Doing the Demo—Beyond: Two Souls

Beyond: Two Souls is the new game from Quantic Dream. A demo version is available to download from the PlayStation Network. And yes, Beyond: Two Souls is a terrible name.

The stars of Beyond (as I’ll now call it) are Jodie (played by Ellen Page) and some spirit thing she’s tethered to, named Aiden. The player alternates between controlling both.

With great power comes…questions. Why didn’t Superman…? Why didn’t the Jedi use mind-control to…? When, as Aiden, I floated over to four people, and the game told me I could possess one, the first thing I’d think was ‘Why this guy? Why not the others?’. Similarly, why can I focus my powers on a coffee cup, but not a folder? I know there are justifiable technical and storytelling reasons for these limitations, and the same criticism can be aimed at other games (like LA Noire), but Beyond seems particularly open to this thinking.

The demo started creepily. Young Jodie looks like a shrunken Ellen Page (which she kind of is, I guess). She was in her ‘bedroom’ in what’s presumably some government facility. Security cameras watched from the corners. An adjacent room had a huge one-way mirror, and monitors playing the CCTV footage. Jodie passed through this room as she exited, aware yet uninterested in it.

I explored this surveillance room as Jodie and stopped her as she faced me. I saw her sad eyes up close. While I thought an actor like Page would bring humanity to the cut scenes, I didn’t expect a mini-her in a playable moment to quietly evoke emotion. Maybe those eyes are a reflection of nothing more than a bored child, but, in my version of Jodie’s story, she’s been worn down by her treatment in this facility. When Jodie was later asked questions, I could answer ‘Yes’, or just shrug.

Jodie entered another room and talked to Willem Dafoe. A woman in an adjacent room chose cards. Jodie had to guess what cards were chosen. And that was when I got to first play as Aiden.

I lied to you, there was no guessing involved in Jodie’s prediction—Aiden just floated into the room, read the card, then returned to Jodie with the push of a button. Controlling Aiden was like controlling a drunk. ‘He’ moved sluggishly, as you’d expect a spirit thingymob to, admittedly. But it wasn’t fun to go from the precise third-person movements of Jodie to this rough first-person spiriting about. Playing as Aiden is like playing a game online with terrible lag.

I did cause some of these control problems by not reading the controls properly. As the woman read the card I floated near the floor, struggling to see which card she had chosen. Only once the level finished did I remember that I could use the shoulder-button and trigger to move Aiden up and down, which would’ve helped me see the cards more clearly.

After reading a few cards for Jodie, Aiden got to have some fun. Dafoe’s character told Jodie to try to knock over blocks in the other room. I did this, and the card woman got a fright. I liked that. Dots appeared on several objects in the room, meaning I could focus my powers on them. I went mental. I pushed the woman’s chair. She freaked out. Dramatic music swelled up as I cracked a window, flipped a table, shoved a filing cabinet. The woman screamed, as did Jodie, while I had great fun trashing the place. Oddly, I was a bit scared too, even though I was the one doing the scaring.

I floated between that woman’s legs trying to see her pants. I was unable to.

A cut scene ended my fun. I saw Jodie crying. That’s an interesting contrast—fun with one controllable character negatively affecting another. I presume Jodie gets used to Aiden fairly quickly in the full game.

As I trashed that room I thought of the film Poltergeist. A little girl, terrified by a spirit she knows is linked specifically to her. I couldn’t find any evidence that Beyond’s developers were influenced by the film.

Only when the level finished did I realise the entire thing had been a tutorial. The game had just taught me how to control Jodie, how to change to Aiden, how to move him around and use his powers. And I didn’t even notice. Nicely done.

Another tutorial began, a more obvious one this time. Jodie waited with two men in a gym, I was about to learn how to fight. The controls were simple, all you do is follow Jodie’s momentum. When she punched to the left, I pushed left on a thumbstick. Difficulty came from having to react quickly, and from when the angle of attack wasn’t immediately clear. The controls were simple, perhaps too simple. Other games have complicated combat controls, so when I was given a stripped-down system, it felt like I wasn’t doing enough.

The next level loaded: a train speeding through a rainy night.

When the train was stationary, as Aiden I was allowed to spend a few minutes beside the tracks, where police and their dogs waited. I floated near a dog and it started barking. I hope this is just a nice, if pointless, element of the game, and that dogs aren’t used as warning systems. I don’t want some Sam Fisher-esque stealthing mission where Aiden has to sneak past X number of dogs without alerting them. Given that Aiden’s tethered to Jodie (and so on a short leash himself), I doubt that’ll happen.

Back on the train I wandered the carriage, and saw two policemen making their towards a sleeping Jodie.

QD’s games are well known for their open-ended play, the choices you make sometimes affecting the game’s narrative. I played through Beyond twice. The first time I did nothing to warn Jodie about the police. The second time I woke her by throwing a water bottle against a window. Regardless, of my choice, a chase scene began, and I controlled Jodie as she raced through the train.

There was a sense of drama to the chase, but the game deliberately slowed me in ways that sapped some excitement. I was given a lot of time to accomplish the tough task of…pushing a button to open a door. The viewpoint reversed, left becoming right, and I fumbled the controls, flooded with memories of frustrating backcourt violations in David Robinson’s Supreme Court.

The officers caught up and we fought. I didn’t feel engaged with the combat controls. As Jodie was already throwing a punch or kick before I joined in, I felt late to the party. I know her attack would miss if I didn’t do my part, but I still didn’t feel like much of a factor in the outcome.

On my first play I got caught by the officers and locked in an empty cabin. From there I transferred to Aiden, possessed the officer outside and released Jodie, before she jumped through a window. The second time, as Jodie, I escaped the officers and climbed out a window. I dodged and fought policemen on the train’s roof. Both avenues resulted in Jodie jumping off the train, while I as Aiden protected her with a supernatural shield.

A shield? Here’s another problem with powers. If I can conjure up a shield, when would be Jodie ever be in danger? Will Beyond have the same problems the TV show Heroes did, where characters had their powers turned down to add some sense of peril to the story?

I controlled Jodie again, having landed in a forest. Racing through the darkness, all I really had to do was duck under low branches or leap fallen logs (pressing down or up on the thumbstick). Although I jumped from a moving train, within seconds the popo are behind me.

The forest was graphically appealing—the light was realistic, the ground looked damp. It was a little too dark though. I struggled to make out upcoming logs (I never thought to up the brightness). The game slowed down at an obstacle, and I still often only spotted a log at the last second.

I fought three police dogs. Their yelps of pain were realistic. I like dogs and was happy when this moment ended (I’ve never had a problem killing people in a game). I battled them off and scaled a cliff. Here the more traditional Quantic Dream control scheme showed itself. Icons that corresponded to button-presses flashed on screen (known as quick-time events).

Beyond used small white dots to illustrate when I could interact with an object. Most of the time these were easy to see, but in some cases—on the cliffside for instance—the dots blended into the scene. I know if I was playing the full game and the tension had ramped up, my blinkers would come on and those dots would be harder to see. Perhaps this is QD’s intent, to make you focus under pressure, but I think this is just a design mistake, like white subtitles on a light background.

I arrived at a road guarded by three more policemen. Aiden time. I floated past two officers who I couldn’t control, but found a pawn in the third. I possessed him and walked to two parked police cars. I wandered around and opened the boot of both cars, but my only option was to take out a shotgun and fire it into the air. The shots distracted the other officers, and Jodie crept by and stole a police motorbike.

Escaping on the bike, with a helicopter in pursuit, should have been tense and fun, but the bike’s handling was too heavy. There were no cops to dodge or slicks to avoid, the only challenge was to corner without sliding off the road. Maybe the handling is an approximation of a real-life police bike, but I didn’t care, I wasn’t looking for realism. I wanted action. A dramatic chase should never have the escapee slowing to five miles an hour to take a bend.

A roadblock full of SWAT waited ahead. The bike stopped for a cut scene. I was Aiden again. Jodie muttered something motivational to me and screeched off. I was supposed to do something helpful. On both playthroughs I did something wrong instead. Jodie wiped out and got captured.

Cut to Jodie in the back of a SWAT Humvee. She’d been drugged, they thought she was unconscious. One SWAT asks if Jodie is “some kind of mutant”, and the geek in me hoped that was a reference to Ellen Page’s role in X-Men 3. There were four SWAT. As expected, I could only possess one. So I did. On my first play I pistol-whipped one guy and shot the driver. The jeep crashed and overturned. On my second attempt I possessed the same guy, but did nothing other than sat there with my pistol unsheathed, wondering if I had other options I’d yet to notice. My fellow SWAT gave me a slap for taking the gun out, which kicked Aiden back out. Now—only now—could I possess the driver. I did so, and accelerated. Again, the jeep crashed and flipped. Was there not a safer exit plan?

As Jodie again, I smashed a window and climbed out of the jeep. The four SWAT were wearing body armour, but Jodie seemed to be the only one capable of walking away from the crash. She also effortlessly snapped her handcuffs above her head. Is there more to Jodie than I thought? Is she on the ‘roids?

A final cut scene played and the demo ended. The game’s trailer played.

The trailer is very cinematic, appropriately. Beyond is aiming to tell Jodie’s story in a very filmic way. The game’s narrative unfolds over a number of years, Jodie going from young girl to adult, from sleeping rough in a city to short-haired and denim-clad in some desert. The trailer was full of interesting moments, although there was some cringeworthy dialogue: a man shouting at Jodie, “You’re a monster. You hear me! A monster!”. Besides that, it was all good.

QD’s last two games (Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain) had an odd friction: cinematic ambition grinding against gameplay where the player performed the most mundane of tasks (shaving, setting a table). Beyond may represent QD getting away from this type of gameplay, for better or for worse.

The game looks lush, and the inclusion of Page and Dafoe give it Hollywood weight (35 minutes of footage was played at the Tribeca Film Festival). But it’s interactive entertainment, and that interactivity has to be enjoyable (for me, at least). I enjoyed controlling Jodie, but I can imagine that regularly being Aiden would be a drag. The limitations on what he can do and who he can possess would irritate me. But both Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain were brilliant games. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s Quantic Dream.

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