Sitting huddled around an open fire eating beans with a gaggle of homeless people may not sound like gameplay you'd put at the top of your video game list. And the thought of timing your button punches to help deliver a baby might not sound like riveting play either. But they're both part of Quantic Dream's critically acclaimed Beyond: Two Souls, the story/adventure of a girl named Jodie Holmes.
What kind of game is this that mixes up suicide attempts with step-by-step shower scenes. Maybe we should get at that answer by asking who is this young woman? She's a pretty little gal who looks and sounds, well, exactly like Ellen Page, the actress who voices her. And as you become part of her 20 years of jump-back-and-forth reflections, you watch Jodie grow up from a tiny tyke to eventually wrestle with serious issues that include peer pressure, ethics, drug abuse, homelessness and the complicated choice of risking your own safety for those in need.
A Girl and Her Ghost
On their own, those subjects give this game a compelling and involving story line. They can even help us think through the complications of human nature and motivate us to care pretty deeply about Jodie herself. On the other hand, they also put us on the cutting edge of violence (more on that in a minute) and connect us, as it were, to some creepy supernatural stuff. For as long as Jodie can remember, she herself has been connected to an invisible entity that always hovers nearby, attached by the equivalent of a spiritual umbilical cord.
Yep. You already figured it out: This is where the Two Souls part of the title comes into play. Because of her invisible supernatural partner—a ghost-like soul Jodie calls Aiden—the girl becomes something of a scientific curiosity at a very young age. It's a fact that makes her adolescence all the more messy. And a fact that aims this life-story game in a unique and sometimes disturbing direction.
Players view the game world through the eyes of both Jodie and Aiden—switching between them with the push of a button. As Jodie, you navigate the locales as a normal human would. You open doors, walk through rooms, talk to people nearby. Aiden, however, isn't bound by the same physical-world rules. He can ease right through walls, listen in on conversations behind locked doors and move things around from several rooms away. His only constraint is that umbilical cord that can stretch just so far before it causes Jodie pain.
Aiden isn't simply an invisible errand boy, though. He moves to act on Jodie's requests, but he's also ready to stand on his own. Throughout the game, you're called upon to use Aiden's netherworld force to break open pathways for Jodie to crawl through, as well as to physically choke, batter and even kill those wishing her harm. Aiden also has the power to take possession of a foe and use him to do everything from tossing grenades to turning his own knife on himself to downing the helicopter that "they" happen be piloting at the time.
A Ghost and His Darkness
For all of the game's excellent voice work, photo-realistic imagery, interwoven plot and unique gameplay, then, it's the darker side of things that ends up calling the shots. And it twists things in just the right (wrong) way to make it seem that the violence you're perpetrating is empowering, beneficial.
When you see scenes of heavily armed men blazing away in your direction, a guy threatening rape or someone torturing others (one man gets his eye gouged out), you can't help but want to use Aiden's formidable strength to choke out a thug or obliterate a SWAT team that's closing in on your position. It makes the bloodletting seem like the only reasonable thing to do—even if Jodie herself isn't always so keen on it. (One sequence features Jodie entering a room that's been spattered and stained by the blood and gore of numerous slaughtered men. She walks in and promptly vomits at the sight.)
That kind of flesh-rending isn't the only negative content weighing heavily on this game. We see teens drinking beer and smoking weed, young men and women in various states of undress and in the shower (with camera angles just barely avoiding the most intimate bare details), and hulking brutes manhandling a young girl for sexual "favors." We hear a constant flow of f-words and scores of other coarse or vulgar or profane words—including rampant misuses of God's and Jesus' names.
The spiritual side of things is the final element that needs to be addressed. A psychically linked second soul is a sketchy idea at best, dangerously misleading at worst. And a big part of Jodie and Aiden's focus and action centers on a dark place of spirits and mysterious apparitions called the Infraworld. Scientifically created openings and ritual-derived passageways tear at the wall between this place and the world of the living throughout the game. But "there is no heaven or hell … no God, no devil" we're told. Which means this is "simply" a netherworld dimension filled with undefined light and dark entities.
What's not entirely undefined is the suggestion that suicide is the easiest and most rewarding way to reunite with loved ones who have passed on.