David Cage provokes a response in people. On the bad side of things, he’s synonymous with overpromising and underdelivering. But on the good side of things the man is at least earnestly trying to make stuff that matters.
I thought Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit) was a pretty fun… game? Interactive novel?… with a plot that absolutely fell to pieces in the final act. I thought Heavy Rain was a truly affecting… game? Piece of storytelling?… that really hit me square in the heart a couple of times and had me rolling my eyes at the absurdity of it in others.
In both instances I was forced to grapple with the notion of whether or not these were really “games” at all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Interactive stories can be very fun, and Quantic Dream’s approach seems more aimed at making you the director of the action more than a player that need fear a game over screen. And I’m pretty much okay with that.
In Beyond: Two Souls, all semblance of being a game seems to be right out the window. And I think the experience is improved a great deal as a result.
Beyond: Two Souls plays like the other titles I mentioned. It presents you opportunity to explore various environments at your own pace in an episodic fashion, with actions you do/do not take and quick time events you do/do not succeed at sometimes/sometimes not impacting the story as you progress. This time though, you can literally play the entire game without attempting to “succeed” at a single one of these QTEs and you still get pulled along the story in a meaningful way that leads to an actual ending. I suppose there is a “success” or “failure” condition insofar as you could artificially create one for yourself if you were trying to get a specific ending (of which there are many) or a specific trophy for steering the scene in a specific direction, but that’s the extent of what we’re talking about here. There’s no fear of traditional failure that prevents you from progressing.
With that being the case, the story takes absolute center stage. There are hits and misses once again as sometimes David Cage simply can’t help himself and resorts to some tired clichés and a preposterous finale that I think could have been removed entirely. BUT — this is some of the best acting that has ever been seen in a video… game? Thing?
Seriously, Ellen Page’s performance as Jodie in Beyond: Two Souls is worth the price of admission by itself. Jodie is easily the most complete and compelling character that Quantic Dream has ever created, and this is due I think in very large part to the incredible performance by Ellen Page. No matter what choices you make as you propel the story forward, Page absolutely nails everything in a way that never makes it seem like Jodie is anything less than a real person.
Ellen Page’s performance is so good, in fact, that it makes it challenging for some of the other performers to match her level of skill. In particular, actor Ryan Clayton who plays a CIA agent that Jodie can potentially develop a romantic interest with struggles to match the intensity and believability of Page’s performance. It’s not bad work, but compared to scenes with Willem Dafoe, for example, there’s a noticeable level of difference in craft.
Let’s take a moment to step back and acknowledge that I’m reviewing a… game?… in terms of its performances. I am literally nit picking a fine piece of acting from a guy because it isn’t on the level of Ellen Page.
The performances are conveyed in absolutely spectacular fashion by Quantic Dream’s ever improving facial motion capture technology. The nuances are really on full display here, with absolutely incredible graphic and motion capture work that I’m not sure has ever been on a level this high. Even if someone hated everything else about this game, surely that person would have to admit these graphics are top notch. The soundtrack is also Hollywood level stuff. Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer scored and produced this, two guys who worked together on The Dark Knight Rises.
This is not only the best character Quantic Dream has ever come up with, I think it is easily the strongest story. The game is about Jodie, who has a spirit attached to her named Aiden. Aiden can do the usual stuff you expect from a poltergeist like throw stuff around a room and flick the lights on and off. But he also has a very special relationship with Jodie because he is her only defense against monsters that live on the same side of the world as him.
The story is about Jodie trying, and often failing, to find a life that makes sense to her. Sometimes this is done in creative and compelling ways. Sometimes things are predictable and clichéd (surprise, a birthday party goes horribly wrong when she demonstrates her abilities). The morality on display here is not particularly complex — characters are for the most part well meaning, likable, good folks or diabolically cruel and awful villains. The quality of the storytelling likewise fluctuates between “wow that’s silly” to “wow that was legitimately moving.” The story is at its absolute best when focused on Jodie herself and her struggle to lead not necessarily a normal life, but a life she can live with.
There are sections of this game that are completely unforgettable. Of special mention is a sequence called “Navajo” which takes place in the Nevada desert on a small farm. In this particular chapter you alternate between investigating a terrifying ancient spirit that torments the owners of the farm and doing odd jobs around the farm itself. It’s wonderful precisely because it demonstrates the type of patient storytelling pacing that has eluded David Cage in some of his past work and even in portions of Beyond: Two Souls itself. The dramatic moments in Beyond: Two Souls are enhanced by the downtime, and in this sense the “player” agency provided by controlling or at least interacting with the action really provides a level of immersion that you can’t get when watching a movie.
When asked the question “Why couldn’t this have just been a movie?” the best answer I can come up with is that it IS a movie, but you’re sitting in the director’s chair. By controlling the pace at which you do or do not advance things, you’re telling the story the way you prefer it to be told. By hitting “X” at the right time or not, you’re shaping what kind of character Jodie is. Is she a badass fighting expert that easily kicks the crap out of every bad guy she comes up against? Or is she more vulnerable than that? That capability to press “X” at the right moment helps you forge an empathic bond with her, because her ability to kick ass is directly tied to your ability to do it, even if the story is going to chug along no matter what.
Prior to Beyond: Two Souls, the only game my wife ever watched me play from beginning to end was Heavy Rain. In fact she would actually ask me if I was going to continue the story when she got home because she wanted to know what happened next. When I told her I had a new game from the folks who did Heavy Rain and that Ellen Page was in it, she immediately sat down to watch.
I think this matters. I think this matters in a way that, as gamers, we are missing in a very fundamental and important sense when we demand that this thing be something it is not designed to be.
While the plot suffers at times due to the types of indulgences we have unfortunately come to expect from David Cage scripts and David Cage endings, I just can’t see how anybody can look at what has been accomplished here overall as anything less than a triumph for the medium. It is probably time to stop pretending this is even a game and start talking about it in ways that actually matter. With every effort Quantic Dream is improving, and with every script David Cage gets a little better at reeling in some of his more irritating tendencies. While detractors of Cage and his sensibilities will find their points validated in all the same old ways but with fresh examples, I think they’re missing out on what is a very positive experience. It just might not be a “gaming” experience, and maybe it’s time for us to admit that’s okay.