With David Cage’s perpetual ramblings about emotions in games, and how he was going to very nearly singlehandedly change the way we feel things in a medium that’s all about “shooting things,” his latest bit of interactive fiction, Beyond: Two Souls was always going to be heavily scrutinised. It would never be able to please everyone. I adored Heavy Rain; it was a fresh, unique and interesting experience in a time populated by little else other than Call of Duty clones, and I’d have been happy for a similar experience with Beyond. That’s what I got – and yet I’m left a little disappointed.
Unlike Heavy Rain, where you switched between the game’s four protagonists, here you’ll just be controlling one; players control Jodie Holmes, magnificently characterised by Ellen Page, who’s a very special girl. Jodie has something rather unique about her; a paranormal link to an ethereal, otherworldly entity that’s tethered to her. In a way, you’re actually controlling two. You can switch to taking control of that disembodied entity; his name is Aiden, and through his link with Jodie, you get the ability to move objects telekinetically, heal wounds or read the memories of dead people and inanimate objects.
The game charts her life as she tries to piece her memories back together and make sense of the life she’s had so far – and is presented in a scattered, chronologically jumbled, non linear sequence of loosely connected events. In one moment, you’ll be playing as a very young Jodie as undergoing experiments at the behest of the Department of Paranormal Activities, headed by surrogate father, Professor Nathan Dawkins, adequately played by Willem Dafoe – the next, she’ll be a young adult, undergoing CIA training in a delightfully clichéd 80’s movie training montage; later, she’s an angsty teen, tired of the confines of her laboratory prison.
No matter what age you take control of Jodie, it’s hardly the sort of taxing thing most people would call a game. I suppose the most accurate descriptor would be the one Quantic’s David Cage uses himself: “interactive fiction.” You’ll occasionally press a button while pushing forward on the analogue stick, or hold a few buttons down while watching the story unfold on your screen. If you’ve played Heavy Rain, you know exactly what to expect, as it’s mechanically nearly identical. For those who haven’t, what you’ve got is essentially an interactive movie that you’ll affect through on-screen quick-time event prompts and dialogue choices. Yes, this time around you have slightly more direct control over your character; though a poor camera and sluggish controls often make it a bit of a chore. There are some new action-oriented actions, where, after the action slows down reminiscent of bullet-time, moving the stick away from the direction of an attack moves CIA trained Jodie to safety, and pushing in to the direction unleashes an attack – but as with everything else, it’s all context-sensitive so you’re never really in control of anything.
The biggest new feature is controlling Aiden. A button press instantly switches control from Jodie to her tethered, ethereal counterpart. Aiden is able to pass through walls and interact with objects and items in the environment. One of the more interesting things Aiden is able to do is remote-kill people, as well as possess them, allowing captured bodies to serve as vehicles, but for some reason, you’re only able to kill or possess certain people, for reasons that are never made clear. Much of what you can do with Aiden doesn’t make a lot of sense, and only serves to drive the narrative. Usually, you can’t stray too far from Jodie when playing as the spirit, but sometimes, when it suits the narrative, you can venture much, much further than you usually would. Conversely, sometimes you can’t pass through walls as Aiden, with no explanation as to why. Bending the game’s mechanics and established physics to the will of the narrative is frustrating, and indicative of poor writing.
Where it differs fundamentally from Heavy Rain, is in player agency, and urgency. Because it starts at the end, thanks to that jumbled narrative, you already know that Jodie is fine, making very nearly everything you do quite pointless; you know things are going to be ok. There are a few instances where what you do actually has some sort of real meaning, affecting your experience, but most of your actions only change the tone and direction of conversation.
The debate as to whether or not it’s a “game” is moot; because its mechanics, or lack of them, are not where the major criticisms lie. If the game is sold on its story, above everything else then it had better be a damned good one, and unfortunately, for much of Beyond, the story falls flat. There are some incredibly emotional and poignant moments; bits that speak of real human emotion – especially where Jodie is coming to terms with the supernatural being that perpetually accompanies her, but there’s a strange shift in tone towards the game’s tail-end where the whole thing descends into lunacy, and becomes a strange amalgamated mash of just about every single straight-to-DVD paranormal and Sci-Fi trope you could think of, that had me face-palming all the way through to the game’s obvious revelation. Whatever emotional investment you may have in the characters is yanked out from under you, and it degenerates in to the very sort of action-oriented nonsense that Cage is always so vociferously critical of.
While Cage’s writing may be suspect, his keen eye for visuals is appreciable. He certainly has an incredible talent for cinematography, and some of what you’ll see in Beyond is downright mesmerising. He’s equally adept at creating moods, and fuelling tension - but I really wish he’d reign it in, open up and let somebody else in on his editorial process. His ambitious stories are always always let down by circumstantial irregularities and plot holes you could fit entire solar systems into. Much noise has been made about the game’s extensive motion capture – and for the most part it’s incredible, with the system capturing every nuance of the actors’ performances. At least, when it comes to Jodie and Nathan, that is. Side characters often lack the same fidelity and detail and range of facial expression, creating quite a disconnect. Animation though, is still not quite there, so the game tumbles in and out of the uncanny valley, making the juxtaposition of realistic movement on what looks like puppetry quite jarring. It’s still one of the best looking games on any console right now, though if you stare at it for long enough, the cracks appear, and the need for next-gen becomes all too apparent.
Like Heavy Rain, Beyond isn’t for everybody. It might not even be for fans of Heavy Rain. With its science-fiction bent and closer similarity to Fahrenheit/The Indigo Prophecy, it may not even be for fans of Quantic’ Dreams last game. It’s not for everybody, but it’s interesting and enjoyable in spite of itself – just not the grand emotional experience that’ll challenge the way we look at games it was sold to be.