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Beyond: Two Souls is Better with Two

How David Cage's latest experiment in interactive drama excels when played with a friend.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to Tim, one of my oldest friends.

Tim plays a fair amount of games, of both the tabletop and video variety, with a particular emphasis on sprawling, open-ended moddable stuff like Skyrim and Minecraft. He's not averse to interesting story-based experiences, however, and thus I thought he would be an ideal co-op partner to play David Cage's latest offering Beyond: Two Souls with -- particularly as 1) he'd never played a David Cage game before beyond ooh-ing and aah-ing a bit at the early hours of Heavy Rain; 2) he was at least interested in giving Beyond a try, even with its somewhat polarized review scores; and 3) it wasn't unusual for us, in our younger days, to spend all day playing a game together, though, depressingly, we hadn't indulged ourselves in such a manner since the N64 era. The perils of being "grown-ups."

I'd already finished Beyond once by the time Tim and I sat down to play, which meant I knew what was going on; Tim, meanwhile, was coming in with beginner's mind, so I was interested in a number of things: firstly, what his response to the game would be as a complete newcomer; secondly, what, if anything, cooperative play would add to the mix; and finally, whether the game would be significantly different on a subsequent playthrough.

The first is easy to answer: he enjoyed it immensely -- enough for the pair of us to play the whole thing through in a single sitting, with only one break for dinner -- and found the blend of movie-like exposition combined with actually physically involving yourself in the game through its controls to be a surprisingly compelling means of storytelling. He did, however, dislike the fragmented narrative that jumps back and forward in time; I do concur with this to an extent, but I sort of understand why it's done that way -- besides reflecting Jodie's jumbled recollections of her life up until that point, the peculiar narrative structure also allows certain pieces of information to be withheld until later in the game despite being from, chronologically speaking, very early in Jodie's life story.

The second two points, however, bear some further discussion. Mild spoilers follow.

Whatever your take on Beyond's gameplay, there's little arguing with the fact it's one of the most visually stunning, realistic-looking games in recent memory.

It's worth explaining how Beyond's cooperative mode works before we explore any further. It actually ties in rather well with the game's core concept of the Ellen Page character Jodie being constantly accompanied by an invisible ghost-like "entity" called Aiden. In single-player, you switch back and forth between Jodie and Aiden by tapping the triangle button; in co-op, it's much the same, only instead of simply switching characters, a tap of the triangle button effectively hands the reins over to the other player.

While simple, it turns out that this is one of the most interesting implementations of cooperative play I've ever seen, despite the fact that it's effectively "turn-based" rather than simultaneous. That humble act of passing control to the other player is a deeply symbolic gesture; it shows that you're happy with what you've done, and that you're willing to put your trust in the other person to do the "right" thing -- inasmuch as there is ever a "right" choice in a David Cage game -- to continue the story. And this isn't a case of using character A to pull a switch so that character B can get through safely; both Jodie and Aiden have meaningful choices to make throughout, not all of which are obviously signposted.

Tim and I agreed early on to play without attempting to influence each other's decisions. When I was playing Jodie, I'd make the choices as I wanted; when Tim was playing Aiden, he'd respond to situations as he saw fit. Jodie's gameplay tends to include more obvious, explicit "this or that" decisions, while Aiden's choices tend to be more instinctive, usually taking the form of deciding whether or not to do something like smash something, possess someone or kill someone.

It's not quite that simple, as it happens, since Beyond: Two Souls actually takes numerous decisions outside the more obvious "choice points" into account. There are numerous occasions throughout the narrative where you have the option to simply walk away from a situation rather than engage with it, for example; our gamer minds have been trained over the years to seek out and explore as much content as possible, but in fact deliberately choosing not to interact with something can have interesting consequences down the road.

"Aiden, stop it! Aiden! Aiden! Aid-- oh, never mind."

Here's one to consider: during one of the "teen Jodie" chapters, she attempts to sneak out of the lab where she lives in order to meet some friends at a dilapidated roadhouse bar -- depending on how you and Aiden play things, this scene can culminate with Jodie simply being sent back to her room; with her showing up to the bar, feeling uncomfortable at the fact her friends aren't there and leaving; or with the occupants of the bar attempting to sexually assault her -- an incident that Aiden doesn't take all that kindly to.

And it's not as simple as just a different outcome to the scene; how that chapter unfolds informs how things develop later. In my first playthrough, for example, Jodie was caught and thus didn't go to the bar at all; when I played with Tim, on the other hand, we successfully got out, Jodie was assaulted by the men at the bar and Tim, playing the overprotective invisible spirit, promptly killed all of them in revenge. This had the knock-on effect of traumatizing poor Jodie and making her terrified of potential sexual encounters later in the game; in my first playthrough, meanwhile, she had no qualms whatsoever about sleeping with Ryan, the guy she liked, because she simply hadn't had that experience. This, in turn, had a significant impact on how the Jodie-Ryan relationship -- one of several romances in the game -- was depicted in the two different playthroughs.

The reason I bring this up is that playing the game in co-op means that you're consciously giving up control of part of the experience, and that may have unforeseen consequences -- such as those described above -- later in the story. There are a number of situations where the game automatically switches to Aiden's perspective as a conversation involving Jodie takes place, for example; on several occasions, as these scenes unfold, Aiden may have the opportunity to do something ranging from making his presence known Poltergeist-style to actually killing someone, with Jodie helpless to stop him once he's on a rampage; similarly, as Jodie goes about her business during more active times, all Aiden is able to do is watch. It was interesting to watch Tim settle into a "role" as we played through; in the initial stages, he was keen to enjoy Aiden's power to its full potential, but over time he started to rein it in a bit, preferring to scare people rather than actually hurt or kill them.

Playing with a friend means they have to watch while you make choices that they might not have made.

The most interesting distinction between Beyond's co-op and that of other, more conventional games is the fact that Beyond pretty much encourages you not to communicate with your partner. In fact, it's considerably more interesting that way; by playing in this manner, you more accurately reflect the relationship between Jodie and Aiden, in that they are two separate, independently thinking entities who just happen to be bound together. When playing in single-player, it's tempting to just think of Aiden as little more than a special ability Jodie has; in co-op, meanwhile, the experience more accurately reflects the fact that the titular two souls each have their own motivations for doing what they do -- and those things don't always overlap with one another.

By embracing that particular brand of chaos, you can lead the story down some interesting narrative paths that you may not have otherwise discovered, helping make Beyond a much more interesting experience than some critics have given it credit for, particularly on subsequent playthroughs. It's an intriguing take on cooperative play that I'd really like to see more of -- and if you're yet to play Beyond for yourself, I really recommend finding yourself someone to play together with and enjoying it as a duo.

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