Sony’s late-generation resurgence has been quite the thing to behold; an ageing fighter rekindling the fires of old under new tutelage. The heady one-two combo of a world class exclusive in The Last Of Us and the almighty PlayStation Plus has seen the PS3 win over a vast swathe of gamers, and now we have the finishing uppercut – David Cage’s wildly ambitious Beyond: Two Souls. A fitting send-off for a machine defined by its oddness as much as its exuberance.
This spiritual (in every sense of the word) sequel to Heavy Rain is a real one-off; a game of extraordinary lavishness in unusual areas – like the zenith of a path the rest of gaming gave up on a long time ago. You play as Jodie, a ‘gifted’ female portrayed by Juno’s Ellen Page, at various stages of her life, and the game explores her relationship with a ghostly partner from whom she cannot escape, Aiden.
That aforementioned lavishness is almost exclusively spent on spellbinding facial and motions capture technology that manages to bring Page and the surrounding cast to life on your screen. Without question, this is one of the most impressive looking games to appear anywhere, and it takes only a few seconds to buy Jodie as a real person, being played by Page as she would in a film. It’s not photorealistic, but it’s very, very close at times.
Page is joined by Hollywood stalwart Willem Dafoe, who plays Nathan Dawkins, a kindly scientist cum father figure who helps Jodie understand her rather unusual. By using a non-linear narrative, Cage invites players into various stages of Jodie’s adolescence, childhood and early adult life in a series of interactive scenes, basically, and weaves a complicated and personal story about death, the afterlife and the pains of growing up ‘different’.
It’s a very unusual game to criticise, as its gameplay systems are both limited and now, post Heavy Rain (and Walking Dead), quite familiar. Suffice to say, it works as well as it did previously, with basic QTEs doing an admirable job in conveying the emotion, excitement and threat of the story. Basic interactions remain the same as Heavy Rain’s (even down to the font), but action scenes now incorporate a stylish slow-mo which asks the payer to mimic Jodie’s direction of movement in order to complete. A more elegant solution than Heavy Rain’s constant button prompts.
By unifying its controls and interactions, Beyond: Two Souls asks players to immerse themselves in its story. A few years ago, questions like ‘but is this a game?’ would sound out across the internet and review spreads, but after a year or two where Gone Home, Dear Esther, To The Moon and, of course, The Walking Dead have all pushed to the gaming forefront and demanded to be taken seriously, Beyond: Two Souls’ relative lack of ‘gameplay’ doesn’t really feel like much of a talking point.
Far more interesting is to talk about the game’s successes. By creating technology that truly transports its actors into the game, Quantic Dream allows its cast to express itself. And in Ellen Page’s Jodie, we have a truly breathtaking performance. Page is a mercurial talent, throwing herself into the role as much as she has in any of her film parts, and gives one of the truly great videogame acting showcases.
Given that Jodie’s character is one we’ve seen before in many films – a troubled child with a gift, haunted by spirits, struggling with growing up – Page manages to lend her a gravity and warmth that could have easily been lost by an inferior actress. In a time where female roles in gaming are more scrutinised than ever, here we have a woman who at times is fiercely independent, powerful, introspective, talented and (whisper it) sexually confident. A human, then.
As the game is broken down into scenes (some little more than five minutes in length, some well over an hour) we are offered not just a story about a girl with a power, but a story about how that girl has to deal with that power. And the fact it’s actually not a power at all, but a soul all unto itself.
At its best, Beyond: Two Souls is marvellously written and crafted. A scene where Jodie ends up homeless is insightful, through-provoking and harsh, while one where she prepares her apartment for a date is both fascinating and occasionally hilarious; the game flicking between Bridget Jones neurosis and Poltergeist prop-hurling.
If Jodie is the star of Beyond: Two Souls the movie, then, Aiden is the star of the game. At almost any point in the action, the player can hit Triangle and become Aiden (pronounced I-den, oddly). From here, you can float around he world like a detached free camera in a Halo replay, flying around the room and even through walls. Aiden can manipulate certain people and items in the world using simple and consistent twin-stick inputs, meaning he can act as a poltergeist, flinging stuff around the place like a moody teenager, or go as far as actively possessing an NPC.
When and where Aiden can do any of this is entirely prescripted by the creators, so even sections that feel like puzzles are largely a case of finding and activating predetermined triggers. Nevertheless, using Aiden is oddly empowering, especially when you figure out ways to mess with the other characters in the game. It’s both a fun toy and an effective plot device, and is Beyond’s furthest departure from Cage’s previous work.
Some may find the inconsistent nature of Aiden’s interactivity to be frustrating, but the world Cage has created is bound by mystery and confusion, so it’s easy enough to let such ‘gamey’ tropes slide. It all pieces together to conjure a story that manages to be personal and touching, despite its overfamiliarity (to movies, rather than games).
Sadly, Cage’s lack of discipline when it comes to reining in the wilder sides of his imagination does leave Beyond: Two Souls overreaching it self during certain scenes. When it shows restraint, this is the erstwhile creator’s best work, but its keenness to ramp everything up to a blockbuster frequency is the game’s truest weakness.
An extended sortie to the desert feels totally out of place and unnecessary, and the game’s finale – while captivating – strips it of much of its quiet charm, all explosions and bluster.
In a two hour film, these excesses would spoil the party completely, but there is still 80% of Beyond which shows subtlety and care in its scripting. Don’t be misled – this is still sci-fi bunkum of the more ludicrous order, but it manages to build a world that’s logically consistent, and worthwhile characters to fill it. Even the worrying ‘Splinter Cell’ section seen at E3 is actually a gem – and only a small part of the game as a whole.
And that’s the beauty of Cage’s framework. As a method for delivering the type of stories he wants to tell, it’s fantastic because it allows gameplay to change constantly, meaning a story can take place during the times when you’re clutching the controller as opposed to inbetween. It’s his own canvas, and it really works.
Cage’s quotes are often sneered at and derided as the lamentations of an arrogant and misguided creator who yearns to be a filmmaker. In truth, though, he’s a true visionary; someone who believes in the power of games and of interactivity. Beyond: Two Souls is his most ambitious and complete work to date, and while it might lack the threat of Heavy Rain’s disposable protagonists, it replaces it with unimaginable polish and technical magicianship.
Not all videogames should be like Beyond Two Souls. But be thankful that some are. Another flawed but essential tale from a man who genuinely cares and a publisher that believes in the power of videogames.