Beyond: Two Souls from auteur David Cage and his studio, Quantic Dream released on PC today. Cage’s previous titles like Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit if you are in Europe) pushed the boundaries of what defines interactive storytelling. Beyond: Two Souls takes us down a long and emotionally wrought journey and on the path we discover some of the fundamental differences between telling a story and participating in one. We can see in Beyond: Two Souls how decisions we make as players can affect both the journey and the final act and in so doing, gives us a suitable mirror by which to judge our actions.
NOTE: Some general spoilers are found below. While I do not spoil specific plot points or spoil the ending, I do discuss the mechanics of the ending.
the dialogue choices and actions taken during story segments as well as choices of who lives and dies are merely garnish on the plate leaving players with a sense of futility. I had been deceived.
Beyond: Two Souls follows the journey of Jodie Holmes and a spirit like entity that has been attached to her as long as she can remember. This spirit is like a “lion in a cage” that can’t leave no matter how much they both want to go their separate ways. This entity, named Aiden by Jodie, can manipulate objects and people to varying degrees. The player is given control of Jodie and Aiden with the ability to switch between both at will through most of the game. There are instances where you are locked into controlling Aiden or Jodie, depending on the narrative situation. The arbitrary control of characters in the game brings out some of the most fundamental problems when linear narrative and interactive game play are brought together.
Many people believe that the journey is more important than the destination. The journey that Jodie and Aiden take together is an astounding journey. Her adoptive parents are scared to death of her. Therefore they made a lab rat until she is much older. Later she is recruited by the CIA and uses Aiden to help in her espionage missions. She goes rogue and takes out everyone who is sent after her. She then goes to live with Navajo indians. During this journey the player can put their own personal spin on Jodie and Aiden.
One of the best examples of this is a scene where Jodie is homeless on the streets of the city. She is freezing cold and starving and tasked with scrounging up money to buy some food. As the player, you can have Jodie beg from people and businesses, play the guitar on the corner with a jar for tips or have Aiden break open the newspaper and phone booths for quarters. It depends on how you internally see Jodie and Aiden as characters. At the end of the scene you will always have the money you need to buy the food, it is how you chose to get to that point that makes the scene compelling.
Beyond: Two Souls continues in that same mechanic. There is an end goal for the story vignettes you play and you can achieve goals any number of ways, but outcome will never change. If you want to make Ellen Page and her ghostly companion a team of happiness or a pair mired in cynicism, the options are there. However, the realization of how little my choices mattered in these scenes was a sense of great disappointment as consequences I was sure would provoke a response, never played out.
When we read a book or watch a movie, we are on a journey that the author or screenwriter/director wants to take us on. We have no say on the matter and enjoy a safe distance by which to judge the character’s actions. Think of your favorite book. No matter how many times you read it, the decisions the characters make will remain the same and the story will reach the same conclusion. In Beyond: Two Souls, when you play as Jodie or Aiden it isn’t so easy. The distance between you and Jodie/Aiden as an observer is gone and you might find yourself role-playing Jodie or Aiden a certain way. The result is that if you were playing a scene to reach a particular end, you will likely be disappointed.
The best example of this involves Jodie’s adoptive father. He is the sad, stereotypical villain father figure who would rather abandon his daughter out of fear than live with her. When playing the game you are given the opportunity, as Aiden, to choke the father. I wanted to choke that little man for the pain and hurt he caused his wife and little Jodie so I switched to Aiden and proceeded to start squeezing the life out of his chest. However the game doesn’t let you kill him. Therefore, not only did my inner anger toward the father go unresolved, but I was robbed of any kind of consequence for wanting to commit murder.
The point is furthered by Beyond: Two Souls’ five different endings, each of which are available to players on their first playthrough. This means that the dialogue choices and actions taken during story segments as well as choices of who lives and dies are merely garnish on the plate leaving players with a sense of futility. I had been deceived.
David Cage is a storyteller with a self-professed love for Hollywood and the storytelling medium of film. Beyond: Two Souls is a game that honors this love in its linear story. When a game allows for a role playing experience such as this one, the ending has to reflect the choices you have made in order for the journey to feel truly unique and individual. Otherwise the game is not true to its self-professed goal. The end result is a disconnect between what the player experiences as an observer of the story and their own internal story. Without a clear position of where the player fits into the story, the ability to judge and truly feel connect with Jodie and Aiden is lost.