Film nerds have long been admirers of European art house fare, as watching Max von Sydow checkmate Death or mimes playing tennis is a right of passage for those aiming to ditch traditional narrative in order to appreciate “pure cinema.” French game designer David Gage has continued to push his medium’s limits in the same way; his company, Quantic Dream has made two art-for-art’s-sake titles that barely fit into the category of game.
I’ve been a fan since walking the snowy New York streets of Indigo Prophecy on the original Xbox. In 2010, on the PS3, his masterpiece Heavy Rain focused on four individuals racing to save a child from becoming the latest victim of the Origami Killer. Indigo was one of the first to employ motion-capture with real actors, but Heavy Rain took it to the next level with astounding visual clarity. The shocking ending left my jaw dropped and my right stick wobbly.
This week, Cage is back with Beyond: Two Souls. The game features Hollywood stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Page plays a young woman named Jodie who’s connected to a very powerful unseen entity. Is it a new high watermark for immersion or just a slicker version of Dragon’s Lair?
Tiny Disclaimer: The game features a co-op mode where one player controls Jodie while another, the invisible entity on one PS3 console. However, I haven’t played with a friend, as I prefer multi-players solely online; never in my nerd cave.
7. French New Wave of Gaming Alive and Well.
If you’ve never played one of Cage’s games, here’s a quick run down:
They usually have big (convoluted?) stories involving multiple characters, which sounds like the territory of Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy. Except Cage isn’t concerned with traditional leveling up, so this isn’t an RPG-style adventure where the player can tailor the character to his/her liking. Instead, he puts us in the role of specific people whose natural behaviors the player must study. There are occasional dialogue trees to choose from, yet even then you’re never acquiring experience points from the responses i.e.; you don’t learn the talent of persuasion or how to up one’s bartering skills. Cage (almost to a fault) focuses exclusively on the moment, no matter how ordinary; Heavy Rain had us changing a baby’s diapers. His stories (when they work) are purely on a gut level. In many cases you can’t even die, so you never see a “game over” prompt. This is one of his best accomplishments: you always feel like you’re moving forward. It’s never about “can I beat this armed guard?”
The downside to all this, which I’ll expand on in the “Meh”, section is that controls change on the fly in the most arbitrary ways. Why exactly am I hitting R1, L1, and square at the same time? No reason whatever, it seems.
In Beyond, you play two entities tied to one body: Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) whose life is covered from ages 8 to 23, and the spirit that’s been tied to her since birth, whom she calls Aiden. The story is told in flashbacks and flash-forwards with load screens serving as a timeline of events. (“Separation,” “Welcome to the C.I.A.” and so on.) At the start, all you know is that Jodie looks and acts like Ellen Page (I mean that in the best way) and that Aiden is mute with super powers that can help Jodie out of a jam. (Fans of The East will recall Page’s character’s memorable line about such “jams.”) As mentioned earlier, this works as it does in all Cage games despite wonky controls because I really want to know what happens next. The “beyond” of the title refers to life after death. Everything is in the service of getting to know the people that populate the world.
6. Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
As Jodie, the player has a variety of locales to visit among the game’s twenty-five chapters. Examples include: living near a freeway while homeless in the winter, enduring the hot Arizona sun with a Navajo family, and escaping an underwater Chinese military facility.
This isn’t GTA V, though, in that each section is a tightly-scripted environment leaving little to explore in the traditional sense. This isn’t a big deal if you’re rapt in the big mysteries – who/what is Aiden? Is there another plane of existence? Can Jodie clean her apartment and make dinner in time for a date with her hunky handler, Ryan?
The levels themselves are super-detailed; walking the lonely snow-filled street scraping for change is pretty heartbreaking. You can’t even run as your feet crunch the snow beneath Jodie’s feet, so you must wander slowly since Jodie is freezing. By contrast, being blinded under a hot desert sun is eerily comforting. Plus, that Arizona setting lets you ride a horse around an amazing landscape.
It’s true though, that, at times, when Jodie is in peril, you wonder why Aiden can’t just make a fire, or break into a bank. As a gamer that can be frustrating. I think, however, that is deliberate…
5. Aiden: Stand in for the Player?
The most familiar-feeling gamers will get in B2S is playing as Aiden. Not just because the spectral being has the power to break down walls, possess humans and even make force fields, but because in essence, Aiden is the role we always play: the one to protect and fight. Aiden can even traverse areas through (most, but not all) walls. Still, Aiden is tethered to Jodie so you can only go so far. (In one setting, you’re out to kill a warlord in Somalia. Exploring bombed out shacks is the closest the game gets to feeling Call of Duty-ish.) While you can only travel so far, you can always check back on Jodie by hitting triangle. The two are psychically linked so Jodie sees what Aiden sees.
At first, I was a bit let down when I heard that Cage’s latest project would include a supernatural being like Aiden, but the linking works quite well. There’s a notable difference between the two um, souls. One area reminded me a lot of the futuristic labs from Resident Evil, but since CIA-trained Jodie still pales in comparison to kick-ass Jill Valentine the stakes felt higher. Yes, I can take down armed assassins with standard QTE events, but Jodie always feel vulnerable so switching to Aiden gives that rush of power that satisfies the normal urges of a gamer.
4. Little Jodie, Believably Little.
|Wearing her princess crown.
The sprawling city of GTA V‘s Los Santos may be bro-centric, but this is turning out to be the year of compelling female characters. There’s been Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, Ellie in The Last of Us, and even the latest Tomb Raider fleshed out Lara Croft.
Now there’s Jodie Holmes.
Several chapters focus on Jodie pre-Ellen Page (played by Caroline Wolfson) when she’s 8 years old. We meet Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe), the kindly doctor who raises her when her adoptive parents pretty much dump her off fearing her to be a Firestarter freak. Many of her scenes take place under constant monitoring by Nathan and his assistant Cole. Incidentally, Kadeem Hardison plays Cole. Television fans will remember him best as A Different World‘s Dwayne Wayne.
|A different world, indeed!
Cage’s strength as an artist is how more often than not we end up behaving like the characters we’re controlling. If I’m Jodie getting picked on by a bunch of neighborhood bullies, I’ll cower, but you better believe I’m gonna pull out the can of Aiden to teach those punks a lesson ASAP. I relished these moments. At the same time, the vulnerability of little Jodie is refreshing.
Oh, and her pink stuffed animal is da bomb.
3. A-List Duo Pays Off Big Time.
|The script was over 2000 pages. Yikes.
I’m a big fan of Ellen Page’s recent roles since Inception. I really dug her in this year’s indie The East, alongside co-writer Brit Marling (Sound of My Voice). She’s great at playing individuals living off the grid. Even in the tech-heavy Nolan pic she remained old-school brainy. As Jodie, she has plenty of moments to embody a young woman who can work a firearm as well as a guitar. In the aforementioned homeless chapter, she has does a nice acoustic version of Beck’s “Lost Cause.” Nice pipes!
Her performance is all over this role; delivering snarky lines with her signature half-smirk, Page is unique. With her numerous facial expressions and the way she skitter-walks, she’s the opposite of the Lara Crofts of the gaming universe. Thankfully, processing power has come such a long way from the unnerving uncanny valley days of CGI. Even when some of the writing might feel a bit too on the nose, Page sells it. One such scene has teen Jodie sneaking out to a bar. It’s obvious from the moment she sees the local drunk guys what might happen, but Page elevates the material.
As for Dafoe? His virtual skin has been de-aged a bit. His noticeably high cheekbones reveal a grin that gives him that Norman Osborn circa 2002 look. As Dr. Dawkins, his role is merely supportive, but he delivers just enough heft.
2. Deliver a Baby, Then Save Said Baby From a Burning Building, Hulk Style!
Like Doctor David Banner (TV version, not comic book Bruce), Jodie encounters plenty of folks who need her help. As you probably figured out, thugs really shouldn’t make Aiden angry. They won’t like him when he’s angry….
In Arizona, she aides the best aged-CGI old women ever. There’s a mystery to solve too so Jodie/Aiden are on the case! Sticking with the Hulk TV show comparison, that makes Dr. Dawkins the Mr. McGee part, but Dawkins is much nicer and way less scheming. I wasn’t kidding about the burning building scenario, either – the baby is just one occupant!
|Cue Hulk sad music.
Jodie even does the lonely hitchhiker moment.
1. Even When I Live in a Swanky Pad, I Still Order Take-out.
|I woulda just worn a T shirt and jeans.
Seriously, only a David Cage game will have you get ready for a dinner date with options like being stylish (nice dress, clean up apartment) or lazy (jeans for me). I was in no mood to cook for Ryan, the dude Jodie is crushing on, so I just chose “order pizza”. I was delighted to hear Jodie say that she can’t believe she has the number of the pizza joint memorized. Once the date began, I switched to Aiden so I could be a havoc-causing jerk. These are the touches that a David Cage production brings.
Continue on, you crazy Frenchman. To the PS4!
3. Replayability Pretty Low.
|That homeless level screams to be played over and over…
This is a $60 game where, IMO, the stunning production value justifies the hefty price tag. However, I’ve actually never bothered to replay Heavy Rain. I’m glad Beyond allows me to revisit chapters so I might replay some of them. Or I might not.
2. Why Such a Reliance on the Fantastical? “Condensers?” Huh?
|Good thing, Aiden didn’t use this as his vessel.
After Indigo Prophecy‘s cop tale gave way to last-act antics like ridiculous shadow monsters, Cage was determined to not rely on magic for Heavy Rain. (Technically, he did not, but Detective Jaden’s cyber tech was realism stretching too.) The title, Beyond: Two Souls makes no bones about having supernatural elements. For the most part, it works better than expected. Until, however, the plot gets bigger and more, well, loopy in (once again) the last act.
Don’t misunderstand, Aiden is a compelling character that brings a necessary balance to Jodie’s more earthbound concerns (like that chapter where you cook and clean), yet, the mystery of Aiden’s existence leads to silly contraptions. Dr. Dawkins tries to create a bridge between the great beyond and our own with gigantic metallic condensers. Um, what? The whole “other side” plot device hasn’t been interesting since Poltergeist made us care for blonde tyke Carol Anne. Aiden is spooky enough while the Under Verse (or whatever it’s called) ultimately underwhelms.
1. QTE Stuff Gets Old.
Players reply on a single white dot as the main mode of the direction in the game. In theory, this should be intuitive: to punch a guy, click right, to sit down, click down, etc., but many times it just isn’t, which leads to much frustration. Worse is getting bogged down by holding several buttons at once (R1, L1, square) thereby breaking the immersion. Other more standard controls like walking feel too narrow. Example: you can’t use the right stick to look around as you walk, or more specifically, you can’t look more than a few degrees in either direction. Cage has a gift for melding tech with human-feelings so I hope his next project will finally solve what is his biggest problem: awkward controls that lessens the fun.
Verdict: Recommended for fans of Heavy Rain or anyone else looking willing to trade intuitive gameplay for engaging cinematic storytelling. The fact is no one else in the industry makes stuff like David Cage. If he is the Godard of games, where is gaming’s Truffaut? At the very least, can we get a Death Chess simulator inspired by The Seventh Seal? Now, that I wanna play!
Previously by Peter Paras:
Grand Theft Auto V: Ten Things to Love and Two Teensy Gripes
The Last of Us: Nine Ways It’s Unforgettable