When I was an eight-year-old kid visiting Disneyland for the first time, I was absolutely smitten with a ride called Autopia, which allows young’uns to get behind the wheel of a small gas-powered car and drive it around a track designed to look like a miniature Los Angeles freeway.
A centre guide rail keeps pint-sized drivers from doing anything more than accelerating, braking and swerving back and forth a little, but that didn’t matter to me. What made Autopia so thrilling was the illusion of control it offered, and I didn’t much care that I couldn’t veer outside its boundaries.
Beyond: Two Souls, the latest game from Paris-based studio Quantic Dream, is a lot like a Disneyland attraction. It asks that players surrender some traditional video game freedom in exchange for a thrilling ride in a memorable virtual world.
Much like Quantic Dream’s gritty 2010 PlayStation 3 title Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls fuses traditional film-based storytelling techniques with video game elements to create a new way of getting players emotionally invested in its characters and story. It doesn’t always work – and sometimes it feels a bit cheesy or ridiculous – but when that connection does happen, it’s something quite amazing.
Warning: Trailer contains coarse language!
Through the magic of high-tech digital performance capture, Oscar-nominated Canadian actress Ellen Page plays Jodie Holmes, a young woman with a dark secret: she’s psychically bound to a powerful ghost-like entity called Aiden. Fellow Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe plays Nathan Dawkins, a scientist and surrogate father to Jodie, who is trying to uncover the truth behind Aiden’s existence.
Jodie’s story is told deliberately out of sequence, beginning with her as a 23-year-old fugitive from the law and then jumping back and forth across the previous 15 years of her life, from a childhood shattered by Aiden’s unwanted presence to her training as an especially gifted CIA operative to her ultimate journey to discover the truth behind Aiden’s origin and existence.
Players alternate between controlling Jodie and Aiden, usually (but not always) at will. As Jodie, the emphasis is on deciding how she’ll react and respond to other characters, while also exploring the physical world around her and occasionally guiding her through light action sequences.
As Aiden, players use the entity’s ghost-like ability to fly through walls and invisibly manipulate objects, from disabling a security camera to healing an injured friend to choking a gun-wielding enemy to death. Sometimes Aiden is Jodie’s guardian and protector, sometimes he’s a jealous, petulant poltergeist craving attention.
Tapping the talents of experienced Hollywood actors gives the characters in Beyond: Two Souls amazing range and depth. The game does occasionally stray into the uncanny valley, but for the most part the performances of Page and Dafoe have emotional grit and heft.
But as a game, it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from fare like Grand Theft Auto V. Instead of being given free rein in a virtual world at the expense of a well-paced story, players in Beyond are guided through the plot in a specific sequence, usually with a limited number of ways to tackle obstacles and predetermined outcomes to most actions. There’s not a lot of room for player creativity here.
And while there are occasional tests of reflexes throughout the game, there’s no real chance of failure, just different degrees of success. At one point in the story as Jodie is fleeing a burning building, there are moments when she has to dodge falling debris or leap across a collapsing floor. (These quick-time events, to use video game parlance, are signalled by the action suddenly going into super slo-mo, telling players they must flick the thumbstick in whatever direction Jodie is moving.) In this case, failing these quick-time events causes Jodie to fall to the ground and be knocked unconscious, and she wakes up in a hospital some time later with a nasty scar on her head.
Successfully dodging all the obstacles sees Jodie dramatically burst through an upper-floor window, using Aiden’s power to shield her as she falls safely to the ground. But then she’s attacked by a bat-wielding thug, knocked unconscious… and wakes up in hospital some time later with a nasty scar on her head.
This ultimate lack of consequence might sound boring as hell, but there’s something weirdly compelling about guiding a character’s actions through a story, even when Jodie is doing something as mundane as cleaning her apartment and making dinner for a date. And when the dramatic stakes are high – a scene in which a teenaged Jodie runs into trouble with men at a roadhouse bar is especially gut-wrenching – it’s amazing how attached you can become to a bundle of polygons and bytes.
Where Beyond: Two Souls stumbles are in the handful of segments where it veers too far into action game territory. When Jodie is sent to Somalia by the CIA to kill a warlord, the game takes on a Metal Gear Solid stealth-action vibe, but it simply doesn’t give players the tools or freedom to play the game as such. Instead, it feels clumsy and hand-holdy, boiling down to figuring out the proper path through a war-torn village, and using Aiden to deal with the soldiers that conveniently have the orange glow that signals they’re susceptible to the entity’s attacks.
Another chapter, set on a ranch owned by a Navajo family, goes too far in the opposite direction – it drags on forever and is so light on action that it hurts the story’s relatively brisk pace up until that point.
But yet another chapter, in which a teenaged Jodie awkwardly tries to fit in at a party, is weirdly stressful. Unlike storming the stronghold of an African warlord or digging for Native American artifacts in the desert, it’s something most of us can relate to. What kind of music should we play? Should we give into peer pressure and drink the beer? Do we let the cute boy grab our butt during a slow dance? And what do we do if our new friends turn on us and start bullying us?
Fans of traditional action-focused video games might reject Beyond: Two Souls, unless they’re willing to accept that it’s about story and characters first and gameplay second. But thanks to the humanity that Page brings to Jodie, it’s hard not to care about her and the people she encounters on her journey. As well, we want to know how Aiden came to be, what he is to Jodie and what their linked fate will be.
And although the game has at least five primary endings, with several small variations depending on how the player handles certain situations, it doesn’t leave any loose ends untied (although it does leave the door open for a sequel that would be of a very different flavour indeed.)
While it may ask us to reconsider what makes a video game a video game, Beyond: Two Souls ultimately is about blending the mediums of movies and games into a new form of entertainment. Open your mind, unshield your heart, and you might be in for a heck of a ride.