On Beyond: Two Souls
It seems like people don’t very much like Beyond: Two Souls. With a Metacritic average score of 70 points, negative comments about the game abound, even on positive reviews. Over at Game Trailers, Ryan Stevens writes that the game makes players feel inconsequential. Over at IGN, Lucy O’Brien writes that ““playing” it a very confusing and unrewarding experience”, while Ludwing Kietzmann over at Joystiq writes that the scenes aren’t tied to one another, that there is no chemistry between the actors, and that the writing is goofy. Ben Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation review was specially harsh. Certainly, the game review community largely agrees that Beyond: Two Souls is a “bad game”, with some even arguing whether it’s a game at all. Although some like James Wright over at Impulse Gamer write that it’s one of the more memorable gaming experiences to date, the consensus is that it’s bad. However, I am not only inclined to agree with critics like James Wright in that, yes, Beyond: Two Souls is one of the most memorable experiences in gaming, but I would also argue that games like Beyond: Two Souls (along with the other Quantic Dreams games and Spec Ops: The Line) and are spearheading a new era of videogame narrative which shows a grown up side to this form of media.
In order to show how despite all the criticism about how it’s “not a game” Beyond: Two Souls is actually ushering videogames into an era of grown up-ness, we must discuss what videogames consider “mature”. For the last decade, videogames have, by and large, attempted to be mature by showing caricaturesque depictions of violence and half naked women with physiques of impossible proportions. Although this is certainly not true of all videogames, or perhaps not even most of them, many videogames that do attempt to be “grown up” do so by using the two above-mentioned tropes. Despite her recent reputation as a non-gamer, Anita Sarkeesian does a great job at tracing the use of female representations in videogames. Meanwhile, the violence as “mature” trope is something that arguably began with Mortal Kombat’s fatalities. Yes, there was violence in games before Mortal Kombat, some of it ridiculous, but it had no pretension of maturity. Since then, games have failed to outgrow the “violence + hot chicks = maturity” trope. In games like the Call of Duty series, the Battlefield series, the God of War series, and the Grand Theft Auto series (just to mention a few), violence is represented in an almost cartoonish way. The problem is not so much with representations of violence as much as with body parts flying all over the screen (God of War), cartoonish depictions of violence (GTA), or endlessly re-spawning bodies that show death as something of no consequence (most fps multiplayer games). As far as women are concerned, despite some of the female characters being interesting and well rounded, disproportionate body proportions and flawed physics make them seem as the product of a 15 year old boy. Beyond: Two Souls, however, doesn’t try to feign maturity by showing half naked women or bloodied body parts. Instead, it tackles some important topics that are worth thinking about.
Spoilers ahead (I’ll try to phrase things in an ambiguous way to give away as little spoilers as possible).
Beyond: Two Souls features the story of Jodie, a girl given up for adoption who has been haunted since birth with a link to a spectral entity called Aiden. Because “weird things” constantly happen around Jodie, her foster parents grow tired of raising her and hand her over to the Department of Paranormal Studies, a fictional branch of the Government. There, she is raised in solitude as a constant test subject. The game explores issues of alienation, the effects of isolation, and the desire for human contact during these early stages. When Jodie becomes a teenager, the game explores issues of bullying (Jodie ends up getting locked inside a closet) and the self discovery of sexuality (there is, for example, an event where a guy leads her on then calls her a whore [an event described by Croshaw as “Ellen Page’s heartwarming struggle to kiss a succession of hunky boys”]). The most shocking scene during this stage of Jodie’s life is when she rebelliously decides to sneak out for a night on the town and almost ends up being raped. During this stage, Nathan and Cole, both DPA researchers, teach Jodie how to cope with and control Aiden, before sending her off to a different agency. It is here where the game shows its grown up-ness.
There are two scenes that specially stick out in my mind as being specially interesting during Jodie’s adulthood. One of them is her period of homelessness. During this period, the game depicts the struggles that homeless people go through. Jodie takes to living under a bridge and, after a while, contemplates suicide. This scene depicts Jodie as the victim of sexual assault, soliciting for prostitution, and gang assaults; all leading up to helping another homeless woman give birth in a dirty abandoned building. The other scene involves being manipulated by a romantic interest into killing someone who turns out to be the father of a kid who saves Jodie’s life earlier in the game (this scene is specially good, so I won’t say anything more than that).
The merits of adoption, human research without consent, solitude, alienation, rebellion, sexuality (realistic depictions, not sexuality in the form of half-naked “sexy” characters), bullying, rape, homelessness, and suicidal thoughts are all themes explored in Beyond: Two Souls. Themes like these have been largely ignored in videogame media, and the fact that David Cage and Quantic Dream are exploring these important themes are a sign of the medium maturing into adulthood (something that took too long, if you ask me).
Are there problems in the way that the story is presented? Depends on who you ask. Although I did enjoy the going back and forth and exploring Jodie’s memories in a non-linear way (memories are, after all, just a jumble of stuff), some might prefer if the story began with a young Jodie and work its way through to the older Jodie.
Is the gameplay lacking? Once again, it depends on who you ask. As someone who played Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace every chance possible and who loved Shenmue, I find Beyond: Two Souls to be enjoyable and fun. It’s not “Journey-fun” or “final fantasy-fun” or “CoD-fun”, but I like to think that play of one genre should not be compared by the standards of another. With that in mind, one must admit that Beyond: Two Souls provides one of the most interactive narrative-based play systems so far.
And whether one likes it “as a game” or not, it is unquestionably one of the most mature videogames to date.