Girl Games – Beyond Two Souls

It’s time for another exciting edition of Girl Games! We kicked off the first of the series with a review of the new Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. This latest installment will take a turn into a more cerebral experience. We give you Beyond: Two Souls.

Beyond Two Souls

The line between movies and video games is blurred these days. Companies have been toying with interactive movies for quite some time, but never have we been so close to a seamless balance between observant passivity and active participation in media as we are now. On the cusp of definition we stand…and it’s exciting as hell.

Enter Beyond: Two Souls, an ambitious project from acclaimed French developer Quantic Dream. The company’s previous title Heavy Rain took such bold steps in story and character development that many vaguely referred to it as an “experience” rather than a game. Seeking to raise the storytelling bar even higher, Quantic pulled out all the stops with Beyond. Sporting Hollywood star power, premium motion capture technology, and an alleged blank check from Sony, the game set out to be “The Jazz Singer” of playable movies (or whatever you call them).

Beyond jumps around the diverse life of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), a girl linked to a supernatural entity named Aiden. It doesn’t take long for the guys in white coats to catch wind of this and lock her up in a paranormal ward under the supervision of resident surrogate father Dr. Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe). Bummer.

Infinite nosebleed tests that degrade my self-worth? SIGN. ME. UP.

Infinite nosebleed tests that degrade my self-worth? SIGN. ME. UP.

Nonlinearly, we see what life is like with a ghost that won’t ever leave you. One minute Jodie and Aiden flee cross-country from a SWAT team, the next they play with toys in Jodie’s room. As your relationship with Aiden deepens, the thematic doors of religion, sacrifice, spirituality, corruption, technology, family and love open wide. Too wide. The story promptly loses focus, sacrificing pace in favor of grandiose emotion.

Beyond lacks flow, thus the storytelling success depends on the moments it chooses to sit in. Thankfully, this is where Beyond (mostly) excels. Of course we’re treated to the excitement of Jodie’s adventures, but we’re also exposed to the quiet of her life: playing with other children, attending her first birthday party, playing guitar on the street, and her first date. Aiden’s presence complicates these seemingly normal circumstances. Jodie’s childlike innocence isn’t lost. It’s taken from her. Quantic’s delicate handling of the smaller substance in Jodie’s life encouraged me to care not just about her survival, but her well-being. Well done, Quantic Dream. I am feeling, and feeling, and feeling some more…and I love it.

With so much drama in the NYC, it's kinda hard bein' J-O-D-I-E.

With so much drama in the NYC, it’s kinda hard bein’ J-O-D-I-E.

It isn’t just Quantic Dream that’s up to the emotive task. Ellen Page delivers a wonderfully dedicated performance as Jodie. Page brings her A-game, delivering every good (and bad) line with the utmost sincerity and placing complete faith in the direction. Her warm likeability melts through the icy tones of Beyond, bringing the player into Jodie’s lonely, friendly world. It’s a performance worthy of study by future game performers. Page is so good here that she elevates the material she’s given to something more.

Honoring Page’s performance is Quantic Dream’s amazing motion capture technology and graphics. This is the first and only game I’ve played where the gameplay and cut scenes were truly seamless. Character eyes and faces are rich, pure, and articulate. Every facial tick and gesture is represented to a painstaking degree. Unlike its predecessors, the graphics in Beyond act as transparent windows instead of opaque barriers. We see through the window and catch the performance within.

I didn't phone this shit in, bitch. I'm THE PAGE.

I didn’t phone this shit in, bitch. I’m THE PAGE.

Alas, the silver lines a cloud. While individual moments succeed, the nonlinear framework robs the story of connecting arcs. Imagine reading a three chapter book: middle chapter in the beginning, half of the beginning chapter in the end, three-quarters of the ending chapter halfway between the beginning and middle chapters, and the latter half of the beginning chapter at the end preceded by the final quarter of the actual end chapter. Confused? Me too. Perhaps David Cage, the director of Beyond, thought it would be fun to encourage the audience to connect the dots. It isn’t. Despite its sloppy structure, Beyond packs a wallop at its conclusion that stayed with me for days, but it may have stayed with me for months if the story were told linearly. One particular chapter, Navajo, is so awkwardly placed that progress becomes an insufferable bore and the supposed meaning behind it is an utter enigma. On the flipside, I found myself repeatedly playing another chapter, the thrilling and well-executed Hunted with glee. Hell, I forced my friends to watch me play it so I could play it again. It’s that good. Still, it seems no good risk goes unpunished in Beyond.

One aspect of Beyond that involves little to no risk is gameplay. In addition to Jodie, you can also control Aiden. Aiden possesses exceptionally destructive powers, your handling of which defines Jodie’s relationships. Upon hearing this, I couldn’t wait to see what kinds of morally challenging and problem-solving scenarios Quantic would create. Unfortunately Quantic let me down. Instead of giving players the ability to switch between Jodie and Aiden freely, Beyond chooses when and how the player may use Aiden for the sake and convenience of the story. Aiden can possess this guy and move this pillar, but it can’t possess that guy and move that pillar. Why not? It would accomplish the same task, right? Ugh. To add insult to injury, Jodie will say something out loud (to no one in particular) to announce that it’s time to use Aiden. I suspect Quantic wanted to emphasize that Aiden isn’t a pet on a leash and has its own agenda, but c’mon. Have a little faith in the player. To be fair, there ARE times where Aiden is unleashed to a myriad of interactive options, and there ARE times when you can switch freely, but it’s few and far between. When it happens though, holy smokes is it FUN.

Aiden can shield me from certain death but won't do my math homework? Entities these days.

Aiden can shield me from certain death but won’t do my math homework? Entities these days.

The Dinner is a particularly clever chapter that offers the best of both choice worlds. A primo hottie invites himself over with an expensive bottle of wine in tow. You have an hour to do everything you can to ensure the date has a happy ending…or to wreck the entire affair. How this chapter plays out depends entirely on your personal conclusions about Jodie and her man. Do you like them? Do you want them to be together? Is it good for Jodie to be in a relationship considering her situation with Aiden? These questions race through your mind as the clock winds down. You also have to decide what you’ll wear, what you’ll cook for dinner, and whether or not to clean up and shower. Aiden’s utter disapproval of the situation makes matters even more difficult.

During my playthrough, I wanted Jodie to succeed. I did everything I could to help her score. Aiden upset me and I wanted nothing to do with it…until I switched. Beyond pulled a 180 and cast me into Aiden’s shoes. In the blink of an eye, I shifted from a desire to banish Aiden to a penchant for malice toward Jodie. I now held the power to undo everything – I could break windows, overturn tables, and send chills down the hunk’s back among other options. The challenge was denying or accepting the temptation. I was shocked and amazed at how quickly I could identify with Aiden after the support I gave Jodie. Aiden’s incessant nagging earlier on suddenly seemed to hold sway. It’s a miraculous moment in Beyond because it’s not just a test in a game. It’s a situation that forces you to show your quality. You know, like Faramir in LOTR. What would you do if you could destroy something beautiful without real consequence? Regardless of your choice, the game presses on.

Hey! Jodie! Aiden here. He's not THAT good-looking, is he?

Hey! Jodie! Aiden here. He’s not THAT good-looking, is he?

The illusion of choice hovers around Beyond like a pesky fly. Games like Beyond rely on moral, ethical, and emotional decisions the player must make to further the story. Ideally, they carry severe consequences that alter the story and increase replay value. At their best, they’re grey – Who do you save, your loving mother or your nurturing father? There’s only time for one! At their worst, they’re black and white – There’s soup in front of me. Should I use a knife or a spoon to eat it? Beyond has both.

The impact of major choices is unclear until the final act, and by then it’s too late to do anything about it. Arguments can be made for the good and bad of this, but since I couldn’t personally distinguish the consequential from the inconsequential decisions, I never knew what to get excited or stressed about. Responding to an undesirable ending, I replayed several chapters to correct the choices I felt were wrong. I arrived at the same place every time. A friend of mine who’d already completed the game watched me do this, and I eventually learned that if he started playing Angry Birds, I was wasting my time. It was fun to see a different path to the same place, but I never got the sense that I could fail. Be her a bumbling buffoon or towering intellect, Jodie heads to the same spot. Beyond has replay value, but most choices are too trivial to sustain suspense. Thankfully, the payoff is high.

Stop trying to make me go that way, Luke. I'm going this way. The story's over here.

Stop trying to make me go that way, Luke. I’m going this way. The story’s over here.

Beyond: Two Souls is one of the best movies and worst games I’ve ever played. I’ve spent most of this review talking about weaknesses that consistently pull it down from the mountaintop it’s trying to reach, yet I had a great time playing it. It’s a unique experience with an ending that’s worth every minute of the journey. Even when the chapter payoffs let me down, it didn’t diminish my interest in Jodie and the mystery of Aiden. If anything else, it’s worth playing just to see Ellen Page deliver the best performance of her career. Beyond is not here to let players choose their own adventure, an impression bestowed to it upon release. It’s here to take players through a specific story. Is Beyond: Two Souls a deeply flawed game? Absolutely. Should you play it? Absolutely.

Not convinced? Watch Ellen Page own it.

cheers,
Luke

Luke Brown

Salutations, Luke Brown here. I have a Master’s Degree in Film from San Diego State University as well as a BA from the University of Minnesota. I am a socially apt nerd. When I’m not working in Hollywood post production, I’m reading, writing, taking pictures, playing morally and ethically challenging video games, practicing guitar, getting dominated by the Insanity workout, making homemade soap, cooking from scratch, or eating gourmet pickles.

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  1. Girl Games – Mirror’s Edge | Once A Month 4 Ladies - October 22, 2014

    […] lush detailed environment like Bioshock Infinite or a game where you go on a mind-bending trip like Beyond Two Souls. This is not a game where you need to collect a specific number of treasures like Tomb Raider or a […]

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