I’ve now played Beyond: Two Souls. It’s the story of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), a young woman who has an unbreakable connection with an “entity”. The entity is an unpredictable being with no corporeal form. His name is Aiden (pronounced Eiden) and he and Jodie share a mental link. He behaves a bit like a poltergeist except that he does Jodie’s bidding. So on her behalf, he moves through walls and other structures, opens locked doors, throws items around, takes possession of people’s bodies and gives her a link to the memories of the dead. (These last two things may not be typical of poltergeists. But he has a certain malevolence about him, which is. And the only noise he makes is like a soul lost in hell.)
Jodie grows up as a kind of lab rat, but one that is looked after by fatherly professors (one of whom is played by Willem Dafoe). As an adult she is handed over to the CIA so they can use her as a weapon. Later, when she escapes from them, they hunt her. But none of this happens in chronological order so we have to piece the story together. I like this narrative device.
The whole story is about Jodie, so David Cage (the writer/director of this game) has had to develop a solid, believable, well-written female character. And he has. In a number of episodes we see her as an 8 or 9 year old and I grew very attached to that little girl. I would play a whole game around little Jodie. I’ve tried to understand what it is that I’m responding to – I think it’s the way she talks, the way she walks. The expressions on her face. What she says. She’s so serious and so full of longing. And wise in ways she shouldn’t have to be. (So I’m responding to pretty much everything about her then.)
I don’t have the same reaction to adult Jodie, though Ellen Page is fantastic. I think the difference is we see a lot more of adult Jodie and in a variety of situations, some of them really quite random and not particularly well written.
When Heavy Rain, Cage’s previous game, came out, he spoke about believing in emotion in games and said that that experience could be generated by following someone’s everyday life. He seems to have stepped away from that idea somewhat because this game has a good amount of running, shooting and fighting. But as well as that, you also deliver a baby, busk on the street and cook a meal and tidy up your apartment in preparation for a date. I enjoyed all of that more than I enjoyed the shooting and fighting, though some of the running away (particularly on a motorcycle) was quite good.
But some of these episodes were random. Jodie ends up homeless. In terms of the story, I can understand why that happens, but it’s in that episode she busks on the street and delivers the baby. I’ve just said I liked those things, and I do, but in terms of a cohesive overall storyline, they’re quite random.
At another point, she’s hitch-hiking in the middle of the desert and ends up staying with a Navajo family. This doesn’t have to be random, but it is. How did she get to the desert? Why is she there beyond needing to be there for this particular story? It turns out these people are being tormented by an entity, which is rather convenient. There is a grandmother living in the house and she has not spoken for 30 years. So of course, on cue, the grandmother will find her voice and remember the words of a ritual to rid the family of the demon. Deus ex machina. I don’t want to see the hand of the writer at work in the story. I want to believe the story.
The random stories don’t help the overarching narrative. Everything needs to be firmly connected to advancing a combination of the plot and characterisation, which will also hopefully illuminate some central themes for us. If I’m in the middle of playing one of the chapters and I’m asking myself “why is this chapter here?” then it’s not doing its job and shouldn’t be there. In this context, the more actiony stories that make sense are the ones that involve US or other governments building hardware to access the entity world (called the Infraworld) and Jodie needing to help when something goes wrong. I think it’s good we see Jodie on a CIA mission, though the one they’ve chosen is again, just random. It was a missed opportunity to have her interact with entities and their world in a way that would turn out to be threatening to herself and Aiden, because that’s something we don’t see. But having Jodie need to leave, and then be chased by, the CIA after the mission does make sense.
The stories that lie at the heart of the game are the ones about Jodie’s everyday life. These stories all make sense, pretty much by definition, because they’re helping us understand who she is and what her life is like. We see her as a child and a teenager first at home and then in the lab. We experience her trying to fit in with other kids her age and then later the first freedom she has when she gets her own apartment. I wish there were more of these, particularly when she’s a young adult. The chapter where she found her mother was a stroke of brilliance. But I am undecided how I feel about the homeless episode. I think it could have fit better if it had been positioned better into the overall storyline.
As I said, fighting and shooting have been added. But Cage doesn’t believe in Game Over so Jodie can’t die. Not until the end anyway. So when the CIA parachutes her into their random mission (going into Somalia to kill a warlord), the fighting is really boring. There are very well-mannered soldiers who keep their back turned to her so she can jump them and gunmen who operate in a predictable fashion so she can kill them. She might get captured but she’s never going to die. And that’s fine, I don’t want her to die, I don’t particularly like Game Over either. But then the story needs to stretch itself. Can she get hurt so badly she ends up in a Somalian hospital? Or do the CIA have to rush in early and get her out? What else can happen as a repercussion from the fighting going badly or well? Otherwise it’s boring. It’s very boring.
Aiden’s abilities are crafted according to the needs of the particular storyline you’re playing. Therefore, they are riddled with inconsistencies. He can move away from Jodie, but only to a certain distance. I can’t tell you exactly how far that is though, because in one story it could be about 500 metres, but in another it could be 50 metres. When you want to access him, you press the triangle button on the controller. Theoretically, you can do that at any time. Unless the story doesn’t want you to at that particular moment. And while he has the ability to possess people, it’s only some people – the ones the game has decided you need.
There is very little freedom in this game. Everything has been prescribed in advance. Even when I walked into a room, I would discover that I had access to only part of the room. Cage does not make open world games. Heavy Rain imposed limits on how far I could go in any given environment. But Beyond: Two Souls further reduces the space in which I have to move. And that dramatically decreases my agency as a player.
Cage has said there are 23 endings to the game. But these endings are just about who is left standing. And whether Jodie winds up with a companion or not. When I played Heavy Rain I felt that I had minimal control over the storyline, but it wasn’t the case. In Beyond: Two Souls it is the reality. This game is much less like a game than Heavy Rain. And so, even though overall I enjoyed it more than its predecessor (thanks to playing Jodie), it’s a backwards step. That crossover place where games and movies meet should be a true hybrid of the two creative forms, where they bring out the best in each other. It’s not meant to be mostly movie and not very much game.
As a fortunate coincidence, I read Ian Bogost’s thoughts about Flappy Bird on the same day that I finished Beyond: Two Souls. He gave me much to think about when he said
“Games are encounters with squalor. You don’t play a game to experience an idea so much as you do so in an attempt to get a broken machine to work again.
In this way, games are different from other media. Sure, a movie or a book or a painting can depict squalor, can attune us to the agony of misfortune. But unlike film and literature, games do not primarily depict human events and tell stories… We don’t watch or read games like we do cinema and novels and paintings, nor do we perform them like we might dance or football or Frisbee. Rather, we do something in-between with games. Yes, we “play” games like we do sports, and yes, games bear “meaning” as do the fine and plastic arts. But something else is at work in games. Games are devices we operate.”
I think Beyond: Two Souls forgot that it was a game.