather baffling.
Beyond: Two Souls represents his third outing in the world of adventure games, and it is a relief to discover that it is undoubtedly his best work so far. The story concerns the life of Jodie Holmes, a girl connected with a spirit named Aiden, who is able to manipulate objects and people from a world beyond that of reality. She is ‘overseen’ by Nathan Dawkins, a researcher into the paranormal, and you experience their relationship as it develops over Jodie’s childhood and adolescence. Now much of the old David Cage is still in this story and its dialogue, however he has at least managed to make some headway in making me care this time, rather than laugh or roll my eyes in disgust.
How much of this is down to his two Hollywood stars isn’t entirely clear, but it strikes me as perhaps the most likely reason for the improvement. Ellen Page gives a hugely impressive performance as Jodie, and Quantic Dream’s facial animations really do allow for her acting talent to come through. She is very expressive with her emotions, and her genuine talent is a great way to compliment a genuinely impressive technology. Much of this can also be said for Willem Dafoe as Nathan Dawkins, and the likeness on screen for both is really quite remarkable.
What’s also remarkable is that for the first half, or perhaps two thirds, Beyond: Two Souls is really rather excellent. The key to this is tension, and tension in many different forms. Each scene has with it some element of anxiety or fear, or some element of the unknown to compel interest. As someone who is painfully shy in real life, it was a real delight to share and empathise with Jodie’s own social anxieties, and made the events and repercussions all the more compelling and immersive. There are of course the usual tensions from physical conflict, but Beyond makes the crucial step of making me care and feel invested in those involved, so when these scenes take place, they carry real impact.
Another important aspect which Beyond manages to excel in is the way it uses your control of Aiden to connect with Jodie. In a number of scenes, you are free to interact with things as Aiden, and Jodie will respond to your actions in a way that gives you much more of a feeling of being in the narrative than the typical adventure game would, at least without having to break the fourth wall. That Beyond: Two Souls makes you care, and then sets your actions into that narrative this way, makes for a much more immersive experience than I’ve hitherto encountered. As such, it makes the last third all the more infuriating.
It is often a criticism of these sorts of games that they are not real games at all, and much is made of a lack of a fail state and such like, but it is when Beyond becomes more of an actual game, that it loses its heart and in turn fails to reach mine. This isn’t so much an issue with the gameplay itself, but more that the story beats demand it more and more, and the story subsequently loses its more sombre and delicate moments, which were the very things that gave it its emotional power and worth. For sure the dialogue throughout is never truly great, but it at least managed to allow for some real poignancy. However, a little way off from the end the clichés become more apparent, and action/sci-fi movie tropes start to destroy the rather personal and human story it had first appeared, thus killing off much of my connection to what’s on screen. Matters are also not helped by the story’s very poor choice of love interest that becomes more important to the story as it goes on. He is a character so void of personality and charisma that I had many moments of wanting to put him out of the tale permanently, but alas that is one option frustratingly absent.
Nevertheless, and for all the problems of the last third, Beyond: Two Souls left me feeling emotionally satisfied, and on many occasions reached a level of connection with me that has never happened in a video game before. So a begrudging well done to David Cage, in spite of himself he has managed something worthwhile, but now there is no excuse for the next time, as it’s clear that he has the capacity to do it right, he just needs to hold his nerve for a little longer, and maybe just maybe let someone else handle the dialogue for a change.