Playing games: Beyond Two Souls

I own too many games. I admit this, it’s a weakness and perhaps a bit of an addiction, but on the upside I don’t do heroin. As a result of this, and as a flimsy way to justify my excessive number of games, I will now do a brief review of any games I happen to finish. The majority will not be new – some will be very old, in fact – and this is not going to be particularly interested in keeping up with current trends or products. It also won’t be something that is done on a consistent or regular basis, as I have no idea when a game might be finished, some might be long, some might be short. The first game in this ongoing yet sporadically updated series will be Beyond: Two Souls, a game I purchased for $3. It was not designed as a budget title, so the purchase price should tell you something about its actual quality.

Beyond: Two Souls has very high production values. The graphics are very good, the characters all look like their real life actors, the environments are believable and well designed. A team of people spent a lot of time and money making this game look as beautiful as they could make it.They hired Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe to play the main characters. Which makes it extra amazing that it’s absolutely awful.

The game controls so badly that it could be used by SGI to demonstrate to teenagers the decreased amount of ability they have after drinking. The plot makes absolutely no sense, even by the standards of its weird internal logic. The player has little to no impact into what actually happens in the game, it’s so heavy on story sequences that it becomes a bad TV series interrupted by parts where a drunk person has to walk across a room with great difficulty. It is obsessed with suicide, to the point where, during one sequence, I accidentally stumbled onto ways for the main character to kill herself three times. Character motivations turn on a dime and are built around dumbfounding twists.

There are two ways to play, you can either control both Jodie and her ghost friend Aiden, or play it with a friend where one of you is Jodie and the other is Aiden – which is how I played it. You never play both at the same time, however, so you’ve got a clever co-op mechanic that’s not actually used to benefit anyone or make the game more interesting. Of course, long stretches of the game make it so you’re not playing at all, just watching the plot unfold and occasionally pressing a button to prove you’re still awake. If you take too long to press a button the game just decides for you, which may make you kiss someone as the game desperately tries to build a romance subplot with a male character who is both a bit of a jerk and your boss, which makes it all weird and gross.

At one point there’s a stealth section which seems really cool in theory – your ghost friend sets up a path for you to go through by throwing barrels and taking over people – but then you get caught on a barrier because of the bad controls and your girlfriend, who is playing as the ghost, gets frustrated because her controls are equally awful and she can’t find the barrel needed to distract the enemies. It’s like the game goes out of its way to avoid being any fun.

At another point you get to go on a magical journey with a family of Denee people who are haunted by ancient ghosts, which seems like it would catch someone’s notice if they drove through Monument Valley at night, which is where this family lives. It also really seems to want to make your ghost friend violent, which annoyed my very nice and peace-loving significant other, who would have greatly preferred being a “nice ghost.” You can resist this urge, but then you’re spending a ton of time not doing anything.

It’s not as though games where you don’t do very much aren’t valid works of art, of course. Telltale Games has made a business out of narrative games that play mostly with player decisions and the consequences of choices. The difference is that their choices feel as though they have some weight, their games control reasonably well and, most importantly, they feel as though they’re doing something that could only really work if it’s interactive – they get dramatic weight out of making you choose what happens in the story, so even if they’re effectively making TV series’ they gain something by being interactive. The problem with Beyond: Two Souls is that it doesn’t seem as if the team behind it really wanted to make something interactive, instead they wanted to make a TV show and were stuck trying to graft gameplay onto it after the fact. The choices come late and they don’t really make sense for the narrative, choices earlier in the game should block off some options but don’t, and the choose your ending setup doesn’t make sense as a result. There’s also the fact that the story they’re trying to tell is honestly pretty bad.

Plus it ends on a cliffhanger. Nothing in storytelling is worse than an unearned cliffhanger.