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Review: Beyond – Two Souls

Using some of the least compelling so-called “mechanics” ever seen to tell a story that wouldn’t pass muster at an online creative writing diploma mill, Beyond is irrefutable evidence that the games-as-interactive-fiction movement is a self-indulgent pipe dream not worth pursuing.

David Cage hates video games, and he wants to make sure you know it. Quantic Dream’s creative director is an awful, self-aggrandizing mouthpiece for every complaint lobbed at the century’s most exciting new medium by “critics” who don’t enjoy video games half as much as they love bitching about them.

This disdain for games — and gamers — permeates every aspect of Beyond. From the near-complete absence of mechanics in a $60 software product (this is certainly not a game), to the assumption that including two Hollywood actors is a substitute for coherent writing in a story based title; Cage’s latest is the logical extreme of a constant, childish insistence on the part of games press/development hipsters to make the medium as “accessible” as movies.

In that regard, what a job they’ve done! Beyond is, indeed, the most accessible big-budget title ever released for a console. Use the left stick to move Ellen Page around the screen! Press triangle to switch to Ellen Page’s tag-along poltergeist, and move the sticks in or out to advance the story! Tap the button as it appears on screen! Does even that seem too much for little baby to handle? Don’t worry, sweet pea! You are mommy’s shining star, and Beyond doesn’t have anything close to a “fail state.” If you don’t hit the button; if you don’t press forward fast enough; the game will either wait for you to catch up or give you a do-over without any penalty whatsoever, not so much as a reload screen.

The logical extreme of constant, childish attempts to make games more inclusive.

Rather than spend the next ten hours reading about just how little there is to do in Beyond, let’s cut to the chase: There is a section where Ellen Page must hijack a motorcycle and drive away while being chased by SWAT teams and helicopters. If you do not push the accelerator, the game waits for you. If you push the accelerator and do not bother to steer at all, you will be bounced off the trees and side of the road until the next cutscene triggers. The game will not allow you to wreck or fail, no matter what you do, up to and including failing to interact with it. That’s Beyond’s entire design document — it is 8-10 hours of telling the viewer (Beyond’s audience member is certainly not a player) that they did good, even if they did bad — or nothing at all. It is atrocious. 

“But what of the story?!” the hipsters cry. “Story is just as valid a thing to build a game around as mechanics, and if a story has even one choice to make, it is by definition a video game, and who are you to say what is and isn’t a game? Huh? Who are you?” Ever prone to hypocrisy, the games hipster will decry first person shooters as glorified carnival blasting galleries, immediately before going on to explain how the future of games is in regressing them to bombastic choose-your-own-adventure books accessible to anyone.

Beyond won’t let you fail, no matter what you do, including failing to interact with it.

So it is that the fraud’s argument remains fraudulent, the sun rises in the morning, and sets at dusk. But even if we accept, however momentarily for the sake of argument, that story is a valid substitution for solid mechanics in what is ostensibly a game, Beyond remains a steaming pile of shit. For all of Cage’s constant hyperbole re: “evolving” video games into something “mature,” if Beyond’s script were for a film (the medium Cage clearly, painfully wishes he could be working in), it would not have gotten past the first overworked reader at the most barrel-bottom agency in California. The story for Beyond makes no sense, its plot beats alternate between the nonsensical and the absurd. In the following paragraphs, I will highlight just how bad things can get when a conglomerate like Sony gives a self-important hipster like David Cage untold millions of dollars to wank himself into a tissue. Needless to say, Spoilers follow:

Exhibit A: Beyond follows Ellen Page’s character, Jodie, through two decades or so of her life. It shows how she went from a lab rat in a government orphanage, to a superpowered CIA operative, to a rogue agent on the lam, to superhero-who-must-save-the-world. It also explores her relationship with Aiden (lol) a poltergeist that has been with her since birth. In an early section, Jodie’s handler/father figure, played by Willem Dafoe, caves to her pleas to attend a birthday party. At this party, the player can choose to demonstrate Jodie’s ghost powers to  the other children. Even if the player does so, the children close out the scene by turning on Jodie in an instant and locking her in the closet. The retribution you’d expect swiftly follows, and it’s like, I know kids are stupid and don’t always make logical decisions, but even the biggest group of prepubescent dumbasses on the planet would know better than to fuck with a girl who just showed you she has a superpowered ghost at her command. This scene is especially relevant because it happens early on in the story, and quite frankly, a plothole like this would seriously, truly, cause any film executive to shred the script and pass on the work with extreme prejudice. At absolute best, said executive would buy David Cage’s logline, “I have talked Ellen Page into playing a CIA agent with a superpowered poltergeist” for 100k and then commission a rewrite from a scribe who knows what the fuck he/she is doing. Thank god, then, that this be video games, where the purity of David Cage’s idiot vision can be fully preserved.

Exhibit B: After Jodie goes on the lam, she considers killing herself. She spends some time on the city streets in the freezing cold with a colorful group of homeless people who take her in. In the next hour or so, Jodie taps the X button to beg for change (fucking seriously) before using her ghost powers to break into an ATM for food money. She then has to deliver a homeless woman’s baby (fucking seriously), and uses her ghost powers to break into a nearby supermarket to steal supplies to aid in this effort. Ten minutes later, Jodie has to save that woman and her baby from a fucking fire, because why the fucking fuck wouldn’t she, this is David Cage we’re talking about, a man who never saw a cliche he didn’t fall in love with, fuck vigorously, get pregnant, and later murder in a fit of rage while screaming “WHY DON’T YUH LOVE ME?” Before the section ends, Jodie will use her ghost powers to ease one homeless man’s suffering over the loss of his dead wife, and help another homeless man get off the pipe. By the end of the story, you learn that all these homeless dudes/dudettes magically overcame all of their hardships overnight as a result of their brief time with Ellen Page, Magical White Girl With A Secret. Fuck this “game.”

Exhibit C: Jodie’s next stop on the road to redemption is to hitchhike across the desert. Dying of thirst, she’s rescued by a conveniently placed reservation where an aging medicine man, his mute mother, and strapping young lads all share a home. Each night, these Stereotypical Natives become horrified and lock themselves in their home as a tribe of ghost warriors (their ancestors, natch) defend them from a Giant Smoke Skull Evil Spirit. Of course Jodie helps them defeat it, of course it involves magic talismans, of course the mute grandmother says her First Words In Years to help save the day right before she dies, of course one of the strapping young lads is a Taylor Lautner stand-in, of course that stand in is a telegraphed possible love interest, and of course it’s all fucking awful, because David Cage. But beyond “fuck David Cage,” let’s consider this for a second. Pick your favorite paranormal-themed film. For our purposes, let’s go with something safe and mainstream that a lot of people have seen, say, The Sixth Sense. Let’s pretend that, in the second act of The Sixth Sense, the film completely diverted from the main story line of “little boy sees dead people” to follow Haley Joel Osment as he runs off to defeat a giant UFO that just appeared over Harlem. How could you expect to get back into the suspense of “little boy sees dead people” when the movie was just like, HOLY FUCK SHIT ALIENS ARE REAL AND HATE US (AND A CHILD SHALL BEAT THEM)? In Beyond, we have a title that expects you to buy-in to the suspense of a mystery of a little girl and her poltergeist, then says, “by the way, ancient Native American spirit demons are real and they look like Halloween decorations,” then expects you to go back to being in suspense over a (no-longer) little girl’s poltergeist mystery after that episode is over. That’s the level of tonal shift we’re expected to put up with here, because David Cage’s Vision and Games Must Mature and Bloopa Derp Derpy Doo.

Exhibit D: Another possible love interest, and the one the game clearly wants you to pick, is Not Ryan Reynolds (he’s even named Ryan, for fuck’s holy sake). Not Ryan Reynolds is a CIA field agent who begins his involvement in Jodie’s tale by playing the bad cop and yanking still-underage Jodie from her government lab-home. She’s conscripted into service for the CIA and, in short order, Jodie becomes an agency superstar. Not Ryan Reynolds is her handler for missions, and oh yeah, they can eventually start fucking. Now then, let’s consider what would happen if a thirty-something fashion model/CIA agent seduced a barely-legal nubile orphan (that he met while said orphan was still underage) in, say, any video game with guns and fun mechanics. The frauds would be up in arms about how creepy the whole debacle is, and for once (God grant me penance for what I’m about to type), they’d be right. Let’s also consider that Not Ryan Reynolds constantly lies to Jodie over the course of the game about everything, right up to manipulating her into assassinating a third-world country’s legitimately elected head of state. And, by god, let’s not consider that Not Ryan Reynolds never does anything to make himself likable or to make the viewer think he’d be a good catch for Jodie, because what David Cage has brought together, let no man tear asunder.

Exhibit E: In the final few hours of Beyond, Willem Dafoe goes from “nurturing, likeable father figure/mentor for Jodie” to “cackling mad scientist bent on destroying the world for selfish reasons,” because of course he does, he’s Willem Dafoe. Basically, Willem Dafoe’s wife and daughter are killed in a car wreck early in the game, and despite everything he knows to be true about the Infraworld (they really, really, really and truly call the ghost world this) from years and years of expensive research and firsthand experience with Jodie, he thinks it would be a great idea to shut off the containment thing that keeps their dimension seperate from ours, on the off chance that he can be with his wife and daughter again. Here’s the kicker: Five minutes prior to this decision, Jodie uses her superpowers to tell Willem Dafoe that his wife and daughter are being hurt by his attempts to keep them close, and they want him to let them go. Of course he does it anyway, of course you have to walk right into the ghost dimension, and of course you have to literally pick the ending you want by moving the stick over the ending you want.

Exhibit F: Word says there are multiple endings. In my ending, Jodie returns to live in a communal apartment with her formerly homeless buddies from earlier and help the girl she delivered grow up to be a Strong Female Character, because of course she’s got superpowers too, and Jodie has visions of a ghost war on the horizon only she can win. I have no goddamn idea what the other endings are, because after viewing what I just wrote, I couldn’t be bothered to so much as look the rest up on Youtube.

Verdict:

David Cage’s previous work this generation, Heavy Rain, was equally free of any true mechanics, and it too suffered from the same “huge plothole ruins entire basis of story” issue. Still, there was some validity to the experiment: The concept of hunting a serial killer of children is a premise that inherently invites a slower, methodical pace; as opposed to something like Beyond, where one frequently wishes the title would turn over control to let the viewer actually do the cool shit that goes on in glorified cutscenes. Also, the fact that there were four player characters, one of which was the serial killer, was itself an absolute masterstroke, capable of  keeping the viewer engaged enough to slog through the low points (which Heavy Rain also had in spades, because David Cage). 

But where Heavy Rain at least made an attempt to execute on its premise, Beyond completely squanders every shred of potential its premise might have held. Any developer worth its salt could conceive a fantastic game based around a CIA agent with a mysterious past and her tag-along poltergeist, but Beyond wasn’t made by a developer with salt-worth, it was made by David Cage, a man whose commitment to mediocrity and wank is firm, total, and unwavering. Whether you choose to judge this work based on story, mechanics, or both, it fails magnificently. Beyond is one of the absolute worst attempts at making an enjoyable video game or coherent fiction to ever exist.

Bonus Video Review: Open Letter To Mr. Cage

Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PS3

Grade: F

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