Last year’s PlayStation 3 exclusive, Beyond: Two Souls, wasn’t a massive critical or commercial success. Heavy Rain, David Cage and Quantic Dream’s 2010 project, was always going to be a tough act to follow, winning multiple Game of the Year awards for its combination of highly interactive way of storytelling and gameplay.
Beyond was criticised as feeling like a step backwards, with the game more about activating cues for the next cut scene as opposed to being truly interactive. There is truth in these claims; for the vast majority of the time, it’s more ‘find the right thing and do it properly’ as opposed to letting you do your own thing.
The story has been similarly panned and rightly so: Beyond jumps back and forth across the timeline of one girl’s life, wildly changing genre and tone. In one scene, main character Jodie is a teenager at a house party where she gets thrown in a cupboard for getting the birthday girl a lame present. Later on, you help a Native American family perform a ritual to rid the lands of an evil spirit. I’m not sure which is more ridiculous, but in the context of the game, it’s most likely the former, seeing as the whole plot centres around a paranormal entity called Aiden who’s tethered to Jodie.
There is one level, however, that delivers on Cage’s desire to make you think and feel more deeply about his characters. It’s a moment that is more effective than anything else in Beyond, and possibly in Heavy Rain for that matter.
The chapter in question is called Homeless, and that’s exactly the state we find Jodie in. She’s on the run from the police and the CIA. She’s tired, hungry and freezing cold on the snow-covered streets. After collapsing on the pavement alone, she wakes up in a shelter under a bridge with a group of people in the same situation. Here, reality sets in: to survive the night, Jodie is going to need to go out onto the streets and somehow find enough money for food.
To the game’s credit, you have multiple ways of achieving this, and it’s the choices you are presented with that not only elevate this chapter above the rest of the game in terms of interactivity, but really made me think about what it would be like to be in that situation and how I’d react.
So, what can you do to try and earn some money? You can make a sign of your choosing or go begging to people at the cafe to no avail, and pick up some change people have left in a payphone and newspaper dispenser, which doesn’t nearly cover what you need. You can also borrow a guitar from a busker and earn money that way. The final two options come presented with dilemmas: the first is using Aiden to short-circuit an ATM and stealing the money that comes out, whilst the second is accepting a seedy man’s proposition to go round a back alley with him.
Even though, like a lot of ‘morality choices’ in Beyond (and in videogames in general), progression isn’t massively altered by what you do, I found myself really thinking about how to play this level. While part of me was intrigued to see how far the game would go in showing this sexual favour, I couldn’t bring Jodie – or myself – to do it. Similarly, I picked up the coins lying around but refused to take money from an ATM – it just goes against my own moral code. I wasn’t playing this level as Jodie, but asking myself what I would do in this situation. The number of different choices you can make in this chapter is similar to a lot of Heavy Rain, which is why that game was praised so highly, but most of those situations were set in a heightened, film noir world. Although I’ve never been homeless, it’s an easier situation to relate to.
Before you even step out onto the streets to try and earn money, this level presents two other scenarios I imagine a lot more people can relate to. As you explore the shelter under the bridge you come across a knife stuck into a tyre, which Jodie proceeds to hold near her wrist, about to self-harm. Shortly after, Jodie approaches the edge of the side of a bridge, looking across to the motorway below. Your options are to walk away or jump.
Like the sexual favour in the back alley, if you choose the darker option, Aiden intervenes to stop Jodie following through. The debate about whether allowing you to go through with this versus leaving it out of the game is for another time, but the fact that these issues are in a game at all is surely positive. Similar to the alleyway scene, I eventually chose to step away both times, but before I decided, I genuinely thought long and hard about what I would do in Jodie’s shoes. No matter how bad things could get in my life, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to put a knife to my wrist and begin to inflict harm upon myself – not even vicariously through a videogame character I hadn’t even felt that connected to up until now.
It is a testament to Quantic Dream that despite all of Beyond: Two Souls’ failings, this one chapter manages to stir so many powerful thoughts. Not just whether you felt so low that you wanted to end your own life, but how we as a society treat homeless people.
But back to the goal of the chapter. As soon as I saw the guitar, I knew that was how I was going to make my money. How? Because as horrible as it sounds, I have probably given more money to buskers than people just coming up to me asking for spare change. I doubt I’m the only person. Is it because we dislike people coming into our space? Or because we feel with buskers we are getting something back, in the form of musical entertainment?
This level broke my heart thinking about that, not just because the game did an excellent job of putting me in the place of someone reduced to begging for money, but including a group of fellow homeless people that didn’t feel like one-note clichés. The characters Jodie meets under the bridge have little screen-time, but quickly establish themselves as people with tragic lives trying to make ends meet and maintaining a sense of camaraderie and optimism. When I see people on the streets now, I empathise with them more than I used to, and it’s all because of Beyond.
Homelessness isn’t a subject touched upon in videogames very often, but with the interactivity provided by the medium, perhaps it’s the best way to teach people about it. We see so many public information films in adverts, or posters and pamphlets trying to raise awareness of real issues that perhaps we’ve become desensitised to the situation.
By allowing us to live it ourselves in a virtual world, we get a sense of what it’s like, even though you don’t get that magic reset button in real life. Beyond presents this issue through interactive drama, using its impressive graphics and motion-capture performances to allow us to empathise.
On the other hand, the online game SPENT and forthcoming Kickstarter-funded iOS title Homeless (originally called iBeg) focus more on micro-management over a long period of time. These latter games are similar to Papers, Please, which gained lots of attention for forcing you to make difficult decisions regarding immigration. With gaming’s unique ability to place you in someone else’s shoes, and how rapidly it is growing in popularity, it’s likely we’ll see more examples of the medium shedding light on topics it hasn’t discussed before.
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