Gaming

Beyond: Two Souls is Not a Feminist Game

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If you haven’t played Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls and you want to, here’s my overall rating: 6/10. At its best, it’s immersive and fun and fascinating and emotionally compelling. At its worst, you feel like throwing the controller because the dialogue is so horrible and you really just want to hurry up and finish the game because OH MY GOD, IT’S GETTING TOO LONG AND YOU JUST WANT TO BE DONE. Also, there’s a potentially triggering scene that involves the main character, alone, on her own.

For an in-depth look at the game, spoilers follow.

*** WARNING: SPOILERS ***

First off: Beyond: Two Souls is not an amazing game. Much has been said about the poor storytelling, clichéd dialogue, inconsistent rules and mechanics, and limited character development. And there’s many a quip that Beyond is essentially a 4.5-hour-long interactive movie starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, since you’re given a lot of choices throughout the game (i.e., which action to take and what you’ll say), but those choices don’t actually bear much weight on what happens next.

But it’s a compelling, if flawed experience. The visual details are incredibly rendered and immersive. Ellen Page is especially excellent as Jodie, the woman tethered to a ghostly entity named Aiden. The game follows Jodie in a nonlinear progression throughout sections of her life: you see her as a tiny girl whose “nightmares” are actually encounters with other, awful entities; a badass CIA operative-in-training; a nervous young woman prepping for a date; an angry, punky teenager; and a struggling, homeless drifter. It’s not hard to feel invested in Jodie, to feel connected to her frustrations and her conflicts. In a way, Beyond is an effective bildungsroman.

And, yep, it was great to be able to play a woman in a video game who isn’t designed to supply T&A, but who is nuanced and capable. Jodie’s not a silent, brooding warrior. She’s not a weakling, either. She’s a stubborn girl who is sometimes afraid and lonely.

Was it a feminist move for Quantic Dream to feature Jodie? Absolutely.

But is Beyond a feminist game? A diverse game? Not… exactly.

Let’s take a look around Jodie.

She can punch things so she must be a Strong Female Character, right??

She can punch things so she must be a Strong Female Character, right??

Jodie is the only complex woman with agency in the game. Jodie’s world is controlled and populated largely by men: Nathan and Cole, her surrogate parents; Ryan, fellow CIA agent; Stan, who heads the homeless group that Jodie joins… etc. The scientists, soldiers, and various extras who fill the game are primarily men. Jodie’s world is rooted in patriarchy, where men are predominantly the doers, the thinkers, and the people with the most authority.

Okay. Not very revolutionary. Pretty standard, actually.

What about the women?

Jodie’s foster mother, Susan, is a typical loving mom who’s kind to Jodie, but that’s it. She basically disappears after Jodie moves into the research lab.

The teenage girls in the Party sequence are cruel Mean Girl bullies who aren’t even a little interesting.

The other women serve as different versions of Damsels in Distress. As Anita Sarkeesian points out, there’s no end to the games where women are solely there to be rescued, or to be killed as emotional catalysts.

b2s-zoey

Tuesday is a pregnant woman in Stan’s camp who ran away from her abusive boyfriend. She’s defined by her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Zoey. She needs everyone’s help to deliver the baby, and when the building catches fire, Tuesday and Zoey are the ones who most urgently need to be rescued, because they’re the most vulnerable — they’re classic Damsels.

Stan’s dead wife, Nancy, is a Woman in the Refrigerator. Because of her death, Stan’s life has gone downhill. But channeled by Jodie, Nancy’s soul tells Stan to move on and live his life.

Jodie’s birth mother, Norah, is forcibly separated from Jodie after her birth. Norah has psychic powers, but the CIA injects Norah with a “neuro-acid” that effectively destroys her powers and leaves her in a vegetative state, unable to move or speak.

And, the biggest Damsels of them all? Nathan’s wife and daughter, Helen and Laura, who are killed in a car accident. Throughout the course of the game, Nathan seizes the technology used to tap into the afterlife/Infra-World, and keeps Helen and Laura trapped and in pain, incapable of moving on — Damsels in Refrigerators! (You wouldn’t think it was possible…)

There’s one woman I’ve yet to talk about, but let’s pause for a moment, and zoom out again.

Jodie’s world is, well, incredibly white. Most of the main characters are white. The women I’ve mentioned so far: all white. There are a few significant POC characters, particularly the Native American family that Jodie stays with for a significant chapter.

I really appreciate that they were there. Except.

b2s-jodienavajo

So… basically, here’s what happens in the chapter (which is, by the way, literally titled “Navajo”): Jodie is wandering in the desert, and finds the home of a Navajo family. She earns her keep by helping them do chores, etc. There may be a love interest. But wait: at night, they close all the windows, latch the doors, and tell her not to go outside NO MATTER WHAT. Okay, that’s weird. Loud banging noises. Howling, raging wind.

Turns out, it’s a malicious entity that is fought nightly by the spirits of the family’s ancestors.

Aaaaand those family spirits were the same guardians who accidentally summoned the entity in the first place, to fight off the white man (a.k.a. Confederate soldiers, of course!).

And they need Jodie’s help to put the entity back in the Infra-World. ‘Cause. Totally not a White Savior thing, at all. Or a Mystical POC thing.

The thing is, the game never hints of any particular nuances here. All the really bad systematic stuff — i.e., racism? Slavery? Disenfranchisement? THAT stuff is in the past. There’s an implied sense of pride in the fact that the family has managed to keep the land throughout the generations; there’s the idea that this little desert farm is a slice of bliss for Jodie, an idyllic oasis from the turmoil that is her life. Nothing is wrong here, nor ever was, other than the accidental entity. The Navajo family are totally fine — except that they failed to put the entity back years ago, and they were still failing until Daenerys Jodie came along.

Okay, so moving back to the last woman I’d like to talk about.

Shimashani, the grandmother in the Navajo family, remains mute and immobile, confined to her wheelchair — until the pivotal moment when she breaks her silence and helps Jodie save the family. On one hand, it could be argued that this is a notable collaboration between two women, and Shimasani is more capable than she appears. But the interaction is fairly superficial; there’s no real depth to Shimasani’s character, because she never. Really. Speaks.

Mute. Immobile. That sounds familiar…

Anyway, so, the main triggering scene (and that’s a CONTENT WARNING if it’s not already clear): Young teenage Jodie is mad. She breaks out of her room and goes to the bar. Because she’s a rebel. And of course there’s men. And of course it gets REALLY creepy REALLY fast. And it’s attempted rape rather than actual rape, but uh, IMHO, that doesn’t make it much better.

I was angry when I saw it was about to happen. Jodie’s world is full of men, after all. We should have seen it coming, right? She’s young and she’s helpless and that’s what the game wants us to feel. It’s a very specific kind of terror. The kind of terror that most women have already experienced, the kind of terror that is perpetuated by images and voices and men like this who exist in the world a billion times over, the kind of terror that’s upheld by rape culture: men are strong, and women are fundamentally weaker, and men are predators, and women are easy victims.

But now, finally, we get to the reason why Beyond was so disappointing.

jodie-young

Because every time Jodie is in a position of weakness — every time she’s faltering and frail and cornered — in the end, she does get power. She gets it from her entity, Aiden.

More specifically, she gets rescued by Aiden.

Aiden, the male spirit who accompanies her everywhere. Aiden, who is always a “he.” Aiden, who you’re controlling half the time, flying through the world on a separate plane, crushing things, choking people, fucking shit up. Aiden, who is the most active force in the game, the one who heals people and lets people live or kills them.

When you’re playing Aiden — that’s when you have the most power.

In the end, (MAJOR SPOILERS) you find out that Aiden is her TWIN BROTHER who died before he was born.

And here’s what the director said about Aiden:

“Actually, I’m not just focusing on Jodie. I’m focusing on Jodie and Aiden. Aiden, this entity, is really a character with his own personality, his own desires, and his own goals. It’s the story of Jodie and Aiden, and their relationship and how it’s going to evolve through time.”

When the game ends, you realize that Jodie and Aiden are supposed to be yin and yang, almost. Two halves who are stronger with each other.

But here are my questions:

Why did Aiden have to be the brother? Why couldn’t he have been her sister?

Why is there no significant friendship with a woman, or a mentor who’s a woman? Or just any woman who’s not a Damsel? It’s like, ever since that horrible birthday party, Jodie has extinguished the idea of ever having women as friends. They simply don’t exist.

I really, really wish there had been, though. There was so much potential.

At the beginning, you see Jodie as she appears to the world — mysterious. Dangerous. Incredibly lethal. She leaves a wake of smashed metal from wrecked cars. She seems to have horrific psychic abilities.

Then you see her as a small girl in a lab, being tested. Then the screen twists and you’re looking from the perspective of something, someone, the real one who’s rattling the can on the table, the one who can go through the wall and predict which cards the woman’s chosen on the other side.

Jodie never could level buildings and cars by herself.

It was Aiden all along.

Jodie’s the tiny one who’s scared, the one who’s always scared and hungry and powerless, next to Aiden. I noted at the very beginning that Jodie’s not a weakling — because she’s not. She’s not a pushover who folds under just any kind of pressure. But the binary couldn’t be clearer.

In order for Aiden to save her, Jodie must first need saving. In order for you to exercise psychic powers, a girl must first call on you. You must protect her; you’ll kill everyone in the room, if you need to. You must be the hero.

But you have to be a man to do it, even if you’re the faceless, disembodied soul of a man. You can’t be Jodie. You have to be Aiden.

Writer, illustrator, emoji enthusiast.

1 Comment

  1. Kelly

    May 10, 2014 at 12:25 AM

    Really amazing piece that hits on every issue I had with this game and more. Particularly impacted by the final lines:

    “But you have to be a man to do it, even if you’re the faceless,
    disembodied soul of a man. You can’t be Jodie. You have to be Aiden.”

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