[15 November 2013]
I was all set to hate Beyond: Two Souls before playing it. It was kind of hard not to with the particular marketing message the developers were pushing and the incessant speechifying of the game’s auteur David Cage on the importance on polygons and fidelity to artistic expression. At this point in his career, Beyond: Two Souls seems more like a referendum on Cage as a creator than it does as a work unto itself. And yet after finishing it, I found myself reflecting on what I had just played and found my appreciation growing.
Beyond: Two Souls follows Jodie Holmes, a young woman who from birth had a spirit named Aiden inexplicably connected to her. The game covers about 15 years of her life as a child to her mid twenties. The game is told in fragmented scenes of varying length from various points in Jodie’s life told in anachronic order. All the while the game is blending the various genres of political thriller, family drama, journey of self-realization and sci-fi epic. Somehow the game manages to keep all these balls in the air without too much effort.
It’s a strange thing. The second playable scene of the game is an otherwise throw away bit of espionage at an embassy. It could have spawned its own storyline replete with the intricacies and double dealings of a foreign power, while Jodie as a CIA agent with paranormal powers navigated the tempestuous waters of a spy vs. spy yarn. It doesn’t. It’s a minor scene in Jodie’s life with no implications whatsoever on the rest of the story or her personal character arc. And this is where the structural problems begin.
There is no reason for this scene to be in the game. It could be argued that it could be something akin to a tutorial mission, but honestly it doesn’t teach much that isn’t handled better in surrounding sections. At any point, the player can switch to Aiden by tapping triangle, and now you are controlling an invisible entity that can fly around, interact with objects as a poltergeist would , or possess a body. But we get a much better tutorial for how to control Aiden’s and use his abilities in a section in a testing room. In fact, the embassy missions existence only serves to highlight the most baffling decision of the game: it’s anachronic nature.
Non chronological storytelling has been part of the western cannon since the days of Homer and The Odyssey thanks to the flashback and the story within a story of that tale, but the modernists of the early 20th century turned it into a technique in which you portray the events out of order in deference to the narrative arc over the plot, and, of course, contemporarily this structure became really popular in the wake of Quinton Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s great if a writer has an almost subliminal and innate grasp of pacing and story structure so much so that they are able to throw out most of the rules of cause and effect. David Cage has become a punching bag in recent years, but such complaints aren’t without merit. It’s not that he’s a bad storyteller. It’s just that it isn’t an inherent part of his being.
He has a creative mind, a fervent passion, and a style no one could claim is common in the medium. It’s just that when he decides to break the rules and sever the few threads grounding him, he loses clarity and his work ends up muddled. There is nothing terribly difficult about understanding Beyond: Two Souls, but mixing up the scenes chronologically creates a complexity that adds nothing to the proceedings. Right before the final scene, there’s a short five minute bit that jumps Jodie all the way back to her childhood when she helps Nathan Dawkins by displaying what is chronologically a new ability. This would have been a perfect tutorial, and it comes 20 minutes before the end. It’s placed here so that events in the final section of the game can call back to it. It smacks of the author not trusting his audience to remember events to the point that you have change the presentation of the game to remind them so that those players wont miss a beat. In fact some of the scenes lose impact because they are out of order and therefore lose a sense of the history behind certain elements. As a teenager, Jodie is called a witch. This happened to her as a child, but when the line repeats later in her life, we don’t have the proper understanding of what such a name specifically means to her because the childhood events happen hours of in game time that follow her relapse as a teenager.
I can’t think of any of the individual sections of the game that don’t work by themselves. The power of David Cage’s storytelling and ability at affecting emotions is put on full display here. It can get downright heartbreaking as in the homeless chapter or absolutely thrilling as she tried to evade an army of police officers. There are scenes that seem incongruous to the tone that the game is trying to create, and yet after they’ve settled in your mind, they feel just as essential as the rest. When the game turns into a James Bond style globe trotting adventure it can’t help but look like a drastic shift in focus. However, the focus never really changes. At the center of everything else is Jodie, her character, her development as a person, and her relationship to Aiden.
I should note that Beyond: Two Souls may look like a 3D action adventure title like Uncharted, the new Tomb Raider or maybe a low grade Metal Gear Solid, but its genealogy is a line that can be traced back to that of the point and click adventure game. Like Cage’s previous efforts, Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy (I’m American), you control a character and interact with objects when a marker appears, in this case, a white orb. You then move the analog stick in the direction of the object, and you interact with it. However, most of these prompts are hidden unless you walk by it. The environment is clear of clues and will not tell you what you can and cannot do.
The depth of detail that exists in some of these environments is staggering, especially when you realize how most of that detail can be missed because you never thought to do such and such. In the act of walking in Jodie’s shoes, you eschew the possibilities that don’t match your interpretation of the character without you realizing it. The game is linear, but it is also filled with choices that will shape events and the eventual ending. They are subtle, and the game will not tell you when you have made a choice. Sometimes its merely a choice of omission or one of failure. It will merely adapt seamlessly to whichever storyline you’ve chosen.
There’s a lot to be said about Beyond: Two Souls. If nothing else you can feel the energy and love that went into the title. It isn’t perfect. It’s a game with a lot of imagination and willingness to engage with ideas that is let down by a desire to look smart through structural and marketing gimmicks instead of letting the work speak for itself. I want David Cage to stop chasing the dragon and settle down to realize what he has. His level of talent can only be stretched so far, and if he stayed within his limits, I think he could create something sublime.