Note: This article refers to a specific early scene in ‘Beyond: Two Souls’, but avoids general plot spoilers.
Within the games industry over the last few years, a new genre has emerged: the ‘Interactive Drama’. This genre subverts many typical gaming conventions, with storytelling taking priority over traditional game mechanics and player control often being lower than in other genres to allow for the increased focus on narrative. Another interesting component of this genre is that it is being pushed almost single-handedly by David Cage and his studio Quantic Dream. Cage popularised the genre in the paranormal thriller Fahrenheit, which went on to become a cult classic, before releasing the critically acclaimed Heavy Rain, which was praised for the choices it gave the player and its branching storyline which lead to one of 22 endings. Three years after Heavy Rain’s release, with a larger budget and A-List actors such as Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, the studio has released Beyond: Two Souls, but to a much poorer reception. It is currently sitting on a Metacritic of 70, a relatively low score in the generally more lenient games industry. Personally, I consider this reception unfair, not so much because of the game’s strengths (if you have experienced one of Quantic Dream’s previous efforts then you should already be expecting cutting edge graphics, a fascinating story and strong acting), but rather because of some of the main criticisms of this game.
To provide context, Beyond follows the story of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) across 20 or so years of her life, which takes her from living on a research base, to working with the CIA and many other varied situations. Since birth, she has been connected to an entity called Aiden, both of whom are controllable, although the game is generally played from Jodie’s perspective. The narrative is not presented chronologically, but instead jumps from point to point within her life, with the connections only being filled in as you progress through the game.
The first criticism that some critics have raised with the game is that it may as well be a film. They argue that considering the lack of interactivity, and ‘flawed’ mechanics when it is interactive (I’ll address this later), there is no point in this being a game and instead it should just be a film. However, I could not disagree more with this line of argument, as it would take away the sense of choice that allows people to connect far more with this game then if it were a movie. For example, in one scene where Jodie is around 14, she is invited to a birthday party where she doesn’t know any of the people there. After I had a few conversations go wrong, declined one guy’s advances and let Aiden show a couple of ‘party tricks,’ the group there turned on Jodie, carrying her out and locking her in the basement. After watching a helpless Jodie cry in a basement for a while, I was able to free her by controlling Aiden, at which point I was given a choice: Do I quietly leave and let them get away with bullying Jodie? Of course not. Controlling Aiden once more, I went into the room where the party was happening and let Aiden loose, terrifying them, until they ran out screaming. This level of control and interactivity would be missed if Beyond was just a film. Moreover, this choice is far more dynamic than the binary moral choices you see in other games like Infamous or Bioshock– I could control the extent to which I terrified them. Do I freak them out a little, or go as far as to actually harm them? Yes, this choice may not have had an overarching effect on the narrative as a whole, but I could control how the scene played out based off of my actions and that influence on the individual scenes within Beyond is enough to justify it being a game rather than a film. Some other choices though have more long-term effects. There was one character who suffered a serious, permanent physical injury as a result of what I directly chose to do as Jodie, which made me flinch and feel a slight sense of remorse each and every time I saw them. Again, this sense of consequence would be lost if the naysayers had their way and David Cage began producing films.
A second common criticism of this game is that it is tonally inconsistent. One scene seems straight out of a survival horror game, another out of a stealth game. There’s even a high speed driving sequence, which alongside all of the slower, emotional scenes, comes across as all over the place. Some may not appreciate the unpredictability that this creates but on the other hand, if it were all tonally too similar, others would criticise it for not being varied enough. I personally appreciated the variety as this sense of unpredictability kept me invested over longer play sessions. After completing a scene, I would want to stay on to experience the next one, knowing that it would likely play out in a radically different way and be a completely different experience. David Cage has also defended this as representative of how life really is across 20 odd years of one’s life, different tones and a variety of events are likely to occur and as such a single tone experience would not portray the story he wants to tell.
The final issue I’d like to touch on is that of the game’s controls. In Beyond, hand-to-hand combat is done by observing Jodie’s movement in slow motion and moving the right analogue stick in the corresponding direction. It is however, by no means perfect. Some actions are ambiguous, leading to Jodie getting punched in the face or similar. However, by the end I found I could judge it accurately the vast majority of the time, it just (unsurprisingly) took a little while to get used to the unique mechanic. Moreover, this is nevertheless a significant step up from the QTE marathon that was Heavy Rain, yet it received significantly more criticism. Moving Aiden is perhaps a little clunky and once again takes a little getting used to, but by the end I was able to fully control him without difficulty. Whilst not a perfect system, compared to the rest of Quantic Dream’s work, it is a step forward and thus fans of previous games by the studio shouldn’t be put off by it.
Beyond is by no means a perfect game: one character’s motives are rather unrealistic, one sequence felt out of place, and you need to be willing to spend a significant amount of time simply watching cutscenes or choosing dialogue in order to play it. However, despite these minor issues, Quantic Dream’s latest remains rather unique. Few other games aim for its level of interactive storytelling, and for that it is still a strong recommendation for fans of Quantic Dream’s previous work, regardless of what reviews may say.