Another case of “the chase is better than the catch” — Beyond: Two Souls

Beyond: Two Souls (BTS) for the PlayStation 3 was going to be something different. Of that I was sure. It was the one new IP game to which I was most looking forward last year. The game just…looked…different.

Beyond: Two Souls cover art © Quantic dream, Sony
Beyond: Two Souls cover art © Quantic dream, Sony

Okay, so having Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page on board didn’t hurt either. I’ve been a fan of Dafoe’s quirkiness since The Boondock Saints. And Ellen Page, well…there’s not much to dislike there, an actor both strong and sweet. Between E3 2013 and BTS’s October release, I watched the videos and listened to the interviews. I was very hopeful but still, very dubious. (It’s part of my nature I just can’t sidestep.) When talking about the game in social circles, everyone referred to Quantic Dream/David Cage’s previous outing, Heavy Rain. I hadn’t played it. The way people described it, with its heavy story and (over)use of quick-time events, made it sound both extremely fun and extremely intimidating. I briefly considering picking it up last summer, but time, as it usually is, was not. Instead, I threw BTS into our Gamefly queue as soon as it was listed. Come October, I was ready. Though my skepticism reigned supreme as it was a rental and not a purchase, I was still ready.

Oh, if only life had been that simple.

See, in September 2013, Grand Theft Auto 5 (perhaps you’ve heard of it) was released. It was an immediate purchase for us, and I knew that once I started playing it, it would be hard for me to stop. Indeed, by the time October rolled around, I had hardly scratched the surface of Los Santos, and I wasn’t anywhere near quitting. Knowing that BTS was due to ship soon, I removed it from the queue. I spent the next three months in Los Santos, and I didn’t regret a single minute of it. It would be another three months before BTS entered my mind again.

Christmastime 2013. BTS is back in our Gameply queue and it arrives in the house just a couple days before New Year’s. I return it exactly one month later – probably the shortest amount of time I’ve ever kept a rental game that I fully played. During that month, I wonder several times “what exactly am I playing?” Beyond: Two Souls was something different alright. Not to show my hand early, but my feelings about the game boiled down to this: I liked BTS in principle but disliked it in practice.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of a woman named Jodie (Ellen Page) who has been tethered to an entity named Aiden. Aiden, a spiritual body of sorts, is only experienced through Jodie. Others do not see him but they do, on occasion, witness the results of Jodie and Aiden’s interactions. Using Aiden, Jodie appears to have telekinetic powers – they can manipulate objects in their environments and interact (positively and negatively) with people. Aiden can also help heal Jodie, assist her in battle, as well as allow her to “see” into other areas, closed rooms and far-away spaces.

BTS screen1
See me, feel me, touch me, heal me. So says The Who.

In the game, Jodie’s story is told in a non-linear fashion. If you’ve played it, presumably the order of your gameplay differed from mine, but all the paths reached the same end. Players discover that Jodie has lived with Aiden since birth. As a child, she’s taken away from her foster home to a paranormal institute where she resides for over a decade under the care of two doctors, Nathan (Willem Dafoe) and Cole (Kadeem Hardison). Jodie progresses from childhood through her teenage years to young adulthood with Nathan and Cole – they both study her abilities (and Aiden) and act as a surrogate family. She’s eventually recruited into the CIA where she’s trained as a soldier. In nothing short of a lifetime, Jodie meets a handsome CIA fellow named Ryan (they work as operatives together), she fights for her life and against enemies in Somalia, runs away from the CIA, spends time with homeless folks and a Native American family, and eventually finds out the truth about her life, Nathan, and Aiden.

And she also, kinda, sorta is given the chance to “cross over,” y’know…interdimensionally, in a matter of speaking.

Beyond: Two Souls was a strange game. A beautiful game. A frustrating game.

I really didn;t get the images of "camo Jodie" before playing the game. And I'm sure I understand them any better now.
I really didn’t get the images of “camo Jodie” before playing the game. And I’m not sure I understand them any better now.

But what of that game? Let me get this out first: I hate quick-time events. Don’t like ‘em. Not even a little. Whether it’s mashing a button at a certain time, remembering a complex sequence of button presses, or following button sequences that appear on screen, I dislike QTEs whole damn lots. In Beyond: Two Souls QTEs are very prevalent. They did not bring down the entire game for me, but they did, in all cases, hamper my enjoyment at the moments they appeared.

While QTEs are my biggest gripe about this game, there’s one other big negative that I might as well get out of the way while the mood strikes. As strong as Jodie’s overall story is, her relationships within it were contrived and bland. That even included the homeless storyline which was the best out of all of them. The quest for “normalcy” pervades Jodie’s life, and that includes her desire to have a regular life and meet regular people. But as long as she’s at odds with Aiden, normalcy is something she can never have. Or that’s how I saw it anyway. And in those moments where the game, either without or without your input, made Jodie pursue intimacy, from romance to friendship, there was no weight to her (or your) decisions. I liked how Jodie’s story unfolded in flashbacks and flashforwards, but the lack of continuity made it hard for me to “take part” in the more personal aspects of Jodie’s life. I just didn’t find enough reason to care about the people she encountered, save for Nathan.

For better or worse, theirs was the only storyline I really bought.
For better or worse, theirs was the only storyline I really bought.

But like I said, BTS’s overall story was a definite highlight. I’ve said before that I don’t mind boring and mundane in games, and the story does occasionally border on dull. If Jodie has to cook stir-fry, then I’m going to happily cook stir-fry. If she has to wrangle a horse, then let me in the stables. If she needs to pause during a fight scene to figure out what to do, then I’m going to pause as well. I also liked, for the most part, Jodie’s interactions with Aiden and being able to manipulate Aiden myself. But for me the high point came with Nathan’s tragic turn, which was well foreshadowed early on, and the closing of Jodie’s relationship with the paranormal institute. For as much as some of the details about Jodie didn’t make sense, the reasons driving her actions were lucid enough. Well…for the most part. Enough that I could easily buy them without question. Part of that included lots of conversations with multiple choices, which I always appreciate. I like that feeling of participation, of steering a character in one direction or another. This sometimes extended into the disagreeable bits concerning Jodie’s relationships. Regardless of how I had previous treated potential love interests during the game (I blatantly turned down the hunky Ryan because who cared?), Jodie was given the chance to live her life with one person or stay single. You can probably guess which choice I made.

(P. S. Single)

The other great thing BTS has going for it is the graphics. Wow, the game was just…is just…so goddamn pretty. I mean, there was no taking your eyes off the scenery, from a war-torn African village to the depths of a submarine to the arid American plains under an immense sky. Particularly striking are the character animations, and not just those for the high falutin’ actors either. The people look like real people (complete with eye animations to die for!). Walking in snow felt like walking in snow. Trees swaying gently in a breeze looked like trees swaying gently in the breeze. It was all like the most beautiful storybook brought to life. Bravo, Quantic Dream. Brav-o.

Is it just me or do you feel chilly?
Is it just me or do you feel chilly?

Knowing my history of multiple playthroughs of multiple choice games, when I finished BTS, my husband asked if I was going to playthrough it again to see the other endings. I distinctly remember stating an affirmative I don’t know maybe in response. At that point, I really didn’t see any endgame for Jodie other than the path I had chosen. If I still had the game, I doubt I’d be driven to play it now. As brilliant as the motion capture is, as beautiful as the environments are, and as intriguing parts of BTS are to play, I don’t think there would be any surprises in Jodie’s story. She would still end up as a guinea pig. She would still be recruited into the CIA. She would still have Aiden to both confide in and complain about. Beyond: Two Souls is definitely something to experience at least once however, if for no other reason than to ask oneself “what exactly am I playing?”

2 thoughts on “Another case of “the chase is better than the catch” — Beyond: Two Souls”

  1. I think you summed up how I felt about the game, but maybe with a more positive angle than how I would have described it. It was a beautiful game, and the story had so much potential… but in the end, I just felt like it was too contrived. It’s interesting you mentioned that, because people who love this game are very emotional about the story. Which is great! I just didn’t feel anything for it, even though the game clearly wanted me to.

    Still, like you said, it’s an interesting game to experience once. And like you, I loved some of those “dull” moments. Just getting ready for that date and also that snowball fight when she was a kid — those were some of my favorite little scenes in the game! 🙂

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    1. Exactly! I love moments in games when character’s personalities are allowed to shine, whether sweet or sour (like Michael and his family at the therapist in GTA V). Scenes like choosing Jodie’s clothes or that snowball fight allow brief moments of connection that aren’t anywhere else in the game.

      Thinking on it a bit more, maybe I overanalyzed the game a bit while I was playing. Maybe if I hadn’t had such a critical eye, it would have played out better. You’re totally right that the game wanted to steer player’s emotions, but I just didn’t want to go wherever they thought they were taking me.

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