Video games have a chequered record when it comes to handling homelessness.
Juggernaut Grand Theft Auto V – a game packed with commentary on the fallout from the 2008 financial meltdown – does not shy away from depicting rough sleepers in the nooks and crannies of its massive open-world depiction of Los Angeles. But its homeless characters are little more than caricatures, existing to flesh out the world rather saying anything meaningful about themselves and the challenges they face.
There are a host of ‘simulation’ games on the other end of the spectrum on PC platform Steam that let players embody the role of someone living on the streets while you can also find some less sensitive approaches in mobile games.
But Ellen Page’s portrayal of a rough sleeper in 2013’s Beyond: Two Souls is worth checking out – especially as it available for free this month in re-released form on PlayStation 4. The psychological thriller starring Page and Willem Defoe is written and directed by auteur game maker David Cage and is one of a long line of narrative games made by his studio Quantic Dream.
The Frenchman has never shied away from difficult subjects but has certainly got a mixed track record with how he’s handled them – just look at how his latest game Detroit: Being Human was received when it showed off a scene featuring domestic violence last year.
And the thing about Beyond is that it is not short of subjects. Page’s protagonist Jodie is bound to supernatural entity called Aiden and, as a result, she has quite the life. Over the course of the game, Jodie uses her spectral skills – which make her the subject of experimentation as a child – to terrorise a kid’s birthday party, become a secret agent, then a military commando and even live briefly with a family on an old Indian burial ground. To call the experience uneven would be an understatement – it’s often an incoherent mess.
But when Jodie falls on hard times while on the run from the law and is forced to live on the streets during freezing winter, Beyond provides a comprehensive consideration of the issues surrounding homelessness.
It is unusual for a video game to put the player in the shoes of a homeless person, let alone a big-budget, star-studded game like Beyond. But the breadth of issues and challenges that Jodie experiences in her short spell on the streets is wide-ranging and puts the player’s moral compass to the test.
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With her life at a low ebb caused by her unwanted connection to Aiden, Jodie is already suffering mentally and contemplates suicide at the start of the chapter as she adjusts to life on the streets.
But the player is soon thrust into making the decisions that punctuate every day spent trying to survive in such a vulnerable position – how to get food and how to get money.
Her quest sees her propositioned by a man on the street to swap cash for sex while she also faces physical violence from another gang, shining a light on the dangers that come with living on the streets.
Jodie – and also the player – is also offered the chance to solve her financial woes in multiple ways. Cash left in an ATM? Find some coins? Pick up a guitar to busk? All these options offer thought-provoking – and morally dubious – decisions that Pac-Man didn’t quite muster. It’s just a shame that being able to work herself out of poverty by selling The Big Issue isn’t one of them.
Unlike many rough sleepers, Jodie does not have to contend with loneliness after bumping into companions in the same situation. And this is where the game’s portrayal shines.
The rest of the group gets little screen time but Cage devotes an impressive amount to each one’s back story, outlining the trials and tribulations that led them to the frozen streets. You hear about how a domestic violence and an eventual relationship breakdown caused pregnant Tuesday to face giving birth while rough sleeping. You hear about Jimmy’s drug addiction and how mounting bills caused Walter to lose his home and job as a high school teacher.
And it helps to raises the emotional stakes when the groups position predictably deteriorates as the chapter reaches its flaming conclusion.
Beyond: Two Souls is free on PlayStation Plus until June 5. Check out Ellen Page’s interview in this week’s Big Issue, available now from your nearest vendor or in The Big Issue Shop here.