Laura – I’ve seen a few people since the release of Beyond: Two Souls calling out for two things in particular that they expected to surface in the months following it’s release. First was requests for a version of the game to appear as a film on Youtube for people to watch, second was a review of the game by a TV of Movie critic who could look at how good the story was from that perspective. Well, about a week ago a 4.5 hour long movie version of Beyond appeared on Youtube, so I got to work finding a passionate movie buff to give their thoughts on what Beyond does right, what it does wrong and how it holds up compared to stories in Films and TV. Without any more delays, here’s Andrew Clarke and his review of Beyond: Two Souls (The Movie).
There has been a lot of very visible and noisy hype about David Cage’s new game Beyond: Two Souls, no small amount of it coming from David Cage himself, always quick to name his tech-heavy, story-heavy approach as the Future Of Gaming.
Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of Jodie, a young woman with supernatural powers. The story follows Jodie from her time as a child being studied by scientists, through her training as a paranormal op in the CIA and on to an explosive, world-changing ending.
It has been very difficult to avoid, in the run up to release, the great hype fireworks from Sony and from a lot of gaming blogs highlighting the storytelling tools of Beyond: Two Souls, proclaiming it ‘next level’, ‘unprecedented’ and a whole bunch of other synonyms for the Future Of Gaming. This sounds very much like a challenge, and that’s why Laura Kate brought me in to see if the cinematic techniques in Beyond: Two Souls are actually any cop.
So, to be clear, this article is purely concerned with whether Beyond: Two Souls can pull off cinematic storytelling. As such, this article rather conveniently side-steps the whole ‘is it a game?’ question. Thank heavens for small mercies.
One of the main story telling tools being hyped is the motion capture technology used. All movement of the characters is captured directly from the actors and digitised, along with every detail of their face. This information is then plugged in to the little polygonal marionettes your console is rendering, so that the real actors’ performances are controlling the characters we see.
Every so often, especially in the last third, the effect is quite extraordinary. Sometime it looks like the real actors are moving in front of CG created backdrops. This is quite a thing, considering everything is CGI and being made in realtime. However, considering this effect at its best makes the game look like the worst scenes in Attack Of The Clones, exactly how good of a thing this is remains up to the individual viewer. It was certainly sometimes distracting to me.
However, as you can perceive the emotions and body-language of the characters moving and suspension of disbelief covers any gap in visual quality, the effect is, on the whole, *fine*. If the performances are bad it is because of the acting and direction, not the technology. The direction, however, is often quite bad.
A film, at its most basic, is made of long, medium and close-up shots. Long shots give us location and situation, medium shots give us body language and relationships between characters, close ups give us the emotions of a character. Any film, however flamboyant its style, still uses these building blocks, and Beyond spends a large chunk of its time getting them a bit wrong.
Beyond is shot, if you like, using a cinemascope screen ratio – a super-wide ratio that means there are black bars across the top and bottom of the screen even on our modern 16:9 monitors. Fritz Lang once said it was only good for shooting ‘funerals and snakes’. Certainly it adds that cinema ‘feel’, but it means there is a lot of horizontal real estate to fill up in your compositions and Beyond very rarely does.
A lot of the shots have their characters right in the centre of the frame, with massive amounts of empty space on either side. In cinematic grammar this is usually done to denote characters that are lost or powerless – overwhelmed as they are within the massive landscape around them. But when it is used for small, domestic conversations in a normal house, all you get is shots of a lot of blank walls.
This is exacerbated by Beyond being virtually shot mostly with what seems like a wide angle lens. Wide angle lenses emphasise the space between things on screen, so making objects seem far away from each other. This is good for making landscapes seem epic and huge. This is bad for intimate conversations because the two characters seem miles apart and unconnected to each other. This is further exacerbated by all the sets being far too big and brightly lit and as a result, scenes are flat and unemotional, not telling us what the relationship between characters is or at worst, actively working against the closeness these scenes require.
The structure of Beyond: Two Souls is achronological. The story is told out of sequence, moving back and forth in time over the space of about 20 years – as a clearly distressed older Jodie attempts to piece back her very disjointed memories. This is achieved, however, by cutting up the sections into neatly sectioned-off chapters, with their own title cards, full of neat fonts and muted design. This is a very business-like, objective style to introduce content that is supposed to be subjective and a little, well, hazy. The two do not sit well together.
This is not helped by most chapters starting with rather dull establishing shots which, quite apart from being tv-level in their workman-like style, again suggest an objective viewpoint for scenes which are, according to the story’s structure, supposed to be subjective.
The most simple cinematic trick used to denote subjectivity would be a POV shot from Jodie, to make it clear this scene was from her perspective. POV shots from Jodie are simply not used in Beyond: Two Souls. A fractured narrative from a confused narrator suggests an unreliability in the story. But the style emphasises the clear, simple shots of an objective observer. The content suggests we should not trust what we are being told. The style says we should never question it. There is a conflict here.
The structural gimmick also runs in to trouble as the re-ordering of events has no appreciable effect on our understanding of the story and often undermines it. As an example: we are shown a scene of an older Jodie in the midst of blowing up most of a town with her psychic, Aiden-provided powers. The next scene shows a bedroom at night where a mechanical toy starts by itself and a curtain blows about despite there being no wind.
Such tiny expressions of supernatural power hardly register after what we have just seen. In fact, they seem positively comforting. But it is finally revealed that this is Jodie as a young girl, witnessing this power for the first time. The scene is supposed to be scary – shot like Poltergeist, or The Conjuring – but the structuring of the story undermines the effect. Form and function are not in sympathy here. With a big red marker in the margins I wanted to scribble ‘bad grammar!’ all over Beyond: Two Souls .
Another example of this bad grammar is a jump scare that happens while Jodie is exploring an underground lab. She is young and inexperienced, and she has never seen a body before. She sees a mangled corpse and there’s a fast cut and LOUD NOISE to make the audience jump.
The disjointed narrative means that we have seen corpses before. We have seen Jodie kill people before. The corpse is not a shock to us. It is a shock to Jodie though and this means the moment is an audience-empathy moment, not an audience-shock moment. The game plays it as a straightforward scare moment. It gets the grammar of the moment wrong and this is not to mention why a game would choose to use a cheap, desperate cinema trick to create fear when games create fear naturally better than any other medium.
Much like the black bars that frame the screen, this game’s attempts to be cinema-y often only work to undermine its story. A great deal of blatant ‘homaging’ doesn’t help with this sense of an impersonator rather than the real deal – the final hour contains heavy lifts from Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator AND Titanic. I like Cameron too, but sheesh.
And yet, every so often the game stops trying so hard, remembers to follow the rules and suddenly starts working. An early scene that introduces Ellen Page’s Jodie to Willem Dafoe’s is a quiet conversation played out mostly in close-ups that gives us character, connection, intrigue and mystery. Why on earth there is half an hour of stilted nonsense before this scene is anyone’s guess: the game can do it when it wants to. At its best, this game is pretty darned good.
At its best, the parts come together well enough for you forget which medium the story is being told in and simply follow along with Jodie’s journey. The purpose of storytelling tools is always, in the end, to be invisible. Every so often, for all of the splashy, blinding hype surrounding the game, it manages to disappear enough to tell its narrative, and it is in those moments the game becomes a story.
The Story Itself
On the surface level the story is about a girl called Jodie who has supernatural powers (she has a ghost attached to her) that result in her being taken in by the CIA to be studied and eventually trained to be a spy. Bad things happen on her missions and she runs away, only to be brought back in for one last mission when the technology her powers helped develop threatens to destroy the world.
And, on a surface level, it’s not at all bad. It wobbles badly at the beginning and has far too many irrelevant tangents and redundancies, but its high points are very functional. It functions, admittedly, at the level of a modern Hollywood Thriller like The Matrix or Wanted or Salt (With Magic), but that’s OK, I like those shows. They’re good stuff. However, it spends most of its first half seemingly not having a clue what any of this surface actually means.
In a normal game the narrative gimmick of having a ghost attached to you is really just there as a justification for the game mechanics you can play with. It goes no deeper. No-one really cares about all that future conspiracy stuff in Assassin’s Creed for example and the reduction of its importance as the franchise wore on is a testament to the developers kind of agreeing.
And, being fair, in movies as well the supernatural gimmick is often used just as an excuse for the sfx and explosions the audience wants. The assassins in Wanted can bend bullets because, as far as I can tell, reasons. But in actual stories, the elements of the story come together to create meaning and applicability to the real world. The ring of power in LOTR becomes a symbol of the corrupting influence of power and, specifically, industrial invention. The super powers in The Matrix are a physicalisation of the freedom knowledge brings you.
So what does the story of Beyond: Two Souls mean?
The title has two parts. The first – Beyond – refers to the ‘other world’, the place Jodie is connected to because of her powers, the place where the ‘monsters’ come from that haunt her dreams and the place the CIA is building a portal to off the back of the research they have done into Jodie’s powers. The second part refers to the ghost, called Aiden, attached to Jodie since birth. They are the ‘two souls’ living one shared life.
I’m going to skip over a lot of the beginning of the game. For all of the reasons given in the first section, for its crummy script, one-dimensional characters, pointless time-jumping, weird tonal swings, its endless bloat of scenes that add almost nothing to the final story and take seemingly ages to do so, for simply taking the ‘game’ route and not exploring these two parts of its title at all – most of the first half simply isn’t that good. For the purposes of brevity and focus, I’ll just move on to the juicy stuff at the end.
It is really in the last third that the story starts properly working. For one thing, the constant time jumping mostly stops and we spend the majority of our time in the ‘present’. It must be awkward when your story starts working only after your main story-telling gimmick ends, but never mind.
Jodie’s journey is one of being controlled by a succession of authority and father-figures – her foster father, government scientists, CIA operatives, Pentagon top brass – all of them say they have her best intentions at heart and all have secret agendas for her. The story clearly shows her rebelling against each one of these in turn. She sneaks out of her garden to play snowballs with local kids. She sneaks out of the test centre to go for a teenage drink in a bar. She destroys seeming regiments of agents to get away from the CIA. At every point in her story she is shown being manipulated and at every point in her story she is shown trying to cut those strings of control, trying to live her own life. She wants to, in effect, be able to tell her own story. She goes so far as to nearly die of hypothermia on the streets rather than go back to being controlled.
This is good stuff and the more I got of this, the happier I was. It finds resonance both in the world of games, where 99% of heroes are not only men, but the same cropped-haired gruff and violent man, but in the wider cultural world too.
Here is a lowly game managing to tell the story of a woman’s quest when movies and tv series alike still struggle to have any kind of woman in the main role. Here is a mainstream big-budget release, aiming at being one of the blockbusters of the year, that is willing to care about how a girl feels socially awkward at parties, to care about how a young woman feels before a first date – the quiet emotional moments so often thrown out in order to get to the explosions and gruff, violent speeches about revenge and honour.
This story grows in depth as more of the relationship between Jodie and Aiden is explored. For, attached as they are, Aiden is a separate entity to Jodie and often disagrees with her. Aiden’s violent impulses are often barely kept in check by Jodie. Aiden’s jealous attempts to vandalise a Jodie’s date is a particular high point.
In this scene it becomes clear that Aiden is not letting Jodie live the life she wants and that he is, in fact, the true secret father figure in her life – controlling and limiting like all the others but, of course, the most difficult to escape. The ‘Two Souls’ of the title suddenly attains meaning in terms of how we define ourselves as individuals. The ‘two souls’ of the title attains meaning as both the central relationship and central conflict of the story and the tension of the upcoming confrontation fuels much of the second half of the game but then, with a quick flashback from out of nowhere, the entire thematic structure of the game changes.
Because one of her father figures could not get over the death of his family, he decides to open the portal to the other world – The Beyond, where all the dead people and monsters are – so they can be reunited and, of course, threaten our world with being over-run by monsters.
The final confrontation then becomes about how we must let go of the pains of our past in order to move ahead and face the future. This is dramatized, in an overly literal and melodramatic way, by all the ghosts from her past coming out of the portal and grabbing Jodie to pull her back from reaching the Portal’s kill-switch and saving the world. The only way to save the future is to shake off the chains of our pasts is the lesson.
The Beyond half of the game’s title suddenly becomes the operative half and the theme becomes about the pain that is created if we dwell in the past – as symbolised by this other world full of ghosts and monsters. Aiden is reduced to simply the final ‘ghost’ to shake off.
And, well, fine: the game lands the ending. Just about, and not without awkwardness (for example, how the Pentagon wanting to weaponise the Beyond fits in with this thematic scheme is well beyond me), but still, it gets there. Unfortunately I feel it is at the expense of the far more interesting and vital themes it was exploring up until then.
Now there is always an issue when dealing with the more subjective areas of story-telling that one can fall in to criticising a story for not being what you wanted it to be, instead for what it is. Batman would never do ‘x’. Superman would never do ‘y’. The story should have ending ‘z’ and so on. There is an argument that the more feminist reading I have given is not as relevant as the more universal reading the game eventually has.
And let’s face it: most likely this confusion is the developer simply losing track of the thematic threads they were laying down. It is insanely difficult to keep themes and meanings coherent over a long story. Plenty of film and tv shows have turned to mush when attempting to land the ending. See: Lost. Or, preferably, don’t. But ultimately I feel this ending undermines the character of Jodie. In the end we see her sitting alone in a cabin, slowly losing her memories because of some, poorly explained result of the events with the Beyond.
How is losing one’s memories becoming free? How is literally destroying everything you are a viable model for self-actualisation? The plot suddenly demands that Jodie simply lose everything she is. Where before she was determined, independent and resourceful, now she is empty and without motivation. The demands of this thematic structure do serious damage to our heroine. Add to this some fairly heavy hints that the reason she needs to destroy her past is so she can achieve her full destiny…and become a mother. There is the terrible fear that Jodie has been unable to escape the real invisible father-figure behind it all – that of the director David Cage himself.
In conclusion, I have to see it as a disappointingly missed opportunity, but let us focus on the positives.
Despite the doldrums, tangents and outright silliness the story suffers for whatever reason (lack of talent, lack of budget or the demands of making it ‘gamey’), the game offers a serious attempt at laying out the challenges facing a woman growing up in an often hostile, male-dominated world and achieves enough artistically for an article like this, focussing solely on reasonably high level concerns such as theme and social politics, to even be written.
In the modern mainstream entertainment world, let alone a gaming world where rape and death threats are common against anyone challenging the female-objectifying norm, a story that places a woman and her attempts at self-definition at its very heart is all too rare and in many ways worth celebrating.
Beyond: Two Souls is a big adolescent mess of a game, awkwardly and stumblingly attempting to define itself while too often being confused and compromised by its deference to its own father-figure of Hollywood film.
It is sometimes painful to watch and sometimes gloriously life-affirming. To both audience and game alike: it gets better.