The Insight: Beyond the See in Beyond: Two Souls

“Quite exciting, this computer magic!”  – Viv Savage, This is Spinal Tap

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”  – David St. Hubbins, This is Spinal Tap

by Jeremy Voss

David Cage makes me feel many things, but mostly he makes me feel like a hypocrite.

Here I am, bemoaning all the mindless violence of today’s first-person shooters, the ever-present grays and browns of the Unreal Engine, the sexism and misogyny (however “unintentional”) that pervades our narratives. And here’s David Cage, presenting me with Beyond: Two Souls, a game that features astonishingly beautiful technology, a vibrant performance by a perfectly cast Ellen Page as the female protagonist, an ambitious narrative, a game that features many gorgeous moments of quietude and introspection. And he serves it all up as if to say, “Here’s everything you’re looking for, just like you said you wanted.”

And then I spend around ten to 12 hours of my life with it, and I’m by turns engrossed in the story of a young woman and her “entity”, and then annoyed with the controls and the unrelenting barrage of Quick-Time Events, and then I’m enjoying Ellen Page’s nuanced performance, and then the story totally flies off the rails, and then it’s over, and I’m wondering what the hell just happened.

Now, the key thing here is that I did, in fact, finish Beyond: Two Souls, which is more than I can say for my attempts at Cage’s previous games, Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy.  Of course, the fact that I finished this game while being turned off by the previous two doesn’t necessarily mean anything; quite a few people I’ve spoken to since I finished Beyond said they couldn’t finish it, and that they did finish (and enjoyed) Heavy Rain.

But the fact that I finished the game doesn’t necessarily mean that I loved it, either.  If I’m honest with myself, I suppose I finished it because (a) the game was easy enough despite the horrendous controls so there was no real reason why I couldn’t finish it, (b) the story got so bananas that I felt compelled to see where (or how) it would end up, and (c) I needed to take a sick day last week, and so I actually had the necessary free time in which I could finish it.

Not the heartiest of endorsements, I know.

The game is, for lack of a better term, messed up, as all David Cage productions inevitably are.  Quantic Dream’s games are extravagant and extraordinary to watch, but are also pretentious and cumbersome to actually play. It can be argued as to whether “having fun” is a game’s primary function, of course – The Stanley Parable comes to mind. But as long as Cage remains committed to creating incredibly cinematic experiences that require the viewer to periodically interact with them in order to keep the story moving along, then it’s a question that needs to be asked.

As mentioned above, the game is generally controlled through Quick Time Events – button prompts will flash on screen, and the player must press those buttons in order to accomplish whatever action is meant to occur, be it climbing out a window or evading a pursuer or writing out an equation or pouring some garlic onto some simmering Asian Beef.  (A rather infamous example in Heavy Rain was “Press X to Jason”.)  While QTEs are a rather tedious, overused convention that cannot die soon enough, I’ll give the game credit for using them in creative ways.  That being said, they aren’t always responsive; specifically, if the game asks you to repeatedly press one button, it is maddeningly inconsistent in communicating whether you need to press quickly, or in a specific tempo.  But as it turns out, it doesn’t really matter that much; most of the time, if you fail a button prompt, you get a second chance.

The game also features close-combat encounters, where there are no on-screen prompts – instead, the game will slow down dramatically, and you must pay attention to the character’s movements and move the right thumbstick in the same direction.  But here, too, the input is inconsistent and occasionally unresponsive; and, again, it often doesn’t matter.  There were many times where I pressed the wrong way, or pressed the right way but the game didn’t think so, and so I took a punch that I shouldn’t have.  In any event, I still managed to win every fight; I suppose a perfectly clean run would have netted me a PSN Trophy, but that’s not exactly a grand reward.

Control issues aside, the game generally looks fantastic.  Ellen Page in particular is absolutely stunning to behold as Jodie, and whatever mo-cop wizardry Quantic Dream is cooking up puts the previous standard bearer, L.A. Noire, out to pasture.  There are a few nit-picks here and there that are worth mentioning; as realistic as the characters look and move, they still cannot kiss convincingly (and there is a fair amount of smooching).

A more subtle observation that struck me as a bit odd is that, for narrative reasons that I’d rather not spoil, Jodie is eventually enlisted in the CIA and undergoes extensive combat training, and is then sent out on a few missions.  Her walk animations during those missions, though, are still rather light and airy and of a young 20s civilian woman, and not at all as lithe and sturdy as you might expect of a covert CIA operative.  It’s a small point, and I suppose it could be justified from a narrative perspective, but it’s still something that didn’t quite ring true.

I’d rather not discuss the game’s narrative in depth in a review.  Suffice it to say, though, that it’s told in a non-linear fashion – you’ll jump back and forth in time, and the loading screen will give you some idea of where in the timeline the next scene will take place.  Now that I’ve finished the game, I’m not 100% sure that this technique is necessary, as the “A-HA!” moments are still mostly saved for the game’s ending(s). But it does serve to keep you on your toes as you move from scene to scene.  It also has a tendency to fly off into bizarre sci-fi craziness, and your mileage may vary depending on your suspension of disbelief.

For all the game’s wackiness, though, I still found the game to be genuinely affecting when it wasn’t trying so hard. There are some early scenes where young Jodie is thrust into some very realistically awkward situations, and my heart broke for her. I knew how she felt, and I connected to her pain.  And there are some later scenes where she’s in quiet places and reflecting on quiet things, and the game is genuinely beautiful in those moments, and I commend Quantic Dream for having the guts to include them.  Silence is a lot more difficult to pull off than explosions and mayhem, and in those quiet moments the game very much achieves what it intends to.

But then the narrative flies back off the rails, and very strange things occur, and the game’s continual earnestness in these moments of insanity comes off as, well, silly.  And there is an awful lot of silliness in the game, as it turns out, and I couldn’t always give it the benefit of the doubt. Like Heavy Rain, the game’s narrative needs to be tighter, and a trusted editorial advisor would have been of great help here.

But I did finish it, so there’s that. It’s a grudging approval, but ultimately an approval nonetheless.

Circle member Jeremy Voss can be found writing his thoughtful essays at Shouts from the Couch.

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