Review: Beyond: Two Souls
By Josh Snyder
For years, developer Quantic Dream has blurred the line on what exactly defines something as a video game. Most of their games have been labeled interactive movies for their minimal gameplay and cinematic nature. But the one thing they had in common with the average video game was an illusion of choice – nearly all video games, to some degree, let the gamer play amature director, choosing how levels unfold and how the action plays out.
So what happens when Quantic Dream removes the one element that closely links their games to the rest of the medium? For starters, you get Beyond: Two Souls (BTS), the latest experiment from the French developer. But most importantly, you get the most focused and complete product from the infamous studio yet.
Telling a Tall Tale
BTS tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a woman who was born with a strange power. A spirit, who Jodie calls Aiden, is physically and psychically linked to her, giving Jodie unique abilities. She can have Aiden move objects or open doors, or ask Aiden to possess someone or even strangle them to death. Jodie can also call upon Aiden to read the minds of both the living and the dead, and can even connect the living to lost loved ones for a brief time.
The story follows Jodie from childhood through adulthood. As a child, she has difficulty controlling Aiden, and is sent to the Department of Paranormal Activity, where scientists Nathan Dawkins and Cole Freeman look after her. Eventually, her actions catch the attention of the CIA, and she is recruited to partake in a series of covert operations across the world.
That’s just a basic summary of the plot, and even that sounds a bit out there in terms of realism and believability. Quantic Dream are notorious for throwing some down-right crazy elements into their games, and in comparison to previous releases, BTS really is nothing strange. But what has changed here is that the story is told with confidence – it’s clear that the writers really let their imaginations run wild and spent plenty of time fleshing out the story. Still, it’s quite the tale, and if you can suspend enough belief, the plot presents plenty of fun and engaging scenes that keep you coming back and, most importantly, have you questioning just what will happen next.
But what doesn’t help is non-linear storytelling. The order in which the plot unfolds makes little sense, and actually makes the story more confusing than it needs to be. At some points, it seems that the story is structured in a way that allows the player to pause and reflect on a previous intense scene with a shorter, quieter scene that often contain little in the way of plot, serving more as palate cleansers. At the same time, they force the player to piece a jumbled story together. If the plot was told in a traditional manner, many problems with the story would be alleviated.
The Illusion of Choice
What’s surprising about this decision is that the game is extremely linear in terms of player choice. BTS is the closest I’ve seen to a video game being an interactive film – the player’s input rarely, if at all, matters. When Jodie finds herself in a fictional Asian country, caught behind enemy lines and fighting for her life, there is no doubt that she will survive. Combat is handled in a series of quick-time events, but even if you fail all of them, something else will happen in the scene that will remove your enemy, allowing you to proceed. Gameplay consists of little more than moving Jodie around the environment with the left thumbstick until a white dot appears, and then moving the right thumbstick in the direction of the dot. Technically, the game needs you to perform this action, otherwise Jodie will stay eternally in her room or in a car, waiting for you to give the OK for the game to progress.
Even when the game presents you with a choice, which is little more than “go left or go right,” the outcome is always the same. If your expectations are that BTS is something more in line with Heavy Rain, a game where player choice could heavily impact the story, then this on-rails approach will feel cold and underwhelming. But this, frankly, is the wrong perspective – the best way to enjoy this game is to sit back and trust Quantic Dream to tell a gripping tale.
Let’s Take This at a Leisurely Stroll
This was a big gamble on the part of Quantic Dream, but it pays off because BTS is not afraid to slow down and let the gamer experience both the amazing and mundane aspects of Jodie’s life. One heart-wrenching scene sees Jodie running from the CIA, and after nearly succumbing to a cold winter night, she is taken in by a homeless man who lives with a few others underneath an overpass. Where most games would have Jodie simply rest up, maybe learn some sage-like advice from an old homeless man, and then head back out to fight the CIA, BTS instead has you get to know your new-found friends, and even experience some of the hardships of being homeless. You sit on the sidewalk, hand-written sign in hand, and beg for money. If you get enough money, you can then afford food for the evening. And the reward for all of your work is a scene where you and the others sit around a small fire, and eat dinner out of a tin can.
There are numerous scenes like this, some charming, most of them depressing, all of them justifying the unique approach to this game. By the end, you truly feel for Jodie, who has this burden, this power, that everyone wants to understand and use for their own needs, and all she wants is to be left alone, to live a normal life. Granted, the basic elements of the plot are not the most original, but the details of Jodie’s life are unique, and it’s a story you can’t help but get engrossed in.
Slowing the game down and focusing in on the characters puts a lot of emphasis on the actors attempting to pull off these scenes. This is where BTS gets mixed results. On the one hand, you have Jodie, who is voiced by and modeled after actress Ellen Page, who is near perfect in her role. She brings a touch of humanity to each scene, and because of it you find yourself perfectly willing to accept that a spirit from another world can scan a plate and allow Jodie to see a vision of what happened in that room earlier. And, more importantly, it allows the gamer to emotionally connect with Jodie, which is necessary when you find yourself playing for an hour, doing nothing more than cleaning up your apartment and preparing dinner for a prospective love interest.
At the opposite end of that spectrum is Nathan Dawkins, the scientist who studies Jodie and is the closest to a father figure she’ll ever have. Nathan, voiced and modeled after one of my personal favorite actors, Willem Dafoe. Unfortunately, Dafoe appears to be on autopilot, going through the motions, even when the story allows him to show off his range. He acts with little emotion and doesn’t invite the player to connect to this character. Because of this, Nathan’s story-arc feels a bit shallow and incomplete, and when he sets off a chain of events at the end of the game, which culminates in the final climactic showdown, his involvement feels forced. A game like this relies on emotional engagement from the audience, and if the actors cannot deliver that, the overall product hurts as a result.
Learning to Cope with Aiden
And then there’s Aiden.
Aiden doesn’t have a character arc, or a personality, which is OK because Aiden really is the gameplay of BTS. When the game allows, players can tap the triangle button to control Aiden, who can move through walls and solve basic puzzles. When handled correctly, Aiden feels powerful, almost God-like. In combat, Aiden can take control of one enemy, and have them turn on their allies. And if that doesn’t work, Aiden can strangle enemies to death. Quantic Dream came up with some exciting scenes to utilize Aiden, and his inclusion feels as natural as it can be. However, the rules that govern Aiden’s powers are never really explained, and often feel arbitrary. When you encounter five enemies, you might only be able to possess one and strangle another, but the other three are off-limits for reasons never explained. Granted, this forces gamers to actually employ some sort of strategy, but again, the game is so linear that something will eventually happen to ensure the scene will progress. In one instance, Jodie finds herself on a mission in an African country torn apart by civil war. She finds a child who was injured during a firefight, and with the help of Aiden, she heals the child. Suddenly a soldier rushes her to engage in hand-to-hand combat. No matter how many times you fail the prompts on screen, the soldier will not kill you – if you fail enough, the child you saved will shoot the soldier, and the story will move forward. Why Aiden couldn’t just strangle him and move on is a mystery.
Aiden’s God-like powers, which are for unknown reasons limited, reminds me of the situation developer Realtime Worlds found themselves with in Crackdown. Players want to feel empowered, yet at the same time they want a challenge. In Crackdown, Realtime Worlds decided to really let gamers play as a super soldier; by the end of the game all sense of challenge was gone, and the last act felt like a grind. But Quantic Dream’s approach (arbitrarily limiting Aiden’s power) to this dilemma is equally ill-advised. Even if it is an interactive movie, gamers are going to treat BTS as a video game, and when a developer arbitrarily limits gameplay in an attempt to create tension or to add a layer of strategy to combat, gamers will see right through it and call it out. It is uninspired game design, and in a game that has little, it is a real detriment.
Take My Hand and Follow Me
But let’s talk about the lack of gameplay, because the limited use of traditional game design is what allows BTS to be so focused, but at the same time makes it feel like a movie and not a video game. As I said, I feel that this is the most focused game Quantic Dream has released. Looking back at their most recent game, Heavy Rain, it’s clear that they learned some lessons in terms of storytelling. Heavy Rain was, from a narrative perspective, an absolute mess. With four main characters, any of which who could permanently alter the story, it’s no surprise that the climax made little sense and offered no real sense of closure. BTS avoids this, which shows a dedication to story over gameplay.
If I were to use a rigid definition of gameplay and critique BTS on those standards, then I would have to conclude that, although interesting, the game is ultimately a failure. You cannot die, alter the story in any meaningful way or employ strategy to beat levels and overcome challenges. There is no wrong way, right way or best way to beat BTS, there simply is the way.
But this really shouldn’t be considered a problem. At many points throughout the game, I was reminded not of Heavy Rain, but instead of developer Telltale Game’s recent hit, The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead was a game that did a fantastic job of covering up how little choice gamers had, instead focusing on characters to emotionally engage the player. And though Telltale did a better job than Quantic Dream did with emotional engagement, one could say that BTS simply strips away the unnecessary aspects of video games that do not apply to this specific sub-genre. So there are no “game over” screens – so what? All those did in The Walking Dead was break-up the flow of the game, and often times were the result of a frustrated gamer who just wasn’t seeing what Telltale wanted them to see. And does it matter how linear each level is? If linear experiences were inferior to non-linear, then everyone would be reading choose your own adventure books over regular novels.
Approaching Storytelling with an Open Mind
The biggest impression BTS left me with is that it’s perfectly fine for developers to take risks with storytelling. As long as the story is compelling, gamers will follow along, even if there are some hiccups or some odd presentation choices. Of course, one might argue that if a developer is more interested in creating an interactive film, that maybe they should make movies instead of games. But I find this thinking to be shortsighted – not every game needs to have the challenge of Contra, or the choices of Mass Effect. There’s something fulfilling about letting go, allowing a developer to take you on a journey.
Don’t be afraid to let your imaginations run wild. The risks of telling a compelling story are well worth the rewards.