Video game review: Ellen Page elevates 'Beyond: Two Souls'
Quantic Dream writer/director David Cage creates richly cinematic adventure games that aspire to tell emotionally powerful stories. He’s been trying to perfect his own brand of interactive storytelling for nearly a decade, with decidedly mixed results. His games all have a similar feel, eschewing traditional control schemes for timed button presses and dialogue options, leaving the player free to focus on the narrative. Players have a large amount of choice, with their decisions greatly affecting the direction of the story. The problem is, I’ve never felt like he’s had particularly interesting stories to tell.
His 2005 game Indigo Prophecy starts with an intriguing murder mystery but devolves into an incomprehensible supernatural mess. 2010’s Heavy Rain, for all its graphical prowess and unique gameplay situations (how many games have you pressing buttons to change a baby’s diaper?), was rife with gaping plot holes and featured such terribly awkward voice acting that it spawned an Internet meme. Cage’s latest effort, Beyond: Two Souls on PlayStation 3, still doesn’t have a particularly great story to tell, but thanks to a fully realized motion-capture performance by Juno and Inception actress Ellen Page, it’s an engaging one that is well worth experiencing.
Page stars as Jodie Holmes, a young woman tethered to a mysterious supernatural entity she calls Aiden. When Aiden’s powers prove too much for her parents to handle, she is placed under the care of scientist Nathan Dawkins, played by Willem Dafoe, every nook and cranny of his face rendered in almost disturbingly lifelike detail. The game spans 15 years and is told in a non-chronological format, jumping from Jodie’s awkward adolescence, to her training as a CIA recruit, to her early childhood and back. While the time jumps can feel jarring at times, they also kept me fully engaged, eager to see what wildly varied part of the world Jodie would go to next and what cute new hairstyle she’d be sporting.
Like Cage’s previous games, Beyond plays like an interactive film, with the ability to make dialogue choices and interact with objects or complete action-packed events. The game also lets you switch on the fly to controlling Aiden, who can move freely in a first-person perspective. Being a supernatural entity, he can phase through walls to hear things Jodie otherwise wouldn’t, as well as unlock doors, move objects or even temporarily possess other characters to aid in Jodie’s progress. The game also offers a two-player co-op mode, with one player controlling each character, which is an interesting way to experience the adventure.
Despite a large number of explosive set pieces, Beyond focuses more than almost any other game on the more mundane aspects of life. One chapter has you controlling Jodie as she prepares her apartment for a dinner date. Just when I was getting a little bit bored leafing through a recipe book and trying to find the pots and pans (seriously, I had just cooked dinner myself), I realized I could switch to Aiden and have some fun by messing up her just-cleaned apartment. It’s touches like these that you won’t find in many modern-day blockbuster games.
Beyond: Two Souls is by far Quantic Dream’s strongest effort yet, the graphics and animation almost a next-generation step up from Heavy Rain, despite running on the same-generation hardware. While the story doesn’t have quite the emotional impact that Cage so desperately wants to achieve, Page’s performance elevates the material considerably. With her half-smirks and trademark line delivery, Page brings Jodie fully to life, her motion-captured face conveying a wealth of emotions. Cage may not yet have written his chef d’oeuvre, but he’s created one hell of an interesting character. I’d love to see what Jodie does with the next 15 years of her life. B