In 2010, Sony Computer Entertainment published developer Quantic Dream’s revolutionary Heavy Rain, a game that dealt with pretty mature themes like child abduction and how far people go to save someone they love. It singlehandedly brought the “interactive drama” genre back into the AAA gaming scene, and featured facial motion capturing to give pretty realistic faces (ahead of its time), vastly different camera options and gameplay from anything we’d see it before, and included multiple diverging ways the story could be told. There were 16 different endings and four characters to play as, and if any of the characters died during the story, they were gone for good and the story would diverge accordingly. Altogether, Heavy Rain easily became one of my favorite games of all time.
In 2013, David Cage and his Quantic Dream hoped to build on that success with the release of Beyond: Two Souls. Instead of a more realistic story of a father trying to find his son and detectives trying to find the “origami killer,” Beyond: Two Souls takes a sharp turn towards the supernatural by featuring Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes, a girl who’s been linked with a mysterious “entity” (ghost) since birth, and Willem Dafoe, a Department of Paranormal Activity (DPA) official who’s been tasked with taking care of and studying Jodie throughout her life. It tells Jodie’s story of how her life is affected from having to be linked with an entity from the age of six until 24. The success of Heavy Rain led to Sony investing $27 million into Beyond: Two Souls (up from $23 million for Heavy Rain) and with that they were able to hire AAA movie stars, greatly enhance the visuals, and make the game much more cinematic. But does the decision pay off? Short answer: no.
Beyond: Two Souls is a game with a lot of problems, the least of which are its visuals. Beyond honestly is one of the best looking games on the PS3 to date, although it’s accomplished by sneaky means. The game is presented in a 21:9 aspect ratio, the ratio which modern movies are shown in, despite modern gaming still predominately presented in 16:9, what modern HDTVs are. This decision was made for the game to be more cinematic, but it ends up leaving two black bars at the top and bottom of the screen they don’t have to render and thus use processing power towards. Also, by the nature of the genre, it only has to render a couple rooms at a time. Because it can put all its resources into a really small section, each section ends up looking really amazing. Those black bars did get distracting as the game went on, however. The game’s frame rate was always very smooth, and Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe give very good performances across the game despite the material they’re given.
As an interactive drama, the gameplay tends to focus a lot on interactive objects and quick-time events. In terms of that gameplay, Beyond borrows a lot from its predecessor whilst making subtle changes. The game tries to be a lot more cinematic and the changes work to accomplish that. The first of which is that there is no longer a camera button that switches between two given camera options. Instead, there is just one ongoing camera that is much more dynamic. This works well most of the time, but becomes pretty frustrating in the action and stealth sequences. These stealth sequences, although they add variance to the gameplay, don’t really work with the cinematic feel of the game and often feel clunky. Another major change to the core gameplay is that there are no longer any of the signature button prompts hanging over many of the things in the world. Instead, there is just a little white dot that you move the right analog stick towards to interact with. The button prompts have been removed for the quick-time events as well, having players use the right analog stick to push in the direction that Jodie needs to go in. For example, if there’s a block on the ground while Jodie’s running, the game will slow down and you’ll need to push it up so she jumps over it. This was problematic since it’s not always clear what direction you need to flick the analog stick in.
While most of this does make the game more cinematic, it often runs into conflict with what makes a game a game and what makes them fun. Beyond has only just enough gameplay with its right analog flicks to make it even count as a game. Also, part of what made Heavy Rain compelling is that all the actions you did had consequences in the game. If you didn’t clean your prints, you might get arrested and have to go to the jail. If you died, that character would be gone for good and wouldn’t be in the story anymore. Beyond: Two Souls has none of that. It tells Jodie’s story alone in one major arc. If you fail an action, she either keeps going anyway or something happens to keep the story moving along as intended. Without real consequence to anything you fail to do, there was little reason to feel involved as a player. The lack of consequence, combined with the serious lack of player interaction, really makes the game a passive experience and removes the player from the game. I will say, however, that the little interaction there was made me care more about the story than if it had just been a twelve-hour movie.
The core gameplay feature Beyond: Two Souls adds is playing as Aiden (pronounced Eye-den), Jodie’s entity. Whereas Jodie’s scenes are pretty cinematic and third-person, Aiden is all in first-person and has comparatively much more gameplay-focused scenes. You can switch to Aiden in some scenes voluntarily but are forced to play as him in others. This is the start of the main problem with his parts in the game: that there’s no consistency of gameplay rules for him throughout the story. Interactive objects are also shown as a white dot to Aiden and to interact you hold down L1 then pull the analog sticks together. With humans, a bit more variety is available as he can either take control of them or kill them. However, Aiden can’t interact with many of the enemies in the game nor can he interact with much of the objects in the game. Whatever you can interact with is defined solely on what’s needed for the story, and there’s nothing in the story that explains why he can only do certain actions towards certain people and things. This also applies towards the distance he can travel from Jodie, which varies from level to level. In terms of his personality, the story expects you to play as if he’s wild, jealous, and revengeful, and it really doesn’t fit with the story if the player doesn’t play that way.
The story is unfortunately where Beyond: Two Souls falls apart. If you’re going to simplify the gameplay elements in exchange for a more cinematic feel to the extent they then the story better make up for it. Unfortunately, Jodie’s story is really confusing and lacks any sort of real character motivation and explanation for things that happen. The first thing you’ll notice is that all the chapters are played in a mixed-up order, so one scene you could be playing six year-old Jodie, and the next 24 year-old Jodie, then teenage Jodie, etc. There isn’t any real reason to do this and it effectively removes any sense of plot the game may have had and thus any sense of wanting to keep playing. In fact, the decision to mix up the chapter order in a way represents the game as a whole: confusing and unnecessary.
Despite the pretty good performance from Ellen Page, Jodie just isn’t an interesting character. She’s not someone you want to care about and never aspires to be. Across the twelve hour story, Jodie continuously faces new problems that she is forced to overcome. The problem though is that Jodie never overcomes them; in fact she never even tries. Across the game she continuously has this empty moping expression and cries many, many times. She tries committing suicide multiple times and ultimately ends up just wandering around without any real purpose, seeing where life takes her. Across her experiences she nearly gets raped almost five times. Jodie’s entire characterization is based on having bad things happen to her, and asking us to care about her that way rather than anything meaningful she herself does. The only times you really care about her and what’s going on are when she does things that express herself as a character, small scenes like when she has to choose the music at a party or choose what to wear for a date.
The main question that pervades Beyond: Two Souls is why. Why are the game’s chapters mixed up? Why does the CIA want Jodie to be with them? Why do the CIA send their star entity-linked person into the middle of the war-torn Middle East to perform an assassination? Why is the CIA trying to assassinate a peaceful democratically elected Middle Eastern leader? Why is Jodie suddenly homeless? Why is Jodie now bald? Why is Jodie now in New Mexico? Why is there a Native American entity attacking the house she happened to stay at? Why are there Native American ghost soldiers defending that house? Why is this important to the story? Why does Jodie agree to go on a mission to a Korean entity research facility if she can see the same disaster will come from an American facility? Why are the characters wearing special suits in the facility if they can survive fine without them? Why does Jodie go off to live in a log cabin for several months? Why does Jodie try to commit suicide? Why should we care about her at all? Why should we care about what’s going on?
Beyond: Two Souls was a game with a lot of potential. David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream really proved how effective the interactive drama genre of videogames could be with Heavy Rain, but Beyond really seems to have taken a step back from everything that made the Heavy Rain great. In the end, Beyond: Two Souls lacks a cohesive plot, characters you actually care about, and credible motivations, the only three things you need to have when you center the presentation of gameplay completely around the story.