Fleeing the Familiar, Embracing the Abject in 'Beyond Two Souls'
Within the spaces of darkness or the unknown, Beyond Two Souls asserts that we can exist without being shaped, manipulated, or brutalized by outside forces.
Publisher: Quantic Dream
Format: PlayStation 3
ESRB Rating: Mature
Game Name: Beyond: Two Souls
Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: 2013-09-24
In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva asserts that horror stems from the abject or that which lies outside of our systems of structure or understanding. Kristeva expands this concept in the opening of her book when she states, “There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark re-volts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.” (Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, 1982, pg. 1).
Kristeva seems to be arguing that we long for systems and structure because they supply us with support and an understanding of the world around us. However, in their absence, she makes the argument that we experience feelings of horror or dread as a result of encountering something outside of our understanding (outside of “the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable”) because it in turn challenges or distorts the way that we view or understand the world around us.
This idea of the abject and its relationship to horror definitely appears in many works within the genre. For example, in House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, the horror elements within the novel stem from that which is outside of our systems of knowing or understanding. One of the best instances of this occurs when the Navidson family discovers that their house measurements are larger on the inside than they are on the outside, despite the use of the most advanced technology possible (such as a “Stanley Beacon level” or a “laser distance meter”) (House of Leaves, Pantheon Books, 2000, pg. 38). Ultimately, because we rely so heavily on systems like math or science to know our world and to deal with the unknown, when they fail, we in turn experience horror.
However, Beyond Two Souls by Quantic Dream provides an interesting twist on the role of the abject in horror, by suggesting that while we may desire systems or structures, they themselves can be a source of horror and in turn, we have to go outside of these systems (the realm of the abject) in order to thrive or weather them.
In the story, the player takes control of a character named Jodie Holmes over a period of roughly 15 years, extending from her early childhood to her mid-20s. Jodie exhibits the same drive and motivations that many of us do, such as wanting to be accepted by her peers, by her family, and by her romantic interests. Like many of us, Jodie is concerned with being accepted into systems and the support that they provide.
However, Jodie is irregular in that she is connected with an “entity” or ghost named Aiden. This separate being is permanently joined to Jodie and acts on the world around her independently, though he remains unseen or unknown to the people Jodie encounters. Because of this connection with Aiden, Jodie’s existence within society becomes very difficult and sometimes brutal as a result of the conflict between herself (Jodie’s identity falls outside of our social norms or understanding of such) and the social systems that she tries to assimilate with (which rely on rules and organization that become hostile towards that which contradicts or challenges them). This conflict can be found in nearly every segment of the game’s story.
One of the best examples of this occurs during Jodie’s early teenage years when she attends a party with a group of her peers. The entire scene seems to be typical “coming of age” story material with the presence of alcohol, rap music, and a charming, flirtatious boy who ends up slow-dancing with Jodie (even giving her the experience of her first kiss if the player is so inclined).
However, the entire atmosphere of the party changes when everyone there (they all become aware of Jodie’s abilities from the party’s host) begins to demand a demonstration of Jodie’s powers. Whether the player chooses to indulge their curiosity or not, the scene ultimately ends with them dragging Jodie screaming and crying into a closet while calling her a “witch” and locking her inside.
Ultimately, Jodie is rescued by Aiden, who opens the closet door freeing Jodie to escape the party or to take vengeance on her tormentors. Through this scene (along with others found throughout the game) and the gameplay mechanics it employs (Jodie is endangered by society, Aiden who exists outside of society protects or saves her), the game illustrates the point that systems themselves can be the source of horror and that we must go outside of these systems in order to survive that horror.
When it comes to demonstrating the use of the abject in Beyond Two Souls, one of the best examples occurs in the sequence called “My Imaginary Friend…”. This is the earliest chronological sequence in the game, taking place when Jodie is seven years old. It begins on a snowy day with Jodie at home with her stepmom who is busy cooking. The premise of this section that in turn drives the story and the connected gameplay is that Jodie is bored and wants to find something to do.
The player is then given a variety of different games or activities to perform within the house. These include a particularly memorable section that involves playing with dolls. Here, the player controls Jodie as she creates a social scenario between two of her toys that involves them having tea together, driving around in their pink car, and engaging in conversation about their dresses, hair, and the lovely houses that their husbands bought for them.
However, as Jodie is playing, Aiden tries to join in by moving a third doll into the scene (which has a head that is turned backwards and legs that are split open in an unsettling way) and moving her other dolls/toys away from where she set them. This in turn causes Jodie to become angry, as she tells Aiden that she doesn’t want to play with him.
The interesting thing about “play” is that while it is often associated with creativity and freedom, it is in fact heavily reliant on rules, systems, and structures. This is because “play”, particularly of this variety (Jodie becoming her dolls as opposed to interacting with them as Jodie), involves constructing and then immersing oneself in some sort of social or cultural system, which in this case would be the idealized image of the domestic bliss experienced by young/rich housewives. If these rules are broken, the immersion is then interrupted or stopped altogether because the experience becomes too removed from the original construction or purpose that the play session was built around.
In Play, Dreams, and Imitation, Jean Piaget makes some interesting observations regarding this practice and the general criteria of play. One of the most notable of these is his fifth criterion in which he states, “Conflicts are foreign to play, or, if they do occur, it is so that the ego may be freed from them by compensation or liquidation, whereas serious activity has to grapple with conflicts that are inescapable” (Play, Dreams, and Imitation, W.W. Norton, 1963, pg. 3).
In this case, play is then largely appealing to Jodie because it allows her to construct a world where she is free from conflict, particularly the one between her abnormal identity and the systems/structures that she desperately wants to be a part of. Therefore, Jodie becomes angry at Aiden (whose doll’s features and general behavior violated the rules of the scenario) because he reminds Jodie of her abject nature which in turn pulls her out of play, in which “Conflicts are foreign” and back into reality where the conflict she was trying to avoid is “inescapable”.
Eventually, Jodie’s stepmother suggests she should go play outside which leads her to exit the house in search of something to do. While in the backyard, she suddenly hears the sound of other children playing on the other side of the fence. With excitement, Jodie says, “I think I just found a way to have some fun” and implores Aiden by saying, “Okay, I know we’re not supposed to” and “we’ll just play for five minutes, mom will never know” before asking him to break a hole in the fence in order to let her join the other children in the street.
Once he does, Jodie enters a moment of temporary bliss; she is no longer the outsider, connected to the ghost and confined to her house like a prisoner. In this moment she is just a normal seven-year-old girl, feverishly throwing snowballs at other children as she runs around laughing. However, Jodie’s immersion into systems of friendship and play is quickly interrupted when one of the other children grabs her and begins rubbing snow in her face, making it difficult for her to breathe. The player then steps into the role of Aiden who becomes very protective, choking the child holding her until he lets go.
Immediately, all of the children become frightened and stop playing while moving away from Jodie and calling her a “witch”. This scene then escalates further when Jodie’s stepfather runs outside and instead of comforting her, violently drags her into the house.
Once inside, he begins screaming at her for playing with the children in the street and leaving the yard. When she tries to explain what happened, he becomes enraged, screaming “I'm sick and tired of your stories! Jodie this time you're really gonna get it!”, and he grabs her while pulling his arm back to slap her. As this happens, all of the lights in the room begin to violently flicker, and the television screen behind them turns to static, as Aiden manipulates objects in the living room. Frightened, Jodie’s stepfather stops what he is doing and sends her to her room. When looking at this scene, one of the most powerful elements that it utilizes is the image of the home.
The “home” is generally viewed by many cultures (including our own) as one of the main symbolic representations of the family. This relationship between “family” and the “home” comes from many similarities such as the security that both the home and the family often provide (when a disaster occurs people are advised to stay in their homes, we turn to our families in times of hardship for support) along with the unity that homes create for family structure, which involve people going from occupying separate spaces to occupying the same space.
However, seemingly the most important connection between the home and the family is their shared reliance on the familiar or the knowable, which in turn grant understanding and therefore power or control over the space. But, when something unknown or abject enters this space, this control or understanding is violated, which in turn creates one of the most prominent formulas for horror, the haunted house story.
One of the best examples of this is the film Poltergeist, which expresses horror by introducing paranormal events into an otherwise familiar and ideal home/family structure. The most iconic images from the film involve everyday objects (such as the infamous television) suddenly becoming terrifying or unfamiliar which in turn distorts the viewer’s perception of reality in a space that they would normally be the masters of, therefore inducing horror.
However, Beyond Two Souls provides an interesting twist in that the family/home that Jodie occupies is one of fear and brutality as demonstrated by the her abusive foster father. So in response, Aiden saves her by distorting the structure of the home/family (manipulating/destroying the home environment with his abilities) or “haunting” the house.
Ultimately, as much as Jodie tries to fit into social structures (such as friendships and family) her connection with Aiden makes those within those structures (such as her foster father or the children in the street) hostile towards her because her very existence challenges the safety or ways of knowing or controlling the world around them. Therefore, to survive that hostility, Jodie must turn to Aiden (the unknown, the abject), who can upset the structures of the knowable or the familiar in order to provide her with support and protection.
This conflict between Jodie and the systems that she tries to assimilate with is also explored in the “Like Other Girls” sequence. At this point in the game, she is now 16 years old and has been living in a government research center called the DPA (Department of Paranormal Activities) for eight years. Like many 16-year-olds, Jodie has become very rebellious in both her attitude (wanting to push against authority, experience new things) and her appearance (which consists of blue hair, heavy eyeliner, black, sheer clothing, ripped leggings, etc.). On this particular evening Jodie is in a heated argument with her two main caretakers Nathan and Cole about wanting to leave the facility and “go out, have friends and be like everyone else”. But despite Jodie’s pleas, Nathan remains firm in his decision to keep her confined to the facility and goes on to say “For the hundredth time, you are NOT like everyone else!”
At this moment it would seem like Jodie’s circumstances or identity (being the outcast or weird) would match her rebellious desire to standout or push against authority (as demonstrated by her blue hair, black clothes, eyeliner, torn leggings, etc.). However, despite all of this Jodie first and foremost still desires acceptance. Though her actions and appearance may speak to rebelling against systems or authority, the way in which she wishes to go about it is still socially constructed in that it requires the approval of others.
The only difference between her motivation in this sequence and her behavior in the “My Imaginary Friend…” sequence is that rather than seeking approval from authority figures (her foster parents in the previous sequence) Jodie instead seeks the approval of her peers by rebelling against authority in the right way. As a result, Jodie only validates her rebellious nature when expressing it through the punk aesthetic (which has become synonymous with the rebellious teenager) because it allows her to assimilate within a larger social system that has deemed that style and the behavior associated with iy as “cool” or acceptable. So even though Jodie’s identity may fit with the rebellious nature of her age group, she ultimately has difficulty gaining social acceptance from her peers because her abnormal circumstances conflict with the systems of individuality deemed valid or “cool” within our culture.
After this exchange, Jodie is sealed into her room, but with the help of Aiden, she is able to possess Cole and escape. Once free, she makes her way to a small backwoods bar. The bar is a very interesting setting when considering the idea of acceptance or assimilation because of its main use as a hub of social interaction between strangers. This in turn makes it an appealing destination for Jodie, who desires social acceptance and interaction but is pursuing it under difficult circumstances.
Inside, the place is nearly empty with only the bartender and a few patrons quietly drinking and playing pool. This immediately makes Jodie stand out as an underage girl (someone who generally doesn’t belong in a bar), which in turn causes the bartender to question her (only allowing her to stay once she says she doesn’t want to order alcohol). After this exchange the bar clears out even more as the player is given the freedom to roam around with the opportunity to interact with various objects such as a pinball machine.
While this is happening the two remaining patrons along with the bartender begin to watch her with a certain sexual, predatory interest. Eventually, these men approach her and pressure her to play pool with them. At this moment, Jodie’s attempts to feign maturity and bravery begin to fail as the men begin asking her how old she is and whether or not any of her friends are coming, as they make increasingly daring physical advances towards her.
Eventually, one of them grabs Jodie and pushes her onto the pool table while saying things like “come on” and “you know you want it”. Meanwhile, the two other men hold her down and watch. At this moment, the player takes control of Aiden who begins attacking the men with items around the bar until finally killing all three of them. In turn, Jodie lies in a fetal position on the pool table, crying.
As demonstrated in this and previous sequences, Jodie wants nothing more than to go out with friends and participate in the rebellious social behavior that generally defines her age group. However, this impulse to assimilate along with the desperate measures that she takes to do so bring her into contact with horror. In this case, the horror stems from the systems and practices by which our society often determines people’s qualities or characteristics. For example, in this sequence these men make assumptions about Jodie’s potential promiscuity based on the kind of clothing she is wearing (her short skirt and her exposed midriff) and her very presence in a backwoods bar (the bar being a common place to meet potential sexual partners).
While this behavior may seem shocking or outlandish, we often judge or categorize people based on things like clothing or appearance when in fact they could be very different from the expectations and characteristics that we assign to them. However, the game asserts here that the true horror of this systemic judgment occurs when we take these often false perceptions of people and use them to determine our actions, which in turn can lead to terrifying consequences such as those exhibited in this sequence. Therefore, when faced with these systematic horrors of expectation and presumption, Jodie must rely Aiden who protects her by killing her would-be rapists (perpetrators of the horrors of false expectation) and in the process destroys the bar (the representation of these systems or structures that facilitate those horrors).
In conclusion, while Beyond Two Souls does an excellent job of demonstrating Jodie’s struggles and failures within systems and structures, it also shows how Jodie succeeds. The best example of this occurs in the “Homeless” sequence. This section of the game takes place in a large city during winter when Jodie is 21 and on the run from the CIA along with every major law enforcement agency in the country. At this point, Jodie has endured countless systematic horrors (including all of the previously mentioned sequences), which have nearly brought her to her breaking point as demonstrated by her many scars and tattered clothing along with the exhaustion evident in her movement and speech. As she begins to succumb to hypothermia, she is taken in by a man named Stan, who lives with a group of homeless people.
While this may seem like it would be one of the bleakest of sequences in the game (the beginning section offers Jodie the option of killing herself with a knife stuck in a tire), this ultimately proves to be one of the first triumphs Jodie experiences when interacting with the world around her. Unlike previous sections, Jodie does not play the part of the monster to be feared or the victim, but instead becomes heroic, aiding her new friends in getting enough money for food, protecting them from danger, and even helping in delivering a baby, all while utilizing her connection with Aiden. She also finds that they can relate with many of her own experiences (the homeless exist outside of systems and rely on unconventional means in order to survive or weather hardship), which in turn allows them to connect with and understand her in a way that other people in her life were unable to.
Jodie’s success in this section stems from the fact that she stops trying to assimilate with systems and structures, instead opting for a place outside of them, or as she sings in her cover of Beck’s “Lost Cause” while begging for money, “I'm tired of fighting /I'm tired of fighting/Fighting for a lost cause”. Ultimately, Jodie is able to escape the horrors of systems and structures only when she embraces her own identity and enters the realm of the abject. For within this space of darkness or the unknown, Beyond Two Souls asserts that we are able to exist without being shaped, manipulated, or brutalized by outside systems and structures. We are able to freely build structures or connections for ourselves, making what was once horror, abject, or isolation into something capable of offering us the support and acceptance that we need.