Beyond: Two Souls – A Review

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As video games grow and mature as a medium, and efforts are made in an attempt to be taken seriously, the industry is still trying to fully realize its identity. We’ve moved past the debate over whether or not video games can be considered art, and are now questioning what criteria constitute a game.

Games have been adopting cinematic qualities for some time, but none go as far as those made by David Cage and his development studio, Quantic Dream. Some view this as a positive, while others bemoan the subtle interactivity in Cage’s creations, labeling them “interactive movies,” as some form of an insult. Apparently calling your movie a game is only okay when Hideo Kojima does it, but I digress.

That said, the term “interactive movie” is a fair characterization of the games for which Cage and his studio are known — not traditional games, and not quite movies, they fall somewhere in between. I don’t use that term as a slight, however, because I believe Quantic Dream is exploring new territory.

I was thoroughly impressed with Heavy Rain, which is the game that officially put David Cage and Quantic Dream on the map in 2010. Indigo Prophecy, released in 2005, was mildly successful, but did not garner the same level of attention as Heavy Rain, whose success, acclaim and controversy fueled much of the momentum behind the studio’s next title, Beyond: Two Souls.

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A common criticism leveled at Heavy Rain is that its voice acting is poor (a criticism I don’t wholeheartedly agree with), which is possibly one of the reasons Cage decided to forego traditional voice actors with Beyond, and blast away any possible complaints by bringing in Oscar-nominated actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe to portray two of the game’s main characters. And boy, their experience shines through. It’s amazing what a difference skilled, veteran actors can make; both give outstanding performances.

Taking place at various times throughout a 15-year period, Beyond tells the story of Jodie (Page), a girl with a metaphysical connection to an invisible ghost-like entity named Aiden. The game plays out sporadically, opting not to divulge Jodie’s story chronologically, but at specific, out-of-order stages in her young life. Some claim this narrative device makes the game confusing, but I think it works well.

Cage has a very precise story to tell, which is why I believe he chose this particular narrative style. It allows him, as both the writer and director, to relate specific events in Jodie’s life to one another without the need for tired flashbacks. In this way, you gain an understanding of her plight.

As the game unfolds, it gets easier to connect the dots that make up Jodie’s life. It’s intentionally scattered, and sometimes unclear, but never confusing. There’s an in-game explanation for this out-of-order storytelling, but the less-artsy reason is that the game would have been far less interesting had the story been told chronologically, from start to finish. But just to give players a clear concept of when events take place, a timeline  is shown during loading screens, which marks the order of each chapter.

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Many gamers make a fuss over games that, as they claim, give the illusion of choice. These are games whose outcomes are essentially the same, regardless of your decisions. There are also complaints about games where the ramifications of your decisions are too overt, lacking any sense of subtlety. Newsflash, folks! These are all types of decisions we make in our daily lives.

As Jodie, did my decision to order pizza, rather than cook a homemade meal, affect the outcome of my game? No, but then again, my real-life decision to skip breakfast this morning didn’t impact the outcome of my life, either. But, there are also big decisions with obvious consequences. Both types, inconsequential and not, exist in the game, just as they do in reality. Sometimes, however, you make decisions without even knowing it.

By design, the game gives the player a choice in how to play as Jodie, which allows for a greater connection to the protagonist than if we were simply passive observers. I made decisions as if I were in Jodie’s position, and I suspect there are many subtleties and nuances in my playthrough that differ from those of other players. I chose to be fairly genuine, while you may choose to be reserved, or possibly resentful.

There are multiple endings to the game which are driven by your decisions. And though there is variety, there is still a specific story and message that Cage wants to convey, which is why you may find many of your decisions don’t have profound results.

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As a game constructed around quick-time events (QTEs), Beyond is not difficult by any means, nor does it mean to be. As Jodie, you’ll be given just a few seconds to make a decision in social situations. If you hesitate, the game decides for you, which means you should play instinctively. How would you respond in this particular instance? Just press the button that correlates with the response you deem appropriate.

In combat situations, the game slows down when Jodie is reacting or making a move. You must read her body movement and push the analog stick in the same direction to make the correct attack or evasive maneuver. If you take too long, or if you move the stick in the wrong direction, Jodie will miss and sustain a hit. There is no game over, and you could screw up most of the combat sequences and still finish the game, but your story might take a slightly different turn. Plus, do you really want to see Ellen Page have the stuffing beaten out of her? I don’t.

But Jodie has help. Aiden can be controlled at almost any point in the game. In these instances, you’re able to move freely, through walls, floors and ceilings. Aiden’s range varies, and at times you can’t get all that far from Jodie, but because Aiden can’t be seen, you can investigate certain areas that Jodie can’t. This is helpful, as Aiden can act as a scout by surveying the area. He’s also handy for picking up conversations Jodie isn’t within range to hear. As Aiden, you’re able to possess specifically marked people and use them to take out other bad guys and themselves. You can also choke certain people, which is visually reminiscent of Vader’s Force Choke. Also helpful, Aiden can act as a psychic by helping Jodie see various events that took place in certain areas.

Qunatic Dream has a lot to be proud of, but its graphic artists are to be credited for their incredible work in bringing the world of Beyond to life. The game will have you globetrotting to some truly breathtaking locales — from the pine-clad hills of the Pacific Northwest, to the war-torn streets of Somalia. This game shows great technical understanding on the part of designers who are working with a seven-year-old console whose architecture will soon be aged out by the PlayStation 4. 

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Not only are the environments photorealistic, but its characters look better and more life-like than any I’ve seen. There were times when I almost couldn’t tell the difference between the real Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, and their in-game counterparts. This high level of detail, paired with the best use of motion capture technology I’ve ever witnessed, makes Beyond: Two Souls one of the most visually impressive games on a console or otherwise.

All of that, added to remarkable acting, great writing and immersive gameplay, solidifies Beyond: Two Souls as a pinnacle of the new style of storytelling in gaming. But it must be stated, Beyond is not a game for everyone.

Honestly, I can’t tell you if you’ll like it, because it’s such a unique experience. Personally, I loved it. Is it perfect? Of course not, no game is. But David Cage and Quantic Dream are doings things no one else has. They’re using their games to break down the walls between cinema and video games to tell new stories and create lasting, meaningful experiences.

When you’re trying to change the way people think, and you’re the first to fully commit to trying something radically different, there will be some resistance. But I believe other developers will begin to implement certain aspects of the Quantic Dream style. And in doing so, gaming will be changed.

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