After months of excitement, the reviews that began to emerge upon the release of Beyond: Two Souls were quite a fizzer in themselves and deterred me from investing in the latest product from Quantic Dream. I hadn’t played Heavy Rain but had heard enough critical praise that it went (and remains) on my list of games to track down. Fortunately, I recently acquired a copy of Beyond: Two Souls and spent a few days playing through my first attempt at the game. I was glad that I did.
As a young kid, I was an avid reader, and books like Choose Your Own Adventure and the Fighting Fantasy series filled up many a rainy weekend. Looking back on the past few days and I can make comparisons, but Quantic Dream clearly had the more subtle approach in mind. I’m a sucker for multiple possible endings to a game, especially when it requires more than just pressing one of three buttons in the final stages of its story. A few years back, I was lucky enough to play an online game with a huge number of variations to the story but consequences to your actions weren’t apparent as you played and the number of times you could log in and start a new game were limited.*
Since I was unfamiliar with Heavy Rain to compare with, I found Beyond: Two Souls incredibly forgiving for my lame reflexes at those dreaded QTE moments, but I was glad of this because I gradually became more invested in the story of Jodie and Aiden throughout their fragmented journey. This is not a review of the game overall, per se, but I have been thinking a lot since I completed my first run about not only the story, but the controls as well, and how our own preconceptions and expectations might just be getting in the way of our enjoyment.
In a nutshell, the story jumps back and forth along Jodie’s timeline, giving us chapters of her life as a little girl, a teenager and as a young adult. This took me a little time to get used to, but not unlike Pulp Fiction, I eventually began to comprehend the structure and the reasons behind the order in which the story played out. I think the intention was to draw focus to the impetus and external factors that several characters, not just Jodie, were influenced by.
The controls were not traditional, if that makes sense. Quick Time Events were a regular occurrence and various buttons of the PS3 controller (as well as its SixAxis functionality) were used in context to the situation; for example, shaking the controller up and down to escape a clinch, or flicking the right thumbstick in particular directions during melee, even time-sensitive responses to conversations. At times, I found the change in controller input distracting and it would momentarily break my immersion, but as the game progressed I became familiar with the logic being applied. There was also an inconsistency to some of the abilities in terms of when they could be applied to the environment and other non-player characters, such as item interaction or possession of another soul.
Since completing my first run, I’ve had a lot of questions. Some are story related, and I might just be able to enlighten myself with another attempt. Others, however, relate to the artistic direction to the narrative of Beyond: Two Souls as well as the game mechanics; while an enjoyable game in its own right, it hadn’t completely impressed me. But was this the fault of Quantic Dream in their choices, or in my own attitude to a videogame that wasn’t conforming to the mainstream?
Videogames are often noted for scripting events or railroading a story down a particular path to fit their narrative vision. Half Life, CoD: Modern Warfare, The Last of Us, even open sandbox games such as GTA V; these games create an illusion of choice, but ultimately the narrative will only progress through triggering particular, controlled events. So, when a game adopts non-standard controller input and non-standard narrative (such as rapid movement across a timeline, rather than a traditional timeline progression), aren’t these a type of control just like environmental design? It’s easy enough for us to identify being channelled through a game level where physical, three-dimensional design forces us to a particular choke point for a scripted event. It’s easy enough when there is only ever one set outcome (well, aside from dying and trying again), but when a game like Beyond: Two Souls permits mistakes and quietly lays out consequences both immediately and long-term within the story, the considerations and headaches must be bigger than a Dr Who season writer…
Whilst I don’t think the controls were ultimately all that intuitive, I admire their courage in steering away from the easy option of a default control setup. I’m not sure that a ‘normal’ setup would have worked better in any case, the game wasn’t a standard FPS or even an Uncharted adventure. It’s a good reminder that there are always other ways of thinking, other approaches that might just be dusting the cobwebs off some dingy corners of our grey matter.
I was also content with not knowing everything over time about every key character in Jodie’s world. In such a fragmented timeline, Jodie herself didn’t know even her closest friends intimately, so why should I as an observer? And now, approaching a second run at the game is where I think Beyond: Two Souls will come into its own. I approached the game blind, and in many ways the choices I made for Jodie throughout the game were an extension of my own cautious nature, mindful of consequences and not fully understanding past influences that might affect my decisions. This time around, with that knowledge at hand, will I perhaps experiment with a completely different approach and see how events unfold? Sound familiar? *coughcoughbiowarecough*
Experimentation is a healthy and necessary part of videogames’ evolution; the results may not always be perfect but they encourage further discussion and ideas, so to me it’s a good thing. Heavy Rain has certainly risen to the top of my list of games I need to chase down, based on my experience of Beyond: Two Souls. Perhaps neither of these games is for you, but would it really hurt to try something different? Or at least, with an open mind?
*If anyone has any idea what I’m talking about, please put me out of my misery. There was some sort of fashion show, or photo shoot, the wife getting kidnapped (sometimes), a business partner…. It’s driving me mad!