After playing a bit of Heavy Rain, I would often get on my phone and call a friend who was playing it at the same time. After verifying how far in we were (speaking in vague terms, so as not to spoil anything), we ravenously compared notes on the latest choices we’d made, why, and what happened as a result. (“How did you cut off your finger?”) I was nearly as excited to find out what my friends had done differently as I was to progress further in the game. It’s an urge I get most any time I’ve gotten through a game that confronts me with a meaningful decision.
Beyond: Two Souls never once provoked this feeling in me.
I could be pretty well within my rights to just stop talking right there, because if an experience that is principally about (presumably) making choices and facing the consequences fails to present really intriguing choices, than does it matter much what else it may or may not accomplish? And Beyond: Two Souls is far from perfect otherwise. This isn’t going to be one of those times where I say, “It may have missed this mark, but it’ll totally surprise you with how awesome this other thing is!” It would probably be kinder to just stop, tell you that you should probably skip this one, and leave it at that.
Can you tell I’m trying to put this off? Because the thing is, I really like Quantic Dream. Heavy Rain (which, it seems, cannot be legally mentioned these days without some permutation of the phrase, “for all its flaws”) remains one of my favorite experiences of this console generation. Before that, I devoured Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit if you’re outside the US). I think Heavy Rain is a pretty important game, whatever might be said of its quality. Beyond: Two Souls could be an important game if it predated Heavy Rain, but Heavy Rain is the stronger of the two, as an experience in general and as an exemplar of the (slowly) emerging genre that exists somewhere between film and games. Games like Mass Effect and, of course, The Walking Dead have taken branching narrative far in recent years, and to wonder if that makes Heavy Rain somewhat irrelevant would not be entirely wrong; but those titles work within established game genres, with all the barriers to entry that come with them. Heavy Rain is a game that captivated my parents. The best audience for Quantic Dream’s games aren’t even necessarily playing them because they aren’t gamers. I think the only reason for Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls to be on the PS3 (or any game console) is that there really isn’t an alternative.
But I digress.
So. Beyond: Two Souls is the story of Jodie (actually played by Ellen Page, and not just a remarkable likeness), a girl who, for her entire life, has been bound to an entity she calls Aiden. No one else can sense Aiden, although he can effect the physical world, making things go bump in the night and, occasionally, outright attacking or possessing people. Jodie can exercise some control over him, but he’s not a slave to her wishes. Jodie’s connection to Aiden gets her involved in paranormal research, secret government projects, Native American rituals, covert operations, and more.
Players take control of both Jodie and Aiden, and in many scenes can switch between the two at will (though frequently progress can only really be made with one or the other). Jodie wanders around the environment in a pretty standard 3D manner: gone is the weirdness of Heavy Rain‘s control scheme, replaced with a more familiar two-stick (one for moving, one for camera) configuration. A little white dot appears on or near objects Jodie can interact with, replacing the context-sensitive buttons, and now only proximity and a flick of the right stick in the dot’s general direction is necessary to do stuff. It’s an attempt at simplifying an already simple system, and for people unfamiliar with the layout of a PlayStation controller it’s a nice alternative. I think some of the objective was also to make the prompts less intrusive, but I found the little dots to frequently be hard to notice – certainly harder than, say, a hovering triangle icon.
Aiden flies freely in the environment, and can go straight through most solid matter (until the game decides he can’t) as long as he doesn’t get too far from Jodie. Interacting with objects and people as Aiden involves holding L1 and then manipulating the sticks in a variety of ways, not all of which are intuitive; experienced gamers won’t be too lost with him, though less experienced players will probably have a bit of trouble.
Action, when it happens, mostly involves Jodie, and is driven by a decent idea that ultimately ends up kind of dull. Throughout a scene – say, a fight – the action goes into slow motion, and the player needs to flick the right stick in the general direction that Jodie is moving. It’s not too picky a system, and it has some challenge because it’s not always obvious where Jodie’s headed, but compared to the (more complicated, granted) more diverse interactions of Heavy Rain‘s action sequences, Beyond‘s feel dull and repetitive. Sometimes Aiden has to help Jodie fight something off, but his interactions work the same in a tense situation as they do anywhere else – pull back the sticks and release – and it makes disintegrating vengeful otherworldly entities absolutely humdrum.
The controls all seem to be about accessibility, right down to the fact you can play with your smartphone instead, if you like. There’s a free app download that will sync up with the game as long as your phone and PS3 are on the same wi-fi with no trouble and no searching through the PS3’s system settings to pair up the devices. Jodie controls more or less the same with a touch device, while Aiden is a little more limited, moving from point to point in an environment rather than freely. Two players can play, as well, one controlling Jodie and the other controlling Aiden, though they still have to switch off who’s active.
But then, if you’re coming to a Quantic Dream game expecting a deep gameplay experience, you should probably rethink whatever decisions have brought you to this point in your life. What you’re probably here for is the story experience. And that’s…
Well, here’s the thing.
Beyond: Two Souls has an interesting enough setup. There’s tension between Jodie and Aiden, a sort of familial love that doesn’t preclude Aiden ruining Jodie’s life on occasion. There’s a mix of horror and sci-fi that won’t hit everyone the right way, but it’s not a complete miss. Oh, right, and the story is told completely non-linearly. As in, not in chronological order. As in, many parts of the game which happen later in Jodie’s life come earlier in the game. Which kind of gets in the way of your decisions having effects much outside a single chapter and the very end. It’s a perplexing choice. A game that exists to give players choices about how to proceed is by nature highly causal, but to arrange the story in this way most of the major beats are already decided. And this story isn’t really helped along by its non-linearity. The reasoning behind it, introduced in the ending (or at least the one I got), is flimsy, and not remotely worth the sacrifices this structure must have necessitated. This direction doesn’t seem to have dramatically improved the pacing, or introduced extra mysteries, and what little worked better this way could have easily been done via a flashback in an otherwise linear game (a technique Heavy Rain used).
Chapters hop between Jodie’s childhood, to her teenage years, to several phases of her adult life. Some are very short, perhaps centering around a single conversation or event, while others are lengthy affairs that will take a good hour or so to complete. One chapter is even internally non-linear, slightly. Because why not? Some are slice of life scenes, while others involve Jodie saving lives and fighting monsters, more or less. As you might expect, the former is where Beyond works much better. These scenes sometimes offer lots of little, reasonably inconsequential choices: one of the best sees Jodie preparing for a coworker in whom she’s romantically interested to come to her apartment. She’s on a deadline. Does she tidy up? What does she wear? Does she make dinner or just order pizza? What sort of music should she play? And Aiden isn’t fully in support of this relationship. It works, much better than delving into some secret government lab where all hell has literally broken loose. There’s just not enough of it.
“I had to run. I had no choice.”
The fundamental problem in Beyond is that the decisions feel, in the end, very light. The significant ones are already made, and you’ll know what Jodie’s going to do before you actually see her do it, thanks to the non-linear storytelling. A handful of major choices do come back later, but not many, and none of them are terribly compelling, and some effects happen because you thought you were making a different choice, which is…I hesitate to throw the term “dishonest” around, but it is, at least, cheap. Further, there’s often no half-measure. When cornered, Jodie sometimes calls on Aiden to help (or outright rescue) her, or to go all Carrie on some mean teenagers. Using Aiden can be entertaining because there are sometimes several approaches, but it’s easy to go farther than you want and realize you can’t backpedal.
One scene in particular demonstrated both these problems, wherein a teenage Jodie wants to go out with friends but isn’t allowed. If you choose to sneak out anyway (and why wouldn’t you?), Jodie ends up in a situation that will effect her for the rest of the game in significant ways, and which is (from what I can tell online) inescapable if you make the decision to sneak out. Aiden has to come to her rescue, and if you choose to possess a certain character in this scene, Aiden will have the chance to grab a shotgun. Now, the people he’s chasing away are not overly savory sorts, but they don’t necessarily deserve to be brutally murdered, but if you grab the gun that’s what you’re going to do. You can’t decide to put it down and back away. You can’t decide to fire a warning shot to scare them. Once you’ve got it in hand, you are shooting three people. That’s it.
It’s times like these (which are frequent) that made me wish Aiden was an NPC. He occasionally is treated as such, when his desires run counter to Jodie’s, and these are some of the best scenes for their relationship. I realize that making him playable was a way of varying the gameplay and introducing puzzles of a sort, but I think, narratively speaking, I would have been much more engaged if I knew an invisible psychopath was hanging over my shoulder waiting to snap, possibly against a character I cared about.
There are a lot of missteps, and it’s disappointing. What Beyond at least gets mostly right is its presentation. Ellen Page does a great job with what she’s given, and Willem DaFoe, making his return to video games after being the villain in the under-appreciated James Bond vehicle Everything or Nothing, is pretty good as paranormal researcher Nathan Dawkins, though he’s not given as much to work with. The power of performance capture has, perhaps, been better employed, but Beyond is still impressive.
The trailer contains a line of dialogue: “The hardest part isn’t what I’ve done; it’s never knowing what’s going to happen next.” But all too often in Beyond, we know what happens next because we’ve already played that. It dwells too much on looking back – lingering throughout the game on Jodie’s childhood, which get less interesting the more we know about her later relationship with Aiden – and not enough on moving forward, even to the point of foreshadowing big, would-make-sense-to-be-a-major-part-of-the-game events that don’t get around to happening within the scope of this title (including at least one striking shot from the trailer). It seems conflicted about how to approach its themes and characters, and consequently there’s a lot that feels undeveloped – a romance, a few mysteries, and a heap of mythology that probably would’ve strengthened the experience.
Beyond: Two Souls has all the components of a defining experience of this console generation. But this time Quantic Dream’s reach exceeded their grasp.