Have you ever watched a film and desperately wanted the main character to do something else? The most obvious example is the ever cited horror movie cliché where the group moronically decide to split up but the question is just as apt for many other genres. The romantic comedy often has people up in arms because the main couple either have no chemistry or one partner just isn’t all that likeable really. It can also work for action films where there is an obvious flaw in the big bad’s plan that perhaps you see before the main character but you’re helpless on the sofa or the cinema, impatiently waiting for the character to catch up.
Quantic Dream have made it their goal to do exactly that. 2010’s Heavy Rain was very much a crime thriller where the player controlled the character through various challenges and scenarios as they tried to catch a serial killer and save his most recent victim. Now they have returned with Beyond: Two Souls, a game which depicts Ellen Page look-a-like Jodie Holmes and her paranormal link to an entity called Aiden. Think Poltergeist meets Forest Gump, as if Forest Gump really needed any more adventures in his life.
That is how the game pretty much plays out. Unlike Heavy Rain which had a clear plot, Beyond: Two Souls tells many stories, with the main concurrent being that they are all about Jodie Holmes and how her relationship with Aiden either helps or hinders her life. The player interacts with Jodie’s environment as a child at home playing in the yard, as a teenager desperate to fit in and make friends and as an adult search for love and craving her own way in the world. What confounds me most is Quantic Dream’s decision not to structure the story linearly. It makes sense in the end but it is difficult to really impose your will upon a world that the player is seeing out of order.
No one said games had to have a linear story. Eveything from novels to television have experimented with non-linear storytelling, some to getter success than others. Memento is a great example of backwards storytelling. Lost is famous for its flashbacks and flashforwards. The problem arises in that Beyond: Two Souls prides itself on giving the player the ability to create their own story through their own choices and actions. But I can’t really change the story and anything else is just a failure. By that, I mean if I play one scene in Jodie’s life and then flashback to her as a child or a teenager, I can hardly kill myself or cause enough harm to permanently injure myself because I’ve already played the character through a scenario where she is perfectly alive and with all limbs intact. The game won’t tell me that I’ve failed but that is what it feels like, whereas it came across as a consequence in Heavy Rain. I’m not against non-linear storytelling in games, just in this game.
What the player can change during the course of the game feels superfluous. Do you respond with an angry remark or a bitter comment? Do you move this bottle or smash this screen? Will you hug this character goodbye or kiss him? But regardless of what you choose the character ends up following the same overall arc. Though the times where choice is absent is much more grating. At one point I was in a hospital while on the run and another character suggested not going in but I wasn’t even offer the chance to agree. I cannot count the number of times I was allowed to choke someone as Aiden but before they died the game would end the scene. One time I was congratulated by William Defoe’s Nathan Dawkins for making the right choice when I hadn’t decided at all, the game had.
The story itself is pretty good, though it is nothing Oscar worthy. It does feel rather sewn together at times though. One moment you’ll be in the middle of a horror scene and in the next you will be taking on a James Bond-esque mission and, possibly most jarring, a plot where you save a bunch of native Americans from a spirit that their ancestors foolishly brought forth. It is a story that creates the illusion of choice but only offers any real choice at the end of the same. Yet there was so much room for opportunity. It would have been interesting if I could have affected the trajectory of Jodie’s life depending on the early tests. If the player was disobedient or indifferent as Aiden then the project might have wound up branded a failure, or in the case of Aiden actually killing someone, Jodie could have been locked up because the entity was considered too strong to control. As it is, despite the promise, Beyond: Two Souls is fairly limited in the ways it can unfold.
Part of me believes that the decision to use non-linear storytelling was a conscious conclusion in order to keep the player from guessing the final outcome, though William Defoe was suspiciously absent in places for a guy who has second billing. The reason I believe that is because a character moment that would have early chronologically is saved until near the very end, just before the big finale. That said, I didn’t guess the big reveal about Aiden. In my defence though, I thought they had already explained the reason for his connection to Jodie. And the big reveal doesn’t explain why her mother had psychic powers too.
Regardless of story and choice, the game looks absolutely brilliant. There are a few moments when the game looks ostentatiously rendered but generally the games looks impressively like real life. It is a step up from Heavy Rain and if this is the level of detail that Playstation 3 can reach, I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what the Playstation 4 can achieve. But, as pretty as it is, the content isn’t quite up to scratch.
If you’re intrigued by the game, rent or buy it and play it. If you were already on the fence and this doesn’t sound like the game for you, give it a miss and save your money for Batman: Arkham Origins. Don’t get me wrong, the game is good. But it isn’t for everyone. It is like Banksy in the art world or every new Kanye West album. It is a bold game, attempting to innovate and experiment with the medium that, unfortunately, just happens to fall short of the target this time.