Versus Steam #22: Beyond: Two Souls (PS3)
Developed by: Quantic Dream
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Quantic Dream’s catalogue of games is an oddity among console releases, as their stance in both design and presentation is more akin to the creation of interactive narratives rather than traditional video games. I played Indigo Prophecy once upon a time, finding it to be an interesting experience but didn’t get Heavy Rain until far after its initial release. A lot of the charm that comes from Heavy Rain is the fact that the experience of the narrative is ultimately personal, investing the player into the intertwining lives of characters as a way to provide stakes during the life or death struggle at the game’s core. Moments of interactivity within Heavy Rain were built on the struggle of doing what was necessary versus what was morally just, creating a visceral experience as the two interacted. The reason I say this upfront is the simple fact that I have no idea what the fuck Beyond: Two Souls was trying to do as a story, a game or an interactive experience. I don’t claim to be any sort of genius, but I am trained to and regularly engage in analysis of narratives, something I make liberal use of during reviews of this blog. During my entire playthrough of Beyond: Two Souls, I was struck with a profound sense of disquiet at the way in which the game tried to engage the audience by providing a seemingly cinematic and emotional experience without understanding the progression of narrative as a natural part of character development: Beyond follows the story of Jodie, a young girl both blessed and cursed with the presence of some sort of spirit known as Aiden. Due to Aiden’s presence, Jodie is unable to engage in a normal life, first finding herself in the custodianship of Dr. Nathan Dawkins and later as a tool used by the CIA before finally trying to set off on her own. The game goes to great lengths to get us to sympathize with Jodie’s plight, as the people within the narrative seem to solely judge Jodie based on the presence of Aiden, either seeing her as a means to some end or distrusting her because of his otherworldly presence, resulting in the sense that she never truly belongs in the world she lives in. This is a somewhat interesting idea, as it becomes more apparent as the game goes on that Aiden is linked to the land of the dead, resulting in Jodie’s own failure within the living world being drawn from her connection to the spiritual realm. This however, is so muddied and convoluted within the actual presentation of the narrative that I don’t get the idea that the developers had any idea beyond this. Beyond: Two Souls narrative covers many different age ranges in Jodie’s life, but is told in a nonlinear fashion, resulting in a great deal of moments where we jump to different parts of her existence. Because of this, the conflict of the story itself is fleshed out thematically rather than in a way that allows us a clear vision of the worlds of the living and the dead interact, depending on the audience to make sense of how different episodes join together. At several points throughout the game I found myself utterly lost as to why particular segments were placed as they were, let alone why they were present at all. The most notable of these is the segment “Navajo,” one of the longest sequences in the game, which sees Jodie as a drifter coming to the ranch of a Navajo family and encountering their struggle against ancient spirits that disturb their peace, before ultimately using her powers to help to quiet them. At no point does this begin to make any sense within the larger narrative of the game, as it seems almost a superfluous addition in order to provide set piece moments and essentially say “there are other dead spirits in the land of the living,” a point already made by several sequences earlier in the game. We don’t get a sense that this has anything to do with either establishing the world or the character of Jodie, but instead, to be a rather narrow sliver of a narrative that is wholly based around showing us good experiences of being alive and bad experiences of being alive. Almost every sequence in the game can be divided in this fashion, using rather tired and often troubling tropes to show us how beautiful and ugly the world can be, including righteous homeless people, sexual assault and clear cut power lust. The worst of this is how little this actually leads to what is meant to be a conclusion of the narrative as SPOILERS Nathan goes batshit crazy right at the end of the game, an apparent effect of his wife and daughter’s death we learned about two sequences prior, and decides to use a device to merge the land of the living and the dead. There is so much wrong with this, how the game has built Nathan as the one person who truly loves Jodie only to yank this away at the last moment to give the ending an antagonist, how his actions are not built to at all, how his plan makes no sense within any parameters the game has set up, how it is really emotionally manipulative for emotions that should not exist at this point, how it is built for action rather than narrative, etc. etc., resulting in a messy ending where the game tries to salvage something by asking us to choose between life and death, which makes sense for the loose theme of the game, but asks for an investment in characters beyond Jodie, something the game has done so little to build to. The game wants us to care so deeply about how Jodie might see the different characters in the game, but the only three span more than one segment and one of them is Nathan, the most prominent of the side characters. We’re not given any sort of information by the story to make a grand philosophical choice about whether it is better to risk suffering and live or die and avoid it all, making a clunky choice ending seem unfulfilling as it must wrap up a narrative we had to spin for ourselves out of the tangle the game provides.
And this is of course assuming you really understand what the deal with the characters of Jodie and Aiden are really about. While I think a large problem of the characterization stems from the fact that the game jumps around in time so much, it is still troubling how inconsistently Jodie is built as a character. A transition from a sequence can leap from Jodie being a shy and scared child to a superfluous bad ass action girl to a nihilistic vagrant to an empathetic young woman with real world problems all rather rapidly. I suppose the intention is to show Jodie as a multi facted individual, echoing humanity’s own propensity to have multiple traits buried within the same complex personality, but that just simply does not work for a narrative, let alone an interactive one. We never get any sense of progression in how Jodie is arriving at these different attitudes, ones she seems to harbor to the point of exclusivity within herself and only manifesting once a chapter demands it. Jodie comes off as a person who is confused and rightly so, but she makes no effort to actually define herself amongst the immense strings of dialogue and instead the game tries to place this solely within the realm of player choice, making our limited options our only attempts to define Jodie as a character. This is faulty from the get go, as this assumes there is both the idea that we can determine how such progression can go and that all options will be available at all times, making her jump even more around in her responses to people and events. I can’t think of a strong moment where we really get a sense of anything in Jodie beyond the fact that having Aiden makes her life harder and this is not a true personality to invest ourselves in, its an attempt to grab sympathy which they can’t seem to hold onto since the game also demands action. I’ll bring up a counterpoint to what they were trying to do right here with Clementine in the Walking Dead. Clementine is a little girl thrust into a horrific world she can barely understand and put under the stewardship of someone she barely knows. Since we do not have direct control of Clementine, our choices d little to actually define her as a character, yet she always exhibits a strong personality and brightness within the bleakness within the world of the game, making player’s choices in regards to her geared towards our idea of how we want to view the world. The game puts a lot of care into making us care about Clementine and what she means to both us and the protagonist Lee, but allows us free will in determining how close we ultimately grow to her, allowing us to range from pure sympathy for her plight, empathy for her returned care or full on love her expressed traits. With Jodie, we’re never given a choice as to how we view her, all of our in game choices seeming to be morally black and white in what happens to her, resulting in a rather binary view of how she is within the world and making it hard to do anything beyond basic disgust or admiration without any of the emotional investment. Aiden is even stranger as a character, since he doesn’t really exist as one, instead seeming to shift around depending on how the story situation should be, making him either an asshole to Jodie, her tireless protector, her utter slave or a benign presence altogether. The game asks us to think of him as a character but doesn’t give him any personality to do so with, making it extremely hard to make sense of how he fits into Jodie’s story aside from his presence.
I will give the game a little praise here, as the game’s aesthetic design is rather well done, but even this is damning with praise, as Quantic Dream seems intent on ruining this. Of all the things I disliked about this game the most, the controls were the most obvious. Like previous Quantic Dream games, most of the gameplay is based upon finding points of interactivity and then doing various quick time events or button combinations with them to interact. I find the idea of this problematic to begin with, as it implies a total interactivity while be limited in it, but even without that, the gameplay is wholly boring and cumbersome. Because so many of the game’s various quicktime events are built around the use of the right analog stick, there is no control over the camera in the game, making the movement of Jodie feel like a Playstation 1 era character and leaving us at the mercy of camera angles that never show us all the different things we may need to see within the scene. In tighter spaces I would find myself walking in circles, as a slight bump against a surface would cause Jodie to turn and circle back through the environment. Worse still, so many of the points in the game in which you can interact are not made explicit in how you can interact with them, forcing you to hope any shot at an angle will allow you to interpret which direction to move the analog stick to work with it. This is the worst when it comes to the repeated fight sequences which see you need to move the stick in the direction that Jodie’s limb is moving to block or attack. If at an angle, you have to take a chance that you’re guessing correctly, as there is no actual button prompt, making your punishment for failing pure chance and that is if you can see it, as so many of these sequences takes place in heavy darkness, making the use of visual cues for control extremely tedious. Playing as Aiden is worse still as we suddenly have complete control over the 3D environment for what I can only describe as several scavenger hunted for points of interactivity. The dissonance between these two control schemes is jarring, as Aiden moves far too loosely within the environment, making it hard to define where you can move without testing the limits the games set fr it. You’re usually just looking for the glowing prompt so you can do a control stick pattern over I, making some segments frustrating in trying to find the single dot you need to progress the game. Beyond: Two Souls wants too much to mix interactivity and traditional gameplay and use an interface that benefits neither, making what you’re doing a confusing trial in trying to find the right pattern of things to do and hoping the game won’t arbitrarily punish you before you get there.
While I haven’t played Ride to Hell: Retribution, I’m going to go ahead and call it: Beyond: Two Souls was the worst game of 2013. At least Aliens: Colonial Marines had the decency to be hilarious. The fact that both Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe give such strong performances as their characters is an amazing feat, as neither is given a strong sense of actual motivation in characterization nor any true narrative development to make their characters feel real or fleshed out. At no point in it’s incoherent, pretentious, garbled mess is there any sort of sense of narrative cohesion, well thought out gameplay or thematic understanding of what is actually supposed to be happening, depending instead on some metaphysical struggle to define a rather narrow band of ideas that the game cobbles together in a nonsensical order. Maybe some refinement in the storytelling could have saved this, but Jodie still would have been inconsistent as a character as the game can’t make up its mind about the limits of how the player defines her, seeming to ignore these decisions one moment for the sake of a set piece and then demanding genuine human emotion from us when they suddenly decide to honor our choices. It’s messy and frustrating to play and is clearly not the same well thought out interactive story that Heavy Rain was. If you liked it, more power to you, but to me, it’s just too screwed up to be worth anyone’s time.
The Moment: The one choice in this game that I really think was well fleshed out comes during a chapter which sees Jodie and CIA associate Ryan invading a rival installation that had attempted to harness the dead. Having escaped, the pair sit near naked on the frozen wastes awaiting an unlikely rescue when Ryan pours his heart out and expresses his genuine love for Jodie. This is an interesting idea, as we’ve seen Ryan previously show affection for Jodie, as well as manipulate her into actions she does not wish to be part of, making our choice of whether to reciprocate his feelings impactful since he is our only reference of romantic love for Jodie in the game. This is undone later when we can still choose to ultimately live because we love Ryan regardless of choice, but here, it is a moment when you can say clearly what Jodie is as a person.
Games It Might Remind You Of: I honestly don’t know. Sorry.
An Arbitrary Rating: 1/10