Dabe Alan / Sony

Beyond: Two Souls is violent, touching, and it may not end with your death

Beyond: Two Souls is violent, touching, and it may not end with your death

It’s hard to kill someone. Video games may have given us the pleasant illusion that “bad guys” are faceless thugs, but Jodie Holmes is put in a situation where she has to actively pull the trigger and kill a number of people. She’s far from home, working for the CIA, and she’s looking at the world through the eyes of an enemy combatant.

Yes, Beyond: Two Souls, gets weird.

Talking with the dead

Jodie has the ability to speak with a spirit named Aiden, and they can take control of certain people's bodies and control their actions. Jodie works for the CIA, and this is an early mission, although I’m told you’ll spend a fair amount of the game traveling around the world. For the moment she seems to be in Africa, and you learn that others can see a change in the eyes of those who become possessed.

You have to find someone with sunglasses to hide your influence, slip into a meeting of the warlords, and kill everyone inside. Jodie clearly has to hype herself up to pull the trigger, even if it’s done through the body of another. The host body is killed in the ensuing gunfight.

This bloodbath has unintentional consequences, and Holmes has to deal with the ramifications of the violence she caused. Jodie Holmes is played by Ellen Page, and the motion capture, voice acting, and writing is well above average, and certainly a step above the often tortured pronunciations of common words we heard in Heavy Rain, the last game from David Cage and Quantic Dream. The violence causes Jodie to be discovered, and she retreats to a small building, trying to keep the men from finding her.

It’s a tense, terrible moment. Jodie knows that these men won’t detain her. You can look around at this moment, and pick up your gun. Jodie places it under her chin, only to have it ripped away by Aiden.

“Do you know what they’re going to do to me?” Jodie screams. “Is that what you want?” I’ll leave the rest of the scene unspoiled, but I will say that I receive the “bad” ending, although that merely means that the story progresses a certain way.

Guillaume de Fondaumiere, Quantic Dreams’ co-CEO and Executive Producer of the game, comes over to talk through my experience once the demo is over.

“You could have gone to the roof, and you would have had a different ending,” he said, although he claimed my outcome was just as valid. “You can fail,” he pointed out.

Controlling Holmes is only part of the game, the rest is spent guiding Aiden’s spirit around the levels, interacting with the environment, killing enemies by throating them using some kind of psychic force. You can also take over the bodies of others, a power I used to solve this particular situation. It’s an interesting relationship, and de Fondaumiere said that the player won’t be told who Aiden actually is, a secret that’s also being kept from Holmes.

“That’s something you’re going to discover, it’s one of the big mysteries of the game. You’ll have to discover it,” he told me. The game’s controls are funky, and it can be frustrating to control Aiden’s floaty, imprecise movements.

You’ll also have to stay close to Holmes as you scout ahead, Aiden can only venture so far away from Holmes in order to gain intelligence or to take out enemies. Holmes and Aiden operate as a team, and this is why she became some interesting to the CIA, leading to these missions. You’ll travel the world, and you won’t always be successful in your goals.

Heavy Rain also allowed you to fail, but that game featured an ensemble cast. Beyond could be slightly trickier, as you’re dealing with one central character, and the spirit who helps her throughout the game. Still, the conceit that you’ll “win” some encounters and “lose” others is retained from Heavy Rain. Everyone will be given their own version of the story.

“It’s the same principle, which means there is never a game over. The story continues. I can’t tell you everything, but the story continues. There’s always a logical continuation of the story. Sometimes you can even die.”

I had spoken to David Cage extensively about the creation of this game. If Heavy Rain was his attempt at dealing with being a father, Beyond: Two Souls was written to help deal with the violent death of a friend. He felt that religion had failed him, and wanted to explore what might happen after we die.

And that’s one of the major differences between Beyond and Heavy Rain; this game has only one hero. The main character is Jodie Holmes. If she dies, it’s game over, right?

de Fondaumiere paused for a moment, as if considering whether to tell me something. “No,” he said finally, and smiled. 

Tightening the screws

Beyond is a hard game to deal with in a preview, as I was often frustrated by the controls and the lack of direction in terms of what to do, and where to go. That may be fixed when you’re able to play this scene in the proper context, and after additional playtesting, and I hope the controls are tightened up before release.

In a game where failure is a mechanic, I want to fail for the right reasons; because I made the wrong decision and missed seeing something. I don’t want to lose an opportunity due to figuring out how to open a door or manipulate the environment.

That being said, this was a unexpectedly harrowing 20 minutes or so of game play, and Ellen Page’s performance is raw and evocative. In many ways it reminded me of the younger X-Men; they’re put in a combat situation because of a power they have, not necessarily because they’re comfortable fighting, or even trained in what we consider to be standard forms of combat. Holmes seems lost in Africa, small and alone, except for her spirit companion who is willing to kill on her command.

If nothing else, I want to know where the story goes, and I’m already on board with the characterizations of both Holmes and Aiden. I’m willing to put up with some janky controls when the game seems so willing to deal in heavier themes, especially when that tone comes across so well. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Beyond: Two Souls is coming to the PlayStation 3 on October 8, 2013.