In February, video game auteur David Cage told his industry to grow up, to produce games for adults — games that have something to say. "By the time you turn off your console, the game will leave an imprint. You will think about what you've seen. That's what every creative medium should achieve."
Cage’s creative medium, however, doesn’t fit the trappings of a traditional video game. Available for PlayStation 3 today, Beyond: Two Souls is his latest, greatest attempt to build an interactive movie. Like his previous works Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, it’s not about shooting through waves of bad guys, jumping from platform to platform, or exploring an open world. It’s more of a Choose Your Own Adventure book writ large. Most of the time, you simply point your character in a direction, pick one of the options given to you, and sometimes help your character act out actions by pressing buttons in time with onscreen prompts. Your reward is to see how the plot cinematically unfolds.
A Choose Your Own Adventure book writ large
It sounds boring at first. But by pushing aside the traditional tropes and mechanics of traditional video games, Beyond rises above them, creating something more akin to the emotional voyeurism of a great novel. It puts compelling characters and story front and center, and touches on complex adult themes like suicide, homelessness, and rape. And like many a good movie, Beyond has star talent to thank. Ellen Page is Jodie Holmes, a young woman tethered to a mysterious entity which possesses paranormal powers, and Willem Dafoe plays Nathan Dawkins, the government researcher who has been studying and taking care of Jodie since she was a little girl.
The incredible conceit of Beyond: Two Souls is that you influence the course of Jodie’s entire life. You spend the vast majority of the game in flashbacks that span 15 years of her life, from ages 8 to 23. You’re trying to figure out who Jodie is, how she wound up running from the law, and why she's tethered to Aiden, a supernatural entity. You visit these flashbacks out of order, piecing together her memories, but also shaping them with the choices you make. The nonlinear narrative is confusing at first, switching between Jodie as an adult and as a young girl, but it pays off by keeping the story moving at a brisk pace — focusing on one theme, one mystery at a time, while subtly sneaking in bits and pieces of later revelations. This is the true game: not mastering the mechanics of how to steer Jodie and Aiden around, but figuring out which choices will get the game to give up its secrets, and piecing together the fragmented story in your head.
Sometimes, gameplay is as simple as an action sequence where you help Jodie get from point A to B, mimicking her onscreen actions to help her fight or run. Often, you'll control Aiden, a ghostly apparition connected to Jodie who can fly through walls, move obstacles out of the way, commune with the dead, and generally wreak all kinds of havoc by telekinetically messing with objects in the environment. It’s all simple enough that you can play the entire game using your smartphone or tablet as the controller, just tapping and swiping. Together you'll run through burning buildings, kill bad guys, and possibly save the world, accompanied by an action movie’s worth of big-budget special effects and an epic score.
At its richest, however, Beyond is far more subtle and mundane than that. It's walking into a dark, scary garage to get some cooking oil for your mother, confronting Jodie’s childhood fear. It's watching the posters on Jodie's bedroom walls change as she matures into an adult, and witnessing her heartbreak as she leaves that bedroom once and (possibly) for all. It's deciding to kiss the boy, to ask the impertinent question, to sneak that cookie from the cookie jar because Aiden can reach the top of the fridge. Some of these choices are binary and some multiple choice, part of sequences set in stone, while other experiences are totally optional. One of my favorite moments in the entire game is having eight-year-old Jodie pick up the telephone and carry on an "adult" conversation with herself. "Kids are so difficult when they can’t go outside," she remarks, until Aiden fills the line with static and she gets fed up. He just wants to play, but she’s tired of his meddling. Realizing the bittersweet nature of Jodie and Aiden’s existence from little moments like these make for some of the game’s greatest thrills.
At its richest, Beyond is subtle and mundane
How much you enjoy Beyond: Two Souls will probably depend on how much you expect to be able to change Jodie and Aiden's destiny. Like Heavy Rain or perhaps Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, Beyond does an incredible job of making you think you have choices everywhere, while steering you towards a far more limited number of options that actually move the plot forward. There are indeed a number of branching paths in the game, including entire scenes you simply won't see in a single playthrough, and it's incredibly rewarding to find them. But for every time it feels like you've fundamentally changed Jodie's life, there are quite a number of false or forced choices, and they become obvious on a second playthrough.
And yet, those false choices might not bug you all that much, because Jodie's character is so fully realized that there's little room for the player inside. You're not controlling Jodie so much as guiding her and protecting her, something that the game tries to drive home early on. It perhaps manifests itself most prominently in the game’s action sequences. In a clever design choice that also makes for a far more intuitive control scheme than Heavy Rain, Jodie is always already throwing punches and dodging out of the way by the time you press a button — you simply mirror the motions she's already begun, driven by her natural instincts, to make sure she succeeds. Or fails, as the case may be: some of the game's most intriguing possibilities occur when Jodie doesn't get her way. There’s no such thing as a "Game Over" screen in Beyond, and the plot will move along no matter what. Even waiting can occasionally be a choice. Just because there’s no game over doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for your actions, though. People can die, lives can be ruined, and Jodie can wind up with emotional scars.
Jodie feels so much like a person because you're right there with her in the most important chapters of her life. You become emotionally invested in a way few games have ever managed. That’s partly because you feel responsible for the choices you’ve made for her, and partly because most of the game’s performances are worthy of your emotion. The expressions on teenage Jodie's freckled face are incredible to behold as she goes from shy to cautious to naively excited about attending a birthday party, her first extended contact with others her age. Even when you're actively controlling her movements, Jodie's gait is full of emotion: obviously enraged, determined, heartbroken, bored, and many more depending on the circumstances.
Beyond hasn't crossed the Uncanny Valley yet
For a game with faces this detailed, the facial motion capture actually still leaves a lot to be desired. There were moments I was unable to read the complexity of expression on Willem Dafoe's face in particular because the resolution simply wasn't there, and all the characters seem to have "default" expressions that can make them appear animatronic at times. Beyond hasn't crossed the Uncanny Valley; it's still clambering up the other side, and there are times I wished that developer Quantic Dream had gone less photorealistic and more stylized.
Still, Beyond: Two Souls is a gorgeous sendoff for the PlayStation 3, as well-crafted a game as we've seen on the system. A surprising number of objects stand up to close scrutiny. You can see everything in the mirror in Jodie's room, watch bits of real cartoons and sports matches on the TV screen, read the headlines in a newspaper, and look at all the little bumpers under the glass top of a pinball machine. The shadowy arms over Jodie's bed as a young girl feel astoundingly real, as does the way rain trickles down the sides of a car. When you visit the scene of a catastrophe, the game makes you feel the raw intensity, playing with depth of field and swaying the camera slightly to make the bright flashing lights of ambulances and the bustle of emergency personnel seem as blinding and disorienting as they must actually be. It’s times like these where it’s clear that Beyond is more than the sum of its parts, that Quantic Dream has successfully managed to meld a fun, accessible game with a movie and built something thrilling in the process.
A gorgeous sendoff for PS3 that deserves a PS4
And yet Beyond also clearly shows the PS3's age. Its screenshots look far better than the game: all the wonderfully crafted details look pixelated at even a slight distance, their edges jagged for lack of sufficient anti-aliasing. Objects are constantly shimmering, particularly fine textures like Nathan's wool jacket, and it can be distracting at the most inopportune moments. If you have a PS3 and any interest in a game like the one I described, you need to play Beyond: Two Souls. It's an absolute gem. I'm hoping that Beyond isn't a reason to buy a PlayStation 3, though. It deserves the power of a next-gen console, and if Sony and Quantic Dream have any sense, we’ll see it on PlayStation 4 once the initial wave of sales has passed. With the power of the PlayStation 4, we could be that much more immersed in Jodie and Aiden’s world. I’d gladly go back there a few more times to see how differently their story can play out.