It took me a couple months to actually sit down and commit to playing this game after I bought it, but once I got into it, I have to say that I was genuinely hooked by Beyond: Two Souls. This game comes from Quantic Dream, the development studio that produced Heavy Rain a few years ago. Quantic Dream’s an interesting studio, and I follow their game releases with some interest because their game design philosophy appears to be grounded in bringing as cinematic a narrative as possible to their games. It’s like they took the aim of the mid-’90s’ FMV adventure games and tried to distill that concept into a more free flowing form with the application of more advanced motion capture and graphics processing power. Quantic Dream makes interactive movies, and I’m okay with that.
The premise of Beyond: Two Souls is this: you play as Jodie Holmes and her companion spirit Aiden over the course of about two decades of Jodie’s life. Jodie’s connection with Aiden is a mystery that the US government is investigating through its Department of Paranormal Activity, and because of Jodie’s unique abilities (through Aiden, she’s able to exhibit abilities approximating telekinesis, psychometry, and astral projection over a limited distance), she leads a sheltered life under the care of Nathan Dawkins, a paranormal researcher, until she’s recruited for fieldwork by the CIA. Eventually Jodie deserts the agency and goes on the run following a traumatic mission.
There’s a lot more to the story than that (Jodie leads a very eventful life), but it gives a basic overview of what kind of story the player can expect. There’s plenty of intrigue and cool sci-fi stuff to latch on to if you prefer high concept stories, but a vast majority of the scenes depicted deal with more mundane events in Jodie’s life, like her attempts at blending in with her peers as she grows up and her angst over being repeatedly abandoned by people she cares about.
I think the reason these quiet scenes work so well is that they’re designed as interactive dramas. While the player is the one making decisions about what Jodie and Aiden do in an environment, the characters are acting everything out in real time so that how a scene is viewed is left up to the player’s discretion. Entire conversations can be observed from Aiden’s perspective, giving the player insight into things that Jodie isn’t yet aware of, and in many cases Aiden can manipulate the environment to change how the characters respond.
The most significant asset to the game’s storytelling is the use of detailed motion capture with high quality actors. Every scene in the game was physically acted out by the actors voicing each of the characters (it’s a signature of Quantic Dream that they skin their characters to resemble the actors who play them), which gives a certain weight to what the player sees. In a medium that’s usually about flashy animation, it’s a nice change of pace to watch scenes play out where many of the subtleties of actors’ body language are translated to their characters in order to present a more complex scene.
As for the story of Jodie itself, I found it to be a pretty interesting meditation on the nature of loneliness. Jodie’s in a position where she’s never actually by herself (Aiden is incapable of traveling too far from her without causing them both physical pain), but because of her unique abilities, she constantly feels isolated from everyone around her. It’s bad enough that at multiple junctures in the course of the game, Jodie is presented with an opportunity to kill herself, though in every instance Aiden will prevent her from going through with the act. These moments in particular stand out to me because they’re always presented as decisions the player gets to make; outside of the relatively rare action sequences, all of the gameplay is built around the idea of letting the player explore Jodie’s mental state and deciding how she’s going to express it in the environment (for example, in my playthrough of the game I only made Jodie try to kill herself once, during a situation where her immediate situation seemed extremely dire and I hadn’t yet figured out what actions the game wanted Aiden to perform in order to proceed with the scene). Similar opportunities present themselves for Aiden; some of the most memorable moments in the game were when the player is given control of Aiden and presented with a scenario where he is free to actively work against what Jodie wants.
I love that this is what the game is about; so many video games are built to revolve around a play mechanic that can be fun, but not narratively vibrant. Beyond: Two Souls doesn’t really care about forcing the player to master any specific mechanics in order to see the story it offers; the story’s going to play out in its own time no matter what. Instead, what it invites the player to do is engage with the story as an actor, making both large and small decisions that uncover new aspects of the two main characters.