PC gamers in the 90s were “treated” to dozens of “interactive movies,” threadbare games that exploited the technology of the time—in this case, the one-two punch of CD-ROM capacity and video compression—in order to deliver Hollywood-style narratives at the expense of interactivity and compelling gameplay. They promised Tinseltown production values, but usually would up being more Ray Dennis Steckler than Steven Spielberg, and weren’t much fun to boot.
The spirit of these “interactive movies” lives on with David Cage and the team at Quantic Dream, who offer gorgeous visuals and deeply compelling narratives in their games, usually at the expense of deeper gameplay mechanics. Heavy Rain used this model to tell the troubling tale of the Origami Killer, and now Beyond: Two Souls uses a heady stew of star power, gorgeous visuals, deeply emotional moments, and arrhythmic storytelling to deliver an emotional experience that may be lacking in deeper gameplay, but is no less a compelling title for it.
Beyond tells the story of Jodie (Ellen Page, Hard Candy), a young woman inextricably linked to a paranormal entity named Aiden from birth, through decades of her experiences, from being experimented on in a scientific facility as a child to being on the run from the CIA as a young adult. Throughout her life, she weaves in and out of the lives of others with few constants, the main exceptions being her handlers at the Department of Paranormal Activity: Dr. Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe, Antichrist) and Cole Freedman (Kadeem Hardison, A Different World). Her link to Aiden makes her an invaluable asset to many agencies, particularly when it comes to the extradimensional “infraworld” that Aiden—as well as less benign entities—hails from.
Writer David Cage tells Beyond in a nonlinear fashion, with each chapter showing up as a floating point on a shimmering line, helping to ground the chronological order for players even as they bounce from childhood to adulthood and back again. There’s a logical reason for this explained in the epilogue for the game (it’s a bit of a stretch, but it still provides the obligatory “oooooh” moment), but from a narrative standpoint it really helps serve as a palate cleanser for some of the more emotionally trying periods of the game’s story.
Beyond may not have the same emotional impact on everyone, but the chapters of the game set during Jodie’s childhood are absolutely grueling, as a scared little girl comes to terms with always being bonded to Aiden, as well as being constantly being attacked by malignant entities from the Infraworld. There’s an unbearable weight to a terrified child explaining her wounds to her foster parents and Dawkins as the result of “monsters” that even her linked entity Aiden is scared of (at least until a tear-jerking epiphany when Aiden finally realizes his own potential as Jodie’s protector), and the desolation and loneliness that’s being conveyed is wrenching. There’s a very Firestarter vibe to these moments, although the truly violent nature of Aiden isn’t explored until later in Jodie’s life. Mercifully, there are no moments of chubby-cheeked chaos, only the unmet needs of a scared child.
These themes continue throughout: alienation, loss, death, abandonment, loss of identity. Cage’s writing may be stretched a little thin with the idea of the afterlife being an accessible dimension (the snarling army general looking to exploit its unexplained tactical advantages) as well as the weirdest mishmash of Cold War fears ever (a pseudo-Soviet nation building an undersea facility…manned by the Chinese?), but when we get to the more intimate moments of Jodie trying to understand and accept her lot in life, the story is simply fantastic. One of the game’s few flirtations with levity comes from a sequence in which Jodie tries to clean her apartment to have a potential suitor over even as Aiden tries his damnedest to cock-block the guy was a far more compelling slice of life (how would dating work if you were always being watched by a ghost?) than the black ops missions Jodie executes for the CIA. Ellen Page may be a fantastic actress, but I found the idea of a slight woman being a hardened CIA operative taking down trained military personnel a bit unbelievable.
The later chapters of the game, with Jodie on the run, cast her in a David Banner/Incredible Hulk role, with her finally using her connection to Aiden and the Infraworld to help people in need. Again, these deeper emotional moments hold some real impact, as both Jodie and Aiden (the player controls both) come to terms with their role in the world and the impact that they have, as well as the deeper nature of the Infraworld and its inhabitants. The story maintains its deep, layered nature without ever losing itself or its details. Certain ideas may be lost or left dangling, especially in the more horror-driven moments (the Infraworld entities are violent…why?) but the mystery is left just complete enough to keep players guessing, but still satisfied.
Unfortunately, with such a strong narrative push, the gameplay itself is little more than a delivery method. The fully motion-captured graphics leap well past the uncanny valley at times into true photorealism, which certainly helps the cinematic quality of Beyond, but gameplay and interactivity are stripped down in order to maintain narrative flow. There are plenty of moral choices to be made (Aiden has the option to exact a fiery vengeance on a group of teens that tormented Jodie) which lead to a more dynamic experience, but actual gameplay is very lean. This lack of true interactivity is only exacerbated by the dubious use of the Sixaxis motion controls for certain quicktime events in game. Need to jump from a rooftop? Swing your PS3 controller down. Need to chop some carrots? Hack at the air with the controller. Need to dry yourself off after a shower? Shake the controller back and forth. This sort of interactivity comes across as more of a cheap novelty than an enhancement, and at times it borders on comical. Even the moments where you control Jodie directly have you practically led by the nose to a handful of interactive hotspots, keeping the game set firmly on its narrative rails.
But this is the sort of experience that developers wish they could have produced in the days of Pentium processors: a game that may not scratch the deeper gaming itches, but instead offers the sort of deep storytelling that a movie can deliver, while still maintaining enough interactivity to fall firmly into the realm of a game. Beyond: Two Souls is going to leave “hardcore” gamers cold, but its story and characters will certainly strike a deep chord with those who can appreciate its stance.