It’s an experience to enjoy, a moment to witness, to be there and be absorbed in fantastic acting, but a flawed plot
If we take a look in the Oxford Dictionary for the meaning of video game, we see that it’s defined as “a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a monitor or other display.” That definition exhibits one of the most wonderful and powerful aspects about the video game medium – its openness allows for a huge range of video game genres and mechanics that easily surpass anything movies and music can do. That’s why we shouldn’t get angry when French game designer, David Cage, explains that “a video game can be so many different things” and he’s right – no one man should have all that power to define or put limits on what is a video game. If that was the case, then we wouldn’t see such diversity spreading across the medium.
We’ve already seen games encapsulate story through various means. The Last of Us offers a touching relationship between two characters by blending a cinematic experience with engrossing survival based gameplay, while Telltale offered up their take on The Walking Dead, an experience that was more about dialogue choices and interactions rather than solving puzzles or shooting the undead. Then we have games like Journey, where there is no voice acting, but there is still a story cleverly told through an experience, through visual and audio during gameplay, rather than going for fancy cinematic camera shots and cutscenes.
David Cage has been trying to blend films with video games for a while, experimenting in the past with Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain to crack interactive storytelling. It’s like the guy is on a mission to prove that games can be like films and tell good stories, no doubt fuelled by the comments from legendary film director Steven Spielberg that video games haven’t been able to successfully tell stories and make consumers care about the characters, because “the second you get the controller something turns off in the heart, and it becomes a sport.”
Beyond: Two Souls is Cage’s next step in bringing the gap closer together between the two mediums, even going as far to remove the game over screen as a way to keep the player constantly in the game’s world. Your enjoyment of the game will come with allowing yourself to accept Cage’s philosophy in game design. Having a guy who strongly believes in a different strategy from the norm is refreshing, but it doesn’t automatically make it great. It has to be proven, but so far this isn’t the case – there are faults in Beyond: Two Souls that stop it from excelling in demonstrating that philosophy.
The story revolves around Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page), a girl who has a special gift, ever since she was born she’s been linked to an entity known as Aiden, a sort of ghost that can manipulate objects and possess people. Beyond: Two Souls tells Jodie’s adventure through non-linear narrative over the span of 15 years, from when Jodie was an eight year old girl living on a military base after her parents were worried of the dangers that came with using her ability, to growing up and being on the run from the CIA.
Jumping around the storyline is an interesting design choice. While it might seem a little disjointed to go from running from the CIA to being a little kid locked away in her room and having nightmares, it actually works when looking at it from a video game perspective. I’ve heard countless complaints that Heavy Rain took too long to get exciting, as you spent the first hour with Ethan, doing normal human being chores and shouting out “Jason!” Beyond: Two Souls remedies this by starting the game with Jodie in a curious situation, then from there you begin to jump around, one minute in the action, the next doing something a bit more tranquil. It solves the problem of participating in areas of the game that are less stimulating for too long, but are important to Cage’s story.
In a sense, the way the game breaks up the story makes it feel more like a TV show, with each chapter coming across as an episode. Most are self-contained events that help project an overall growth to Jodie’s character, her life and the relationship with Aiden and her father figure Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe) and the people she comes into contact with over the course of 15 years. Some have more impact on the player than others, but one thing I noticed is that there is a wide range of quality between each chapter.
For instance, take the party scene that happens early on in the game. The scenario is that Jodie needs to get out a bit more, since she’s constantly locked away. To do this, Nathan decides that it would be good for Jodie to visit the house of a work relative to enjoy their daughter’s birthday, but also give her a way to meet new people through the daughter’s friends. It starts off like any typical birthday party with teenagers – sneaking in beer, smoking cigarettes, trying to be cool, etc. But there’s an incredible disconnect with the atmosphere. At one point, Jodie ends up dancing with a guy, he’s acting all nice and there’s a scene where you can give him a hug or a kiss. I went with a hug, and they were all happy and smiling, but then seconds later, a scene happens where the kids get nasty, including this one dude who you’ve been dancing with, but it seems so inappropriate, because nothing invoked him to change his attitude like that. It was a mood swing of epic proportions that makes that scene one of the worst in the game.
But then you have more emotional sections, such as Jodie dealing with being on the run, becoming homeless and meeting up with people in the same situation. It builds on a touching relationship between the group and how helpful Jodie’s powers can be to the people in need. It’s moments like these that make you want to stick with the game and overlook some of the weaker written parts. The script isn’t the best and some dialogue can come off extremely cheesy or awkward, but they are parts that shine with Cage’s potential. It’s his best story so far, but he still has improvements to make before hitting the big one.
In an ironic way, what with the industry crying out for more main female characters, with had a year where the forefront of motion capture and voice acting is done by two females. Ellie was portrayed to such a caring degree in The Last of Us, and Ellen Page as Jodie is another example of the powerful performance and emotion you can achieve from motion capture and quality voice acting. She is Jodie, from the quivering lips to the soft voice used in times of sadness, her voice and facial features are portrayed superbly. It also helps that the technology is there. Beyond: Two Souls can occasionally look like an outstanding game, bordering close to photo-realism at times. The models and textures are incredibly detailed, and the same can be said for the environments, but this isn’t always the case, as sub characters and some areas of the game suffer from reduced details that spoil the otherwise amazing productions.
I suppose that not even talking about gameplay yet shows just how much of a story driven game Beyond: Two Souls is. The game follows in the same vein as Heavy Rain, yet makes more strides to be a cinematic experience than its murder mystery ancestor. It’s still a game that is filled with button prompting quick-time events, but advancements have been made where not everything requires telling the player what button needs pressing. This is used mostly in the action sequences, where the game slows down and the player is required to press the direction on the right stick to finish the action, say throwing a punch to some guy’s face. Another example is the CIA training area, where Jodie has to jump over fences; this is done by pressing up on the right stick when the game slows down to her coming up to a hurdle. It can be a bit hard at times to decipher which direction the game wants you to press, but in a way, this also makes the outcomes more interesting thanks to the game not having any game over screen. This is something Cage has praised, as it helps remove that sense of something ending and restarting.
These action events are a mixed bag. In some cases it works rather well – when you’re in a chase scene, for example, failing to do the action means Jodie gets cut and bruised or even caught, which leads to a separate scene of her trying to get away. When it’s like this, you can see the awesome potential this type of interaction has. But then you get cases like the sneaking training with the CIA where, if you fail, you’re told to go back and try again, which is basically just covering up a game over screen, since you’re repeating to overcome mistakes you’ve already made once or more. There could have been ways to do this better to keep the flow going, because silly me got spotted three times before finishing that part of the game.
For other scenes, such as small movements and interactions, a white dot appears on screen or items that require a simple push of the right stick to begin the motion. This is much better than button pressing, because it comes across as more elegant and natural, while at the same time not filling the screen with symbols of controllers and buttons, which, by the way, Beyond: Two Souls still does. Those classic Heavy Rain PlayStation button prompts make a return for certain action and dialogue choices, which is a shame, as having those plastered on such a great looking game feels like sticking a post-it note on a piece of art. It might have been better to show dialogue choices at the bottom, like The Walking Dead does, or maybe even within the black barriers that the game uses to give an aspect ratio of a movie.
Mentioning The Walking Dead gives me another topic to talk about: the game’s dialogue options. Beyond: Two Souls is a step back from Heavy Rain’s choice and consequence gameplay. There aren’t many choices that affect the overall story, and what there is of only comes towards the end of the game. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially with the action events having areas that split off from the main path to let the player keep playing past failed instances. Beyond: Two Souls feels more proud in bringing a cinematic story, rather than letting the player have their way with Jodie and the world she inhabits.
This is demonstrated with the game’s dialogue and minuscule actions. The game frequently waits for you to do something. For instances, there’s a scene that won’t progress unless you accept a cup of coffee, as the game waits for you to press a direction to accept it. Again, I end up mentioned The Walking Dead, because that’s a title that does this part well. If you don’t pick a response or action within a given time frame, it will assume you don’t want to do anything, making the game pick the dialogue as “…” to represent silence. This is something that David Cage needs to incorporate into his titles, because it would add that bit more to representing a smoother experience and stop it from being a game that at times makes the player feel like they are activating picture slides.
Limitations come into play with the spiritual entity Aiden. The concept sounds great on paper – control a spirit that can go through floors, interact with objects and control people, but in reality, the confines of the game’s cinematic experience reduce the potential the gameplay has with Aiden. It often resides to floating around looking for blue dots and then holding the sticks down or to the sides to perform an interaction with the environment. Towards the end of the game there is one part that shows what could be achieved with this gameplay, but it’s not long before you’re back in restraints playing as a ghostly figure that is forced to play a game of pressing stuff.
It’s a shame I am forced to give Beyond: Two Souls a score, because it’s such a hard game to describe through a number. It’s a video game, as defined with the Oxford definition, but as mentioned, mechanically, the game has issues, which still includes the overpowering animation priority that Quantic Dream use with controlling their characters. There are times where I’ve tried to get to a place and ended up walking backwards and forwards on the spot, because the controls for movement are stiff. But as an interactive piece of medium, it succeeds in areas that make it for a truly great experience to sit and be a part of. I mentioned it in my Rain review, but this is why I love playing video games so much, because there’s just so much variety, andBeyond: Two Souls is just one piece from that whole essence of video games, one that is portraying them in a different and unconventional way.
In the end, what you get from Beyond: Two Souls comes down to what type of person you are. If you don’t enjoy this heavy focus on interactive cinematic experiences in games, then you are going to hate Beyond: Two Souls. But if you have an open mind, are willing to look past some of the mechanical faults, then I think you’ll have a fascinating time living the life of Jodie Holmes and her invisible friend. It’s an experience to enjoy, a moment to witness, to be there and be absorbed in fantastic acting and a decent, if flawed, story that shows signs that David Cage is stepping closer to solving what he wants to accomplish with the video game medium and interactive storytelling.