I’ve set myself a personal challenge to complete one game a month in 2019, a mixture of larger studio published games and more independent titles to provide variety and avoid repetition. From one of the most well-known and praised titles to a more niche release, this year will provide me with the opportunity to enjoy a range of games within my collection and review them retrospectively. Enjoy the next 12 months.
Beyond: TWO SOULS (PS4)
Developer: Quantic Dream
Release Date: October 2013
Finished: July 2019
“I was born with a strange gift, the ability to see what know human being has ever seen before. It’s all mixed up in my head. The images, the sound, the smell. I need to remember, put things in order right up to this moment. Remember who I am. If I had to say how it all began, I might just as well start here”
‘Jodie Holmes’ – Ellen Page
Released in October 2013 on the Playstation 3 from French Studio Quantic Dream and writer David Cage, the successor to their first acclaimed hit Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls. Announced during E3 in 2012, Beyond was described as an ‘Action-Driven experience’ and from this perspective, as a game it certainly remains one of the forebears and predecessors of the ‘experience’ genre of games, titles with reduced or minimal gameplay mechanics, favouring instead the narrative optic and embracing this as its main strength. Indeed from its inception and into the development phase the creation of this game had many of the same institutions and processes as you would come to expect in a motion picture. Utilising advanced motion capture techniques to record the performances of its main stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe and a score orchestrated by the late Normand Corbeil and Lorne Balfe, it is certainly poses the contentious question of style over substance and indeed depending on your viewpoint or attitude to the purity of gaming I would position possibly a valid concern. There are many positives to find in Beyond, from a sublime and memorable original score to some of the best graphics and motion capture that is still incredible to witness today. Fundamentally however many of the challenges and contentions of similar titles remain and ignite the debate of what constitutes a game, the classic and traditional input of actions resulting in consequences or this new shift towards the narrative focus and an experience more in keeping with traditional cinematic media. Beyond: Two Souls, as positioned by writer David Cage is fundamentally an ‘interactive storytelling’ experience. A notion that recently opened up a debate between a contributor to this page and myself of the acceptability of starting a game’s design with the story first or creating a dynamic and building the title upon that. To use two extreme examples, Wii Sports was released designed around the controller input, in contrast to an interactive storytelling title such as Beyond which at moments has the illusion of an interactive movie title.
This was my first experience with a title from Quantic Dream, having transitioned from the green team over the generational divide I’ll readily admit to being aware of the attitude and viewpoints towards these games on their original release but with no means to experience these titles being content to view them with a wistful fancy. Having made the transition, with these titles no longer in the cultural zeitgeist to the same extent as system exclusives such as Uncharted or The Last of Us it was only when compiling my list of games to accomplish and clear this year that Beyond came up as one of the contenders for my attention. I approached this game as with nearly all the titles I have finished in the last six months with no preconceived notions or knowledge of the central narrative, especially in a game whose main strength is its plot and wanting to experience the game in its purest form I felt objectively this was the best approach to take. Certainly given the title there was a certain spiritual connotation implied and indeed having finished the title the final choice in your first experience does allude to a grander and more divine conclusion but beyond three simple words, I was unaware of the narrative, the structure or approach this game would take, as with all my other games I wanted to experience this in the purest fashion possible. Having never experienced any of their previous games, I am unaware of whether these is a connective narrative path between the titles, from what little I know of the studio each game whilst sharing a certain genesis in their approach to being interactive storytelling devices don’t have a connection in terms of the plot and as such there wasn’t a trepidation in beginning with Beyond: Two Souls. Why this game instead of Heavy Rain? there isn’t a rational or logical answer, a practical one perhaps, released as one of the Playstation Plus games a number of months ago it had sat in the digital purgatory of my library collection for a number of months as has the studios more recent title Detroit: Become Human now available to play and experience and indeed given my experience with Beyond now a tempting prospect. However in the best tradition of this endeavour and my determination to clear away a large proportion of my gaming backlog it seemed as good a place as any to begin in this gaming series from this developer.
Your journey begins from the perspective of Jodie Holmes, a young girl with a powerful psychic connection to a spiritual being called Aiden. From the beginning you are afforded a variety of ways to experience the game, the traditional linear experience presented as an alternative option, the main and first way to play Beyond: Two Souls in a more modern alternate cinematic structure with various key plot points and critical junctures interspersed through its somewhat modest run time but presented in a non linear more subjective viewpoint. It very much echoes the words and sentiment of Jodie as she first appears in the opening moments attempting to bring order to the events that have transpired around her. Fundamentally, at its core it attempts to follow the traditional three act structure of narrative story telling with the various key elements introduced at appropriate junctures, the opening moments focusing on Jodie in police custody allude to an individual of great power before transitioning to her upbringing and childhood. Commenting on this from a linear perspective, all of the moments of Jodies childhood experiences are filled with such bittersweet touches of emotion and an overwhelming amount of pathos for this poor young girl, exposed to the spiritual forces connected to her core and attempting to find some element of normality. The game benefits enormously from the motion capture process, you feel the anguish and pain not only from Jodie but also a fantastic performance from Dafoe as Nathan Dawkins, the lead scientist on the team assigned to assess and study Jodie and by default acting as somewhat of a surrogate father figure towards her during her adolescence. What moved me was the sense of forlorn, acceptance on behalf of Jodie towards her fate and path, transitioning into Government service having never lived or experienced any real form of normal life, indeed one of the key critical junctures during the game is a birthday party experience you have a variety of choices to act upon. I chose the option most fitting for me and the character I was interpreting, oddly as with every chapter you are given a presentation of the statistics of other users and your choices, what percentage of players chose this path. I enjoyed this mechanic, it illustrated to an extent the level of connectivity in the user base seeing a similar interpretation and appeal of certain decisions but also at those odd occasions where you chose a path less travelled, a more individual sensation, that this path for Jodie was one I was forging on my own. The transition to adulthood was a difficult journey for this young lady, the only savings grace in the segments and chapters between the more emotionally filled junctures, there are elements of normality to a certain extent of a woman with a confidence and purpose in her life in the service of her country. Overwhelmingly I would position perhaps the balance leans towards the forlorn and the tragic however I did enjoy for instance a segment dedicated to a perfect date, perhaps a little on the nose in today’s sociological climate with the user, through Jodie, left to prepare for a liaison in her apartment with her contact. It was the small, nuanced touches I enjoyed in this experience and the freedom to undertake them, or not. To shower, to clean up, how to dress, what to cook. And ultimately, the direction of the evening and its conclusion. It gave her a moment of happiness and connection to a force and being beyond the supernatural that permeates her existence and life. Would this structure and path resonate or I would question even exist in todays charged climate, probably not, the notion of playing a woman preparing to please and satisfy her man, how dare she. And yet Jodie is such a realised and fleshed out character you never stop or feel yourself broken from the illusion of your surroundings, that this is some attempt of the ‘patriarchy’ to suppress this woman and quash her hopes and aspirations. Instead you find yourself entirely absorbed in the moment, having experienced the pain and devastation of her life and just wishing for that moment of the person you feel closest to, to remind you of that sense of normality you desire, to remind you there is life outside of supernatural spirits espionage. You could make a social agenda of this entire chapter, tantamount perhaps to where our society lay even just a few short years ago, but I would argue you are missing the point entirely of the moment and blinded to the emotionally charged nature of the evening you play. The games transition towards its resolution certainly had some familiar beats, having just finished the third season of stranger things you could almost scream out and say this is the game that show should have been. Whether by coincidence or circumstance, there are a great many moments and details that feel like an influence amongst others on Netflix latest, opus production. From the supernatural elements effecting a young woman, a government conspiracy, foreign agents in underground basis, alternating between the macabre, pathos and fleeting moments of humour and levity, I do wish I had experienced this game first as there is more than a sense of deja vu having now witnessed both game and series. The pivot and turn of Nathan in the closing chapters is a sad yet understandable path for this individual, indeed the penultimate journey where you encounter him one final time gives a satisfying resolution to his arc, and how yours ends, is entirely up to you. Irrespective of your final choice, you do have the sense whatever your outcome will be a bittersweet moment for many involved in your immediate orbit of persuasion
I’ll openly concede the mixture of motion capture and the artistic direction chosen for this title was outstanding, as with LA Noire which I reviewed in January, the use of this technology does elevate this game beyond its peers and competition. The small nuanced movements of Jodie’s face and body language as she succumbed to circumstance, the fear of Aiden as he, through your input acted out at the world around you and the effect this had on the characters around you, it was easy to feel absorbed into this world for the short time you experienced her life. Using LA Noire as a point of reference, whilst I respected and appreciated the impact of using motion capture had on the experience, particularly the unsettling nature of examining a digitally scanned ‘corpse’, the environment around you had the impression and presentation of a last generation Rockstar game, a few nice touches and embellishments but certainly contrasting massively to the figures and individuals you encountered. In contrast, the world and environments, limited to the narrative structure of the game afforded the opportunity for greater detail and more personalised atmospheric locations. Alternating between a snow filled childhood home scene to an infiltration in a desert base, a middle eastern underwater science laboratory, a psychic dimensional rift, a plethora of locations awaited you on your journey and due to the more linear path of the missions it allow the creators to develop these worlds and hubs that felt individual and memorable. Arguably, perhaps there was a degree of repetition with the base your character is confined to with numerous chapters returning to or featuring this location. But thankfully, through some subtle changes as you return at various junctures in her life, your room has altered and changed to reflect Jodie’s change of age and taste. At one moment filled with toys, the next, posters and makeup. It has the impression of some of the best ‘corridor’ genre games of the last generation as they reached their zenith such as Resident Evil 5 with stunning backgrounds that granted the illusion of freedom to an extent but still a linear path to follow to the next set point. Humbly, I would suggest this has aged, better than LA Noire principally because there was no attempt to produce and create an open world to work alongside the narrative structure.
One of the game’s other great strengths is a fantastic and memorable score. There is a certain irony in the fact I only recently undertook and completed a gaming tag from another blogger which questioned the best gaming soundtrack, my somewhat succinct and curt answer being I didn’t feel there was a great gaming soundtrack. As ever, life does have a way of challenging your notions and opinions and here was one such occasion. The music, throughout the game is superb, with an orchestral and vocal score from the late composer Normand Corbeil who had worked on Quantic Dream’s earlier titles and consequently handed over to Lorne Balfe to conclude. This wasn’t a name I was familiar with in honesty up until a month ago when curiosity led me to investigate a number of his works. This originated, as an aside through watching the latest Mission Impossible film Fallout out of which he composed the score for and a moment in the film of connection between Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson that had a very, stripped back strings based composition that was both moving and simplistic in its composition. I wanted to own this theme and soundtrack, when playing Beyond: Two Souls I was instantly impressed with the central theme that played but towards the end of the game when the title used a more stripped back version of the tune there was certainly a resonance in style and to my astonishment, the same composer who had orchestrated both. I’ll openly admit I adore the more traditional soundtracks and compositions, I’m very much a child of the greats, Williams and Goldsmith were my idols growing up so this use of strings and minimalistic brass I could truly find greatness in. Was this to be expected of an interactive storytelling experience? perhaps, I don’t think it should be penalised or judged for devoting attention to the aesthetic and presentation, in terms of both its visual and audio style, whilst there are certain connotations of the previous generation in terms of character models for instance, it is a beautiful game with a memorable soundtrack, for that I can’t find fault and hold and recommend this score highly.
For all the love and praise I have towards this game’s presentation and legacy, I have to confess, I found the control mechanics atrocious, a testament to the last generations attempt to utilise a hybrid variation of motion and standard control input. Despite assurances the game wasn’t designed around Move you cannot help but feel its genesis permeating the playing experience. So much of the games control structure is designed around the movement of the controller in often contrived and frustrating circumstance. My personal annoyance, the game’s combat dynamic which required you to elevate or pitch or angle your controller to counter or block an enemies attack, it didn’t work and quite frankly would have worked far easier using a standard control input. I loathed being captured or held by an enemy, not for the sense of frustration at my own failings, for the foreboding dread of having to shake my controller up and down to free myself. For an interactive storytelling experience, strip it out entirely. The ‘shooting’ and stealth light mechanics functioned to a degree but for an emotional gaming experience their inclusion jarred with the overall narrative. This was perhaps the hardest aspect of writing this review would be the focus on the mechanics and objectively having to describe this to an audience who may not have experienced this game. In short, it feels very much like disperate mechanics to fit a predefined narrative. I’ll champion the narrative and presentation, the mechanics, simply don’t work or work poorly at best and feel like a random assortment of levels and circumstances. In my short time in this world I rode a motorbike for a brief time, drove a submarine, engaged in a stripped down desert infiltration mission, battled the forces of the supernatural and beyond, fought in hand to hand combat with my controller and prepared for the perfect date. Individually you could build a narrative out of many of these mechanics but none felt fully developed to as great a degree as the presentation. As a corridor game it functions to some extent, the character models ‘feel’ solid enough and I would argue I’ve played worst, more recent action adventure games however it feels like a game caught in the same form of purgatory and hell the title depicts, utilising the worst elements of motion control with a traditional and functional games controller. There in lay my frustration, for all the immersion and connectivity to the world I felt it was broken swiftly when I had to start shaking my controller around in the air under the guise of immersion in the combat. I’ve trained in martial arts, waving my hands in the air is not how I learned to fight. It relies heavily on quick time events, thankfully none are punishing or unforgiving to any great extreme but still there prevalence becomes tiresome and you do begin to feel their inclusion was to remind the user you aren’t simply watching a movie, you do have some input into the journey.
To give the game its dues, I did enjoy to an extent controlling Aiden, the spectral being attached to Jodie through the majority of your journey. Acting as a form of projected spiritual energy, you control this ‘being’ outside of Jodie and have the ability to move away from her to a limited extent, controlling and manipulating environments and people around you. It added a different dynamic I have yet to experience elsewhere and was a fun mechanic to try that genuinely held my interest through the game. As noted with the associatory connotations to Stranger Things, I did have trepidations to begin with the power would amount to some form of telekinesis however as you take ‘control’ of Aiden and learn to use his abilities it does allow you to experience encounters and moments from alternate perspectives. As an example, when you first realise you can leave Jodie who is under observation and pass through walls to listen to conversations and exchanges you wouldn’t otherwise be party to, or not, the path will continue but it allows you to gain insight and understanding your character wouldn’t otherwise be able to realise. When you are playing as a young child traumatised by the spirits around you and you can project and listen to your foster parents arguing about keeping you in the room below, it was genuinely moving, you felt such pity and remorse for Jodie in a situation that would otherwise have been remarkable, without this mechanic. Towards the end of the game, a circumstance free’s you from the tether of Jodie and allows you to explore an environment as the spirit of Aiden, I enjoyed this exploration for what it was, being able to control and manipulate characters around you, it was a fun aspect to play. I also enjoyed the fact what actions you took, or chose, not to take as it pertained to Jodie’s situation were reflected in the main narrative and your decision process choices at the end of the chapter. In the aforementioned perfect date, you certainly have the potential to influence the situation as Aiden, equally, you can grant Jodie her moment of normality and allow the events to transpire. A functional, unique mechanic in an otherwise forgettable and frustrating set of circumstances. For full disclosure, I did realise having finished the game you do have the option of allowing a second individual to play as Aiden and control the events that transpire around you, I’ll openly state this would have frustrated the hell out of me during my gameplay experience, for the fact when I subverted expectation and allowed Jodie her moments of normality and peace, you can’t help but imagine the worst people around you ruining those moments, no thank you.
I went into this game with no preconceptions or foreknowledge of this game, or indeed the output of the studio, it was an experienced in its purest form, with both its greatest strengths and weaknesses exposed in equal measure. I will still champion the merits of this game and do feel they deserve to be experienced by a greater audience than the restricted user base of the Playstation. That they are now being released on the PC gives the potential to be played by a wider audience and that for me is a merit. The presentation is almost faultless, the use of motion capture is memorable and brings you into the world and the emotions of the character to a greater degree than its nearest peer, LA Noire, which to be fair was more concerned with the investigation of murdered bodies as opposed to traumatised teenage girls. If ever you feel a performance in a game warranted some form of recognition and praise on a wider platform to a wider audience that of Page and Dafoe for me showcased their artistic merits and strengths in this game. The music was fantastic, one of the few occasions I have actively gone out, listened to then brought the piece of music that has touched me, if that isn’t an endorsement then I don’t know what is. That, reliance or measure of weight towards its presentation unfortunately does reveal a great many of the games weaknesses and unfortunately, so many of the playing mechanics are weak at best, or simply don’t work functionally and shatter the illusion of the game. And in a title which is geared around basing you in the reality of the characters and unfolding a story before you that is engaging and moving, when your attention and focus is shattered away because you have to shake your controller like a lunatic or press a series of quicktime event keys to climb a rock wall, failing on a number of occasions and persevering to see the story through to its next chapter, it hurts the game. The mechanic of Aiden was enjoyable, but overall, you do come away with the opinion or at least I did the narrative was written and created first with a series of mechanics put in place to bring that vision to life.
Fundamentally titles such as these, whilst I enjoy the experience does call into question what constitutes a game, does this challenge the traditional measures of objectivity or chart a new direction. When we look back at historical titles such as Tetris through to more recent examples such as Mario Galaxy, they always felt like narratives framed around mechanics, each title bring a new mechanic or input to the world and framing your narrative, if required around that said mechanic. In more recent years, arguably that has been a tendency to view titles such as these from the perspective of frustrated film makers attempting to create and share their vision with functionary mechanics added to create some semblance of input and interaction. To make games more ‘accessible’ for instance the free running mechanics on the Assassin’s Creed series have been reduced and simplified to such an extent in recent years in contrast to the more trickier style used in the early games. Beyond: Two Souls was never presented as a dynamic gaming experience, indeed from words of the games creators and writer, it was pitched to be an interactive story telling experience. To this extent, concerning impact of narrative, plot and character is has succeeded and the presentation of the story is almost faultless. However, it does pertain to be a game, with a variety of mechanics encountered in traditional games, from shooting, hand to hand combat to submarine driving and horseback riding. I found the narrative delightful, I abhor the control mechanics. So as an interactive story telling device, it succeeds with merit, there is indeed interaction and a strong story and narrative. As a video game, unfortunately, it does not.
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