Beyond Two Souls

10.10.13

‘Beyond: Two Souls’ Review

Ellen Page stars in her most unique role yet: as a video game character in ‘Beyond Two Souls.’ Alec Kubas-Meyer spoke with the Oscar-nominated actress about the cutting edge game.

Quantic Dream, the French developer behind Indigo Prophecy (known as Fahrenheit outside the U.S.) and Heavy Rain, is obsessed with blurring the line between cinema and games, and Beyond: Two Souls is their grandest production yet. Ellen Page plays the protagonist, Jodie. She is the voice actor, and even the physical performer; the game was “filmed” with actors wearing motion capture suits, which tracked their faces as well as their bodies, before the background world was added in post-production.

Arguments could easily be made that it’s not that much of a game at all, more of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with a filmic form. There are decisions to be made throughout that change the experience in both subtle and significant ways, but they don’t radically alter the broader narrative. And because of that, sometimes certain scenes don’t play out in the most coherent way. Leading up to a particular scene involving a romantic interest that I wasn’t particularly interested in and didn’t want my protagonist to be interested in, Jodie just kept blathering on about how much she liked him, but then I was given the option to end the night prematurely. I took that opportunity gladly, but it still made everything that had come before feel wrong.

It’s not really “ludonarrative dissonance,” a high-brow term that refers to the clash between gameplay systems and narrative, but there’s definitely dissonance of some kind caused by Beyond: Two Souls’s inability to reconcile clashing styles in different scenes. When it’s just Jodie, things are very guided, but when others are involved, the player can decide Jodie’s tone in conversations, similar to Mass Effect’s dialogue system. Sometimes it’s as simple as a “yes,” “no,” or “shrug,” but sometimes there are significant dialogue decisions. These two don’t always play well together, and what should be a cohesive story becomes stilted and jarring.

In an interview, Ellen Page admitted that creating those multiple responses was an odd experience. “Sometimes the scene can be incredibly emotionally complex or intense, so not only are you trying to be in that space and have an incredible amount of dialogue to memorize, but it’s not cohesive, in the sense that I say something to Willem [Dafoe] and he says something to me and then I say something to him, and then I take a beat, and then I give the other response, and then I take a beat, and I give the other response.” She was quick to add, though, that it “is such a fun challenge.”

Quantic Dream has an obsession with putting “emotions” in its games, but in reality Beyond: Two Souls only has one emotion: sadness. Almost every single scene ends with at least one person (often multiple) in tears. The basic premise is simple: Jodie is inextricably linked to a spiritual entity she calls Aiden, and Aiden can go through walls and affect real things but he can’t be seen or directly interacted with. Jodie also can’t control him (although the player can), and sometimes he will do things that Jodie doesn’t want him to do. This opens up plenty of avenues for intrigue and mayhem and it’s used to interesting effect, but surely not everything needs to end in tears? By the end (hell, by the halfway point), I wasn’t thinking about the fact that the characters were sad anymore; I was thinking about how oddly shiny the tears were on the character models. Early on, that seemed like a cool effect, because it really highlighted the reaction, but it lacks anything verging on subtlety.

And that’s true about Beyond: Two Souls in general. David Cage has never been the best writer, and he hasn’t gotten much better here. Some of the dialogue is painful, and characters have a tendency to over-explain themselves. If people talk about the brilliant dialogue in Beyond: Two Souls (which they did for the also-not-excellent dialogue in Heavy Rain), it should be seen as a damnation of game writing in general rather than real praise for Cage’s work.

But good or not, this is a whole lot of work: Beyond: Two Souls’s script is literally 2,000 pages long, and Page said that was a daunting thing to see. She said, “I was looking at 2,000 pages in my living room and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?’” But she did it because she loved the character: “I love Jodie’s story and her, not to sound cheesy, but her journey, and I wanted to explore it.”

Ellen Page gives a fine performance as Jodie, and Willem Dafoe is excellent as the head of the Department of Paranormal Activities (their relationship is easily one of the best parts of the game), and they make the best of the bad dialogue, but the other actors range from pretty good to horrendous. Oftentimes the bad performances come from bit-part actors, which is unfortunate but not catastrophic, but it’s less acceptable that the actress behind the younger Jodie is uniformly unconvincing. Those scenes of Jodie’s youth are pivotal, but the performance ruins whatever impact they were meant to have.

The narrative itself is played out in a seemingly random order, cutting across the 15 years of the narrative on a whim. I’m glad that the story goes over such a long period of time (especially because rebellious teenage Ellen Page is amazing), but I never really liked the structure. Thankfully, the loading screen at the beginning of each segment shows its place in the timeline, making it simple enough to keep track of things, but it doesn’t add anything to the experience and occasionally makes it worse. One particular moment of juxtaposition (the final time the player takes control of young Jodie into the next scene) made me feel like Cage thought I was stupid. I felt insulted, and the moment didn’t have more power; it had less.

Like Heavy Rain before it and Indigo Prophecy before that, Beyond: Two Souls makes extensive use of quick time events (QTEs), attempting to “immerse” players by mapping actions to button prompts or slow motion movements. The latter, by the way, is both the most interesting and most frustrating system in the game, even more so than Aiden’s spiritual abilities (which are cool but limited). During the action scenes, and there are many, the game will slow down as people attempt to attack Jodie or things stand in her path. The player must use the right stick to follow her movements (if she is jumping, push the stick upward, if she is kicking, push towards wherever she is kicking). Unlike the floating buttons that surround so much of the game’s movement, there are no prompts here beyond the direction of her body.

It’s an interesting way to play around with the idea of QTEs, which are all but universally hated by game players but still utilized by developers that can’t bear to have their perfect cinematic experiences marred by actual agency. Even if it doesn’t quite look like it, it’s still part of a fundamentally flawed system, but the real issue is that it’s often not clear during the most intense moments which direction Jodie is trying to move. Sometimes when someone punches at her she blocks it and other times she moves away, and it’s hard to know whether Jodie’s hands moving out or her head moving back is the cue that players are looking for. A good system will get players into a rhythm, but it’s impossible to really get into the fights in Beyond: Two Souls. Waiting for a second or two will make her motions more obvious, but I shouldn’t need to wait to know what’s going on. It should just make sense.

Fortunately, there doesn’t really seem to be a fail state in Beyond: Two Souls. Even in the midst of intense fights where I missed multiple movements in a row, I never “lost.” I’d get hurt and that potentially affected the way the rest of the level played out, but it never stopped. This can be seen as a good or a bad thing, depending on how interesting the player is in controlling every moment of a game. It’s nice to look at, but even though the actions or lack thereof often do impact the way that scene progresses, it can feel like everything is completely proscribed (which, of course, it is).

And since I brought up the way it looks, I may as well talk about how pretty Beyond: Two Souls is. It’s really good looking, especially the actors. In fact, Demian Gordon, chairman of the Motion Capture Society, said that Beyond: Two Souls is “a high watermark and a good bar” for game motion capture going forward. Aside from Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire, this is the only time I’ve ever seen an unconvincing expression on a character model and blamed it on the actor rather than the art team. Computer generated or not, faces are extremely expressive and the subtleties of the performances are well conveyed.

Ellen Page said that it was a really cool experience, especially for someone who is primarily a film/TV actor. “I did work with other actors a lot, which was great. Sometimes you’re working with as many as three or four other people at once, and it feels like being on the stage or something, because you’re not going in for coverage. You’re surrounded by 70 cameras. Or I would be working with Willem. But a lot of the time I was all by myself, and David would just be reading me lines or if I’m doing a scene with Aiden I’m just talking to the air. So there was definitely a lot of just me in the space, having to pretend a lot of different crazy things,” she said.

The rest of the game world looks quite good as well, and each of the immense variety of locales have their own charm. The only technical issue I really had (aside from a game lock-up at the end of a particular chapter) was with some pop-in. It’s most problematic in a sequence that takes place primarily in a desert, because the foliage in the distance is constantly fading into existence in front of the player. It’s obviously a limitation of the aging PS3 hardware, but it’s a constant distraction.

Beyond: Two Souls took me about ten hours to complete, and I went through the whole thing in three sittings. It’s an inconsistent ride to be sure, but taken as a whole it is undeniably unique. Quantic Dream, love them or hate them, make games like nobody else. I don’t know that the game will have any lasting impact on the game industry, but I expect that more than a few interesting conversations will come out of David Cage’s latest creation.