Box art

Re: Beyond: Two Souls

I believe there is a large cultural divide between gamers today.

One one side is a fierce devotion to an action experience, perfected controls, and reliable, balanced combat. It’s a group of people interested in gaming for adrenaline-fueled fun and competition. I also believe this group skews younger and more heavily comprises the ireful online communities full of vulgarity and animosity, unfortunately.

The second group is one that values a wider spectrum of experiences from gaming. One that likes to see video games taken to new heights of storytelling, design, ingenuity, and scale. These are the people I love who write intelligent, thoughtful reviews and commentaries on the industry and the medium. On where it’s going and what it’s capable of.

And it’s this second group for which games like Beyond: Two Souls are more appreciated, and this group I wish to address in my writing.

Beyond¬†centers around the life of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) who is linked with a paranormal entity named Aiden. Nathan Dawkins (Willam Dafoe) is the head researcher trying to learn and discover more about this phenomenon. The story is played through different vignettes or longer, prominent moments in Jodie’s life, jumping forwards and backwards in time. Much of the joy of the game is in piecing together the story for each character and slowly discovering the origins of Aiden and the phenomena that follow Jodie.

Aiden experiment

The game’s story was very appealing to me from the reviews and discussions of the game I read and saw. Jodie’s childhood and adolescence are portrayed very realistically, with the added weight of an ostracizing power and ever-present being. It was this human realism in the writing and acting, combined with the astonishing visuals, that attracted me to the game in the first place. In the second half, starting with the “Navajo” section in particular, it takes a more fantastical turn, which I didn’t feel quite prepared for. After some time, I was able to adjust and appreciate the world they were creating, however, and enjoy the game’s later sections.

The pacing of the game was quite good. Smaller segments revealed important plot points that would appear in the next larger section. Later parts of the game were longer, more continuous stories. The tone flowed smoothly to me, despite scenes as diverse as boot camp training and cleaning up an apartment for a date. (And for fans of Ellen Page being her Pageiest, the latter section was quite fun.)

In some different segments of the game, Jodie is homeless, in the desert, a soldier in combat, or a lab rat. Each of these diverse situations and sections had its own characters, though some were more engaging to me than others. The homeless section, for example, I found to be extremely moving and an intimate glimpse into a lifestyle all too easily ignored for someone able to afford a Playstation 3. The soldier section involved stealthily moving through cover, which was some fun action between character-driven segments. The Navajo section I was ready to like quite a bit, but the characters were not as fleshed out as I wished they could have been.

Homeless scene

This imbalance of the impact and length of different sections, while perhaps influenced by my personal taste, is reflected in slanted choices near the end of the game. Jodie spends much more time with some characters than others, leading any selection between them to be biased heavily and not what I considered a fair choice. I found this unfortunate because what could have been a challenging, difficult decision in the narrative was made simple to me.

While I haven’t played Heavy Rain, I have watched most of the game played by a friend. I’ve heard several times that freedom of choice in Beyond does not alter the narrative as much as in Heavy Rain, and I believe that. But I still felt satisfied with little, inter-scene choices that let me have control over that part of the story. Whether I pack Jodie’s pink stuffed animal in a duffel bag does not change the course of the game in any way. But being able to choose, in a small way, whether Jodie would keep this possession as a reminder of her childhood or move on from it was a meaningful interaction to me.

Young Jodie

Finally, on a personal level, I found three specific aspects of Beyond interesting and appealing.

The first was the romantic aspect of the game, in which I was deciding whether different men would be a good fit for Jodie. I can’t remember an experience to this degree so opposite of my own, and it was a welcome, eye-opening experience. This idea can be expanded to a broader appreciation of a female leading role and a full, rich depiction of Jodie as a little girl, punk teenager, and adult.

The second aspect I appreciated came after I read more about Dave Cage. In this interview he did a year before the game was released, he discussed his lack of belief in the supernatural:

Q: Your games have a tendency towards exploring sci-fi and supernatural themes, but at the same time, you’ve said that your stories are informed by your personal experience. What is it about these subjects that interests you? Are you a big believer in this sort of thing, if you don’t mind me asking. I know that’s a rather personal question.

DC: A big believer in what?

Q: In the supernatural. Do you believe in ghosts, for example.

DC: No, I’m afraid not. I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God at all.

Q: That’s interesting. So why are you so drawn to telling a story that has these elements in it?

DC: There are some personal reasons around this. One of them is… actually, I lost someone close in my family. Death is something really strange. I mean, you have the concept of death when no-one around you has died, and you understand that it’s very sad. But when you lose someone close, you have a totally different approach to it. Suddenly it takes on a whole different light. I have never been very interested in religions, I just say that they are nice theories. And one day I was thinking about what death could be, without religions, without God sitting on a cloud, or whatever. Can we have another explanation for that? This is what drove me to write Beyond.

I found this reassuring in the sense that this game was not part of a larger message of religion or spirituality. I also appreciated the approach to the story even more, simply dealing with the idea of the existence of souls and what possible scientific inquiries would occur if they were discovered to have an effect on the physical world.

The third item is more of an idea from Dave Cage, rather than an aspect of the game. Cage has notably said that he wishes players to only go through his games once, and to not replay them again. I and much of the gaming community find this a bit extreme (and even contrary to the achievement design of the game, which encourages multiple playthroughs), but I did take away a good balance from this idea. In many games, I will restart sections to perform them perfectly if I felt a better outcome could have occurred. I will spend far too long in levels ensuring I’ve searched every nook and cranny. But in this game, similarly to Depression Quest, I resisted that urge and instead accepted my choices. This made my decisions have meaning and impact, and I thought deeply about them, making the story and experience that much richer.

Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe acting

Beyond: Two Souls is a milestone in its great writing, inclusion of professional actors, and use of an interactive medium to allow player choice throughout. It is a continuation of Heavy Rain’s style and a furthering of the perception of what video games can be. While its later sections took some adjustment for me, I appreciate the effort put into telling a very human story with diverse locales, situations, and themes.

The game is available exclusively on the PlayStation 3.

[Images from playstation.beyond-twosouls.com]

2 thoughts on “Re: Beyond: Two Souls

  1. AJ Kolenc

    Alright, I’m going to engage a bit on your comments (I hope I don’t come off as too contrary, but I think a different perspective might be interesting to consider).

    I came into Beyond very much in the second group of gamers you mentioned, with the added experience of multiple playthroughs of Heavy Rain (as well as watching some other people play it). I’ll start off by saying that I absolutely support the creation of games like this, which attempt to innovate and provide new perspectives.

    That being said, I think Beyond was a step in the wrong direction from Heavy Rain. Beyond plays mostly as an interactive movie, which is cool and involving, but it often tries to stray into more traditional, group 1 gameplay; it never feels good which really pulled me out of the experience. There’s also the problem that a big chunk of the game has no meaningful choice, but attempts to trick you into thinking it exists: when you can’t tell it works, but when you run into the edges the designers created it breaks the illusion.

    Then there’s the writing. I do appreciate the non-religious take on afterlife, the presentation of a complex female lead, and many of the segments (the homeless segment you discussed is particularly well done). There are some definite problems with the narrative, however. It seems like a few segments were simply included because they wanted action set-pieces, and felt out of place. Especially towards the end, the game felt the need to be a Hollywood blockbuster and got a little too big to be involving on a human level. Some weirdly stereotyped portions (goth angsty teenager, maniacal council of military generals, tribal Native Americans) also took away from an otherwise well-written personal tale exploring life and death.

    Reading your take did make me consider things I hadn’t before, so I thank you for that. I would strongly encourage that you play Heavy Rain for yourself, and see how the two compare.

    Reply
    1. Ross Post author

      Spoilers!

      I hope I didn’t undersell the jarring feeling I had starting with Navajo. I was really not into it for a while. Honestly, just remove the giant monster face, don’t use the word “talisman”, and things might have been much better. But as it stands, it was definitely a tonal shift that I wasn’t quite game for.

      And the ending action was also too larger than life. Jodie in a underwater suit, people wearing protective barrier belts, and the lengthy walk in this unknown black sun room were not what I was expecting when I started. But at a certain point, I just resigned that, okay, if we’re going more sci-fi, I’ll do it. And it made it pretty enjoyable.

      The writing was absolutely better in the first half. Perhaps I should note that before I put this up, I changed the last paragraph to say “great” writing instead of “excellent” because of my reflection on the second half. You’re totally right: the maniacal general was pretty glaring. But I didn’t balk at that aspect of Navajo and felt punk teenage Jodie quite justified.

      I plan on playing Heavy Rain for myself. But I’m holding off on buying games like it or other popular PS3 games until I work through other games I’ve gotten recently.

      Thanks a ton for the reply!

      Reply

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