Page against the machine
For the past decade developer Quantic Dream has been in ruthless pursuit of mastering the art of interactive storytelling. The Heavy Rain studio has polarised critics with its streamlined approach to gameplay, prioritising narrative over agency. And while its latest offering Beyond: Two Souls takes great leaps in refining that formula, the result is no less divisive.
Taking place over the course of 15 years, the story is centred on a gifted young girl Jodie (portrayed with great fervour by Ellen Page), who was born with a connection to a supernatural entity named Aiden. Ruminating on love, redemption and the hereafter, its non-linear plot bounces around pivotal moments in her young life, one moment offering a snapshot of her as an awkward teenager; the next jumping years ahead as the CIA sharpen her into its latest weapon. For the most part, its intriguing, often emotional stuff, even when a few outlandish sequences of Hollywood bluster threaten to derail the meticulous unravelling of its imaginative concepts. A great deal is owed to the acting pedigree of Page and Willem Dafoe (a scientist-cum-surrogate-father) both ably filling the lead roles and bringing some credibility to all the sci-fi bunkum surrounding them.
Much like Heavy Rain, Beyonds strength lies within its narrative, stripping back gameplay elements to emphasise the excitement and drama of the story. Interaction pivots around intuitive quick-snap button presses and directional nudges to urge the characters onward into the next chapter. The most conventional pockets of gameplay come in the form of Jodies ethereal foil. Aiden can fly through environments interacting with objects and people even going so far as being able to possess other characters. Its an empowering mechanic, but one that is cruelly limited, here the choice to push the narrative forwards feels oddly restrictive.
But thats the nature of the experience that Quantic Dream has crafted here, one that demands complete investment in the characters, forgoing a players usual freedom of expression. Its flawed but its rare for a game to display such unfettered ambition, and even rarer for one to do so with such success. This is bold, captivating and immensely enjoyable entertainment and a powerful demonstration of what the medium can deliver.