I was wrong about Beyond: Two Souls. I used to tell people that Quantic Dream’s 2013 ‘interactive drama’ was a terrible game. The truth is that I’d never actually played it – I’d only ever watched a YouTube playthrough. It’s what I did back then; it was before I fully realised that watching a game is a very different experience to playing a game – so I can’t really give opinions on a game I’ve not actually played. I’ve corrected this mistake in recent days and now I realise how wrong I was.
2013 was a different time. The PS3 was just about still the latest and greatest console on the market (ignoring the Wii U, of course) and I was still watching Nerd³ on YouTube – don’t judge me; I was young and stupid. I won’t get into my current opinions of Daniel Hardcastle (his real name) here because I don’t think what I have to say is very helpful. It doesn’t matter at all that I think he is bad at his job and makes really low-quality videos, and that I don’t understand why anybody watches them. All I will say is that I don’t follow his opinions on games anymore since he said that Just Cause 3 was the best game ever made – but back in 2013 I was a loyal follower. It’s fair to say that Nerd³ was, as far as I’m concerned, just a little overly harsh on Beyond: Two Souls back in the day and having rewatched the video recently, it seems to me that the majority of what he had to say was redundant and hardly becoming of a supposedly professional critic. Since I now have a PS3 I thought I might as well pick it up and see what I actually think of it.
One of my current favourite YouTubers, Raycevick, recently talked about how a bad story or script can still be enjoyed if the presentation of that story is good. In that instance, he was talking about Max Payne 3 and how the flashy graphics and soundtrack attempts to cover up the uninspired story that the game tells. This was an interesting concept to me and lead to me realising that this is a problem in many games and films that I could list – for example, two of the worst games ever, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Dear Esther. Both games were highly praised for their amazing graphics and soundtracks, but that sort of thing only goes skin deep – below the presentation of both games lies a very uninteresting story and game mechanics which achieve nothing but bore the player with their simplicity and tedium. Why is that I seem to always get hooked up on these games? I think the both of them made me so angry that I haven’t quite got over either of them – even after three years since I played either of them.
What does presentation have to do with Beyond: Two Souls? One of the reasons I wanted to have this game in my collection was the graphics. I can say, without a doubt, that Beyond represents the absolute pinnacle of what the PlayStation 3 is capable of. You’d be forgiven for thinking the game was running on a PS4; it certainly looks better than some games I’ve played on PS4. The PS3 notoriously has a bit of a strange system architecture which many developers didn’t properly know how or didn’t have the resources to fully utilise. The PS3 technically should be producing graphics far technically superior to that of the Xbox 360, but often games released on both systems often looked equally good on either. Beyond shows us what happened when a developer pushed the PS3 to its very limits for one last hurrah before the PS4 came out later that same year. In short, the graphics are stunning and I remember being very impressed back in the day – I couldn’t quite believe how good it looked. Beyond still looks good by today’s standards.
It may have just been for stylistic choices, but the whole game is played with a letterbox effect – that is black bars on covering the top and bottom of the screen. My theory is that this is to help take some of the rendering load off of the PS3’s GPU, so the game can still have a horizontal resolution of 1280, but only a vertical resolution of 544, rather than the standard 720, effectively meaning you don’t have to render a quarter of the screen. Clever – if you ask me. As a disclaimer: it’s very possible that I’m completely wrong, but I hope I’m right because that would mean I am clever. Normally, I would only have bad things to say about letterboxing in video games. It’s used in The Order: 1886 and The Evil Within (until they patched it out by popular demand) to horrible effect, but that was combined with a startlingly low field of view (FOV), and the two factors combined apparently created a horribly cramped feel – making both games unpleasant to play (I should disclose that I haven’t played either but I’ve heard people say these things). I hardly noticed the letterboxing in Beyond – to be honest, I was convinced for a while that it can’t have been there the whole time because I would have noticed it before three hours into the game when I did finally acknowledge them. I realised that the interface, the wide FOV and the style of gameplay had come together to create an experience so streamlined that not even the letterboxing could get in the way of a comfortable ride. Some would say it’s too streamlined. More on this later.
The cinematography of this game and the graphical quality is awe-inspiring throughout, but the story doesn’t quite match up to the presentation. That being said, the story is admittedly where the fun comes from. The game tells the tale of a troubled young girl named Jodie, who was born with an invisible entity sort of ‘attached’ to her. His name is Aiden and he seems quite nice but is obviously a bit scary to people who don’t understand him. Aiden can do various things like throw things around, create a forcefield around Jodie, kill people, mind control etc. Pretty useful, you might think. The only thing about it is apparently Aiden sometimes just doesn’t feel like using his powers at times when it would be quite convenient. Need a keycard to get through a door? Why not use mind control? No. Aiden doesn’t want to right now. Let’s do something more complicated and time-consuming. Jodie is in the middle of the fight with like 5 bad guys trying to kill her? Aiden’s gonna sit this one out – wouldn’t want to get in the way.
So what actually happens in this story? That’s actually quite difficult to say. Quite a lot of things happen, but also nothing in particular happens. The game follows the life of Jodie, from a child to a teenager to an adult – but all the scenes are out of chronological order. Sometimes the order can be justified, a lot of the time it just seems random. The random order makes most things seem to have no real consequence. There’s one really long sequence in the desert which doesn’t seem to matter at all – but that’s not to say that it’s not an enjoyable part of the game – most of the sequences are pretty fun owing to the fact that many of them are pretty stupid. The story is filled with jarring clichés and painfully cheesy dialogue. The performances of the actors are pretty good considering the material they’re working with – you may have noticed Ellen Page’s and Willem Dafoe’s faces popping up in posters and the like. Quantic Dream clearly thinks this story was so much more clever and sophisticated than it actually is which makes the whole thing so much more enjoyable. There are various twists throughout, but most of them were things that didn’t really change anything in any significant way – more like just new information that can be simply ignored.
This game features dialogue choices. Most of these are timed, presumably so the player doesn’t spend too long deciding what choice to make. If they do run out of time, the game will pick a default option. This creates a weird effect – the game can mostly play itself. This is what I mean when I say that a game can be too streamlined – when it gets to the point that there is no longer any need for the player to do anything at all, why is it even a game at that point? It feels, at points, like David Cage – the game’s writer and director – only reluctantly gave the player some choices. Why did he not try and get this story produced a TV show for Netflix or something? It would have worked so much better – but would have probably been a lot less fun.
Sometimes the game wants you to make a dialogue choice based on how a character feels about something. The problem is due to the nature of how the story is told – that being out of chronological order – it’s often quite hard to know what that character thinks of that thing at that moment because it’s often not been well established. Should Jodie try it on with this guy? I dunno. I have no idea who this guy is or what his relationship is with her. The game eventually asks you if Jodie is in love with the same guy, but gives you no reason to think that she actually is other than the fact that he’s kinda hot so who wouldn’t be amiright? And then it doesn’t even matter what you choose so you wonder what the point of asking was.
A lot of the drama is lost in this game due to how it almost pretends to give you choices. Scenarios are set up in a way so that the game can very heavily hint to the player about what the game wants them to do while only subtly presenting alternative options which it clearly thinks would not be very interesting. Choices it does freely give you are very minor like what Jodie should have for dinner tonight. Defying the game’s intended path is met with much resistance, and quite often lead to no real change in the proceeding events – some things just didn’t make as much sense. Why even give me a choice if you don’t want me to choose? The good thing that comes out of this is how funny it can be to go against the intention of the design. The story is already not amazingly well told, but when the player isn’t quite taking it seriously it can be a helluva lot of fun. It reminded me a lot of the film ‘Olympus Has Fallen’, starring Gerard Butler. It’s a terrible, cheesy rip-off of an action film and it is so fun to watch because of how dumb it is.
While developing the game, Quantic Dream wanted to create an interface which will allow the player to be fully immersed in the game world and forget that they are in fact holding a controller. The chosen solution was the dots. Oh the dots, my arch nemesis. Everything that can be interacted with on screen has a little white dot over it. The player can select a dot by pointing the right analogue stick towards the dot of their choosing. Simple, right? To be fair to the game, most of the time it works fine, but some of the time it puts a dot on the screen which is in just enough of an ambiguous location that it makes it really hard to know intuitively which way the stick needs to be pushed. Often this is a problem with the up and down axis. I’d quite often be trying to interact with a dot that looked like it was below the centre of the screen, but it was actually slightly above. My theory is that this is a problem with the relative location of the dot – I’d think to push down because, relative to Jodie, the thing she is interacting with is downwards, but the camera angle places it upwards relative to the centre of the screen. Even worse is when there are two dots, one to the side and slightly up and one to the same side and slightly down. Quite often this leads to Jodie doing the wrong thing because the precision required to select one over the other is unprecedented and you having to direct her back to try again which takes up valuable time and even more valuable patience.
If you ask me, it doesn’t feel more immersive than just giving button prompts for all this stuff. The frustration of the ambiguous dots takes me out of the moment far more effectively than being given options like press X to do this, Circle to do this etc. Or perhaps the better solution could be to have the dots but have the player choose by pointing the stick and then pressing X to confirm which would prevent accidental interactions because, of course, the right analogue stick also moves the camera.
Combat is similarly weird and confusing. Any ‘movement’ (i.e. punch, kick, duck etc.) puts the game into slow motion as the player is required to push the analogue stick in the direction of that ‘movement’. So if Jodie is punching towards the left, the analogue stick must be pushed to the left. If she is jumping over something, the stick should be pushed upwards. A lot of the time, however, it’s not at all obvious which direction the combat is moving in, so you’ll more than likely push the wrong way. This would be annoying if it weren’t that it doesn’t seem to matter when you screw it up – the game will continue as if you did it correctly. I never failed a combat sequence, and I screwed up a fair number of times. It does bring up the question of why does the player have to do anything at all if it doesn’t matter when they make mistakes. The game feels like it’s playing itself. The interface is designed to not be a challenge to the player, but also to make the player feel like they are contributing. Which is effective if you are a five-year-old.
Ultimately, this game feels a lot like it didn’t want to be a game, and only reluctantly fits into that category. There is very little choice throughout, puzzles are simpler than Skyrim’s and the ending you get is almost solely based on the very last choice in the game. The lack of any possible meaningful interaction by the player makes this a bad game, but the silly story makes this a very fun experience regardless. The game ends with what looks like a very clear and undeniable setup for a sequel, but David Cage and Quantic Dream apparently had never planned or intended to make one. This is the biggest plot twist of the whole game; the ending is such a cliché setup for a sequel it’s almost unbelievable. If there’s not going to be a Beyond: Three Souls then what was the point in the very final scene?
I really enjoyed this game, not despite its flaws, but because of them. I can’t, with any integrity, say that I can really show this game any love but I can proudly say that I’m eagerly awaiting Quantic Dream’s new upcoming game, ‘Detroit: Become Human’, which looks (touch wood) actually kind of potentially okay. It would be a first for Quantic Dream but I like to live in hope. In the end, good or bad, it’ll certainly be fun.