[20 November 2013]
This post contains spoilers for Beyond: Two Souls.
In the process of writing my Beyond: Two Souls review, I learned a new word: anachrony. It means the discrepancy between the chronological order of events and how a story presents those events to us. Pulp Fiction is the go to example for most people with regards to this concept, although most works of modernist literature and early epics like The Odyssey also qualify. I was really happy when I found out about this word because it is a big part of Beyond: Two Souls and the primary reason why the game doesn’t quite work.
At the end of the game, there’s a throwaway line that explains why you spent the last 10 or so hours experiencing Jodie’s life out of order. The whole game is a flashback in which Jodie is trying to remember how she got where she is, a barrier between worlds. Everything is jumbled. She calls it a chaos of images. It is the game’s attempt at being profound, but all it ends up being is a narrative excuse rather than a structure of artistic merit. David Cage wants his games to be art, but more importantly, he wants you to know that he wants his games to be art.
The story that Beyond is trying to tell doesn’t work for this kind of structure. Ignoring all the sci-fi, spy thriller, and other genres mixed together in the game, at its core, Beyond is the study of a life. We are learning about a person, not through a singularly important event, but through a huge swath of events in the protagonist’s life and, thus, about her evolution as a person. Such a story has to be told in order—unless you’re Marcel Proust. And David Cage is not Marcel Proust. And In Search of Lost Time is less about the main character than it is a treatise on the nature of memory.
The structure of someone’s life story means that events have to play out alongside the character’s growth. You have to know where Jodie’s arc is going to end so that you know where she ends up and you know what events to include from her life. At the end of the game, in that final section, Dr. Dawkins asks for Jodie’s help (like she did so long ago) to let him speak to his wife and child. Right before the Black Sun incident, the game jumps back to Jodie as an 8-year-old to show a short scene in which she first displays the ability to act as a medium. Despite the fact that this would have made sense to understand earlier and could have been used as a tutorial for this particular ability, this moment is placed at the end because the game doesn’t trust its audience to remember it. Ultimately, it signals to the player that this, in fact, was not relevant to Jodie at all, even though it should be.
The small scene of Jodie confronting Dawkins after he lost his wife and daughter should have a profound impact on Jodie. But we don’t feel that. Having these events play out of order may make sense to the internal rules of the universe and the character, but they don’t make sense to me, the audience sitting on my couch. And whatever rules you make for your fiction, they are secondary to the concerns of conveying information and meaning to your audience. Story trumps rules as the mantra goes. My emotional connection isn’t growing and changing in relation to Jodie’s experiences. They are completely out of sync as discordant events are placed side-by-side in game.
It’s really a problem because many elements in Beyond: Two Souls are harmonious. In my review, I mentioned one, calling Jodie a witch, but there are others. The name “witch” we will see has a very powerful effect on her. We will recognize how it relates to how other kids got into her personal space and were physically abusive to her. We only later learn in the chapter “My Imaginary Friend…” that she first encountered this name when she was a child, before Aiden could defend her from the monsters in the night, and before her foster family washed their hands of her. She was helpless and fragile. Thus, being called “witch” has this profound effect on her. It means nothing to us, however, because this is the last time that name is repeated.
During the chapter, “The Dinner,” you have the option of ordering pizza. Later on in her life, when she has hit rock bottom in “Homeless,” one of the options that Jodie is given while panhandling is to go across the street and eat out of a garbage can. The food in question is a rather disgusting slice of pizza. After taking a bite, she breaks down. Even if you don’t order the pizza, you know the option exists. Finding this slice of pizza is moment of realization for Jodie about how far she has fallen. But any meaning that it might have for a player that does find it is lost because in the game “The Dinner” happens six chapters after “Homeless.”
There are many of these minor repeated symbols in Jodie’s life. They show up early on and then later in her life come back with an either expanded or twisted meaning given the events that have transpired in the meantime. They lose their emotional weight and what they might reveal psychologically to the character because of the anachrony in the story’s structure. Cage traded clarity and impact for mystery and to show off.
The first chapter, “Broken,” is a cutscene that takes place in a Sheriff’s station. Jodie remains completely silent during the whole encounter as the sheriff is trying to help her out. And then we cut to Dawkins driving through the woods (another element that parallels when she runs away to the bar) and pulling up to find the entire SWAT team thrashed. The entire section has no interactive elements and reveals what David Cage is really all about. He is trying to create mystery and have us wonder what is going on and gradually reveal it so that the player will keep playing out of curiosity. But the set up isn’t complete. We aren’t wondering why this is going on. After all, if you’ve seen an ounce of preview coverage or read the back of the box, you already know. There is no mystery as to what happened or what went wrong in Jodie’s life. We’re not even asking the second question because we haven’t seen anything else of her life.
What Beyond does attempt is to give the player an “aha!” moment and make them feel clever for seeing how each scene should flow into the next or relate to others instead of just showing it to us in the first place. In “Hunted,” Jodie runs away from the police, and the chapter ends with her walking by the side of the road, which is where the sheriff mentions that he found her in “Broken.” We see the car pull up behind Jodie, and are supposed to feel clever that we know what happened.
And all of this happens before we actually see why Jodie quit the CIA in the first place. In Chapter Six, she joins the CIA (another moment that corresponds to her packing up her bag in “Separation”), and then she’s on the run from it and a traitor to her nation. Then in Chapter 18, “The Mission,” we finally get to see what happened in between, and the response the game attempts to evoke in us is supposed to be understanding as we see another puzzle piece click into place. The betrayal from Ryan and her government is a secondary concern overall. In the scene, it plays like that, but it loses impact when it ends and we are presented with the timeline and immediately are trying to sync everything up in our heads.
Even without the obvious necessity of some scenes to establish bridges in the narrative, the game also exposes how utterly useless some of the chapters are or at least are as presented. Chapter 3, “The Embassy,” is supposed to present a mystery about to how this hunted woman and this clueless child became a shy, yet elegant woman in a red evening dress. What is supposed to be mysterious is what happened in those blanks. All the events in the chapter never come up again, though. They serve no purpose to either Jodie’s growth or the larger Infraworld narrative thread. The scene concerns an ambassador holding a party and some light espionage. It doesn’t even make sense as an Aiden tutorial because in the previous chapter, “The Experiment,” we already had a much more extensive tutorial covering Aiden’s powers.
Cage wants us to be curious but seems like he doesn’t want us invested. He wants us to see and put the puzzle pieces together to show off how clever he was to make everything fit. The anachronic style of storytelling has to serve a purpose in its own right or else it just seems like an effort by the creator to show off. Pulp Fiction does it because the thematic beats of the film won’t make sense in chronological order. Jules’s revelation happens about a third of the way through all of the events that happen in the movie, and events that are presented later (in the film’s time, not the narrative’s time) in the film become more significant in light of that revelation. The Odyssey tells its story out of order because the opening has Odysseus telling the story as a bard would to his audience, and the plot becomes a comment on that. In Search of Lost Time does this because that massive work of literature is an exploration on the fluid nature of memory itself. Beyond: Two Souls does it because David Cage wants you to know he is clever.
Tarantino, Homer, Proust were all clever writers, but they didn’t have to show off to make sure we knew it. Their work used anachronic storytelling in clever ways and to important effect. That is why we knew they were clever. Cage’s presentation comes off like he wants to be seen as a great storyteller by using a technique associated with great storytellers without fully realizing how or why it works.
The game’s sights are always centered on Jodie, Aiden, and their relationship, but by skipping around, the game’s focus becomes shaky. And given how many elements and genres it has to juggle to properly lead us through Jodie’s life, that is not a good thing. There is something of merit in Beyond, but ultimately it proves that a good story isn’t worth much if the storyteller muddles what he is trying to communicate.