If there's one thing Beyond: Two Souls (Oct. 8) has proven to the world of video games, it's that it's what is on the inside that counts.
No, not because we're supposed to get some sort of deeper meaning out of the plight of Jodie, the young protagonist played by Ellen Page. Rather, it's because no matter how well Page completed her motion capture and voice performance for the character, her storyline is a mess. And that means the game is a mess.
You'd think geeks would have learned this lesson after the Star Wars prequels.
The ambitious effort from writer/director David Cage suffers the same fate as his Heavy Rain: It tries too hard to do too much to too little effect. Sure, there are about two dozen possible endings to Jodie's story, but when all your interactions with her character are clumsy, confusing swipe commands, used to accomplish ambiguous results during unexplained interactions with ill-defined NPCs, well, there's not much to make you look forward to solving the mystery.
The premise is compelling enough, as Jodie is under the care of Dr. Nathan Dawkins (played by Willem Dafoe) to determine why she has telepathic bond to an ethereal entity called Aiden. There's a healthy dose of supernatural surprises and action counterbalanced by oodles of banal interactions, such as brushing your teeth and suffering from teen angst.
But while the use of legitimate Hollywood actors and cinematic presentation have gained applause for bringing games one step closer to film quality, the game has also drawn scorn for being plain dull. It seems there's still not a terribly wide audience for this sort of interactive storytelling, focusing more on nuance than action.
That's not the real problem here, however; what's wrong with Beyond is that it's a poorly told story, period.
This choose-your-own-adventure format can and has been done well before. The most recent example that first comes to mind is Telltale's episodic treatment of The Walking Dead, which barely featured any use of the controller at all, and was engrossing storywise from beginning to end. Your decisions felt like they had weight, and after the heat of the moment had passed, you would reflect on your split-second actions and wonder if you'd done the right thing. That engagement is especially impressive, since the story would continue no matter what you had done.
Beyond suffers from a serious lack of explanation for consequences. If I kissed this person, what happened? If I didn't choose to go to that location, what difference did it make? By the end, you don't know, and you probably don't care. Compare that to the finale of Walking Dead: Only one ending was available, but at least you felt the journey was worth it. No number of outcomes in Beyond can make you feel invested in how you got there.
As it is, Beyond is a sort of Jar Jar Binks to Walking Dead's Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. The technology is comparable, but the storytelling is so uneven, the former pales in comparison to the latter. Beyond didn't change storytelling in video games, but it sure did highlight how important it truly is.
Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at [email protected]