BEYOND: Two Souls Review (PS3)
The implicit contract between gamer and games designer relies on a suspension of disbelief, and a tacit acceptance that there are far fewer options available to the player than there seems to be. Playing games is make believe, and while we know that every locked and inaccessible door in a game has nothing behind it, we imagine that it does. We pretend that the path we are on is one we choose to walk, and not one we must walk because it’s all that exists. Most games are valleys we wonder down, pretending that we could walk out of them if we wanted to. They are critical paths, and the job of the games designer is to make it seem that those locked doors, gates, fences and steep hills are not barriers beyond which nothing exists, but instead are paths we could take even though we shouldn’t. Because if we stick to the path they set out for us, we will have an adventure and a great time. Maybe we will get to choose which way we will go when we hit a fork in that path. We might even get to a different final destination to our friends, who chose a different route. A successful story based game will make us feel like our decisions mattered, and that there were a million options we could have chosen, but the path we took was personalized and ours, and it reflected our personality and abilities as gamers. Both gamer and designer know the truth though: the designer could only craft a few options, and the locked doors lead to a limbo world of nothingness, where polygons, textures and art assets don’t exist.
BEYOND: Two Souls shows what happens when the implicit contract between gamer and designer breaks down and the suspension of disbelief is shattered completely. No matter how hard you try to give in to its demands to suspend your disbelief, clunky design brings you back to reality. When the story demands that you hurry, your character scrapes around the edges of the game world with tanks-like controls and a bad camera making them behave like schizophrenic wrecks. When character dialogue seems to suggest you have a choice about how to proceed, you often find there is only one interactive item in the world, and thus only one choice available. Worst of all, any time the game actually challenges you, the results are the same whether you pass or fail. In far too many of the action scenes the animation for success or failure are obviously fudged, with both success and failure illiciting the same results. If failing or succeeding at quick times events rarely has any effect on your progress, why even try? If Quantic Dreams previous gave you an illusion of choice that didn’t exist, they at least hid it far better than BEYOND: Two Souls. If David Cage is the Wizard of Oz, he completely forgot to draw the curtain this time and it’s all too easy to see him operating the machinery.
If you played Heavy Rain then you will have an idea of what BEYOND: Two Souls actually involves gameplay wise. This is a game with a heavy narrative bent, and most of your interaction will be in quick time events and context sensitive button prompts. Although in this case, it’s right stick prompts, but more on the games control issues later.
You take on the role of Jodie, played by Ellen Page. Page is fantastic throughout, and considering the ridiculous variety of roles and situations she is put in throughout the game, she does a great job. In setting, tone, theme and even genre, this is a twistedly schizophrenic game, so it’s amazing that Page managed to turn in a convincing performance. She has some really terrible dialogue, but it’s poor Willem Dafoe that has to deliver the biggest clunkers. It’s tragic to see him descend from a semi-relatable character into a caricature, and his overly sentimental scenes, followed immediately by his mad scientist speech (“I have conquered death!”) are embarrassing. As the man tasked with being a pioneer in interactive storytelling, David Cage may have set the medium back with this effort. For anyone who though Cloud Atlas was an incoherent mess of different movies stitched together, they aint seen nothing yet.
That’s the biggest problem with this story. BEYOND: Two Souls is twenty five movie scenes, from different movies, stitched together into a game. Some are long, some are short. Most are forgettable and placeholder, others are bad, while a few are genuinely amazing. The problem is that every time you get invested in a part of the story, it’s snatched away. You know when you watch Game of Thrones and suddenly it flicks from the good characters to Rob Stark? BEYOND: Two Souls is that times a million. By the end of the game you will be actively trying to remain distant and detached from the narrative, because as soon as you become invested in something interesting that’s happening it’s taken away from you.
The plot is told as a series of events from Jodie’s life. At first you will have little idea what’s happening, but as the game progresses you will realise that the loading screen, which shows a time line (in an Assassins Creed DNA sequence style) is telling you where the next event will take place on that time line. One minute you will be at a party in a cocktail dress trying to steal documents as a secret agent, the next you will be a little girl playing with dolls, then a few moments later you will be a teenage Jodie at a party with beer and stereotypical bitchy school girls.
The problem is that you are not jumping between just a few of these time periods, there are more than twenty of them. If there were perhaps three time periods, and the game picked up from them as it jumped backwards and forwards, there would be some continuity. Instead, each individual scene leads no where, and you never know what you will be doing next. It’s only towards the end when it all starts joining up that you realise Jodie’s whole story, and even then it’s so disjointed that you don’t care. How can I retroactively feel pathos when I gain new context about Jodie’s foster parents difficult decision to give her away when I forgot about that scene because it happened fifteen hours of play time ago?
The schizophrenic nature of the story crosses over into the gameplay too. I had a friend playing nearby through my whole playthrough, and by the end of the game we were in fits of hysterical laughter at the number of different games I had played, all within BEYOND: Two Souls campaign. A horde of demons escaping a portal in a futuristic lab, and a desperate search for a keycard: Doom. Riding a horse in the prairie with some Native American’s looking for a specific tree in the landscape: Red Dead Redemption. Running through the ruins of a middle eastern looking town and following a soldier as you avoid patrols and seek to eliminate a warlord: Modern Warfare. With each new movie or game reference we laughed more, and there were so many. It’s not that the references themselves were bad, it was the ridiculous variety of them. We even predicted which genre of game we would be moving to next with pretty decent accuracy.
And there’s nothing wrong with casting Ellen Page as a soldier, secret agent, fugitive or a teenager with magical powers. It’s only a problem when you cast her in all of those roles in a single story. And that’s the real problem with BEYOND: Two Souls. David Cage must have had great fun working with Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe and the rest of his cast of real actors. He must have loved it so much though, that he decided to make twenty different movies with them. You can imagine some of these scenes and set pieces have been in his mind for years, and some of them really are great. The problem is that he put them all in one story. The result is a mess.
At its very worst you won’t want to play any more. There’s a Carrie inspired section that’s so awful I barely managed to get through it. Page imbues the character with some degree of credibility, but in this scene she becomes the ultimate stereotype of a moody, rebellious teen. This incarnation has nothing in common with her personality either before or after this scene, and her performance is whiny and grating. The scene plays out in the most hackneyed way you can imagine, and you get the palpable sense that you are watching a middle aged man write about a teenage girl that he can’t relate to at all. It’s awkward and off-putting at the same time.
I’ve got quite far without mentioning the other main character of the game, Jodie’s ghostly friend Aiden. A poltergeist of sorts, he is able to move things in the environment and influence people and objects in the world. When Jodie is in trouble, hitting the triangle button will allow you to become Aiden and float around the game world, helping her in any way you can.
As Aiden you are always tethered to Jodie with a kind of energy beam that means you can’t move very far away from her. How far exactly depends on the requirements of the story at the time, and that’s essentially how Aiden is used throughout the game. His use is very tightly controlled and very prescriptive. When you want to distract a guard, you might have two choices, to knock over a cup or turn off a monitor. Both will have icons next to them, telling you they are interactive. You won’t be able to interact with anything else though. Similarly, Aiden can possess some people, but only those the game allows you to. If they have a red aura you can kill them, and if they have a yellow you can possess them. Early on you can also give people with a blue aura a chill, but this ability disappears after a few hours with no explanation. Presumably the developers couldn’t be bothered creating lots of animations for characters when this feature had no real effect on the game.
Playing as Aiden is very simple and limited then. You possess every yellow guy, kill every red guy and interact with every object. Jobs done. There are some moments where you have far more choice, and the scene mentioned above with the teens allows you to terrify annoying npc’s in a very satisfying way, but on the whole your choices are very limited.
From time to time BEYOND: Two Souls does hit a rhythm and shows what Quantic Dream could have achieved if they had restrained themselves. The section in the desert ranch is more well developed, and is long enough to build atmosphere and tension. It’s a little self-contained story, and is like a well written episode of the X Files. It has almost nothing to do with the main story, but it’s focused and tight, and because it’s longer than any of the other stories it holds your attention. Meanwhile, during the fugitive sections of the game I thought that I was going to be playing a kind of road movie as Jodie ran from the police, and these sections were tense and well scripted too. Sadly, the fugitive section tailed off and just as I was getting invested in Jodie’s plight, I was quantum leaping back and forward in time again.
It must be said that Quantic Dream at least have a wide variety of tasks for you to undertake with their weird control system. I’m not sure what rationale they use to decide what parts of the story should be quick time events and what should be cut scenes, but this is certainly the first game where I’ve had to control a character that’s helping deliver a baby. Similarly, there’s not many games that involve a complex series of button prompts to play with a little girls dolls.
While the variety is welcome, I can’t say BEYOND: Two Souls does anything better than Heavy Rain, and it does a lot of things much worse. There’s far less dialogue choices. Perhaps they could only afford so much voice work from the all star cast? It damages the experience as some more choice in what you say could have deepened the illusion of choice.
There’s two big changes to the control scheme from Heavy Rain, and they’re both very, very bad choices. The first is that you now mostly use the right stick to interact with the world instead of button prompts. The right stick also move the camera. See the problem? The camera is always fighting its way back to a fixed point too, so while you push it right as it constantly says “How about we go left”, you are scrambling to interact with something that keeps disappearing off screen. Worse, sometimes the little icon you want to flick the stick towards is in the middle of the screen. How can I press in the direction of the middle of the screen David Cage? That question is like a Buddhist Koan, but you won’t feel very Zen-like when you are rotating your right stick with no appreciable effect on your protagonist as you try to pick up a glass of water. It’s at this point that you realise you’re playing a point and click game without the control scheme.
The second control issue comes in actions scenes. Sometimes you have to dodge something or hit an enemy. Jodie is a kind of ninja (again, when the story needs her to be), so you are often fighting multiple enemies at once. At these times the action goes into slow motion, and you are supposed to press the right stick in the direction you think is appropriate. Sometimes this makes sense: press up to jump over a branch as you run. Other times it makes no sense at all. Pushing towards an attack to intercept it is sometimes the right thing to do. Other times you should be pushing away to avoid it. The game doesn’t give you enough context to know which. Other times you might think you need to push up to block an attack, whereas you are supposed to push left or right to roll away. It’s a terrible system. Apparently it was put in place so that fewer prompts had to be put on screen, but I would have gladly taken the on screen prompts at the expense of a little bit of screen space. It’s another compromise towards cinematic spectacle and away from enjoyable gameplay.
I can trace the exact moment when BEYOND: Two Souls lost me. It was when I was in a bedroom, and was told by the frightened people who lived there not to open the door if I heard a noise. When the inevitable noise came, I wanted to do as they said. Even Jodie seemed to want to stay in the room with the door closed, as she whispered to herself nervously. But I had no choice. I had to open the door. It was the only interactive thing in the room. No matter how long I waited, the game wouldn’t progress till I did the thing I didn’t want to do. I couldn’t even use Aiden to go outside and check, he was inactive. Because the story demanded it.
So me and Jodie were stuck. We didn’t want to obey David Cage, but we had no choice. There was no freedom. We were prisoners.
There are great things about BEYOND: Two Souls. The character models are stunning. Ellen Page’s likeness is beautiful and convincing. The performance capture is stunning. The way little cuts in the past form little scars and lesions in the future is a great touch. There’s stuff to love in here.
But the truth is that this is Quantic Dreams worst game. It has none of the lunacy and humour of Fahrenheit. None of the urgency or originality of Heavy Rain. The gameplay changes are all for the worse. There are fewer options. Less interaction. Less actual game.
The sad thing is that I am a massive Quantic Dream and David Cage fan. I want more releases like this. I love how this is a new property and not a sequel. I like Ellen Page. I like what David Cage is trying to do, but I also like games, and judged as a game, this is a bad one.
2.5 Secret agent ninja cowboy Juno’s out of 5BEYOND: Two Souls Review (PS3),