Four years in the making, Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain proved to be a commercial and critical success when it was released for the PlayStation 3 in 2010. It sold over five million copies, which was a remarkable feat for a console exclusive game at the time, and it even managed win three BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). It was praised for its emotional impact, visuals, and writing. Naturally, with a smash hit on their hands, Quantic Dream was spurred into creating a follow-up.
The founder and CEO of Quantic Dream, David Cage, announced their newest game at Sony’s press conference during the E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) conference of 2012. There, he showed the attendees a debut trailer featuring in-game graphics. Mr. Cage described this new game, titled Beyond: Two Souls, as more of an action-driven experience compared to that which Heavy Rain offered, affording players a greater degree control over the proceedings.
In a move that gave the upcoming game even more press coverage, the protagonist of Beyond: Two Souls was to be portrayed by Ellen Page with Willem Dafoe voicing another central character. Employing motion-capture acting in addition to on-set voice acting, the year-long project had the actors work in the company’s studio in Paris to perform the physical actions seen in the final product, which would in turn be translated to their character models. Mr. Cage once again served as both the primary writer and the director. Interviews with Ms. Page revealed that the script for the game was around 2,000 pages long. Film screenplays are typically 100 pages long with each page roughly corresponding to a minute of screentime.
The game was dedicated to composer Normand Corbeil, who tragically died of pancreatic cancer in January of 2013. He had scored two of Mr. Cage’s earlier works, Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in North America), and Heavy Rain. Quantic Dream hired him to compose Beyond: Two Souls, but he was unable to do so before succumbing to his illness. Lorne Balfe, who wrote the score for Assassin’s Creed III, replaced Mr. Corbeil after his death. Mr. Balfe even collaborated with the esteemed Hans Zimmer, the latter of whom joined him as a producer.
Five months before the game’s launch, Quantic Dream released a new trailer at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival with both David Cage and Ellen Page in attendance. Notably, it was only the second time the festival recognized a video game, the first instance being Team Bondi’s 2011 title L.A. Noire. In interviews conducted just before the game’s release, Mr. Cage explained how development studios such as his own have an obligation to provide interactive storytelling that can anyone could experience, including non-gamers. With bated breath, Beyond: Two Souls finally saw its release in October of 2013. While critics generally lauded Heavy Rain, their reaction to this new Quantic Dream title was more polarized. Critics considered the game a great technical achievement with its motion-capture acting, and Ellen Page’s performance in particular was highly praised. On the other hand, the plot itself was highly criticized for being nonsensical and unfocused. From this reaction, it can be extrapolated that anyone who sees Beyond: Two Souls through to the end is going to have a strong opinion of it. Is it an underrated masterpiece? Is it a pretentious mess? The only way to find out is to dive right in.
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, spoilers are unavoidable.
The main character of this game is a young woman named Jodie Holmes as played by Ellen Page. Her fate is in your hands as you are made to guide her through her memories. The controls are straightforward enough. You guide her movements using the left control stick. Points of interactions appear onscreen as white dots. When Jodie is close enough to one, you can shift the right control stick in the direction of the dot in relationship to herself. This will cause a miniature cutscene to play out. For example, if there is a file resting on a table, a white dot will appear above the paper. By pressing the right control stick in the direction of the file, Jodie will pick it up and examine it.
Since birth, she has had a psychic connection with an invisible being named Aiden. This connection allows her to, by proxy, enact many terrifying acts via telepathy. She likens Aiden as a lion in a cage, always going out of his way to protect Jodie, but isolating her from the rest of the world as a result. You can control Aiden by pressing the triangle button. From the entity’s perspective, you can interact with environment in various ways from flipping switches to knocking over objects. Aiden’s connection with Jodie cannot be severed by normal means, and he cannot stray too far from her. Try and the screen will begin to blur, preventing him from moving in that direction.
He can even affect certain people directly. Though his lens, people have color-coded auras to signpost to players what he can do with them. Jodie’s own aura is purple. The standard color for other people is blue, which indicates that Aiden cannot affect them directly. Orange indicates that the character can be possessed. Red auras mean the person can be strangled until they are either dead or unconscious. Finally, if you ever see a green light emanating from a person, they are either injured or sick, and Aiden will heal them if you allow it.
With that, I have finished describing what the gameplay of Beyond: Two Souls entails. Quantic Dream touted Beyond: Two Souls as an interactive drama rather than a video game when it was released. I can imagine that having such little gameplay to speak of would be a deal-breaker by most enthusiasts’ standards. They’re not wrong for holding such a belief either. Despite its name, minimalism is much more difficult to pull off successfully than a conventional approach. Historically, Team Ico demonstrated how powerful a storytelling experience can be using only the bare minimum of context with Shadow of the Colossus, forming something far grander than the sum of its parts. Furthermore, the lack of gameplay didn’t stop a genre of interactive fiction dubbed visual novels from finding an audience. Some such as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney had puzzles to solve, but for most people, the stories themselves were the draw. Taking the concept to its logical extreme, there even exists a subgenre of visual novels known as kinetic novels in which the player has no opportunities to interact with the story at all.
Whether it’s an art game, visual novel, or interactive drama, the key to crafting an experience with a minimalistic ethos is to know which elements to keep. After all, if the creator fails in such a scenario, they have nothing to fall back on when it’s clear the flaws can’t be ignored. With this in mind, the biggest question one might ask about Beyond: Two Souls concerns whether or not it works as an interactive drama with little gameplay. I definitely have an answer to such an inquiry, but I feel the best way to illustrate it is to walk through the experience.
Before I can begin, one persistent problem I have with Beyond: Two Souls concerns its control scheme. One would assume that the gameplay, being as simplistic as it is, isn’t hampered with terrible controls. For the most part, such an assumption would be correct, but I found controlling the camera to be immensely frustrating. This is because the right control stick, rather than being used to control the camera as is standard for most 3D games made in the twenty-first century, is instead used to interact with objects. I get the idea because there are a few cases in which there are multiple objects to interact with at once, but it’s still unintuitive. I feel Quantic Dream could have taken a page from Ace Attorney Investigations by allowing players to press a button when near a point of interest to interact with it. If need be, the game could switch to a first-person view so players can examine scenes in detail, using a cursor to highlight hotspots.
One of the first things people will notice playing this game is that the vignettes are not placed in chronological order. After Jodie’s opening monologue, the game travels back three years as she wearily answers a policeman’s questions. She is, for her part, uncooperative and makes her flight once government agents descend upon the precinct.
After that, it cuts to Jodie’s childhood. At the age of eight, she is made to conduct experiments. Here we are introduced to her surrogate father figure, Nathan Dawkins. He is a researcher working for the Department of Paranormal Activities (DPA) played by the other big-name actor prominently featured on the game’s cover: Willem Dafoe. This marks the first interactive portion of the game. The experiment involves Jodie deducing what card an older woman on the other side of a glass partition is holding up, receiving assistance from Aiden. Unlike in the similar scene in Ghostbusters many people reading this description are doubtlessly thinking of right now, Jodie’s powers are the genuine article, something the woman learns all too well when Aiden begins tearing the room apart. If you’re feeling particularly malicious, you can even attempt to strangle her.
Two chapters later, the game jumps to Jodie’s teen years. She has been invited to a birthday party in the neighborhood of the DPA staff. Nathan has given her a rare omnibus of Edgar Allan Poe stories to gift the birthday girl. Jodie tries to fit in by choosing the music, though regardless of which one she picks, one of the other partygoers will scoff at her choice. She then attempts to socialize with the other kids, and does a decent job despite her sheltered upbringing. Having heard of her powers, they dare Jodie to show them off. Regardless of whether you do anything or not as Aiden, the teens gang up on Jodie, with the person she danced with moments before accusing her of being a slut. They lock her up in a closet, though Aiden simply unlocks the door for her. Here, you can have Jodie leave quietly or with Aiden’s assistance, she can get revenge on the teens by destroying the living room. The vindictive can opt to burn the house down.
This chapter in particular manages to encapsulate a lot of the problems I have with the game. The first one concerns Jodie herself. I will say upfront that Ellen Page’s performance is actually quite solid. She found a way to translate her talents into this developing medium without too much trouble. During the game’s more traumatic moments, she really sells the sheer anguish Jodie experiences. It’s a subtly dynamic performance as well, for she is able to handle herself in the various scenarios – even proving to be a good singer at one point.
While I don’t have a problem with Ellen Page’s performance – far from it, in fact – the main problem her character has concerns sympathy. Make no mistake, Jodie is a likeable character, but any sympathy the audience is going to have for her is mostly in response to the terrible things that constantly happen to her. Meaningful conflict is vital to any good story, and while the game doesn’t really go too far when it comes to putting Jodie through the wringer, these trials and tribulations ultimately overshadow her character. Though she’s not one-dimensional, I find her actual personality somewhat difficult to parse.
One reason has to do with how many of these moments are only made possible through sheer stupidity. Many people in this game treat Jodie with no respect whatsoever despite knowing of her powers. The teens in particular know about them, making their attempts to “burn the witch” cross the threshold from your everyday garden variety of idiocy and into a total lack of basic survival instincts. A lot of these scenarios exist for the purpose of showcasing the various horrible ways in which Aiden can terrify or execute these people, but most of them could’ve been avoided had the people she interacted with acted like normal human beings. There is one character in particular whom Aiden never harms entirely because he is consistently friendly and helpful to Jodie. One might assume the people who hate her would at least avoid tormenting her so as to not invoke Aiden’s wrath, but this isn’t the case. It’s ironic how a drama that takes place in the real world, albeit with supernatural elements, stretches the suspension of disbelief far further than most fantasy titles.
Another reason Jodie’s personality doesn’t get a chance to shine concerns the choices you make at various points. When she is allowed to select the music at the party, she has the choice of four different styles of music. If Beyond: Two Souls were a film, Jodie choosing the rock station would give a little bit of insight to her character. However, because the choice is the player’s, it doesn’t technically exist in the narrative. Jodie as a character temporarily became a nonentity for a brief second as you were choosing a station. One could argue this dissonance is present whenever these situations occur.
This isn’t to say that giving the player control of a narrative is guaranteed to compromise its integrity. Ideally, these kinds of decisions tend to work best whenever the protagonist is a stand-in for the player. There is a reason why silent protagonists are a common standby in this medium – they allow players to project themselves onto them. This way, when asked to make a meaningful decision, the player’s influence is felt in the fictional universe. It can work also work in a narrative with a defined character such as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. The difference it and Beyond: Two Souls lies primarily how much the protagonist’s agency exists in these choices. In the former, the protagonist is thrown into a situation with such little information to go on. Therefore, when he is asked to decide where to go, I can believe any of the potential choices are made in character.
With Beyond: Two Souls, I feel the developers attempted to have their cake and eat it. They give players choices to make all the time, yet they tend to be at the expense of Jodie’s character. During some of the story branches, I don’t believe the same character could make all of the decisions she has available to her. This usually concerns the moments involving whether or not to save certain characters from death. In one chapter following Jodie escaping the authorities, she is forced to live on the streets. She meets a group of kind homeless people willing to welcome her into their community. As they take refuge in a condemned structure, some teenagers set it on fire. During this sequence, Jodie can opt to leave almost immediately or brave the fire and rescue everyone. The game presents this as a moral dilemma, for such an endeavor would be borderline suicidal – especially without the proper firefighting equipment. However, given Jodie’s general personality, not even making an attempt to save her new friends comes across as wildly out of character. The only reason she would do it is because the player, whom the narrative doesn’t acknowledge, tells her so.
This scenario accents another major problem with Beyond: Two Souls – it doesn’t present any meaningful challenge. During certain sequences, she will be made to dodge obstacles or fight NPCs in a manner similar to that of Dragon’s Lair. Taking design choices from such a dated game is bad enough, but Quantic Dream upped the ante by making it impossible to die barring a few specific situations nearing the end. No matter how much the narrative stresses that Jodie is in danger, you can rest knowing she almost never is. Though the quick-time events are annoying and comprise much more of the experience than is healthy for a game, there is little consequence for messing them up. At worst, you will make yourself ineligible for some of the achievements. On occasion, the laws of the universe seem to contort to ensure Jodie’s survival.
When interviewed, David Cage said he had “always felt that ‘game over’ is a state of failure for the game designer than from the player”. He was speaking in context of story-driven titles, and though many people insist a game isn’t a game if you can’t lose, I feel Mr. Cage’s sentiment is not wholly without merit. Though Naughty Dog’s games starting with Uncharted 2 tended to receive unanimous critical acclaim, one subtle problem all of them had concerned their trial-and-error nature. Dying and starting over from the last checkpoint is a natural part of the gaming experience, but when Naughty Dog attempted to emulate the Hollywood formula, an aspect people had been accustomed to over the years suddenly became untenable. Many times were players forced to watch Nathan Drake fall victim to the various hazards in his games – except none of that really happened. He somehow knows exactly where all of the enemies are hiding and the route to take in order to efficiently dispatch them every single time. It’s as though he’s invoking memories from an alternate self or subconsciously receiving guidance from an omniscient being from another dimension capable of observing all of these mutually exclusive timelines.
Having said all of that, I don’t think the alternative Mr. Cage provides in Beyond: Two Souls is a viable one. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to make a game where death is a non-issue. The protagonist of Planescape: Torment is immortal, and one of the driving questions of that game’s narrative is to learn precisely why he can’t die. The game design even allowed you to take advantage of his immortality by temporarily dying at opportune moments. In a similar vein, the narrative of Dark Souls is structured around the fact that your character cannot die permanently. Consequently, it resolves the issue plaguing Naughty Dog’s output in the 2010s by providing a solid explanation for why your character gains this information. They know a powerful demon resides behind the giant door or that the second chest in the abandoned fortress is a mimic because they remember falling victim to them. Unfortunately, the only thing Mr. Cage accomplished in his own attempt was preserving his narrative’s integrity at the expense of, ironically enough, negating the drama in his interactive drama.
Should you wonder if the “interactive” portion of the equation fares any better, I can assure you that it does not. As was the case with Heavy Rain, a significant chunk of the tasks you guide Jodie through are mundane to the point of inanity. Watching something that is, for all intents and purposes, a film clip only for it to pause and a command prompt to appear onscreen which prevents the rest of the scene from playing out is jarring. I can’t think of a reason why having Jodie put food on her plate during dinner, attempt to hitchhike, turn over a few times before falling asleep, or sob into her pillow requires the player’s input. These moments are serviceable for films or non-interactive cutscenes in games, but attempting to translate them into playable sequences is superfluous at the best of times. Every other time, it’s just awkward.
Making matters worse is that by 2013, there was a widespread backlash against quick-time events. Independent critics in particular voiced their dislike of the mechanic, and for good reason. Cinematic cutscenes are strictly speaking, not part of the actual gaming experience, so having a button appear onscreen and punishing the player’s failure to react in time with death is nothing more than the developers refusing to play by their own rules. In light of the fact that most enthusiasts were against quick-time events by the time Beyond: Two Souls saw its original release, it was spectacularly ill-advised for Quantic Dream to cling onto them. Though there aren’t many consequences for failing them, it doesn’t prevent this game from feeling behind the times.
One of the biggest problems I have with the game is that it can often be difficult to tell whether or not a choice you’re being presented with has a discernible impact on the story. The best example I can think of occurred in a chapter in which Jodie happens upon a Navajo family living in the American southwest. I played through a majority of the chapter only to later learn that I failed to save the family patriarch. There is a character you’re meant to speak with to advance the plot, but what I didn’t know is that I could have ignored her to have Aiden treat the man’s wounds. Though I saw him get hurt, I assumed I was supposed to deal with his injury after taking care of the more immediate issue. The reason why I jumped to such a conclusion is because the game’s design so rigid, when I am granted leeway, I fail to realize it. This flaw is especially bad considering how in Heavy Rain, the consequences of most actions were more immediately obvious.
Also inexcusable is that because of the many points of interaction present in an average cutscene, there is no option to fast-forward. By contrast, Kotaro Uchikoshi’s 2012 follow-up to Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors dubbed Virtue’s Last Reward, introduced a flowchart that completely mitigated one of the few problems plaguing the former. Whenever you made a significant choice, the timelines would branch off. From there, you could use the chart to return to that point and go down a different path. Even better, because a lot of the dialogue was shared between timelines, the game included an option to fast-forward past it. It would then return to normal speed once it reached material not yet viewed by the player. Quantic Dream clearly didn’t learn from this when making Beyond: Two Souls; if you want to change your decision, you have to play through the entire chapter in real time, which can take an hour or longer.
If anyone is having trouble comprehending the story of this interactive drama after reading my brief summation, I will say in my defense that it’s only slightly more intelligible when playing it. In between chapters, you’re presented with a loading screen that depicts the story’s timeline. It makes for an interesting narrative in that you will constantly be using new information to fill in the gaps, but at the expense of consistent pacing. A heart-pounding action sequence will be followed up with a slice-of-life episode from Jodie’s childhood. It’s possible to do this without the audience being subjected to metaphorical whiplash, but it takes an exceptionally skilled director. It is justified at the end of the game wherein Jodie’s experiences in an alternate dimension scrambles her memories. The only way she can make sense of them is to put them down on paper, thus explaining the jumbled nature of the narrative. Unfortunately, this development is so poorly handled, it’s easy to get the impression that the writers decided on the anachronic order of the chapters long before making an attempt at contextualizing it.
However, I will admit there is at least one intriguing moment that arises from this wherein shortly after completing her CIA training, the game flashes forward to her being on the run from the law. The next chapter chronologically has her wander the streets as a homeless person. For a significant chunk of the experience, players are going to ask themselves what resulted in Jodie deserting the CIA. The reveal is actually quite impactful.
The CIA manipulated Jodie into assassinating a political figure in Africa, telling her that he is a ruthless warlord. Only seconds after the mission is completed does she learn the warlord was actually a democratically elected president who was considered by his people to be the last hope for his country to ever achieve peace and stability. Infuriated at the organization and her superior, Ryan, she jumps out of their aircraft. The next scene is involves her fighting the law enforcement, which the player had already experienced.
I do like how the scene fills in the biggest gap in the story, but it does have several problems. To begin with, I felt this twist was merely shocking for the sake of being shocking. Though the actual assassination plot is intricate, why the CIA concocted it is never sufficiently addressed. When it comes to motivation, rarely does “for its own sake” hold up under scrutiny, and this is not one of those exceptions. Another problem is that it casts Ryan, who is Jodie’s love interest, in an exceedingly negative light. Indeed, when Jodie justifiably expresses her outrage, he doesn’t see it as a big deal, claiming they were only following orders. He likely knew she never would have gone along with the plan had she known what it truly entailed. Only much later does he consider actually apologizing to her, and by then, it’s too little, too late. In a moment of unintentional hilarity, he asks if she’s still mad later, and they laugh it off even if you make her answer yes. Without context, one would be forgiven for assuming Ryan dented Jodie’s car. Finally, the biggest issue, and the one that marks Beyond: Two Souls as a product of the 2010s AAA scene, is how it places all of the blame for this incident on the player. It doesn’t go as far as breaking the fourth wall to insult the player directly, but because it’s impossible to advance without assassinating the president, it’s still incredibly cheap. One cannot imply the onus rests on the player’s shoulders when they only give them a single path to tread. Bearing in mind that Quantic Dream has always expressed wanting to craft narratives in which the player’s choices matter, it sure is convenient how their audience can’t avoid committing the single most evil act in the game.
Even if this moment didn’t exist, I would be able tell this was a product of its time because of its laughable attempts at being mature. Whether it was due to the esteemed film critic Roger Ebert infamously declaring that video games could never be art or people within the industry internalizing it, the medium had serious self-esteem issues in the early 2010s. A lot of these problems could be chalked up to growing pains. By that time, the medium had evolved past their humble beginnings, but not quite to the point where society as a whole was willing to acknowledge their place in culture.
One of the side effects from this insecurity was the widespread praise of games that emulated films. The idea was that games needed to stop being games in order to well and truly grow up. Unfortunately, this resulted in many ill-advised decisions when shaping narratives. Beyond: Two Souls in particular does this before the game even begins by featuring the names of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe on its cover. Though it’s impressive they managed to recruit such talent, it does give off the impression that its peers are inferior for featuring voice actors who aren’t as recognizable, prolific though they may be within their own field.
The writing itself does little to assuage this perception, as it will let you know that you are indeed playing a mature-rated game with a capital “M”. Although there are quite a few moments I could highlight to make my case, I feel the one that best encapsulates what I mean occurs in the vignette “Like Other Girls”.
Sneaking out of the laboratory to go to a party at a bar with friends, Jodie soon finds herself in the company of three men. You can potentially guide her to play billiards with the men. If you choose to do so, they will attempt to sexually assault her. Placing these film-like scenes in a seemingly random order and still making them possible to follow would require a director a bit more talented than David Cage. Rape, on the other hand, is a subject even the best of the best are unable to touch upon properly. In addition to being tasteless, it also comes across as vaguely arrogant. All of this leads to what was perhaps the greatest irony of all. In their attempts to be mature, Quantic Dream and the rest of the AAA industry became far more puerile than when the medium was all about having fun. It stands to reason – fun is a universal, timeless concept. This false brand of maturity has a definite shelf life.
Drawing a Conclusion
Upon its 2013 release, something of rivalry emerged between fans of Beyond: Two Souls and those of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. On the surface, this would seem odd considering that, aside from both games being PlayStation 3 exclusives released in 2013, they have little in common. As it would turn out, some of this animosity stemmed from the fact that, in the early development phases of The Last of Us, the female lead bore a striking resemblance to Ellen Page. Not helping Naughty Dog’s case was what they decided to name said character: Ellie.
The two games were being developed around the same time, and when Ellen Page herself brought up the issue, a minor controversy ensued. When the dust settled, The Last of Us was the clear victor, winning over both critics and fans alike. Meanwhile, Beyond: Two Souls fell off the radar shortly after making its comparatively minor impact.
Why this game received such a polarized reaction is a subject of debate. I’ve heard a few theorize it had to do with gaming being a predominately male-oriented hobby. They argued that being forced to play from a female perspective, which included potentially romancing a male love interest, resulted in the negative backlash. Others speaking in favor of the game suggest the detractors can’t handle an experience that isn’t wall-to-wall action. I personally can’t agree with either supposition when it’s clear there are myriad objectively bad things about the experience that provide perfectly concrete reasons for disliking it.
What especially didn’t help is that Quantic Dream set themselves up for failure with their marketing campaigns. A majority of the gameplay trailers they showed were from the chapter “The Mission”, which implied the experience was more action-oriented than it is. This likely led a few people not familiar with Quantic Dream’s earlier output to falsely believe the stealth-action sequences were present throughout the entire game when they’re only utilized for two chapters – the first of which being the tutorial for said mechanics. I’ve remarked that 2013 was a weak year for gaming, and one of the reasons why stems from the decidedly unscrupulous marketing tactics the industry employed. Contrary to what one would expect, even the indie scene wasn’t immune as the cacophonous backlash to Gone Home proved. It was as though creators were under the impression that their audience had trouble leaving their comfort zone.
Whatever the case may be, I think it’s fitting that Beyond: Two Souls and The Last of Us clashed in the final days of the seventh console generation because I posit they aren’t so different at the end of the day. Both games were products of an era when the medium’s self-confidence was at an all-time low. Games weren’t content with being games; they had to transform into films, a medium that was unquestionably an art form, in order for anyone to take them seriously. However, while I believe The Last of Us is a game with a glaring identity crisis, it does come out ahead of Beyond: Two Souls, albeit by the skin of its teeth. The former may have enforced a strong divide between gameplay and story, but the latter was an egregiously poor attempt at integrating the two entities. I give Mr. Cage and his team some credit for their willingness to experiment, but I can’t say their approach or overall ethos would have led to the medium evolving – it would have led to the medium losing its identity. They and Naughty Dog attempted to follow Hollywood’s lead, but I maintain the medium’s best moments resulted from the artists’ complete unwillingness to play by anybody else’s rules but their own.
Final Score: 3/10