Jodie has curled up in her train-car seat and fallen asleep. I’m bored. So, I start bugging her. I flick a nearby water bottle until it rattles. She wakes up and snarls at me to cut it out. But there’s nothing else to do, Jodie! I start pestering the other passengers, shuffling their belongings, unnerving them with my whispers.
In this scene of Beyond: Two Souls, I play the role of an irritating gamer breaking the fourth wall and trying to get my protagonist to do something. Okay, not really—I’m Aiden, an invisible, nigh-omnipotent spirit. I have a mysterious mind-link to the game’s protagonist, Jodie Holmes, and I have built-in mission sensors and indicators for what Jodie and I should steal or destroy next. So, basically, I’m the gamer breaking the fourth wall, like I said.
Every tempting bright blue circle that appears in Aiden-vision indicates a possible action I can take that will cause something unnerving to occur, from a flickering light bulb, to a falling object, to a broken neck. The “right” thing to do in these scenarios is nothing. I “should” ignore all of the hovering blue circles, to let Jodie sleep, to leave the passengers alone, to let boring conversations unfold while Aiden—and I—twiddle our thumbs.
The lens of control changes back and forth between Aiden and Jodie throughout the game. Most of the time, the camera peers from a middle distance at Jodie, with me in control of her—as the player, not as Aiden, but the distinction hardly matters. This blurring of control and voyeurism almost suggests that the entire game takes place from Aiden’s point of view, although that interpretation would not be quite canonical. When inhabiting Aiden, the edges of the screen get fuzzy and loud breathing (Aiden’s?) can be heard, so it’s clear that the rest of the time I’m not supposed to “be” him, but I always feel like I am. Aiden’s sections are always in the first-person, whereas Jodie’s are in the third person, or very rarely, over one shoulder. So, it almost seems like I might be in first-person as Aiden all of the time.
This dual perspective—or, perhaps, this unified perspective, given that Aiden’s view of Jodie is the thematically dominant one—makes for a compelling, curious premise. Why does Jodie have a ghost attached to her? She doesn’t know the reason, but soon learns that this ghost has a mind (and a “soul”) of its own. The two must work together and sort out their disagreements in order to survive in the outside world, which they eventually realize has lots of other ghosts in it … and not all of them are as friendly as Aiden. Not that Aiden’s particularly friendly.
The Aiden-centric sections of the game are the most difficult, but that’s not saying much. Swooping around rooms and straight through walls and doors and objects in ghost-form does feel dizzying, but that disorienting sensation is the game’s only difficulty barrier. The button presses required of Aiden only involve some gentle joystick guidance: moving little circles of light closer together, further apart, or into a line. These dot manipulations help Aiden destroy an object, kill or mind-control someone, or allow Jodie to see the last memories of a corpse. It’s never entirely clear what the dot pattern the game provides will cause Aiden to do, however; this lends a kind of unnerving unpredictability to Aiden’s powers.
The game tells an out-of-order account of Jodie’s life, from babyhood to mid-twenties. I had little empathy for Jodie’s plight; the seeming randomness of which actions I was “allowed” to perform prevented me from ever feeling involved in the action. The scenes included in the game vary in scope and tone from high-stress CIA missions (press R1 to shoot someone—no aiming required), to teenaged Jodie in fishnets shredding a guitar and throwing a tantrum (shake your controller to punch a pillow), to toddler Jodie trying to ignore the very literal monsters under her bed (press X to fall asleep), to early-twenties Jodie cleaning up her apartment (press X to pick up a bag of chips), to late-teens Jodie climbing a ladder (press a series of random buttons, one for each rung).
As the only person in this universe with a super-powered spirit friend, Jodie has become an object of extreme interest for doctors and government officials, all of whom want to harness her power for their own ends. There are half a dozen outbursts from Jodie in which she yells at collections of men to stop telling her what to do, and not to treat her like a puppet or a plaything. In any other game, this would be an anvil-sized wink at the camera about the player who is “controlling” Jodie, who has of course been a puppet this entire time. But there’s not enough control involved on the part of the player for these scenes to feel like they’re making any sort of point beyond being a clichéd rehash of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or River Tam’s arc in Firefly. Plus, Jodie herself seems to have no issue with using Aiden to mind-control other people in the game, so her repeated anger at being a “puppet” feels a tad hypocritical after a while.
Some people that Jodie meets behave as though she is a demon, no matter how kind or how normal she seems; others call her “princess” with love and affection, no matter how badly she uses them. No one’s reactions seem quite right, including Jodie’s own. Silent ghost Aiden is the most believable character in this game. Just like me, he was bored for a lot of it.
I believed after the first several hours of Beyond that it would be a tragic tale of Jodie’s fall from grace and her corruption by Aiden. Spoiler alert: nope. Because of her link to Aiden, and because of Aiden’s proclivity towards destruction, Jodie begins to see violence as necessary to achieve all of her aims—and according to this game’s logic, that’s fine. In some cases, Jodie calls on Aiden’s powers for self-defense; at other times, she uses Aiden to show off for no reason, to inappropriately pry into the lives of others, or to mind-control a supposed friend. Of course, because Jodie is the hero, almost no one else in this game finds any of this creepy, and anyone who does is painted as a villain.
The game’s clashes in tone—from ghost-related jump scares and mind-controlled corpses, to a gratingly boring “romance” between Jodie and a milquetoast coworker—made the story hard for me to play without laughing or feeling detached. The game is about four hours longer than it needs to be due to an excess of extra padding in the middle, including multiple arcs in which Jodie unrealistically saves the day for entire other cliques of characters who don’t have anything to do with the rest of the game.
Beyond has a good premise, but its execution and implementation don’t follow through. No action within the game seems to matter. It’s one button press to shoot a man, and also one button to watch Jodie bend over to pick up a piece of trash. One button to watch Jodie leap over a log, or to watch her wash her hands. The unintuitive randomness of the buttons feels strange after playing a game like Tomb Raider, in which the quick-time button-presses always asked for a button that correlated with the expected action (e.g. if Lara had to jump, the game would ask for the jump button).
In Jodie’s case, there is no “jump button”; every action may as well be the X button, because why not? More bizarrely, the actions Jodie needs “help” with in order to perform seem nonsensical. The result is that the game feels meaningless on both a granular and a thematic level, from its unintuitive controls to its soap opera-like characters to its nonsensical stakes-raising. The military wants to use a rift between the worlds of the living and the dead as a power source. Or as a bomb. What? Sure, a ghost bomb! Why not!
Beyond provides some unintentional laughs with its over-the-top melodrama, but the story is an overstuffed slog. The voices and body-capture work from Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe almost make the game worthwhile, but even these two can’t save the insufferable writing and inexplicable side plots. The game is ten hours if you speed through it, and even that is too long for what little this experience provides.
Speaking of body capture, Ellen Page spends a surprising amount of time in this game showering and/or wearing only her bra and underwear. I guess when David Cage says “we should learn from films,” he meant the male gaze? At any rate, if you’re a fan of tiny, sarcastic women taking their clothes off, then Page’s powers alone might carry you all the way through this mind-numbing hellscape. Otherwise, steer clear.
Beyond: Two Souls was developed by Quantic Dream and published by Sony. It is available for the PlayStation 3.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.