Beyond: Two Souls
Beyond: Two Souls is very ‘cinematic’ – an adjective with a lot of connotations for gamers. Long cut scenes, quick-time events and limited player control often make it feel as though you’re just watching, rather than interacting; a criticism not unfamiliar to developer Quantic Dream. Yet the studio’s latest boasts beautiful visuals, varied locations and interesting cinematography, which combine to create a truly engaging experience, especially when paired with a coherent narrative focused on drama over action, and the use of performance capture technology with A-list actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe.
This begs an obvious question though: why is Beyond a game?
The performances of both the lead and minor actors are stellar, and the story is excellent, dealing with weighty themes of mortality, morality, theology, love and deception. The game tells the supernatural coming-of-age story of Jodie Holmes, a young woman who since birth has been bonded with a kind of ghost or spirit named Aiden. It would have made a great movie, but it becomes much more as a video game.
Aiden is a faceless, invisible, silent being in the game, who Jodie says is always there, watching, listening, following just behind. When we play as Jodie, we play in third person perspective, looking over her shoulder, while Aiden’s sections are played in a disembodied first person. The relationship between Aiden and Jodie is a metaphor for the bond between video game player and character, and so Beyond: Two Souls must be a video game because it is in many ways taking a meta-critical approach to its own medium.
We’re often given complete free will as Aiden, enabling us to set our own moral limits. In this way the game forces us into self-analysis about our activities as video game players. One early chapter sees 5-year-old Jodie testing out her abilities in a lab. Instead of simply moving an object in the next room as asked. I laughed as I traumatised the woman in there, locking her in, smashing glass and throwing chairs. The scientists asked Jodie to make me stop, but she said she couldn’t. When I eventually returned to Jodie, she was in floods of tears, blood streaming from her nostrils.
The game doesn’t judge you for these decisions, but nevertheless the choices you have to make are still genuinely tough and varied. They progress from whether or not to ruin a date or spook a scientist, to deciding who to kill and who to let live. Crucially, it forces you to make personal judgements. Last month I was robbing and murdering civilians in GTA V without a twinge of guilt. Now I was disgusted with myself because I’d made a little girl cry. By letting you do anything, it demands you ask yourself: should I?
Unlike the studio’s previous title, 2010’s Heavy Rain, the player’s freedom to change the story is far more restrictive; the basic plot is unchangeable. But this restrictiveness makes the story more cohesive, and therefore ultimately more rewarding. We play as both characters across a series of non-chronologically presented chapters of Jodie’s first 25 years; vignettes set in vastly different locales around the world, telling different stories about Jodie and the often lovable, often despicable characters she meets on her life’s journey. Each chapter is a story all of its own, taking us from sterile laboratories and sprawling cities to beautiful deserts and artic wastelands. These chapters are also emotionally and tonally distinct. Some are dangerous chases, others tense horror sequences and some are spiritual quests while others still are more domestic moments of honest human drama. The game is even occasionally comic. One sequence sees us protecting a battered and broken adult Jodie pursued by the police and on the brink of death, while the next sees us helping a ‘punky’ 16 year old Jodie trying to sneak out to a party after being grounded.
The character of Aiden also allowed to me to vicariously enter the game world, making my emotional engagement with the narrative much richer. For most of the story, Aiden takes the role of Jodie’s guardian angel, and so by allowing me to play as him, the game made me very protective of her. When I saw her crying, I cried with her, because my Jodie was upset. When enemies were close, my heart raced, because it was my Jodie in danger. When Jodie was upset with Aiden, I personally felt guilty, because I had upset someone important to me.
Beyond: Two Souls sets new standards for the quality of storytelling and acting in video games, and most importantly it makes us feel things most of us probably have not felt before in response to a gaming experience. Interestingly, it even makes us feel things that other mediums never have, demonstrating gaming’s importance as a distinct artistic medium. How could we feel guilt or remorse in anything other than video games, the one medium that allows us interaction with the narrative world? David Cage and his team have produced their greatest game yet, as well as a fitting swan song for this console generation in the process.