No one shies away from the word ‘hate’ quite like game reviewers. Somewhere along the line we lost sense of what it was for a game to be critically divisive. My favourite films of this year (Spring Breakers and Only God Forgives) have truly divided people, the critical consensus erring slightly towards positivity on the former and slightly towards utter one-star condemnation of the latter. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – generally hailed as a masterpiece – evoked so much ire amongst members of the Pulitizer Board, and such love from others, that they failed to hand out a Pulitizer award in 1974. As much as I personally loved it, the most interesting pieces of writing about the Breaking Bad finale have been the critical ones.
We game critics are mocked for our concession making. Metacritic uses different metrics for games to denote our propensity towards higher scores, our refusal to just admit that we don’t like some games. We attach a 5 to a game and call it ‘average’, yet the average score we hand out is actually around 72.5. David Cage is described as a ‘divisive’ game director, yet the divide seems to be better utter admiration and mild discontent, with a few exceptions. In any other medium his reception would be considered extremely positive. Very few games critics adopt the star system that works so well for films, and in no other field is a negative review of a controversial object taken so personally.
Somewhere along the lines we forgot that we were allowed to hate games for reasons other than inherent mechanical awfulness, terrible presentation, or utter brokenness, and started to review games as though they were school assignments that needed to be ticked off as long as they checked the appropriate boxes. Partly this is the fault of an industry that has taken to treating Metacritic averages as solid ways of assessing whether studios deserve bonuses – a shameful, disgusting practice – and the culture of fear and degradation that has emerged from the cruel commenting practices of the Internet, leaving many critics whose tastes don’t fit within certain defined norms scared to speak up lest they get told to go kill themselves. In any case, there’s a problem here, one we critics should, I believe, face directly – it’s gotten terribly rare that we shake our heads at the big, popular games we can’t stand and declare ‘you know what? I hate this.’
I hate Beyond: Two Souls.
For the uninitiated, Beyond: Two Souls is an interactive drama covering the life of Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) from the age of eight until her early twenties. Jodie has been attached to an ‘entity’, which she refers to as Aiden, since birth. Aiden is able to detach from Jodie, mess around with the environment, travel through walls, and occasionally possess or kill people, all while you control him from an ethereal first person perspective. Early in the game it is explained that Jodie will, eventually, join the CIA, and at some point things will go bad and she’ll start killing a whole lot of men wearing armour, because this is, after all, a videogame.
The games of director David Cage have prompted a lot of navel gazing and unironic questioning of whether or not they count as games at all. Beyond: Two Souls is the clearest realisation yet of Cage’s desire to create interactive Hollywood cinema. It’s an idea that, at the absolute very least, Cage has managed to present as potentially workable throughout his career. But if Beyond: Two Souls were a film, it would be the sort of insane, misguided vanity project that sinks reputations (think Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, or just about everything M. Night Shyamalan has done since Signs). It is a trainwreck of unmet ambitions, misguided intent and fundamental misunderstandings of numerous different things.
The whole thing comes crashing off the rails pretty fast. Beyond gets off to a moderately encouraging introduction, but within forty minutes of playing, Jodie is attending a teenage birthday party. The narrative jumps back and forth between different points in Jodie’s life with little sense of coherency, but there are no Vonnegut-esque shenanigans here: the game simply has an incredibly odd relationship with time. The action is broken into vignettes, which seem to occur either in real-time or in a FIFA-styled incoherent time, whereby entire days seem to pass in minutes. This party scene condenses at least a few hours into minutes, during which time the player is largely free to decide what kind of experience Jodie will have. At first, there’s a sense of liberation to this scene – I made the previously shy Jodie emerge from her shell a bit, drinking, dancing and smoking weed. Despite the general empty feeling of the small gathering, there’s an authenticity to it as well, which has always been Cage’s best trademark. It doesn’t hurt that the graphics Beyond pumps out are absolutely fantastic. Character animation is convincing, even if, conversely, the ways the characters choose to move often don’t make much sense at all, and the facial technology is some of the best we’ve seen, outshining even LA Noire’s brilliant motion capture.
Events at this party unfold at an absolute lightning pace, and eventually I ran out of things to do. I wandered around, increasingly unconvinced and confused, for several minutes – the only interactive objects left in the room were a chair and a couch. I had no choice but the sit down, my two beers and minute of dancing having apparently exhausted me too much to join in with the other dancers. This is an early example of something that soon becomes the absolute core of the Beyond experience: rigid direction thinly disguised as freedom and agency. In truth, Beyond will play itself if you let it half the time. The action sequences that follow later give button prompts that can, usually, be ignored without any noticeable difference to the eventual outcome, aside from Jodie getting a bit more beaten up than she would have been if you’re followed the poorly flagged cues. One section on a motorbike can be played without steering at all, as long as you hold down the accelerator. As benign as it may seem, this choice between two chairs was, in fact, emblematic of how the entire game is designed to shove you down David Cage’s asinine path.
I sat down. Jodie engages in small talk with a young lad, and I have her dance with and kiss him. It’s a nice moment…which is thrown out the window completely minutes later when the party takes an utterly bizarre, unearned twist, and I find myself in a poorly integrated, unintentionally comical tutorial of Aiden’s abilities. The writing in Beyond is bizarre – some characters are moderately believable, while others are cynical representatives of humanity, viewed through a lens of madness. The party scene descends into something resembling a scene from Tommy Wiseau’s infamously awful/amazing movie ‘The Room’, but with teenagers and superpowers. As the scene wrapped up, I wondered if I was meant to laugh as much as I had been.
If the game had at least remained bad in this fun way, I would have appreciated it for what it was. Instead Beyond settles, for most of its running time, into absolute skull-aching dullness. You spend an inordinate amount of time walking slowly down hallways in Beyond, hoping something mildly interesting will happen in the background. David Cage has approached this game with an extremely cinematic sensibility, even though length wise it’s much closer to a season of television. This means that the game is phenomenally poorly paced, loaded chock-full of exposition, with facts and character traits being drilled into your head over and over and over again. Everything that would be cut or condensed in a film is shown in full. They could have cut 80% of the content and the plot – which even at its peak is absolute garbled nonsense, and manages to feature so many offensive sterotypes, absurd twists, ‘white saviour’ moments and exceptionally problematic scenes that at one point towards the end I actually hurled my controller at the ground in sheer disgust – wouldn’t have lost any of what little clarity it achieves. Perhaps some of that playtime could have been devoted to, say, actually establishing some semblance of consistency in the game’s ridiculous supernatural elements, which often come across as being made up on the spot without explanation.
Depending on which vignette you’re playing through – and they differ pretty significantly in tone, content and length – all this corridor wandering may eventually end in, say, a dull conversation, or some Aiden-based shenanigans. Every single Aiden interaction involves highlighting an object, pressing L1, and then pulling both sticks back. There are no mechanics beyond this, beyond occasionally possessing someone and then walking them down more of the game’s beloved corridors, hoping that you’ll walk in the right direction – which will happen eventually, since the game is just lousy with invisible walls – and trigger the next sequence…which will probably involve Jodie walking down corridors, looking to restart the whole process again. Somehow, the frequent action scenes manage to be even duller still. Cutscenes will kick in, and you’ll need to move the right stick in time with Jodie’s body to dodge explosions, counter attackers, and occasionally lay the smackdown. It can be hard to read what you’re meant to be doing, but you can fail every movement, usually, with absolutely no consequences, so what does it matter?
Usually, Cage gets by on filling his games with interesting choices and consequences. Heavy Rain was able to cover up its limited agency and stupendous plot holes by actively engaging the player in the storytelling process, giving them enough options to significantly alter how things play out. Beyond’s structure means that there are fewer questions to ask – you know no one will die, both because you’ve seen them alive in later scenes, and because the quick-time events are literally impossible to fail. Heavy Rain was very much about moving toward a solution to a mystery that genuinely intrigued (even if the payoff was weak), but Beyond is all about getting from point A to point B, over and over again. The journey’s no fun and the destination never seems to matter, and it’s rare that a scene will give you any tangible feel of actually being able to alter anything other than minor cosmetic details. The sense of drudgery this all evokes is downright depressing.
This is all a huge shame, because somehow, despite all of this, Beyond actually does show signs that this sort of game could really work. This is never more evident than in a section a third or so through the game where Jodie lives on the streets, and stumbles upon a group of homeless folks who she lives with briefly. Like most of the game, little of what happens holds up to examination – and this is the point where I started to feel that Aiden’s powers and traits were just arbitrarily being made up based on what the game needed at any given point – but the sentimentality of it all feels right, the scenario is moderately compelling, and the performances are great. For forty minutes, Beyond feels like the game David Cage wanted to make. But then this section too ends in with a series of glaringly weak pieces of exposition and plot contrivances, and the game shifts back into uncomfortable crapulence.
Outside of this section, the game’s treatment of human emotions is bizarrely spotty. Jodie flits back and forth between reluctant killer and mass-murderer, and character turns are delivered through such hammy dialog that it’s impossible to buy most of the characters as real people. If you start possessing and killing enemies, none of their comrades seem in any way perturbed or scared, sucking any sense of reality from proceedings. Entire organisations are portrayed as evil for no real reason other than plot convenience. The streets are ultra-dangerous, and everyone is an arsehole. There’s a weird misunderstanding of human emotions throughout, which makes the romantic subplot towards the end phenomenally irritating – the game tries its darnedest to get Jodie hooked up with a total dick, and seemed increasingly incredulous and unbelieving when I continually rejected him.
Speaking of Jodie – she’s an uneven, but moderately enjoyable character, against all odds. Everything that works in Beyond: Two Souls works because David Cage chose Ellen Page as his star. Her performance, while never spectacular and occasionally grating or overdone, is well above what the material deserves, and it genuinely feels as though she is taking this massive project seriously. Female protagonists are still terrifyingly rare, and the game is at its best when it is focused squarely on her.
Because of this, I really wish I liked the game. I’d love to enjoy a game that prioritised the feelings and tribulations of a young girl who becomes a young woman. I would be ecstatic to see a protagonist like Jodie in just about any other game, waving the flag for at least a modicum of diversity. At one point, I found myself controlling a young Jodie as she played with her dolls. I think of my little sister, who bears a striking resemblance, and for a second my heart swelled with love. I pushed the sticks the game told me to press, I tapped the buttons I needed to, and I watched as Jodie went about her business with almost no input from me. What she was doing wasn’t so different from what I was doing, I realised – moving little dolls around static dollhouses, going through the motions to evoke the mundane. A few minutes later, I controlled Jodie during the world’s dullest (albeit beautifully rendered) snowball fight, and tried to remember if childhood was the boring ordeal this game is making it into.
So when I say that I hate Beyond: Two Souls, I don’t mean to undermine the hard work done by the actors, the excellent animation, or any of the ambition and toil that went into it. People worked hard on this, the work shows, and they should be proud that they managed to create something so substantial. But wow, do I ever hate playing it. I hate it so, so much. David Cage may have succeeded at making his most cinematic game yet, but if I’d paid $8 to see Beyond on the cinema’s cheap day I would have walked out well before the credits rolled.