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April 6, 2015

Let's discuss Beyond: Two Souls.

Beyond: Two Souls is not a good game.  You should know that going into this post.

It’s not a good game.  It’s not a good movie.  It’s not a good story.  It’s not a good anything.  The nicest thing you could say about it -- like a lot of games these days -- is “at least it looks nice”.  And to what end?  I’d say it’s at the cost of everything else, but this game is largely the brainchild of Quantic Dream and David Cage.  He knew what he was doing.  So did his cadre.  Compromises had to be made, sure, but this is a game that at least tries, and likely tries hard, to stick to a creative vision.  That’s respectable, but the final product is proof that sometimes that isn’t always for the best.

At this stage, I’d bet that anyone who cares about the game already knows if they like it or not.  Enough words were spared via release window reviews.  The Best Friends Zaibatsu’s LP is practically a PSA on avoiding it.  Even I’ve gone on about it on more than one occasion.  So the assumption is that there’s nothing left to say.

Except there is.  Because what this game implies -- what it practically expects of us -- paints a pretty bleak picture of the gaming culture.


So, once more, let’s go over the setup.  You play as Jodie Holmes, who was born with a gift -- that gift being having a ghostly presence tethered to her no matter what she does.  Her Stand “partner” Aiden acts on her behalf to protect her and such, but the tradeoff is that Jodie’s powers are at once coveted and feared.  Because of that, the key thrust of 2Souls isn’t necessarily about Jodie coming to terms with or learning the origins of her power; it’s about having the player experience her life from practically its start to the present day -- and all the troubles she faces along the way.

As you’ve probably heard, the central conceit of 2Souls is that it doesn’t tell Jodie’s story in a linear fashion.  Instead, it takes chunks of her life and spreads them out pretty much at random, so that one chapter will have you playing as adult Jodie while the one immediately after makes her six years old.  If you strain as hard as you can, you can kind of see the connective tissue, but if the game was doing its job right, it wouldn’t be a problem.  There’s no justification for chopping up the game and scattering the pieces, and it really does do irreparable harm to the story.

Side note: I love how (at the start of a new file) Jodie says that she might as well start at the beginning -- and then she proceeds to not start at the beginning.  Literally seconds into the game and it’s already broken out the blatant lies and disappointments.


I guess the question that needs to be asked is this: why chop up the game like that?  If the entire point of 2Souls’ existence is to give players an in-depth look at the life of Jodie Holmes, why make it dramatically more difficult to get into?  Even if some analytical genius could put the pieces together better than I ever could, what is there to gain?  There have been Mario games with more cohesion than 2Souls.

I’m not even joking.  Think about it; Super Mario Sunshine might have had a basic story, but it had a cohesive aesthetic and theme built around it.  You’re on a tropical island as part of a vacation gone awry, so naturally the game is as much a round of community service as it is a tourist attraction.  3D World may have had some crazy levels, but they were at least brought together under the umbrella of a single world (more often than not).  Even the more esoteric ones like 64 and the Galaxy games at least have logic behind them, in the sense that they increase in complexity and difficulty as time passes.  But even if Cage and pals didn’t want to bother with something as gauche as videogames, why didn’t they tell the story in a simple way if they didn’t have the chops to do it the complex way?

My guess?  They knew exactly what they were doing.


I’ll say upfront that even if his games are on unstable ground, I can’t bring myself to say “David Cage is an idiot” or “I hate David Cage”.  Is he easy to make fun of?  No doubt.  Has he made mistakes?  Of course.  But you know what?  Read some of his interviews, and you’ll find on a lot of points, he’s not wrong.  He’s actually trying to do the medium justice (so he says).  So if you’re the optimistic sort, you could just say that he has a HUGE problem with execution -- like he has all these good ideas and good designs, but can’t effectively bring them to the table.

The thing that kills me about 2Souls is that it’s so poorly put together that it’s practically the opposite of everything Cage and Quantic Dream are after.  He says he wants death in games to matter, but Jodie can’t die no matter how hard you mess up.  He says he wants to show that games can be more than just explosions of violence (with explosions), but the damn demo ends with no shortage of explosions and dead bodies.  He says he wants to explore emotions, but the only one you can count on to be given any screen time is Jodie’s sadness -- to the point where the game becomes a farce.  Very little of Cage’s design philosophy comes into play in 2Souls, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if Quantic Dream actually did compromise their creative vision.

Still, my theory is that the developers added a built-in failsafe.  How do you keep people from thinking about 2Souls on anything but the basest level?  Simple.  Gear the game in such a way that the big picture is dozens of times harder to grasp.  Make people focus on moments, and only moments.  Because that’s how you tell a story, right?


Cage is on record saying that you should only play 2Souls (and by extension Heavy Rain) once, on the grounds that you only get one shot in life.  Fair point, but his argument breaks down when you remember that 2Souls is as far as it gets from real life; remember, this is a story about a girl and her Stand ghostly companion who uses her powers as a CIA operative, and even after getting labeled a traitor gets brought back into the fold to close portals to ghostly dimensions, one of which is tucked away in a Chinese underwater ghost base.  Realism couldn’t possibly have been a high priority.

Here’s the thing, though: even if it’s true that you only get one shot at life, moment-to-moment situations do matter.  If you make a bad choice in the real world, it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to ill-fortune; it can lead to benefits, or if not that, then at least it’s possible in some cases to fix those mistakes.  I’ll come back to that point later, but for now I’ll go ahead and confirm what’s been obvious since day one: your choices in this game don’t matter.  Maybe they do on a subtle level (and the end of the game), but by and large?  You’re at the mercy of Cage, Quantic Dream, and the plot.


I got the game for my brother’s birthday, and I’ve tried my very hardest to swerve away from the dead end that 2Souls steers me towards.  Having watched that LP, I know what’s around the bend, to the point where I’m practically employing clairvoyance.  (In all fairness I’m not playing as Cage intended -- i.e. I’m cheating -- but this was for the sake of an experiment, so work with me.)  My mission: to try and give Jodie not only a consistent character, but do my best to play a quasi-Paragon, quasi-pacifist role.  Maximize good behavior, minimize the death toll.  Simple, yes?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

The tutorial level has you trying out Jodie’s powers in a test run, where you have Aiden knock stuff around in a mirroring room.  If you do what the Best Friends did (and indeed, what my brother and a friend did in their co-op run), you’ll have Aiden wreck everything in the room, scare everyone, and force a panicked rescue attempt by Willem Dafoe.  This time, though?  I only did the absolute bare minimum of what the game asked of me, and as soon as I did immediately snapped back to Jodie.  What happened?  The game proceeded as if I sent Aiden on the attack regardless -- complete with blaring music, a panicked woman, and Dafoe bursting in to comfort a Jodie who’s sitting there stone-still.  Who has her ghost-buddy in check.  Who says “It will never be over” even though “it” never happened.


The party sequence is another major example of how little your input matters.  In one instance, you’re tasked with choosing the music to play; having lived through the event multiple times, I knew which one Kirsten would want.  Unfortunately, the music Kirsten wanted isn’t one of the available choices -- meaning that everything you do is wrong.  You can choose not to let resident heartthrob Matt make his moves on you (while still making pushes for a platonic relationship), but when it’s time for things to go into Carrie Mode, he’ll still call you a slut for wanting him badly -- which you’d think he’d do if you let him kiss and grab you (and even then is still miles out of his character up to that point).  And while we’re on the subject of being set up for failure, what the hell was Dafoe thinking, sending Jodie in with a book of poetry as a present for a socialite teenage girl?

The issue that I have comes with the party’s climax.  Jodie gets locked under the stairs and begs tearfully for release, but only Aiden comes in to help her.  (In my playthrough I denied having ghost powers, but the scene with it has virtually no bearing on the scene that follows.)  You get two options: the first and most obvious is “Press X to REVENGE”, wherein you sic Aiden on the partygoers and potentially set the house on fire.  The alternate option?  “Leave.”  You press a button, have Jodie walk out, and…nothing happens.  The scene fades to black, and you move on to the next chapter with no resolution.  No Willem Dafoe, no Kirsten’s mom, nothing.

So that’s another fatal flaw to toss onto the pile.  In Beyond: Two Souls, not playing the game the way it was intended -- the way you’re expected to play -- means not playing at all.


Again and again, I find myself practically setting down the controller, thinking -- or maybe hoping -- that every action I take won’t end in violence, murder, or something as simple as a bad day.  Again and again, my efforts are thwarted.  You have no choice but to leave kid Jodie’s backyard, even though there’s no reason for her to besides “she’s bored”.  And when you have a snowball fight, throwing no balls doesn’t have any bearing on how much other kids take offense. 

And when one kid tries to smother Jodie with snow (is that a thing people in snowy areas do?  I wouldn’t know), you have no choice but to send in Aiden to strangle him; doing otherwise means sitting there twiddling your thumbs for minutes on end.  You don’t even get to decide the degree of choking; you can trigger it and release immediately, but the kid will still act like you strangled him for minutes.  That triggers the kid calling Jodie a witch, which makes Jodie’s emotionally-abusive stepdad come out, which means it’s time for another riveting episode of Jodie’s Life is Awful, So Feel Bad for Her You Idiot.

What really irritates me is that prior to the snowball fight scene, I actually found what might be the one good moment in the entire game.  If you go upstairs and head to Jodie’s room, you can have her play with dolls.  That’s it.  Just a little girl moving her toys around, using her imagination, and having fun.  It’s simple, but it feels more honest and more real than virtually anything else the game has to offer -- doubly so because it’s something that I, as the player, triggered.  It’s a rare but appreciable moment of happiness in an otherwise relentlessly-bleak game.  So of course, Aiden (in cutscene mode) decides to smack her toys aside and bring the scene to an abrupt end.


According to the interview with Wired, Cage and crew had a challenge in characterizing the nigh-formless Aiden -- though Cage himself said that he’s possessive and views Jodie as “his thing”.  The interviewee thought of Aiden as a stand-in for the player, as much as (if not more so) than Jodie; in a lot of ways that’s true.  Aiden’s the one who interacts with the world and changes it just as the avatar in any other game would.  In a way, Jodie belongs to the player as much as the ghost…buuuuuuuuuuuut that relationship doesn’t work the way they intended.

Let’s pare it down to basics.  In a game like Mass Effect, at the very least you have a Renegade option, a Paragon option, and a neutral option.  Choose one at your discretion, and get different results, especially in ME2.  There’s an instance there where some scientist-type is toiling away at a computer, and refuses to listen to you.  Hit the Renegade interrupt, and you’ll shoot the computer, ruining who knows how much of his research.  Hit the Paragon option, and you use your omni-tool to peaceably deactivate the computer.  Two different options, but they’re there to suit the player’s preferences. 

Now imagine what that game would be like if you only had one choice -- a Paragon choice, for example.  Sure, some people would be happy with it, but others would see Shepard as just a wimp.  It’d create a unified narrative (and probably make things easier on the devs), but it wouldn’t offer as much satisfaction.  I know this, because we don’t have to imagine a choice-free Mass Effect.  That’s what 2Souls is for.


Anyone who’s lived in the real world for more than five minutes knows that it’s hard to pare things down to basics -- and as time passes, that’s becoming truer of video games.  So yes, a guy like my brother has a strong lean towards a Renegade Shepard, but he’s not a pure one; he’s admitted that when it comes to his decision-making, he chooses the option that benefits him the most (barring the time he doomed Ashley to Virmire because she killed his main man Wrex).  Options in a game like that are appreciable because it shows a level of curiosity and understanding by the devs.  They don’t know how people will react, so they just do the best they can, offer up some choices, and let the dominoes fall where they may.

With a game like 2Souls, it’s practically the opposite.  Not only does the game not give you any meaningful choices, but it also assumes that you’ll go along with the only choice: being a Renegade.  Hurting, and even killing those that slight you.  Building a path to a better life for Jodie, but doing so with a pile of corpses.  And yeah, maybe some people are okay with that; maybe they don’t take personal offense to manslaughter being the only option.  But you know what?  I’m not happy about 2Souls.

Just what does it say about the devs’ -- ANY devs’ -- opinion of the players when they ASSUME that we’re all okay with death as the default answer?




Okay, yes.  Plenty of games are built around killing enemies.  That’s how they’ve been almost since their inception.  But if ever there was a game to offer peaceful options and step away from violence, this was the one.  And it didn’t.  It absolutely didn’t.

That’s game-breaking, even more than the absurd story.  You have no choice but to hurt, and to harass, and to kill, and any effort you put in to try and do a course correction on Jodie’s life will be thwarted.  Everything leads back to “someone has wronged you, so wrong them back”, and it does more than just strip away player agency.  It even does more than imply that all gamers want to do -- all gamers will demand of their games -- is cause harm to others.  It tells you that it’s all right to kill.  Don’t think about consequences.  Don’t think about long-term goals.  Just live in the moment, and do what’ll give Jodie short-term satisfaction.  Who cares what happened an hour earlier?  Someone’s trying to sexually assault her NOW, so fix it NOW!  Because you want to!  You want to protect and help Jodie, right?

It’s arguable that Quantic Dream really did want to make Aiden the player character’s avatar.  But if that’s true, then it sends a HORRIBLE message of what they think and expect of us.  Remember, the big reveal of this game (such as it is) is that Aiden is actually Jodie’s twin brother who died at birth.  Taken in that context, a lot of his actions -- those you have no control over, i.e. “kill to progress” -- take on some nasty connotations; even when he’s an adult just like Jodie, he acts like she’s just one of his toys.  “No, Jodie, you do what I say.  I’m in charge.”  “No, Jodie, you aren’t allowed to be happy.  That’s boring.”  “No, Jodie, you aren’t allowed to stop.  I’ll keep things going.  And I’ll let you do whatever I want.”


If the point of the game was to deconstruct the player-character relationship -- to show what happens when the one holding the controller has to confront their actions and methods head-on -- then Cage and company utterly failed to deliver.  You can’t even really argue that they tried to do that, because the subtext gets lost in the context.  This is a story about Jodie Holmes’ life, and the typically-asinine events she has to go through at every turn.  It’s not a game that does anything with the medium; it’s a hodgepodge of clichés and contrivances designed to draw out sympathy -- or rather, pity -- for a character that doesn’t even deserve it.

How do I know?  Well, there’s one important piece of evidence.  Remember what I said earlier about “trying to fix mistakes”?  Well, here’s the point: as far as I can tell, there is no moment in the entire game where Jodie says “I’m sorry.”


It’s true that she gets dragged along by Aiden into stupid situations, but she’s as much the architect of her fortune as her Stand ghostly brother.  She’s the one that can (and does) tell Aiden to destroy, possess, or kill; he’ll act autonomously, but she’ll give the orders on a regular basis.  She dives headfirst into bad situations without a shred of forethought, be it something as simple as heading to a seedy bar (complete with another near-rape scenario), or something as weighty as killing an African president she couldn’t be bothered to run a Google search on beforehand. 

In the demo and the full game alike, it’s impossible to complete the police escape sequence without deaths; at most, you can only minimize the casualties and collateral damage.  And instead of realizing what a horrible thing she’s done in the aftermath, she just marches up to an injured soldier and spouts a line that’s only there for trailers.  Or cool guy points.


On a large scale, the game doesn’t allow those moments of contemplation.  We don’t get to see Jodie realizing what she’s done and what she’ll do about it, because the game jumps to a different era as soon as it’s able.  No context, no consequence.  Only moment-to-moment responses from the player, and only surface-level engagement with what’s going on.  And sure, while it’s true that there are times when calmer scenarios play out -- Jodie getting ready for a date with Ryan, who the player has no reason to trust or even like -- they’re not enough to wipe away memories of the “adrenaline-filled” scenes Cage actually wanted to step away from.

On a small scale, though?  All they had to do was have Jodie think about what she’d done up to that point.  Maybe in between the game’s chapters, have present-day Jodie reflect on what she did.  Make her wonder if what she did was right -- and have prompts pop up to make her question herself (if not realize her mistakes) or have her rationalize her actions.  It could work for the peaceful scenes, too; if the player makes her walk out on the party, have her react in accordance with her character and the player’s input.  Just think of what she could have done.  She could have laughed it off.  She could have lashed out.  She could have regretted ever going to the party.  She could have said anything, done anything, thought anything.

But she didn’t.  She never does.


This isn’t a hard concept.  It’s the same issue I have with the recent Resident Evil games: if the player character isn’t afraid, the player has no reason to be afraid.  Going off of that?  If Jodie doesn’t think about what she’s done, the player has no reason to think about what he/she’s done -- and it cheapens the effect.  Jodie as an adult has no better grasp of consequences or sense of empathy than Jodie as a child; she’s selfish, thoughtless, short-sighted, and flat-out refuses to act with restraint unless the player strong-arms her into it (and even then, the game will strong-arm her right out). 

If Quantic Dream had taken time out from the verifiable torture porn they put her through, they could have added a few scenes -- mere minutes -- where Jodie reflects on her actions.  They could have given her at least one My God, What Have I Done moment, and it would have added so much.  They didn’t even have to add in dialogue; just let Ellen Page and that face-rendering technology do the work.  Let her show her emotion indirectly, but effectively.

But they didn’t.  Nearly every moment of Jodie’s life where something goes wrong is because she doesn’t have the foresight to back off and practice self-control (and those that aren’t directly her fault are made possible by the deft hand of the plot).  I have a hard enough time as it is feeling emotions for a character who doesn’t even have a personality; asking me to feel sympathy for a mass of polygons that blunders her way into murder without so much as an “I’m sorry” is asking too much of me.  But that’s just the sort of game 2Souls is.  You’re not supposed to think.  You’re just supposed to feel things.  Feel the moment, and make your choice -- the one choice you can make -- and let the bodies fall where they may.

And we’re supposed to be okay with that.


You know, I have a question.  What is the point of this game?

The way Cage was talking, the intent was to explore life and death meaningfully.  I don’t think I need to tell you that that didn’t come through.  So in light of a creative vision that’s completely missing -- in the wake of ideas and themes that get botched from minute one -- what does the game become?  What does the player interpretation and general consensus morph 2Souls into?

The obvious answer is that -- despite my complaining -- the game is ultimately harmless.  2Souls is likely to go down as a forgettable game at best, and a terrible, pretentious one at worst.  I’m working under the assumption that most people have forgotten about it by now, so this post is arguably pointless.  But even so, I think it’s important to remember this game, and what it tried to sell.  It’s a grim reminder of what happens when execution doesn’t sync up with ambition -- in the best-case scenario.  I don’t want to say that Cage and the other Quantic Dream characters think the worst of us (no matter how many times I’ve suggested otherwise in this post), but their latest game doesn’t do them, us, or the medium any favors.  When there are action games that manage to be more thoughtful and more peaceable than a virtual memoir, it’s time to admit that something has gone wrong.

But hey.  At least it has a Stand.



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