PART I: Beyond: Two Souls, the interactive B-movie
We live in technologically interesting times. The creation of truly dynamic, interactive narratives opens up great possibilities in theory, but so far, the practical execution of such stories has a very long road lying in front of it. Beyond: Two Souls is proof that the right balance between gameplay and telling a story has not yet been found, at least not at quantic dream's studios.
Graphically, Beyond appears to be running on a slightly upgraded version of the engine used for Heavy Rain. It's certainly a pretty looking game with high production costs, but don't expect state of the art visuals when next-gen consoles are just around the corner. The player may also encounter graphical hiccups here and there. Sometimes surfaces of objects look strange when it's clear no ghostly entities have anything to do with it. Overall, however, the game looks fine and there are plenty of special effects that look amazing.
It's a little more difficult to come to a judgment story-wise; Beyond has some excellent and moving scenes, but there are also several portions of the game that are relatively dull. The whole story is told in a fragmented way, a narrating technique which in this case appears to have the function of hiding the otherwise simple B-movie plot: You're Jodie, a girl linked to an entity named Aiden who has special powers. Jodie's youth is essentially ruined as she's taken into custody by an agency that wants to study her gift. Jodie is played by Ellen Page, a fine actress, but the real star is Willem Dafoe, who at times manages to convey great surges of emotion over the screen.
The dynamical, interactive aspect of Beyond's story is obviously still an interesting approach. There are different endings (although there are somewhat less factors than in either Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy or Heavy Rain) and you still get the illusion your daily conversation options actually make a difference during your first playthrough (but then you find out on a second playthrough that many of them actually don't do all that much, some scenes excepted).
Unfortunately, Beyond's story also suffers from cliched narrative choices. There is an ‘other world' called the Infraworld, there are evil and good entities, Jodie has a connection to this world whereas others don't. Many supporting characters are shallow and either show unbelievably annoying, immoral behavior or are otherwise pure human beings (although the latter are fairly scarce). There's the ‘caring' parent and the ‘absent' or ‘bad' parent, etcetera. Such stereotypical characters alongside mostly trite ideas about an afterlife – clearly inspired by stale Christian cultural folklore – have become uninteresting not because the otherwise powerful message doesn't come across, but as a result of over-usage in storytelling as a whole. The questions of our time – why we are here, living in a differentiated and strange reality that doesn't a priori give us the answers we're looking for – cannot even be asked in David Cage's paradigm. That personal irritation put aside, it's clear that Beyond has little more than a thinly veiled, typical ‘Hollywood blockbuster' story.
Unfortunately that's not the worst part; compared to the gameplay, Beyond is actually doing quite well in the department of fiction. The reason being that there hardly IS any gameplay. The only things you can do in the game are: Walk around with the left analog stick, trigger smaller or larger cutscenes with the right analog stick, switch to your ghost Aiden with triangle and float around or ‘interact' with objects (mostly making noise or dropping something), take control of people (with extremely limited options; push a nearby switch, kill others, kill self), touch them or kill them. Some scenes allow Jodie to take out others, but there are no real combat or shooting gameplay mechanics other than pushing one or two on-screen button prompts. There are several blue spheres hidden in the game that unlock bonus content, but other than finding those, the linearity of the ‘game' is appalling. Then there are the interactive cutscenes in which you have to move the right analog stick in the correct direction, which are easily fulfilled. Even the more ‘open' environments are illusory decorations around a straight linear road you'll just have to walk down to reach the next ‘interactive' cutscene. Quantic dream has intentionally given a false impression of the game by showing off mainly those parts in which there is relatively much to do, such as ‘sneaking around' or ‘fighting' (pushing the right analog stick in the right directions). Everything in the game is scripted, determined; the only amount of freedom you get are some story deviations and choosing to walk half a meter to the left instead of to the right.
Zimmer's/Corbeil's musical score is what you'd expect from them; they aren't really capable of creating a bad production, but this time around it sometimes sounds like a recycling of previous work (such as the nonetheless brilliant work for Inception). That's not necessarily a bad thing – the soundtrack does its work and you don't pay attention to the sound effects, which is precisely how their immersive function should work.
All in all, Beyond: Two Souls is a rental game that you want to spend one or two days with to watch (or ‘play'). There's little to do when you've seen all the scenes and the gameplay isn't worth revisiting. The ‘game' is clearly aimed at a broader audience than just gamers, and the subgenre it creates – an interactive videomovie – isn't a casual gamer's cup of tea, or at least not until an absolutely amazing story is told by it.
PART II: A meta-discussion of the reviews on Beyond OR How to destroy an industry's selfreflexive criticism
Beyond has gotten mixed reviews, some extremely positive, some quite negative. Metacritic or Gamerankings congregate the scores and 'thus' give a completely objective score of around 75. Not bad, right?
The problem with the situation we're all in is that the gaming industry has too many wholly incompetent review 'critics', among which some are even corrupt. (Yes, that last part is a far-reaching claim, and while I believe it to be 100% correct, it's not what this piece will focus on, so you may disregard it if you wish.) The incompetence of videogame 'critics' is so appalling, so destructive for the industry as a whole, that someone should start up a project in which *real* videogame journalism is shown by systematically evaluating so-called 'critics' that have no idea what terms such as consistency even mean.
A simple example can make this clear. Any reviewer that honestly believes that Beyond deserves a perfect score should seriously question what such a score even means. What it should mean, obviously, is that this is a game people will still be talking about in 30 years to come. Obviously, Beyond is not such a game, and therefore any such reviewer's reviews should be permanently filtered out of congregate scores - but this doesn't happen and it's in fact not an ideal solution because one would quickly run into other, possibly problematic issues.
A 6.4 score for Beyond is in my opinion a fair grade for the 'game', but granted, scores up to roughly 7.5/10 (but also down to approximately slightly higher than a 5/10) are understandable and defensible. Scores like 8.5, 9, and so on, are definitely not. Let's start with a ridiculously obvious example: Cheat Code Central, the website that has infringed thousands of FAQs from this very website, making the owner beyond rich, has built up enough funds over the years to hire its own 'critic' reviewers to finally provide some legal content to his website. One should really read the review for Beyond (or basically any of their 'reviews' at all) to understand the point here. This is not videogame criticism, this 'critic' is a copying-pasting marketing tool beyond the point it's even humorous, yet the score influences metacritic and gamerankings. Scandalous would be a fitting term; harsher words unfortunately elude me at this time.
Let's give another example of why Beyond: Two Souls is not deserving of such high scores. Gamespot gave GTA 5 a 9/10. That was a controversial score on its own, although I'd say indeed it's a fine score for a very fine game which is good for countless hours of gameplay (70+ easily). Now, Gamespot has also given Beyond a 9/10, not even listing any negative points whatsoever. I'm fine with people enjoying experiences that are different from ridiculously bad 1st-person shooters that come out year after year, but that does NOT mean one can completely shy away from any criticism regarding such experiences; how in the world are developers expected to learn from blatant design errors or mistakes in narratives when many of the 'real critics' are so inadequate at their jobs (supposedly a 'form of journalism') that no such flaws are pointed out in the first place?
But there's more. David Cage himself entered the discussion saying that "no one should be allowed to define what a game is." It's hard not to agree with the fact that if people think something is enjoyable, they should give it a try, but that doesn't mean critics are not even a priori allowed to voice what they think are troublesome narrative choices, badly designed environments from a gameplay perspective, a clear focus on cliched (but easily conveyed) emotional responses, and so on. "But if you don't like the genre, don't blame the game!" No, such fallacies fired with Pavlovian speed (and associated lack of accuracy) only show how inadequately trained self proclaimed game 'journalists' truly are. If a truly new genre was created due to the release of a new game that was hailed for its originality but criticized for its flaws, and then another game came out that hardly addressed those flaws, it's only reasonable to again point to such negatives.
It's almost as if people are expecting from critics to say precisely what could've been improved, preferably providing concrete examples and gameplay mechanics. Apparently that's how people react to criticism these days: just give a critic double labour and they won't know what to say either (since they are apparently expected to do the work for gameplay designers as well). This is a ridiculous way of treating true criticism, but for the sake of the discussion, let's go over some points that Beyond could've improved on while staying within its 'genre'.
First of all, quantic dream could've hired a professional script writer to co-author the story. Second, there could have been more moral options when taking out guards or soldiers; in a game that advertises options so heavily, only having the option to shoot a guard through the head is not only inconsistent with the broader vision, it's even immoral in a certain sense (and that's not an achievement as much as it is a lack of one). Third, Aiden's gameplay actions as well as his story-driven ones are inconsistent as well; why do you only have the option to control some guards, or to only take out some others? Because otherwise the completely linear story would derail. "But that's the genre!", our fallacy-producing Pavlovian is quick to bark, but it's very clearly this doesn't have to be so. We're supposedly playing an interactive and dynamic experience, though the story 'has' to remain linear? Obviously that simply doesn't follow; it would've been interesting if Jodie could actually die halfway through the game and then spend the rest of her life (death?) in the Infraworld, perhaps even getting one final option to return. None of that happens - and that's not saying it should've gone specifically that way, but the extremely linear fashion in which the game is currently set up is not the definitive blueprint of a genre.
Fourth, it would've been nice if there were (perhaps fully optional) minigames, such as for example a computer hacking sequence that gives you some sort of an advantage later on, or anything else really. Fifth, a little more movement freedom in various areas of the game would've been good. Being able to converse with strangers would have added more realism. This list is long and the improvements credible. Sixth, the high-pitch tone whenever you're moving too far away from Jodie while playing as Aiden could've been scratched completely. Seven, there could've been a scene in which gameplay variation is introduced by reversing the controls on Aiden's movement and inverting the world (when our heroes are weakened, for example). Eight, yes, of course there could have been more gameplay without it distracting from the narrative.
It seems to me parts of the videogame industry are still unprofessional in terms of 'journalism', several of its narcissistic, self-proclaimed journalists becoming more immature as they age (a typical phenomenon in itself). This 'journalistic' sector is becoming (or has become) an industry with growing power (including economical and political power) over a large amount of people. Truly critical voices ought to be taken increasingly serious in such a situation, ought to be given priority, ought to be given a large platform, a larger weight in score aggregates. Right now, to the true critics (and critical gamers), all that's left to say is: "Welcome to the desert of the real." (Where your voice will not be heard.)