I’ve been looking forward to Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s new project in ‘interactive storytelling’, since I first took control of a naked man as he woke up, walked around his house leisurely, before taking a shower and completing his ‘days work’ in five minutes worth of drawing in his lounge. That was in Heavy Rain (2010); a game I was teased for playing by my Fifa-prone flatmate at the time due to this rather voyeuristic prologue scene.
Beyond is a Hollywood film in all but format. It looks like a film, feels like a film, even has professional Hollywood actors (Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, honestly in what could be their best roles right here) just like a film. Oh, sure, we’ve seen games attempt this before. Since Resident Evil first came out in 1996, video games and films have had a close visual relationship. But to say Resi looked like a film would also be like saying your pet Rottweiler looked like Brad Pitt, in that while there may have been one or two similar features and you kind of see what they were trying to do, it ended up being – how do I put this sensitively – an incredibly ugly, plainly bad version of it.
Quantic Dream on the other hand, led by visionary lead developer and founder David Cage, has really gone all out to ensure Beyond is the most immersive, visually beautiful cinematic experience on any console to date. This it certainly achieves, and were it the only thing a game was required to achieve to be great then it could be contender for the greatest ever. Alas…
It is when you start looking past the game’s presentation that slight cracks begin to emerge underneath. When you realise that there isn’t a lot of actual gaming involved. The interactivity of certain set-pieces (which are usually triggered by walking from one to the next) rarely goes beyond a controller tilt or a blatantly obvious button press. Thankfully though, your environments, which range from snowy New York to a sunny desert, along with the alluring story progression of each sequence keeps you interested enough to want to keep playing, if only out of curiosity to see where it’s taking you next.
In a sense, this is another of the game’s problems: its non-linear narrative that keeps you guessing right to the end. Not ‘keeps you guessing’ because there are any great twists involved, but because it jumps from scene to scene without any real hint (until much later) as to how they’re connected. This disorientation is especially obtrusive near the beginning of the game.
One early scene has you infiltrating an Embassy and stealing important documents; why you’re there, what the documents are or who you’re stealing them for are just some of the questions left unanswered long after the scene has passed and you’ve moved on to another point of time in the life of your protagonist. A less patient player than me may have trouble persisting with the game in blind trust that it has something more up its sleeve; whereas I found myself more inclined to believe there was hidden genius in its interwoven narrative. To an extent, you ultimately come to realise there is, but whether the end is enough to justify the means in this overall case is debatable.
To balance things up here though, it would be fitting for me to comment on what Beyond not only does well, but probably does better than any other video game currently on the market. This is its voice acting, motion capture, and general writing for each of the game’s main characters. You play as Jodie Holmes (portrayed by Ellen Page, who reportedly recorded around 2000 lines of dialogue for the part), a character who injects the life into each one of the sequences she is in. And while I have been critical of scenes in the context of their relation to the wider story, make no mistake that some of them are amazing as standalone, self-contained stories of survival against all odds – dealing with everything from homelessness to CIA conspiracies.
Jodie personifies this survival instinct alongside Aiden, an entity (yeah, didn’t I mention the game had those?), who is basically a spirit attached to her since birth. You’re also able to take control of Aiden when you need to do crazy stuff like drift through walls or choke the life out of potential rapists. Willem Dafoe has a memorable role as one of the researchers assigned to look after Jodie as she grows into a young woman. The unnerving realism of these characters, and the bonds that develop between them, is something you’re not used to seeing in video games. In part it is because the game does these things so well that you’ll likely feel willing to consider its other faults secondary.
But one of the slight problems I would have with Quantic Dream’s definition of gaming being ‘interactive storytelling’ is that it feels almost too close to what we could otherwise find just as easily in a film. Fair enough, it’s a lot longer than the average movie and this presents the potential for a more personal experience (itself proving one of the areas of praise for the whole gaming medium), but it feels too similar to cinema. It’s kind of saying gaming’s future is to continue imitating what we see on the big screen, and I’m not sure that’s really the case.
This, for Beyond, is a double-edged sword. One of the negative points I could say about it is that its story feels clichéd, because its traits are too closely knit with its adoptive Hollywood parent. On the other hand it feels to me like this is exactly what Quantic Dream were aiming for with the game. The day they manage to get over that love affair, may also be the day we see the real evolution of gaming. For now, if we are to judge the merit of Beyond: Two Souls on things like acting, writing, and questionably-paced but no less emotive plotting, then it comes out looking pretty good.
8 / 10.