Quantic Dream and director David Cage like to push the envelope when it comes to storytelling in gaming. Their 2010 Playstation Exclusive, Heavy Rain was unique and groundbreaking, but met with some critiques about it’s lack of player involvement. More of a long-form movie than a game, some found that the games heavy reliance on on-screen cues and quick-time events for interactivity made the game unappealing and boring.
Personally, it’s one of my favorite games on the platform, as I have long wanted to see story become the main focus of the medium, and to see games become a well respected avenue for writers. With Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream returns to the Playstation 3, this time blurring the lines even more between game and movie, and the results are mostly spectacular.
Hollywood vs Silicone Valley
We’ve seen celebrities lend their voices to video games before. Actors like Sam Worthington, Rip Torn and the incomparable Mark Hammel have been heard in everything from Call of Duty to the Batman: Arkham series. But never before has it been this level of immersion from celebrities. Stars like Kadeem Hardison and Eric Winter play supporting roles in Beyond: Two Souls but it’s Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page that steal the show.
Page plays the games protagonist Jodie Holmes, a young girl with a dark secret. For as long as she can remember, she hasn’t been alone in life. She is accompanied by Aiden, the unseen spirit from another world that is inexplicably linked to her. Unable to contain her secret from her parents, Jodie is eventually turned over to a government scientist, Dr. Nathan Dawkins, played brilliantly by Willem Dafoe.
The performances of Page and Dafoe are at the root of all that Beyond succeeds in. With her real-life father figure rejecting her outright, even going so far as to possibly take his frustration and fear toward Jodie out on her physically, Nathan is there to replace that need. He is warm and kind, and shows again and again just how much he truly cares for Jodie. Hollywood has trained us well enough, and I do admit that the entire time I was playing the near 12 hour experience, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop with Nathan, revealing that he was somehow behind all that has befallen Jodie in her life.
But for all that Beyond is, it’s also cliche defying. This supernatural tale doesn’t hit all of the tropes and cliche’s within it’s story, although some remain present. It takes what you know and expect and warps it, molding the norm around it’s story the way it feels is necessary. At first it can feel odd, the story jumps around to different important moments in Jodie’s life, without a lot of context as to why the story plays out in the order in which it does, but it all serves to come together and explain the characters behind Jodie, Nathan and especially Aiden.
Doesn’t it just sound like I’m writing a movie review? And that’s the best way to prove my point about Beyond: Two Souls. The truth is that there is actually more of a game here than there was in 2010 with Heavy Rain, but Quantic Dream has done a great job of masking as much of the impact of game play within the story as possible.
A Hidden Experience
The way Beyond works around the possibility of having actual game play interfere too much with the immersion of it’s story is actually quite brilliant. Where Heavy Rain was met with an abundance of on-screen cues, usually large white icons depicting what action to take with your controller, whether it be a flick of the right thumb stick, a tapping or holding of a face button or even using the Dual Shock 3’s built-in motion sensitivity to physically turn, twist and shake the controller, Beyond does it’s best to limit the amount of time that occurs. At least, that’s how it felt to me. It’s entirely possible that I was simply so wrapped up in the story that I forgave the amount of on-screen directions I was adhering to.
But when there was a direction for me to take, most of them were achieved by a simply movement of the right thumb stick, and most appreciatively, that was always accompanied by a very small white dot on the screen I was to aim toward with the stick, making sure it was a minimal obstruction of the scene as it played out. Decisions and dialogue choices were still presented with floating thoughts and responses that had buttons assigned to them, but that kind of thing is avoidable.
However, the best way that Quantic Dream was able to keep the cinematic experience flowing and free from immersion breaking instructions is in the games surprisingly satisfying combat. The scene in which you are taught how Jodie will be engaging in hand-to-hand combat throughout the game is likely my favorite piece of the entire story, and you quickly learn that she is a force to be reckoned with. Combat is simple and artistic, with action-movie style thrown in. As Jodie engages in a fight, the action will, at times, slow down, allowing the player to react to what is going on on-screen, whether it’s Jodie countering an attack or launching one of her own.
Again, with the use of the right thumb stick, the player is silently instructed which way to move the stick in order to match Jodie’s actions. If she starts to block or kick to the left, flick the stick left and she will successfully pull off the maneuver, go in the wrong direction or miss the move entirely and she will feel the negative effects immediately. It also works for non combat moments such as Jodie running through explosions, as she dodges and ducks underneath attacks, you have to be quick to notice just which way the action is directing you in order to pull it off without a hitch.
That is one way, however, that the dedicated need to separate Beyond as more than just a game can at times hinder the experience. Throughout my playtime with the game, I found it occasionally hard to tell which way I was supposed to move and react in these sequences. The action is directed in such a visually flashy manner that the camera angles do not always lend themselves to the direction you’re supposed to move. Luckily, this wasn’t too frequent a problem, and certainly not common enough to sour my enjoyment of the game much.
When controlling Aiden, your spirit companion, there is a bit of a learning curve. It can be jarring going from a static and strict game world, with many rules and restrictions to such pure freedom, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find yourself switching to the spirit as often as you can. Aiden can fly freely around the area, and even find hidden bonus material behind secret walls, but can never stray too far from Jodie, as it hurts her when he isn’t near. You can interact with objects and the environment, again following on-screen direction when you want to open a door, press a button or throw a table across the room to distract a guard. It’s all fun, if a bit difficult to get the hang of initially.
Additionally, the choices in camera angles during the non-combat moments could hinder you, as well. During perfectly calm moments, when Jodie is simply moving through the world, the focus is so heavy on creating an artistic viewpoint that it becomes hard to move in a simple and straight line. More times than I care to count I found myself walking into a wall or missing a turn down a corridor simply because the camera was too low, or the viewpoint would change from behind me to an alternate angle of the room when I reached an invisible line, and the direction I was moving toward is suddenly the opposite. This led to many moments where I would bounce back and forth between these angles a few times, until I forced myself to slow down and approach the marker with more caution.
But all of this still doesn’t add up to much in the way of negatives when talking about Beyond. Where it does shine, and unquestionably so, is not just in it’s story, but it’s presentation. Graphically, the wizards at Quantic Dream have managed to build a world that is almost without equal on the home console market. The only world that comes close to it is that of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us from earlier in the year, but even that game, for all of it’s stunning realism and beauty, doesn’t match up to what Beyond has to offer in terms of visuals. Every character model is meticulously crafted and the environments are works of art. When running through a dark and rain-covered forest, the light bounced through the leaves casting perfect spotlights and shadows on Jodie, and in close-ups, the tone and texture of the characters flesh was nearly photo-realistic. It’s a sight to see for sure, especially all running in real-time on a current-gen console.
Barring a few hiccups technically such as a dip in frame rate and the occasional 2-3 second freezing when the game is loading a new room or saving your progress, the game runs smooth and is truly one of the best overall experiences on the Playstation 3. It may not be for everyone, fans of more action-heavy genres such as first person shooters or sandbox games may struggle to keep up with the deliberately slow pace of Beyond: Two Souls, but for those who are willing to put the time in, you’ll find yourself treated to an entirely new experience. Developers have certainly saved their best work for last when it comes to this console generation, and Beyond deserves to stand up to the very best of this jam-packed year in gaming.