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Editor’s note: This review contains minor spoilers, marked by section.
We roll our eyes when Hollywood tries to imitate games. Most directors fail to capture the spirit of a series in a way that tells a good story. They get caught up in all the action and special effects.
Like Quantic Dream’s previous interactive drama Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls (out today on PlayStation 3) is a movie and game rolled into one, and David Cage is its director. Thanks to the motion-captured acting of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, both well-known Hollywood talent, Beyond comes even closer to film than we imagined possible years ago.
The inclusion of likeable and expressive actors makes all the difference.
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What you’ll like
Only one person teared up more than I did during my playthrough of Beyond, and that was Page’s character, Jodie Holmes. She has a lot to be upset about. She’s a lonely girl who smiles little, and at first what I perceived as aloofness is really her defense mechanism.
From birth, Jodie has found herself tied to an entity known as Aiden, and she’s endured a hard life because of it. The two are linked together with a chain of spiritual energy, and it’s through this bond that she can exert psychic powers. But Aiden is no puppet. Even without discernible language or a physical body, he demonstrates an amazing range of emotions. He’s prone to angry fits of violence. He can be jealous. He throws tantrums. But above all, he’s loyal and protective of Jodie.
Players act out these emotions like a poltergeist when they control Aiden, choosing how to behave — what to throw or interact with — and when to stop. This creates a believable dynamic as players engage as both characters, each reacting to the thoughts and motivations of the other. You understand what they’re each feeling at any given time, even when no words are spoken.
The exceptional acting helps. Page is kind, intelligent, and resilient as Jodie. You won’t think of her as a female protagonist — just a well-developed character — and that’s an important accomplishment in an industry that has yet to achieve such equality. The supporting characters, like Dafoe as Jodie’s compassionate mentor, Nathan Dawkins, and Kadeem Hardison as her caring overseer, Cole Freeman, are equally as memorable and compelling in their performances. This story has more than one heart.
Clear narrative purpose
Beyond consists of many chapters, some short and some long, that are tightly woven stories. It skips around through the years, going back and forth on a timeline of events. One moment, you’re a little girl playing with Barbies, wearing pink clothes and hugging a pink stuffed animal and fearing monsters in the dark. The next, you’re a young adult in the military, running and crawling through rain and mud and still clutching that toy rabbit at night. Each segment feels vastly different — transporting players from a Navajo ranch to Jodie’s childhood home — and holds at least one surprise, but they all serve the greater story and succeed in more deeply investing the player in the characters.
The disorder of these milestones in Jodie’s life is intentional. Each adds more context to the larger story so players can understand the characters and why these moments matter. These jumps in narrative also build suspense much like a movie switches from one scene to another and then back again. One hour will turn to five without players even noticing.
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for this section.
Beyond involves two types of interaction: button presses, or physical movement, and choices that advance the story. The second is what makes it special.
The most affecting chapters are those that use realistic details and believable life situations to create empathy. We’ve all feared the dark, but that horror magnifies when you’re a little girl who can commune with spirits — not all of them friendly. My favorite part, a beautiful balance of highs and lows, lets players experience what it’s like to be homeless.