Long before Ellen Page embarrassed herself on Stephen Colbert, she’d already done so in spectacular fashion by starring in Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls, an “interactive narrative.” Schlockmeister David Cage tries to juggle the strengths of film and video games, but clumsily fumbles them both. It sold 2.8 million copies nonetheless, and millions more simply watched someone else play it on YouTube. Previously a PlayStation console exclusive, it launches this week on PC to a whole new audience.
Actors can be digitally recreated using 3D scanners, and rejuvenated by computer artists based on photographs of them in their youth. This is what motivated David Cage to write Beyond: He creepily amassed hundreds of photos of Ellen Page that he’d found online, intent on recreating her as a child, teen, and adult, before she even agreed to take part. The performance capture process used in Beyond looks pretty decent in stills, but results in muted and robotic acting in motion. Furthermore, much of the supporting cast is not given the same attention to detail.
The eight- to ten-hour story revolves around Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), who is permanently linked to a paranormal “entity” she calls Aiden. By concentrating, she’s able to see the world through Aiden’s floating disembodied spirit, which can interact with objects and possess living beings like a poltergeist. Aiden also acts independently in some scenes, such as jealously interfering in a dinner date, like Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost. The concept is fun, but in Beyond it’s shackled to the narrative’s disjointed vignettes, which are narrow in scope.
Jodie is paired with Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe), a government scientist researching paranormal activity arising from the “Infraworld.” Nathan’s surname seems like a petty dig at Richard Dawkins for his militant atheism, a worldview that’s incompatible with the story’s primary conceit. In studying Jodie’s powers throughout her formative years, Nathan becomes a surrogate father figure to her. Their relationship is caught between his personal ambitions as a scientist and his loyalty to the state, which pursues the military applications of his research.
At 18, she’s drafted into the CIA against her will to become a psychic spy and assassin. She’s sent on dangerous missions, but they’re robbed of any tension. Not only do we know that Jodie will survive because we’ve played scenes out of order, but Aiden has the ability to create a bulletproof force-field around Jodie if push comes to shove. This is because David Cage believes that “game over” screens are a failure of the game designer, not the player. In his earlier game Heavy Rain (Sony Computer Entertainment, 2010), which is about a child-abducting serial killer, this sometimes results in a comedy of errors where the protagonist can automatically stumble through a series of unintentionally hilarious actions. Regrettably, nothing anywhere near as entertaining as that occurs in Beyond.
Those damned xenophobic white people
Jodie’s supernatural talents frequently engender fear in others, and Aiden can punish them with disproportionate force. In every single instance, the villains are intolerant white people. As a child in the winter months, a ginger bully rubs snow in her face. Aiden Force™ chokes the kid, prompting him to howl that Jodie is a “dirty, rotten witch.” The old-fashioned phrasing betrays Mr. Cage’s often incorrect perception of life outside of France, as evinced by the presence of live chickens in the supermarket in the clip from Heavy Rain linked above.
Jodie’s stern and unloving adoptive father Phillip almost slaps her across the face for that altercation, but Aiden intervenes by tampering with the household’s electricity. That night, Aiden eavesdrops on Jodie’s parents having an argument. Phillip whines that they “didn’t sign up for this” when they adopted Jodie, and calls her both a monster and “a demon living with [them] right under [their] own roof.” This leads to her being permanently moved to a mock apartment at Nathan’s science lab, staffed by an unlikely number of black men.
Phillip impatiently interrupts Jodie’s tearful goodbyes with her adoptive mother Susan. Some months later, when her parents announce they’re moving away and are leaving her behind, once again Phillip rushes Susan while she’s consoling Jodie. She’s their only child, and Phillip has helped raise her from infancy, but a loving white father wouldn’t fit the narrative. Aiden can choke Phillip this time, but Nathan intervenes. Phillip shouts, “She tried to kill me! Oh my god! She’s evil. You’re a monster, do you hear me? A monster!”
Years later, Nathan encourages Jodie to attend a birthday party with slightly older white teenagers in an effort to socialize her. After a handsome boy with a British accent tries to get to know her, Jodie dances with him and they can share a kiss. Shortly thereafter, they ask her about her powers and – when she gives them a demonstration – they turn on her. The boy calls her a “slut,” and they forcibly lock her in a closet under the stairs. Jodie can sicc Aiden on them in retaliation. During the tantrum, he can stab lover boy with a kitchen knife and set the house on fire à la Carrie. Eventually, everyone escapes, and the stereotypically vain birthday girl – who showed ingratitude to Jodie’s birthday gift – accuses her of being “the devil.”
As an adult, Jodie goes into hiding from the government and becomes homeless. Her misery is juxtaposed with a large sign in the background advertising luxury apartments, which prominently features an American flag motif (#capitalismbad). For some reason she’s penniless, when she could’ve easily had Aiden possess people to steal what she needs.
Starving and freezing to death, she’s taken in by a quartet of friendly homeless people led by a middle-aged white guy named Stan. Stan spends the meager charity they’re given that day on some groceries, but he’s ambushed by a group of white college jocks. One of them films the others beating Stan to the ground, a scenario likely inspired by the scandalous “Bumfights” videos. Despite her shrimpy size and weak condition, Jodie’s CIA martial arts training kicks in and she sends them packing without any supernatural assistance (#yeswecan).
These scenarios are meant to evoke empathy for Jodie, but given her frightening powers and Aiden’s penchant for violent reprisals, her abusers often come off as the bigger victims. It’s sometimes possible to rein Aiden in, but we’re practically encouraged to act out as him whenever we can because the rest of the game is so tedious. Meanwhile, the bad whites are contrasted by irreproachable non-whites. First we have Cole, her gentle and caring black guardian who works with Nathan at the lab. Unlike the whites who call her evil, a witch, a monster, a demon, a slut, and the devil, Cole nicknames her “princess,” and he risks both his career and his life to help her. Likewise, she’ll meet a Navajo family who generously offer her a place to stay, gift her a motorcycle, and promise that she’ll always have a home with them after knowing her for less than a week.
White male rape culture
Jodie also finds herself trapped in two rape scenarios at the hands of white men. When she’s homeless and begging on the street, a sketchy white man offers her ten dollars for a blowjob. If the player follows him into an alley to perform the deed, Jodie will get down on her knees as he unzips his pants, only to refuse to do it. The man reacts by attacking her, forcing Aiden to choke him to death. Given that this scene occurs a mere fifteen minutes into Jodie’s homeless chapter, it comes across as unearned and sleazy. It also makes no sense: Why wouldn’t she simply possess the man once they were alone, steal his cash, and then leave before setting him loose? Some players may even assume that’s her plan, but conveniently for the writers, Aiden can only possess or kill certain people, and this limitation is never explained.
The other incident occurs during Jodie’s rebellious teenager phase. Sick of her repressed life in the government lab, she possesses her adoring black guardian Cole to escape for a night on the town. Dressed like a gothic pixie in a miniskirt, she stops by a small roadside tavern, where a trio of white rapists await. One of them checks out her behind and remarks that she looks a little young to be there. He soon gets handsy, pushing her onto the pool table, seemingly intent on raping her right there in the middle of the open bar! Then his buddies, one of whom is the establishment’s bartender, join him as if this is perfectly normal. Aiden is forced to defend her, and all three men are killed in a glorified manner. Never mind the fact that a sleepy rural bar like this one is likely a safer place for Jodie than the military base full of black men she calls home.
Wakanda’s a shithole because of wipipo
During her tenure at the CIA, Jodie is sent to assassinate a warlord in a Somalian city overrun by his rebel forces. While searching for her target’s precise location, she uses Aiden to possess and kill dozens of black soldiers without mercy. Along the way, she encounters a young boy with an injured leg. Aiden has special healing powers, so she fixes up his leg, and he happily introduces himself as Salim, though he can’t speak English.
After a handful of misadventures together – including a truck chase that ends in a plot hole – Jodie parts ways with Salim and locates the warlord’s headquarters. Possessing a guard, she waltzes into his cabinet meeting and shoots everyone, and then has the guard kill himself. While Jodie takes photographs of the job, Salim conveniently reappears to mourn the death of his father – the guard Jodie possessed and then killed. He tearfully curses Jodie, and then a mob of men gathers and chases her. Luckily, a helicopter swoops in before they can drag her through the streets like they did to actual American servicemen.
Back in the United States, Jodie is traveling with her CIA handler/love interest Ryan, a conventionally attractive white man who’s a dead ringer for Casey Affleck. She turns on a television and immediately catches a news report about the assassination. The man she killed was not a warlord after all, but a democratically-elected leader who was due to bring peace to the region. She lashes out at Ryan for betraying her trust and, feeling used, goes on the lam.
Jodie’s sympathy for African lives clearly doesn’t extend to her own race and countrymen: This chapter of her life sees her successfully evading a squad of well-armed SWAT officers led by a white agent, often by killing them in large numbers. In reality, the American government is so evil that it has willingly imported hundreds of thousands of Somalis and provides them a First World lifestyle their compatriots can only dream of! In any event, these incidents demonstrate that the moral quandaries normally offered to players in interactive fiction are kept firmly in the writers’ hands: Why not allow Jodie to become a ruthless psychic assassin, if that’s what the player wants?
Later, she agrees to go on one, last mission in an Asian country that has built its own portal to the Infraworld. I guess Asians rank pretty low on the victimhood scale, because one of them is depicted as a brutal torturer, in a surprising change of pace. Of course, Jodie and Aiden destroy the secret base, killing dozens of innocent men along the way. There’s also a scene in a Saudi embassy earlier in the game where we find gorgeous white women who are presumably whoring themselves out to a stereotypical Arab Sheikh, adding insult to injury.
What would a ghost story be without an Indian burial ground? Jodie has eluded the government and hitchhikes alongside a desert road somewhere in the Southwest. She’s welcomed in by a family of American Indians: Paul; his two adult sons, Jay and Cody; and his mute, wheelchair-bound mother, Shimasani, who wears a perpetual frown on her face. Jodie tries to make small talk by asking if they’re Navajo. “We’re Dineh,” Jay says tersely, immediately correcting her. Paul explains that means “the people,” which is what the Navajo call themselves. It seems Mr. Cage wants to guilt-trip us for our ignorance – but it’s not like the Navajo referred to white people by their preferred names, either.
As night falls, Cory mysteriously begins putting up wooden pallets over all the windows. Jay, an unusually handsome man, shows Jodie to her room and warns her to stay put if she values her life. Jodie’s curious what the fuss is about, but he goes to sleep, only to have a peyote-fueled nightmare involving a masked Navajo warrior. Breaking house rules, she leaves her room and opens the front door to find the masked man standing there, ominously. Jay slams the door and tells her to go back to bed.
The next day, Paul asks Jodie if she’d like to stay on a while, and she agrees. That night, the family repeats the barricade routine, and Jodie’s curiosity gets the better of her. Heading outside, she finds a huge sandstorm looming over the house. Then – irreparably shattering our suspension of disbelief – a ghostly skull with bright yellow eyes appears in the storm and personally chases her around the farm with goofy claws! The first time I saw this, I felt so insulted I turned the game off: Nothing up to this moment had prepared me for anything this cringeworthy.
Paul explains that the demonic spirit Ye’iitosh (“Big God”) has been harassing them for years and chased all the other Navajo families away to the city. I guess this is a normal thing in Beyond‘s world, but who you gonna call? The next day, Jodie induces memories from objects at some ruins, where she sees Big God killing nineteenth-century white cavalrymen. Following the masked warrior’s breadcrumbs, she then learns that he summoned Big God to wage war against the white man, only to have it turn against him and curse his people. The masked warriors weren’t bad after all; they were simply trying to protect their descendants from Big God. Wait, is David Cage saying that the Navajo brought their destruction upon themselves? I thought they were the blameless victims of colonialism!
After collecting some talismans from the ritual grounds, Jodie returns to find Paul has been seriously wounded by Big God. However, she now knows how to perform the ritual, and Shimasani offers to help her complete it. Cory comically shouts in disbelief, “You can talk?!” Apparently, his grandmother has arbitrarily broken a twenty-year silence! Jodie uses a stick to draw the ritual symbol in the dirt, and then places the talismans while Shimasani mumbles an incantation. A portal to the Infraworld opens, and Aiden then forces Big God into it, sealing it away for good. The takeaway: A handful of Stone Age Indians accomplished what Western scientists can only manage using tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in cutting-edge scientific equipment! Did they beat us to the Moon while they were at it?
At a secret Navajo burial ground, a masked spirit beckons Jodie into a hidden alcove, where she finds cave paintings depicting a “two spirit” person like herself. I thought such “two spirited” persons were gender non-conformists, not spirit mediums – but I guess David Cage is only concerned about honoring Native American terms if he can use them to guilt-trip the white audience. Saying her goodbyes, Jodie can share an interracial kiss with the handsome one before leaving the farm, and can return here in the ending, if the player wants. Alternately, if you choose to save Paul’s life in this chapter, the demon isn’t vanquished, and presumably continues to haunt them forever; either way, it doesn’t make much difference.
Backstabbing, pasty old white men
While Jodie is a young girl, Nathan’s wife and daughter are killed by a drunk driver. Their spirits visit Jodie à la The Sixth Sense, and she becomes the medium through which they express their heartfelt goodbyes to Nathan. After this revelation, Nathan becomes obsessed with finding a way to communicate with the dead. Imagine being able to tell the Founding Fathers what America looks like today! . . . But Nathan’s only concern is speaking with his wife and daughter.
Years later, he moves into a larger facility and builds a machine in his extravagant new office where he can see his wife and daughter’s ghostly silhouettes. Somehow, he hasn’t noticed that they appear to be suffering. When Jodie returns, Nathan begs her to serve as the medium again so he can speak with them, but he doesn’t like what he hears: The device is hurting them, and they plead with him to let them go! Nathan angrily accuses Jodie of lying – burning his bridge with her – and she’s taken into custody.
Enter General McGrath, an elderly white man who’s overseen Jodie’s work for the CIA. He thinks she’s too dangerous to set free – which he had promised to do in return for her completing the mission in Asia – and too dangerous to execute, because she might come back to haunt them! He decides to inject her with an acidic drug that will lobotomize her – the same thing he did to her biological mother. She’s placed in a room inside a containment field so that Aiden can’t interfere. However, Aiden grabs Ryan and Cole’s attention and leads them to her room to save her.
Meanwhile, Nathan decides to deactivate the containment field surrounding the “Black Sun,” his fancy new portal to the Infraworld. The Black Sun is a direct reference to the twelve-armed swastika, which is associated with neo-Nazis and occultists, so we know it’s probably naughty. Cole even says, “It’s nothing but our worst nightmares in there” – so why build it in the first place? With demonic spirits and human ghosts invading the facility, Jodie, Ryan, and Cole are forced to head into the portal to try to shut it down.
Stumbling around in the Black Sun’s vortex, Jodie finds Nathan has gone completely mad. He brandishes a gun, and no matter how you choose to deal with him, he dies and is peacefully reunited with his wife and daughter before they all disappear into the ether together. One possibility is that Nathan commits suicide, which implies that killing yourself is no biggie, as you’ll be instantly reunited with your lost loved ones. Great message, huh?
Entering the heart of the Black Sun, Jodie can choose life or death, and from there the player is treated to various endings. These include a tone deaf non-sequitur ripped straight out of Terminator 2, wherein Jodie faces a post-apocalyptic world that’s been destroyed by spirits from the Infraworld. Incidentally, there’s an earlier scene in which she breaks into a secure mental facility to see her biological mother, aping a different sequence in that film – though surprisingly, there’s not a single reference to Ghostbusters anywhere. It turns out that Aiden is her twin brother who died in childbirth.
The path the player takes through this “interactive” narrative is wholly linear. As mentioned, Jodie’s CIA career could have served as the basis for the entire game by continually presenting moral dilemmas to the player, but its potential is completely wasted. To mask the near-total lack of player agency, David Cage had the audacity to suggest we play the game only once – something you’ll definitely take him up on – and jostles us between three disjointed timelines. By showing us scenes completely out of order, we’re less likely to notice that we aren’t affecting the plot.
Adding to this trash fire, someone managed to hack it to control the camera during one of two shower scenes, revealing nudity that is otherwise partially obscured. Quantic Dream released a statement saying the nude body wasn’t based on Ellen Page, doubtlessly ruining the pervy thrill for many nerds. The incident led to frenzied reports that she was considering legal action, but nothing ever came of it. What’s hilarious about this is that the scenes are entirely gratuitous and David Cage must have personally insisted on their inclusion. The whole scandal may have even been a marketing ploy, for all we know. That same year, she complained that another PlayStation developer, Naughty Dog, had ripped off her likeness for The Last of Us. It then changed the character in question (who’s even named Ellie) to look less like her.
With its outlandish scenes, Beyond would be better served with stylized visuals rather than its middling attempt at photorealism. Perhaps an egotistical desire to work with celebrities – and thereby elevate his own work – overruled David Cage’s common sense? It was even billed as the first video game to be shown at a film festival. That said, the digitized performances failed to draw me in, and the ghosts are boring when they ought to be beautiful and otherworldly.
Beyond may not be as egregiously anti-white as Detroit: Become Human, but it has fewer redeeming qualities.
 An alternative contemporary approach to performance capture can be seen in the detective game L. A. Noire (Rockstar Games, 2011), but it also has its pitfalls. Actors are forced to sit still in a chair for the camera rig, causing a disconnect between their head and body in the game. However, it’s much better at conveying subtle facial expressions, which you want if you’re going to the trouble of hiring Hollywood actors.
 Other games with similar concepts: Avenging Spirit (Jaleco, 1991), Haunting Starring Polterguy (Electronic Arts, 1993), Geist (Nintendo, 2005), Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Capcom, 2010), and MindJack (Square Enix Co. Ltd., 2011).
 I haven’t been able to determine if David Cage (his real name is David DeGrutolla) is Jewish, but if he is, that might explain the naming conventions in some of his games. Jodie is a diminutive form of Judith (Hebrew for “woman of Judea”); Nathan and Jonathan (Jodie’s biological father) mean “God has given.” Her adoptive mother is Susan (i.e. Shosannah, “rose”), and the homeless woman is named Elisa (i.e. Elisheba, “God is my oath”). The Navajo father is Paul (i.e. Saul, “asked for, prayed for”). Finally, Aiden may take his name from the biblical word Ayin, which means “eye” as well as “sight” in modern Hebrew – which would make sense, as Aiden provides Jodie with second sight.
The portals to the Infraworld resemble the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings films, but might symbolize the Middle Eastern superstition of the “evil eye.” Jodie’s frequent run-ins with intolerant whites seems to mirror the Jewish paranoia of living among white Christians, and the climactic finale centers around a portal named the Black Sun, tying it to neo-Nazi occultism. It might also explain why Warren Spector lavished him with such unwarranted praise, calling him a genius and one of the best storytellers in the business.
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