7 Things I Learned From “Beyond: Two Souls”

Immediately after finishing it, I traded in “Beyond: Two Souls”, hoping to buy “Pokémon X” in return. I didn’t actually get the newest Pokémon—though I intend to—and ended up getting some Blurays instead. Relevant.

Just last week, I never thought I'd be trading “Beyond: Two Souls”. I was anxiously anticipating its release, being a huge fan of Quantic Dream and 2009's "Heavy Rain". I am one of the few who genuinely thought  “Heavy Rain” was a revolutionary triumph. It wasn't a real videogame in the traditional way, but it was an experience unlike “real games” had ever given me, and that's a big deal for me. It only took me a few hours to realize that despite all the wait, hype and anticipation, “Beyond: Two Souls” was a disappointment.

This isn’t to say that the game is terrible because it certainly isn’t—it’s just disappointing. Being a Quantic Dream game, I didn’t know what to expect from it before playing it; all I know is that this certainly wasn’t it. I’m not going to play it again (though I’m definitely going to revisit some scenes on YouTube from time to time), but it did make me think about a lot of stuff. This is what I learned about the medium from “Beyond: Two Souls”.

Good graphics are important.
Most videogame sophisticates frown at the idea of praising a game for its graphic value alone. Much like saying “Just because it has amazing special effects, it doesn’t mean "Transformers" earns any respect from me!”, this is their way of expressing their interest in the deeper levels of video gaming, such as gameplay, story, etc.

While I think this is a borderline disrespectful oversimplification of the genre, it’s not really a bullshit thing to say, as a lot of great games are not about graphics at all ("Minecraft", for one). Yet people seem to under-appreciate the added value good graphics give a game—especially if ‘good’ actually means ‘fucking amazing’. “Beyond: Two Souls” is the first really photo-realistic videogame I’ve played, and I can say with full confidence that the experience wouldn’t be half as good if it wasn’t for the amazing visual detail.

When a game character looks so much like a real flesh-and-blood human being, when the facial expressions are so complex, and the acting so realistic, it’s so much easier to create emotional resonance in your story, which brings me to the next point.

If you make me feel, I'll immediately love your story.
This applies to everything in any medium. It’s very rare for me too see/play something that actually draws tears. In movies it’s happened with “The Constant Gardener”. In series it’s happened in “Buffy” and “Wolf’s Rain”. In videogames it hadn’t happened yet, though the ending of “Silent Hill 2” came very close. “Beyond: Two Souls” had me on the verge of tears not once or twice, but three times.

Unprecedented. Every time I started thinking that the game had begun to slow down and bore me, an unexpected emotional twist would come right up to make me change my mind. This game was amazing at pulling my heartstrings, and it was in part because of how realistic the character’s emotions were graphically speaking, and part because the emotions at play were handled expertly despite the goofy nature of the story. One scene among homeless people, and one that took place in a mental hospital were unbelievably potent.

I can’t really be mad at a flawed game when it managed to move me this much.

A good story is very important, but it can't be everything.
“Beyond: Two Souls” can barely be called a videogame. There really isn’t a whole lot to do when playing it except moving a character from one scenario to another, watching a cutscene, and getting absurdly easy real time events right. There is no strategy involved. There is no skill required. There are no menus, actions, items, puzzles, nothing. There’s nothing to do except watch. At least "Heavy Rain" had the investigative dynamic that required thought.

This is a bad idea because videogames aren’t yet immersive enough to really make such a passive experience interesting for more than a few hours. There is a lot that needs to be considered before going by the “interactive story” route, and sadly “Beyond: Two Souls” didn’t really cover all of it. The story is way too loopy (creative and fun, but loopy) to be as engaging as it needs to be, and it makes the mistake of letting us know that our choices won’t have a big enough effect. To clarify, keep reading.

It’s extremely hard to get the ‘choose your own adventure’ dynamic right. The reason I loved “Heavy Rain” so much was because the story was so cleverly framed, and how it was the first game I played where your actions and choices actually had a real effect on the story’s outcome. Yeah a lot of older and contemporary games branched and such, but generally they just lead to the same ending with some minor variations (characters who live or die, for instance). “Heavy Rain” actually had a diverging storyline, and that made me absurdly anxious in every scene that involved a choice.

“Beyond” betrays this feeling by having non-linear storytelling. It tells you Jodie’s life story, going from her childhood, adolescence and adulthood in arbitrary jumps. This worked in favor of mystery in the sense that you often wonder “Man, how did Jodie end up here?” but it’s not really a lasting effect. The problem here is that when you know what happens with Jodie as an adult, you just know that not a lot of things can really change next chapter which takes place in the past.

Yes, there are some exceptions, but it’s almost always a character’s death, which isn’t as interesting as most writers think. Otherwise, we know where the story is headed from the first hour. In here, there are only two choices that really affect the outcome of the game and both happen at the very end, and both are very obviously important—the rest are mostly fluff.

Videogame narrative is going to take huge leaps in a few years.
“Beyond: Two Souls” demonstrates a great improvement in motion capture technology, to the point that well-known film and TV actors can now be cast in digital roles in a capacity that goes far beyond voice acting. When you see Jodie, you’re seeing Ellen Page act. When you see Nathan, you’re seeing Williem Defoe act. The idea of better games getting in on this action is thrilling as hell. I am picturing a game like “Silent Hill 2” with visuals like “Beyond”’s and it’s making me crazy.

Seeing the game stripped to its basics like this is impressive. This scene was unbelievably emotional.

There are still original ideas.
It’s rare, but “Beyond” proved that there are still new dynamics and interesting gimmicks left in videogames. I’m talking about the whole Aiden dynamic, which is fucking amazing, if flawed. In the game, Aiden is a ghost who is mysteriously attached to Jodie. Throughout the story you get to control Aiden and use his spirit power to help Jodie in different ways. This is extremely fun because it’s just exhilarating to get in the ectoplasmic shoes of a phantom and be able to move between walls, floors, possess people, move objects and generally scare the shit out of characters.

However, there are a lot of wasted opportunities with Aiden. For one, his powers are somewhat limited (in gameplay, since story-wise he seems omnipotent). There was one scene in particular where I wished the game would let me hurt some characters beyond just scaring them. It’s also generally very linear. If you’re stuck as Jodie, all you need to do is look around as Aiden and generally there aren’t any choices to be made: if you have to possess someone, you’ll immediately know; if you have to kill someone, the game tells you. It’s a letdown because if the game had given me full control of Aiden’s powers, things would’ve gone very different in many scenes.

Still, the Aiden gameplay is freaking amazing in gameplay and in story.

Videogames are almost ready to tackle heavy subject matter.
“Beyond: Two Souls” deals with death, suicide, drug addiction, murder, war, violence, depression, sex and in one shocking moment, even rape. I cannot say that the bit involving rape (can’t call it “the rape scene” because that’s not really what it is and I don’t want to spoil) was handled with the care the subject needs, but it wasn’t stupid or embarrassing—that is impressive in itself.

I just wish the whole scenario had had a more profound effect on the character in question; other than one scene later on, s/he doesn’t really seem to remember it.

There is no added value in replaying a game like this.
I traded “Beyond: Two Souls” almost immediately after finishing it because I played it once and there was literally nothing else to do with it. I’m not gonna play it again because I feel like I covered almost the entire game’s content in just one playthrough—and I did. If I want to see the other ending (because, honestly, there are only two), I’d hit YouTube. No other choice was interesting enough to warrant a full-playthrough, though QD made the excellent choice of letting you play through specific chapters so you can see the minor variations without wasting too much time replaying.

I feel a bit hypocritical because I see a lot of stuff wrong in “Beyond: Two Souls”, whereas I creamed myself over “The Wolf Among Us” (review coming up), and I can’t really find any fundamental differences between the two—the gameplay is virtually the same. Yes, there was a lot more stuff in “The Wolf Among Us” that went right in my alley, but I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why I want to replay TWAU a million times, which is certainly not something I could say about “Beyond: Two Souls”. I wish I had rented it.

It’s an experience. It was unique, progressive, intelligent, and narratively solid. It just kinda sucks that there wasn’t much going on outside the regrettably linear albeit awesome plot. Still, it’s not a game I’m soon to forget, even if I don’t play it again. 
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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