What exactly are today's video games? And how should we define contemporary cinema? These are the two questions that have gripped our mind and kept us company as we've been overwhelmed by a new demo of Beyond: Two Souls, the exciting new title by Quantic Dream. After a masterpiece like Heavy Rain, the French studio is undoubtedly trying to do an encore, a heart-pounding experience that begins with the very first sequence of the game. Compared to its predecessor, Beyond: Two Souls introduces important innovations, including the transmutation of one medium into something entirely different.
The dilemma that accompanied us throughout our time with the game was as follows: how thin is the boundary between cinema and games? What are we facing? Is it an interactive movie or a cinematic video game? In the case of Beyond: Two Souls (and even more than in Heavy Rain), all these questions are legitimate, especially because I for one am particularly skeptical when it comes to certain hybrids, and because these media have great respective histories and very strong identities. But we're not rushing to conclusions, instead we'll proceed step by step to discover more about a title that has a lot to offer in terms of experience and involvement.
During the hours spent with this new demo of Beyond: Two Souls - a wider experience if compared to our last preview - we've gone through three different ages of the protagonist, Jodie, and her unusual relationship with an entity named Aiden, linked to her by an invisible thread, from her birth and throughout her life.
From the very first sequences we are catapulted into a narrative without any clues as to what is happening: we are forced to piece together the puzzling story in a succession of flashbacks and flash-forwards, to follow step by step the linear and chronological reconstruction of events. Therefore, the player takes a central role in the creation of the narrative meaning of the game, rather than taking on the role of a mere "perpetrator" of the actions. This is a technique of narration which is certainly more common to cinema and literature than it is in video games: this particular structure unceremoniously reminded us of Memento (Christopher Nolan), probably one of the films that best exemplifies the concept of the non-linear narrative enclosed in Beyond: Two Souls.
Compared to Heavy Rain, where the narrative complexity was offered by different stories linked by a thread that binds them to each other (but was still linear in itself), in this new title Quantic Dream takes a massive leap forward. The developers have chosen the difficult path of non-linearity, which goes someway to expand and characterise the player's experience, which is split between being an actor and being a spectator at the same time.
Undoubtedly one of the most fascinating aspects of Beyond: Two Souls is the dichotomy that pervades it: a dichotomy that results in a constant tension between cinema and gaming. A two-way relationship that now, more than ever, characterises the two media in question, and from which Quantic Dream, as they did in Heavy Rain, have drawn freely. The protagonists, Jodie and Aiden, are a clear metaphor of this intrinsic relationship, which at the same time is a conflictual one. Just think of the role that each of them takes on within the game: while Jodie plays a purely cinematic role (she is the narrator of the story, she leads the events, there is particular attention to her psychology, etc.), on the other hand Aiden represents the concept of gaming in its purist form, the real interactive engine of the story, the one that gives freedom to the player.
In fact, by using Jodie players can take only limited decisions regarding the real action - a couple of buttons to mash in QTE sequences, and also in the stealth tutorial inside the CIA's gym, our actions are reduced to very precise patterns. In the case of Aiden we are witnessing a reversal of the concept. In support of what we're saying, there is the "Birthday Party" chapter: after Jodie is unjustly locked up in a closet by the other young guests, Aiden is evoked by the girl and he has the task to free her. But we are faced with a choice: we can free Jodie and go away, or else we can free Jodie and take our revenge. I'm more vindictive than Quentin Tarantino's Bride and so when I'm offered to the opportunity to get back at them I didn't even think about leaving the house. We had great fun, although the situation slipped out of control (perhaps setting the tents on fire wasn't a good idea). Compared to Jodie, Aiden has more to say in the interactive part of the game, where we are not forced to slavishly follow the instructions that appear on the screen in a sequence, an aspect that happens all the time when we play as Jodie.
However, even in this case, it would be incorrect to speak of absolute freedom: even when we can choose the order in which we perform our actions, the sequence always leads to a single solution or path, something that leaves us a bit demoralised.
Until now, we have enthusiastically praised everything about the narrative aspect of Beyond: Two Souls, our enthusiasm enhanced by the sublime interpretation of the two protagonists of the story, namely the young Jodie Holmes, played by Ellen Page (Inception, Juno) and government scientist Nathan Dawkins, played by Willem Dafoe (Spideraman, The Aviator).
However, we're not similarly satisfied with some of the action that drives the title. As already mentioned in the previous paragraph, we enjoy the greater freedom to act within the game as Aiden. When we find ourselves in the shoes of Jodie, as we have seen in this demo, we find ourselves trapped in different QTE sequences. When involved in chases and close-combat, the role of the player as Jodie is often limited to pushing a couple of buttons in the right sequence. To make it even more frustrating, the controls seem to be inaccurate at times. However, it should be noted that the game is also designed to use the Playstation Move (sadly, we didn't have the chance to test it), so we can still hope that motion controls could be more accurate and intuitive.
We spent some intense hours with Beyond: Two Souls and as soon as the demo ended, we felt overwhelmed by questions that had no answers. How will it end? Who is Aiden? Simply put, we want to know more, and we'll have to wait a month to get the answers we are looking for. Our experience with the new title by Quantic Dream is absolutely positive, although it still leaves us a bit confused about the particular direction being taken by the French studio. It must be hard to work on the very thin boundary that separates cinema and gaming, a boundary which appears to be similar to the imaginary thread that binds Aiden to Jodie.
Beyond: Two Souls is not a video game in the standard sense of the term, and it would not even be correct to call it an interactive movie. Its promiscuity - no doubt about it - will not be greeted with enthusiasm by many. However, even in the absence of canonical gameplay and the typical archetypes of both the media that the game borrows from, Beyond: Two Souls contains a philosophical experience, which faces us with a dilemma which is at the same time both ancient and modern: the eternal human conflict, torn between the joy of life and the fear of death. We look forward to enjoying it in its entirety when the game finally arrives on October 9.