For all the things that can be said about Beyond: Two Souls, there's really only one thing that's indisputable: it's the most unique big game of the year.
Beyond that, no pun intended, Beyond is tough to quantify. I've been thinking about how to review the latest interactive drama from France's Quantic Dream for the past week and admit that I am still more than a little befuddled. It's unlike any game out there, aside from Quantic's previous game Heavy Rain, and I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. I'm not even sure it's really a "game."
It's definitely a story about Jodie Holmes, a girl haunted by a mysterious ghost-like entity known as Aiden. Jodie is portrayed by actress Ellen Page through some of the most realistic facial-expression performance capture and graphics ever seen in a game. Also on board is Willem Dafoe, who plays Dr. Nathan Dawkins, the government scientist who studies the titular two souls and becomes something of a father figure to Jodie.
The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, some episodes show Jodie's first experiences with her unseen compatriot as a young girl, others from later on in her adulthood, where she's on the run from the CIA for some sort of alleged treason. Chapters jump around between the different time periods, so we're left guessing until the very end as to the nature of the relationship between Jodie and Aiden, and the cause of their flight from authority.
Beyond departs from traditional game narrative not just by juggling story events around in Memento-like fashion, but also by giving us characters and relationships we are meant to truly care about. Thanks to a great script it works for the most part, and Page's acting is believable even though she spends an inordinate amount of time either crying or cursing.
In one early scene, Jodie attends a birthday party only to be mocked and threatened by the other "normal" teens, who don't like her specialness. The player then gets to choose whether to run away or use Aiden to take Carrie-like revenge by smashing up the party. I can't imagine too many people taking the moral-high-road resolution to the encounter; anyone who has ever been bullied or teased for being different will immediately identify and feel for Jodie.
Aiden, for his part, is an intriguing character. The crux of the "game" is that the player can switch to controlling the unseen entity, who has a host of powers at his disposal. He is capable of simple psychokinesis, so he can smash mirrors, open doors or flip light switches, but he is also irritable and can be downright malevolent. As the story unfolds, he also possesses others and chokes them to death, Darth Vader-style.
He's often frighteningly overprotective of Jodie. Fortunately, the payoff at the end of the story goes a long way to explaining why that is.
Before that, however, Beyond is unfailingly engrossing as it divulges more of their troubled relationship, at least in its first half. Even after Jodie is recruited into the CIA, the interplay between her and Aiden and the toll it takes on her life holds centre stage. It's some of the finest and most empathetic story-telling yet in a video game.
However, in the second half of the game the so-far intimate story starts to go off the rails into action blockbuster territory, which is where the real problems start. The first time this relatively small-scale character play starts to betray hints of an unfortunate larger big-ness is when we learn that Aiden has links to a much broader world with its own attendant history, and that this tale goes all the way to the top, so to speak.
My hesitation in calling Beyond a "game" lies in the fact that there isn't a lot of "playing" for the player to do during much of this, other than simply pressing the right button at the right time. Much of the action relies on quick-time events, or hitting the button displayed on screen at precisely the correct instant, or picking dialogue options from a multiple-choice list. Most of the environments that Jodie and Aiden are able to move around in, meanwhile, are small in scope, with invisible walls preventing further exploration.
As if to illustrate how little Beyond relies on traditional gameplay, it can actually be played using a tablet or smartphone instead of the PS3 controller. The downloadable Beyond Touch app controls everything with taps and swipes. Alternatively, two players can split up the characters with separate controllers, with one taking on Jodie's role and the other Aiden. Only one character gets the screen at a time, though.
In some ways, the game's anti-game system removes the worst illogic of modern interactive entertainment. At no point, for example, does Jodie die and the story restarts (at least not in the permutations I tried). The action simply keeps going, branching in different directions depending on the choices the player makes. If she's faring poorly in a fight, for example, Aiden might intervene to save her and thus move the story forward.
The result is therefore paradoxical – Beyond tightly controls where the player can go and what choices he or she can make, but it also morphs according to those choices. There are, in fact, many different ways for the story to play out and end.
Unfortunately, unless you happen to have an unusual fetish for quick-time events, there's no fun to be had unlocking all those alternate endings. Beyond's enjoyment relies just about entirely on its story.
Eventually the narrative does pull itself back from the brink of this nonsensical blockbuster franchise material, and the character-relationship interplay is allowed to resolve itself in the same intimate fashion as it began. However, not content to end on that quiet note, Beyond once again verges toward convention with endings – at least those I discovered – that hint at sequels.
The suggestion of a continuation of the story seems out of place in a game like this. It almost feels like the cliched push-and-pull of corporate interests insisting on more, versus the artistic desire for closure, with the bean counters ultimately winning out.
In the end, Beyond succeeds on several levels, but fails in a few others. It's a technological breakthrough with state-of-the-art performance capture along with a mostly a captivating story and some stellar writing and acting. Yet, a lot of those aspects were also found in another Sony exclusive game just a few months ago – The Last of Us, the zombie-ish thriller that was criticized for stealing Ellen Page's likeness for one of its main characters.
The Last of Us, while having only one possible ending, was considerably more fun to actually play. It's a thought I couldn't escape most of the way through Beyond. Forcing players to wonder about the very nature of games is an accomplishment of sorts, and there there's no question Quantic Dream's creation is a thoughtful and fulfilling piece of entertainment. But if it doesn't push those fun endorphins, is it in fact a "game?"
As an interactive drama, it's a fantastic work of art that's worth checking out. But it didn't pack enough player action to make me want to replay it and see the many different possible permutations of Jodie and Aiden's story, beyond what I'd already experienced. And yes, that pun was intentional.