One of my favorite things I learned in high school, a lesson from my ninth-grade English teacher, was that every time you write a story, you are allowed to place in it a single tear. Shedding more, she said, is “not literary,” and bawls would wash away your grade. I love this lesson because it is wrong. There aren’t rules about this kind of thing. But it prevented a generation of melodramatic teenagers from plinking out prose about crying in the rain. And since I’m pretty sure adolescent tales of “I’m sobbing alone because no one understands me” are the No. 1 source of teacher resignations in America, this was one wrong rule for the greater good.
If someone submitted Beyond: Two Souls to my English teacher, they would be kept after class. There is one scene, early in the game, where crying is used effectively. Here, the player, as the invisible specter Aiden, is likely to run amok, and the tears make the player feel like a bit of an animal. But then the game keeps crying, for events small and large, steamrolling well past the point of ridiculousness. At one point, the protagonist, Jodie Holmes, is not allowed to go to a bar, and you can direct her to throw two different kinds of tantrums. In another scene, you move her around a room to fill a duffel bag, and she cries the whole time. Time and time again, Beyond wants you to feel Jodie’s pain, so it reaches for the fire hose.
This is a game that wants you to feel something, anything, so badly that its story throws everything at you in the hopes that something will stick. But it only leaves you reeling. It tries to depict the life of Jodie, a girl who grows to adulthood tethered to Aiden, a poltergeist-like being of unknown provenance. Aiden is rather powerful, so the government keeps Jodie locked up and under the watchful eye of the paranormal scientists Cole and Nathan. Jodie’s relationship with Aiden, the government, and the researchers who become her surrogate parents are all explored—a walking weapon’s journey to adulthood.
Some of the pieces are here for this to work out. Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe, and Kadeem Hardison perform the respective roles of Jodie, Nathan, and Cole with motion-captured gusto, and state-of-the-art visual tech does their performances justice. Under a steady hand, then, this might have been an interesting character portrait. Instead, it is a careening character portrait-action-horror-drama that’s lit with explosions and soaked in salty tears. Without revealing anything too story-specific, this is a game where you are likely to kick-box with police on a moving train, find a spot in the snow to pee, pal around with a child soldier in Somalia, and choose whether or not to accept the awkward butt touches of a strange boy at a party. Yes, child soldiers and butt touching. This is a game with some hard swings.
The experience of playing the game does nothing to paper over these vast story chasms, and for the most part, the game design does its best to stay out of the way. In practice, playing as Jodie is mostly walking around and following a handful of simple onscreen cues—pushing “X” when the screen displays an “X,” or moving the stick in the direction of a dot. Playing as Aiden is similar but slightly more interesting because you can wreck stuff with your ghostly powers. The game can also be played with a proprietary phone and tablet app, which replaces the controller completely. This simplifies play even further, though at the cost of less intuitive character movement.
But if you need proof that your participation takes a backseat to the story being told in Beyond, you only need to look at Aiden. He has an incredible number of powers, including the ability to possess people or to choke them. Beyond: Two Souls also refuses to stop telling its story—even if Jodie is captured or killed, the arc bends around it and continues on. Since this malleability has to be pre-planned, Jodie is only allowed to die at set points. Which in turn means that Aiden largely can’t screw up a choke or possession. The game won’t let him. He can only strangle certain people, and possess certain others, in a way that ensures Jodie stays hidden and safe. This makes playing as Aiden feel arbitrary, but it lets the game continue apace.
Being freed from the pace-slowing shackles of player mistakes allows the tale of Beyond to pinball violently around, and there’s an uncomplicated hilarity to watching it unfold. Everything is so disjointed and strange, and all the emotional hooks have been sandblasted into such a featureless plane, that there’s no way to tell what will happen next—you could be playing with dolls, or dealing with a “mature” theme like suicide, or gearing up for a training montage.
Or you could enter one of the rare scenes where the light interactions mingle with subtler storytelling to create something arresting. When Jodie is preparing herself and her apartment for her first real date, and you’re asked to fret over the small things that seem to mean so much in this situation, everything snaps into focus, and it becomes clear why you would want to make a game this way. But this was probably not how Beyond was meant to turn out, with just a few islands of great storytelling in a sea of unearned melodramatic nonsense. It’s an unintentional B-game, in the campy tradition of a B-movie. But with all these tears, it just isn’t literary.