When I traded in my copy of Mass Effect 3 for store credit at EB Games, the girl behind the counter begged me to reconsider. “How could you trade this in?” she cried. “It’s Mass Effect 3! It’s incredible!”
I shook my head ruefully and replied, “I just couldn’t play through it again.”
After a moment, she nodded at me. “I know what you mean,” she said.
She understood exactly what I saying: that, over the vast and intricately woven narrative of Mass Effect’s three-game space epic, I had come to know and love Commander Shepard and his courageous crewmates like old friends, comrades-in-arms. That I had shared every moment of their joy and pain. That I had watched them fight and and grow and love and suffer and sacrifice and triumph, and at the final game’s conclusion, I had felt my heart ripped still-beating from my chest, leaving me an emotionally barren husk of a human being.
A video game made me feel that. All at once, a game made me feel grief and jubilation and despair. Like Dancer in the Dark, without the musical numbers or the public execution. Such magnificent agony that I simply could not bear to experience it again.
The night I finished Bioshock Infinite, I didn’t sleep at all. I watched the credits roll, heard the bittersweet notes of “Will the Circle be Unbroken”, went to bed and lay there, my head spinning with theories and questions and ideas of quantum mechanics, multiverse theory and the nature of redemption. I wanted to take apart every pixel of the game and analyse it relentlessly. My inability to discuss it with friends and colleagues who’d yet to finish it was nothing short of maddening. The reviews I read online were structured like doctoral theses or literary essays, discussing the integrity of the game’s logic and the motives of its characters more than the actual mechanics of its gameplay.
Even the original Bioshock, when I first played it, spurred in me such fascination with the concept of Objectivism that I immediately went out and bought Atlas Shrugged. (Which was a mistake; please do not read that book.) I was genuinely aggrieved by the death of John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. Don’t even ask me how I felt at the end of The Last of Us.
Either I’m growing less and less emotionally stable with each passing year (a solid theory, granted), or the games I’m playing these days pack far more emotive and intellectual punch than they used to. It’s hardly surprising, given the truly phenomenal level of technology that developers have at their fingertips; they’re becoming bolder, crafting worlds that truly immerse us, characters that genuinely affect us, and ideas that ultimately challenge our beliefs and modes of thinking. There is now, really, nothing separating a good video game from a good film – the tools and techniques are interchangeable. It’s an exciting time to be a gamer.
But easily one of the best displays of technical innovation came in 2010, from French developer Quantic Dream. Heavy Rain was, in many ways, an absolute first of its kind, the definitive ‘interactive drama’; its narrative, guided by the player’s every tiny decision, was focused more on small, intimate human moments than the grandiose story lines typical to video gaming. There were no scoring systems or competitive leaderboards – you watched the story play out with tight, cinematic direction, and controlled its course through quick-time button pressing and limited environmental exploration. If your character(s) died, no reload, no game over. That was all simply part of the narrative you had crafted.
Understandably, the gaming community waited with great curiosity to see what Quantic would come up with next. The developer has spent the last three years refining their motion-capture and facial mapping technology, and building on the new genre they helped to pioneer. And now, three years later, comes Beyond: Two Souls, a work that straddles the divide between game and film so confidently that half an hour of its gameplay footage was recently presented at the Tribeca Film Festival to critical acclaim.
I was mightily impressed by the demo a few weeks ago, and after purchasing the full game last Thursday, spent the entire day playing through the storyline from start to finish. I literally could not walk away without seeing it through to its conclusion.
Beyond is the story of Jodie Holmes, a girl who, since birth, has been bonded to a mysterious spectral entity called Aiden. They share an intense and complicated codependency; she both resents his presence and craves it, fighting with him but relying on him almost completely as a guardian and a confidante. As she explains early on, she may make requests of Aiden but is never truly in control of his actions; though they are permanently tethered to each other, they aren’t always in agreement.
The game chronicles fifteen years of Jodie’s life, from her difficult childhood and sheltered adolescence in a government science facility to her maturity as a young woman working for the CIA. The narrative is not linear, but jumps backwards and forwards quite dramatically between various episodes in her life. The game’s loading screen is even structured as a timeline, so as each level loads, you can see where in Jodie’s history the game is about to take you. It’s a clever arrangement – I felt like I was being given disparate puzzle pieces that, one by one, began to form a complete picture of this remarkable woman.
Jodie is voiced and motion-captured in astonishing detail by Ellen Page – she gives her all here, breathing real humanity and vulnerability into her protagonist. Jodie’s pain, her rage and, more importantly, her will to go on regardless, are evident in every line of Page’s delivery. Beyond’s cast is also rounded out by Willem Dafoe in the role of paranormal researcher Dr Nathan Dawkins (who cares for Jodie even as he conducts testing on her abilities), and Eric Winter as the CIA agent who recruits her.
The story’s disjointed leaps back and forth in time allow the game to constantly switch gears between huge action sequences and small moments of domesticity. One chapter, which featured in the playable demo, sees Jodie on the run from federal officers, SWAT teams and attack dogs. After fighting her way across the roof of a speeding train in a rainstorm, dredging through sodden woodland, stealing a motorcycle and breaking through an armoured blockade, she is besieged outside a small town movie theatre; Aiden helps her escape by murdering a couple of dozen police officers, crashing a helicopter and blowing up a gas station. With its tight aerial and over-the-shoulder camerawork and explosive score, it feels just like a gritty handheld action film.
Soon after, bang! We’re in a romantic comedy. Jodie is giddily attracted to her handsome CIA handler Ryan, and has invited him over to her apartment for dinner. But oh no! The apartment is filthy, Jodie is a terrible cook and she has no idea what to wear! And if that weren’t bad enough, Aiden is jealous of her flirtation with a human male, and he’s out to c-block her at every opportunity. You have to guide Jodie around her apartment, picking a dish to cook and trying not to fuck up the recipe, putting those dirty clothes in the hamper, selecting some appropriate music and finding a dress that shows just the right amount of side-boob.
Aiden, meanwhile, will prank your doorbell and lock you out of the apartment, mess with your kitchen utensils, write clingy messages in the steam on your bathroom vanity and stack the dining room chairs in a small pyramid, Poltergeist-style. He’ll even try to spook Ryan while you’re putting the moves on him. Honestly, what a pair. They should pitch Aiden & Jodie as a new sitcom.
But for me, the most confronting episode by far takes place while Jodie is still hiding from the authorities. Starving, exhausted and frozen half to death, she’s taken in by a group of paupers living under a highway overpass. Soon she finds herself adapting to the homeless lifestyle as well, surviving as best she can in the bleak snow-driven streets.
As Jodie, you quite literally sit and beg for spare change, eat mouldy pizza out of a dumpster, steal from ATM machines and almost give a blowjob in an alley for ten dollars. It’s horrific to watch, even more so to guide Jodie’s actions directly as she rasps and shivers on the verge of collapse. It struck me, more in this moment than any other, just how far this game goes beyond the expectations and parameters of the medium. That you can be sneaking and cover-shooting through the streets of a war-torn Iranian city at one moment and then crayon drawing as a nine-year-old girl the next, speaks volumes about the developer’s ambition here.
If you’ve played Heavy Rain at all, you’ll have some idea of Beyond’s basic mechanics. Each chapter alternates between free-roaming environments, in which you can explore, observe and interact with your surroundings, and fast-paced quick-time events, in which you must push the correct buttons and move the analog stick where required to dodge hostile attacks, avoid obstacles, and generally stay alive. The latter are particularly intense; at times, I found myself inches away from the television screen furiously hammering whichever button was prompted, as Jodie desperately fought off her human or supernatural assailant.
One of the gripes I had with Heavy Rain was how closely its interface forced you to focus on just one small part of the screen – often, during intense fight or flight sequences, you were so fixated on the tiny icons telling you what button to press that it was difficult to pay attention to what was actually happening in the scene.
The system works a little better here; when Jodie is forced to attack, evade or defend herself, the action goes into slow motion, and rather than looking at one small part of the screen, you push the analog stick in the same direction her body is moving to complete the action. In this way, it’s easier to actually take in everything that’s happening, which I was grateful for, given the enormous emphasis on narrative.
You’re able to play as both Jodie and Aiden, and (with few exceptions) switch between them at any time. As Jodie, a series of white dots appear in the environment around you to indicate what you can interact with – pushing the control stick towards them can sometimes be a little tricky, depending on the angle of the camera and Jodie’s body, but by and large it works well.
Aiden is definitely the more interesting of the two from a gameplay perspective. Through his eyes, the world shimmers in a spectral haze, and human beings are surrounded by a coloured aura that represents their soul. Cleverly, the colour of the aura also indicates how you can interact with them; red figures, for example, can be choked to death on the spot (always handy in a pinch), while orange figures can be possessed, allowing Aiden to covertly manipulate a situation to his and Jodie’s advantage. Unfortunately, it is never explained why some people can be effected in this way and others cannot, which makes the whole system seem a little gamey at times – but then, if Aiden could simply strangle every hostile character in the game, there’d be no real element of challenge.
Aiden also has the rather useful ability to travel through walls, though again, his unbreakable bond with Jodie is used to explain why you can’t go absolutely anywhere you please. He’s a little floaty, and more difficult to steer than Jodie’s fleshy form, but still a lot of fun. The visual and audio effects are extremely effective; I really felt like I was a supernatural entity intruding on the living world.
It’s really quite astonishing to consider how far the gaming medium has come in its comparatively short lifespan. Video gaming has matured, just as we as gamers have matured. A developer can animate every individual snowflake in a wintery cityscape. Faces are expressive and photorealistic. Orchestral scores and carefully directed camerawork make the gameplay indistinguishable from a film. Developers now, more than ever, have the power to draw us unquestioningly into their world, to passionately empathise with their characters, and think seriously about the themes and social concepts they choose to portray.
Three years ago, Heavy Rain established itself as one of the most courageous games ever made. It cast aside any and all assumptions of the player’s role in the narrative, and demonstrated that games could tell not only epic sagas, but simple human narratives of loss and personal exploration. Beyond: Two Souls makes entirely the same argument – the crux of this story is not simply Jodie’s connection to the spiritual world, but how that connection affects her, how she copes with the tumultuous life she has been given. And that’s what kept me in front of the television for nine hours: my absolute fascination with, and empathy for, Jodie.
Some early previews of this game will advise you not to treat it as a game at all, but to engage it more as an interactive film. But it is a game – gloriously so. It’s an evolution in gaming, a whole new genre that blurs every conceivable boundary. I think what they’re saying is that you judge the experience on far more than its actual gameplay, to allow the narrative and characterisation to be every bit as crucial to you as the action. And that much I would certainly agree with.
And remember – during the Birthday Party scene, if the game asks you whether you want to ‘take revenge’, there is only one answer to that question.