Beyond: Two Souls is the latest game from David Cage and the team at Quantic Dream. I really enjoyed Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain (I never played The Nomad Soul) so my expectations were reasonably high for this game, and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed. Before I go any further I will say that Beyond: Two Souls, like its predecessors, is a title that challenges the standard definition of “game” by prioritizing the in-depth connective experience first, and adding “gameplay” after that. This is not a game that rewards skilful play-throughs, it is a game that rewards you with depth of character and layered story telling where your choices matter. You get out what you put in.
Okay, so I picked up this game on Saturday night and finished it before lunch on Sunday. That may not seem like a particularly lengthy game (which many critics have picked up on), but what you may not appreciate is that you are continuously moving forward in this game. You dont get bogged down in repetitive fire fights, you dont have to worry about dying and retrying each level again and again, you just keep moving forward and the story adapts depending on your choices and to a small extent how well / poorly you perform. Not a single minute is wasted in this game, and I think they got the length exactly right.
But what exactly is Beyond: Two Souls about? You play as Jodie, a young girl who is different to everyone else she knows. Jodie is connected umbilically to a spiritual entity called Aidan – he’s been there since Jodie was born, the only constant Jodie can cling to in what has been a tumultuous life. Aidan resembles your typical poltergeist – he can pass through walls, he can possess objects and people, he can relay information back to Jodie, and he can defend Jodie from other dangerous spirits that pass through the veil. When the CIA find out about Jodie’s “condition” they take custody of her and start conducting experiments, with one eye on the pursuit of knowledge, and the other eye on potentially militarising their game-changing asset. You play as Jodie from young child to young adult. You get to influence her life choices as she progresses through the most formative stages of life. You also get to play as Aidan and do some cool poltergeist stuff, but this is Jodie’s story, Jodie’s life, and while Aidan is there Jodie cannot truly live.
In terms of gameplay, the one thing I want to discuss is the removal of the skill level barrier. I could talk about things like how the movement controls are very clumsy, or that the gameplay is almost entirely quick-time events, but removing the skill level barrier is, in my opinion, the biggest element that challenges conventional gaming. There are no try-fail cycles, there are no resets, there are no do-over opportunities. What you do and how you perform, in the moment, determines how your story plays out. This may sound like a bad idea, but what makes this work (for me) is that the outcome is not better or worse depending on how you perform – it is just different. I think this is the point that turns off many gamers, that you are not explicitly rewarded for beating up all those enemies without taking a single hit. It is not why they play games, they expect to get a quantifiably better experience as their mastery of the game increases. And that’s fine, but for me, I was so deeply immersed in the story that the only thing I cared about was how the gameplay worked together with the choices I had to make when progressing the story.
Beyond: Two Souls is a story driven game, and David Cage succeeded in making it one of the most expansive yet engaging stories that I’ve ever played through. The story is told in a series of non-linear scenes, jumping back and forth through different moments of Jodie’s life, providing you the information you need when you need it. While loading each scene the game displays a timeline to provide a frame of reference for when each scene takes place. It is very handy, and makes the story much easier to follow during the early stages. The story explores a number of heavy themes, the most prominent of which is the duality between life and death, and how different people react when a loved one passes from life into death. The story also explores the duality between ethical and unethical experimentation, blurring what should be a very clear line by introducing dangerous situations that demand the unethical solution for the “greater good”. The recruitment of child soldiers to help take out a Somalian warlord is one, the raising of an abandoned child in a laboratory to see if they can militarise her paranormal abilities is another. David Cage doesn’t shy away from the hard hitting moments either – in my playthrough there was a scene where Jodie was sexually assaulted at a bar after her friends failed to show up, and another scene where Jodie reaches the lowest point of her life and upon finding a knife the player is given the option of dragging that knife across her wrists. It is not to say that this is a story without hope, because there are plenty of hopeful, uplifting, and redemptive moments in this story, but these hard hitting moments are the ones that impacted me the most and had the greatest influence of the choices I made when playing the game.
Beyond: Two Souls is one of the best games I have ever played. Is it the future of gaming? No. Has it impacted the future of gaming? Undeniably. Beyond: Two Souls has pushed the boundaries of gaming, changed how we define games, and demonstrated that you can successfully implement a story driven experience that does not require point scoring or levels. Oh and there is also those little things like how amazing this game looks, and how great the acting was from stars like Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Play this game to experience it, not to beat it.