Beyond: Two Souls preview: Mean Girls
On a very rare occasion, I get nostalgic for adolescence. I had all the time in the world to play games, I think, and I didn't have to worry about money. Then I play a scene in Beyond: Two Souls, and I remember, "Oh yeah, being a teenager was the worst."
One such scene takes place during a party straight out of Carrie. Jodie Holmes, trapped on a military base for pretty much her entire life because he has a bizarre extra-dimensional creature named Aiden following her around like an abusive boyfriend, is excited to finally make some friends. The analyst in charge of her case, Nathan Dawkins (played with a dry but warm sense of paternalism by Willem Dafoe), hands her a rare book of stories by Edgar Allen Poe and tells her to have a good time.
I'm going to choose to ignore how unlikely it is that the military would allow a high value research subject like Jodie hang out unsupervised with some idiot teenagers, because the scene that followed was interesting. At first, Jodie is invited to hang out, have a beer, and dance a bit with a charming British expat who remarks on how pretty she is. But everything goes sour when the host opens Jodie's present and completely loses it because, oh god, someone actually gave her a book that she might have to read.
Okay, so the scene isn't anything I haven't seen a million times in Mean Girls or She's All That or any other high school comedy. The group turns on Jodie and locks her in a closet, and she decides to take revenge with the help of her invisible friend Aiden (or not--she can just leave, if you want). What makes Beyond different, at least for me, is that it hits uncomfortable close to home. I couldn't help squirming as the nice British guy sneered, "She's been following me around like a lost puppy all day," everyone made fun of her outfit, then surrounded her chanting, "Witch!" Cheesy? Yes. Uncomfortable? Definitely.
The emotions that it produced were such that, when it came time to turn Aiden loose, I did it with relish. I should mention that Aiden's perspective is a little different than Jodie's. Where her story plays out from a third-person perspective, all of Aiden's action is in the first-person. In effect, you are always Aiden--the male gaze personified (despite being a supernatural smoke monster, Aiden is definitely male presence). It's more than a little creepy. In this instance, however, I was more than happy to mess things up on Jodie's behalf.
Floating through the door into the living room, I messed up whatever I could. I flipped tables, knocked over plates, and generally scared the hell out of everyone. And then... I probably went a little too far. With Jodie yelling at me to stop, I took one of the candles and set the curtains on fire. I probably would have let Jodie's tormentors die of smoke inhalation if the game had let me. It's horrible, but these moments tend to bring out the worst in me. Instead, I ran out of things to interact with, and I had to watch as they all fled the burning house.
Two things; first, Beyond: Two Souls is really good at building tension and getting me fully invested in a scene. A great example of this is one of the earliest moments, which shows Jodie at the age of eight or so. A researcher comes to pick her up from her closely monitored playroom for an experiment, where she is asked to use Aiden to see which cards a woman is looking at next door. There's an air of menace to the scene that builds and builds before culminating in Aiden losing control, the hapless volunteer sobbing, and Jodie screaming as the researchers try to break down the door. It's a case study, I think, in using a steady pace to build up tension, then bringing it to a crescendo using a combination of restricted viewpoints and jarring sound effects.
Second, I really like Jodie, who is understandably unhappy with her lot, but never comes off as overly dramatic, thanks in large part to a sympathetic performance by Ellen Page. Beyond: Two Souls really goes out of its way to get you to understand her plight, but I never really felt manipulated, even as I understood the mechanics of what was going on. Instead, I found it interesting to stare up at adults from a child's perspective, sway awkwardly with a moving train while trying to escape a handful of federal agents, and nervously fiddle with a pad of paper in the middle of an espionage operation, all of which are enhanced by the swift quicktime events, none of which pause for even a moment. Jodie herself is likable, and I found myself rooting for her, even as he murdered dozens of soldiers and police in a bid to escape the clutches of the government.
It was the moments when Jodie is just a child, or a teenager, or a young adult trying to live out her life that I found Beyond: Two Souls most arresting. It has a way of putting you in the moment, as when I nervously responded to the British teens advances on Jodie's behalf, and I found myself thinking back to every awkward encounter I've ever had with a guy. The actions scenes are a little more problematic. Like the rest of the game, they're mostly reliant on quicktime events, which means either flicking the right stick or tapping a button at the right moment. Failing a quicktime event won't mess up the game, but such scenes feel less exciting and more... stressful. I feel like I spent most of those scenes looking around for the next trigger, which hurts the sort of organic sense of action that Beyond: Two Souls is going for.
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And then there's Aiden. I really don't know what to make of Jodie's invisible "friend," which I suppose is kind of the point. In a lot of ways, Aiden is like an jealous boyfriend or a stalker, unwilling to let Jodie live her own life. He's envious, he lashes out a lot, and he generally makes Jodie's life miserable. It's a clearly abusive relationship, which is why I can't help feeling a little uncomfortable when David Cage talks about Aiden being Jodie's only real friend. I get that Aiden is supposed to be more of a force than an intelligence, but I don't know, there are enough parallels to real life abuse that I can't help raising an eyebrow. It's one aspect of Beyond: Two Souls that made me more than a little uncomfortable with the enjoyment I got out of wreaking havoc at the party.
It's because of Aiden, and the inherent issues I have with 'find the trigger point' action scenes, that I find myself slightly ambivalent about Beyond: Two Souls. It's a very interesting game, but it's hard for me to say whether I would want to play 10-15 hours of it, because it makes me uncomfortable at times (the party made me supremely uncomfortable). I suppose I would, simply because I like Jodie, and because I want to see what other memories and experiences it manages to dredge up. Like Heavy Rain, it's an interesting example of video game storytelling evolving, and developers experimenting with the form. That it reminded me so forcefully of my own experiences with high school, and so effectively made me sympathize with Jodie, is to its credit. But there are times when the seams of its gameplay are apparent, as when I'm playing 'find the trigger point,' and I'm still not sure what to make of Aiden. It's a unique, if somewhat flawed experience, and one that definitely deserves more attention.
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