Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Beyond: Two Souls

The idea of a video game being an interactive movie isn’t anything new. Implementation of this began in the early 80s with games built around animation with games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, both of which featured animation by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth. Experimentation with the format continued throughout the 90s with games based in controlling Full Motion Video (FMV) sequences like Night Trap, though interactive fiction continued in complete video game form as well, with games such as Policenauts and Snatcher, both of which were created by Hideo Kojima. In the modern age of gaming, people like to point out how games are reaching cinematic quality and so all games are turning into interactive films, though in reality there are still only a few games that meet the requirements, including Asura’s Wrath (an interactive anime) and more recent Telltale games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. However, the one studio that seems to get the most attention, good and bad, is Quantic Dream, a French studio founded by David Cage which emphasizes the use of motion capture technology. The decision to use motion capture has led to the more well-known Quantic Dream games Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, both of which attempted to show the merits of the interactive fiction genre with steady improvements in both gameplay and motion capture usage. The most recent attempt is the game Beyond: Two Souls, a game which has been rather divisive to say the least. Despite knowing the general consensus, I decided to play anyway, after receiving it as a Christmas present, to have my own opinion of it since I had previously played Heavy Rain. Overall, I’d say that David Cage does have some very interesting ideas, but he very easily could have done better on this project.

The plot of Beyond: Two Souls covers a period of 15 years and centers around the life of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), a young woman who has been connected with an entity named Aiden from birth. Her life, told in non-chronological order, covers her upbringing by scientific researchers, Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe) and Cole Freeman (Kadeem Hardison), who wish to study her connection to Aiden as well as his abilities; her time working for the CIA, where she learns how to use Aiden’s powers as a tactical advantage and meets Ryan Clayton (Eric Winter); and her time as a fugitive on the run from the CIA, where she questions her life choices and tries to figure out her future.

Jodie Holmes (left) as a teenager with Nathan Dawkins (right)

Talking about the story, all 2000 pages of which were written entirely by David Cage, in-depth is difficult, mostly due to how the outcome of individual chapters can be influenced by player choice. However, I can talk about the overall quality of the story at this point, which I will say is a bit all over the place. As the game goes on, it can get very silly and ridiculous, even by its own standards and for the world it sets up. Early on in the game, Jodie, with a little nudging by Nathan, goes to a party for a teenage girl and tries to fit in. While at the party, everyone makes fun of her for living a sheltered life and being different (although it is possible for Jodie to romance a guy named Matt). At some point, the party girl opens her presents and is appalled that Jodie had the audacity to give her a rare book of poems by Edgar Allen Poe (even though a simple thank you would have sufficed). It is at this point that every single teenager at the party (including Matt, which feels like a huge betrayal if you open up to him) begins to taunt her for presenting a rare book (which is probably extremely valuable on the second-hand market) and for, again, being different despite knowing that she has paranormal powers that she may or may not have just demonstrated (I suppose they haven’t seen/read/heard of Carrie (probably because that’s old too)). Then, they all lock her in a closet underneath the stairs and proceed with the party without her. When Aiden rescues Jodie, the player can choose to take revenge or leave, but I think you can probably figure out which one I chose. The reason I mention this scene in particular is because it demonstrates a colossal lack of intelligence on part of the teenagers and, while mildly silly, sort of sets the stage for later silliness.

There is another segment when Jodie is older where she is suddenly in a goth stage of her life. She is seriously dressed in goth attire with goth posters on her wall and this just comes right out of nowhere with absolutely no rhyme or reason. But of course the game gives us a reason for this (kinda, sorta, not really) by having her whine about how she can’t go out to a bar with some girls from school or something (I don’t quite remember). As she is continually shot down by Nathan and Cole, she grows increasingly frustrated until, when they leave, she, with aid from the player, starts playing a guitar solo on a Gibson Flying V (because apparently all guitars are Fender Stratocasters or Gibson Flying Vs) as if to say, via music, “No one understands me!” This sudden personality shift is so bizarre and over the top and I really couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the situation. This section is nowhere near the height of the game’s silliness, but it’s worth mentioning anyway.

There is no reason for Jodie to suddenly be goth.

But despite these ridiculous moments, the game has some moments that are very well done. A particular example is a chapter where Jodie, while on the run, ends up homeless and is befriended by a group of homeless people. The situations the player can get involved in can feel poignant and carry a lot of weight. This section is one that is more emotionally driven, and it is better off for it. In this section I actually felt more emotionally invested in the characters, namely the homeless people, because of their interactions with and belief in Jodie. Points like this are when the game is actually pretty well-written, but they are unfortunately more difficult to come by when it comes to the rest of the story, thanks to the average dialogue and somewhat predictable narrative (I even explained the premise to my dad after playing and he was able to immediately guess the big twist that I spent hours trying to learn).

You have to feel bad for Jodie during the Homeless chapter.

Tying in with the weak writing, the characters also end up coming off as shallow a lot of the time. By that, I mean there isn’t much to them. Cole is an extreme example of this, since the only thing he does through the whole game is be nice to Jodie and display his devotion to her cause. That’s it, that’s his entire character. I can’t really talk about Nathan because the more I say about him the more I’ll spoil the game, but Jodie and Ryan I can discuss. Jodie is easy to understand most of the time, save for the aforementioned scene where she’s suddenly in a goth phase. Ryan is a little tricky, since a lot of the time he seems to only care about Jodie as it relates to her being able to fulfill a mission for the CIA, but what’s even stranger is that even if you reject every single romantic advance from him throughout the entire story, the game still does whatever it can to leave him available.

This middle chapter will happen no matter what you say or do.

In a similar vein, the game does everything in its power to make sure that Jodie can never die until the very end of the game. Why? There are no game over screens except for possibly the final action sequence. If you screw up or die, something else will happen so that the player still gets from Point A to Point B no matter what and make it inevitable that you will win no matter what. This is a sharp contrast from Quantic Dream’s previous game, Heavy Rain, where the ability for all four characters to die at any point could wildly change the course of the narrative, which gave their deaths more weight. By making it impossible for Jodie to fail until the very end, sometimes through a convenient Deus Ex Machina, the weight of her death is erased, thus removing any reason to care for her safety before that point. It’s a big letdown in writing, but this isn’t the only flaw Beyond: Two Souls has.

The only other flaws in Beyond: Two Souls come from the gameplay. I have no problems with it being interactive drama, as it theoretically allows the player to shape the events of the narrative to create one of their own. I also like the idea that the player is able to explore the environment on their own to discover more things they can interact with. However, these same great ideas end up, at times, integrated in an unsatisfactory way.

Let me begin with the exploration of the world. The idea behind having a heavy amount of exploration is that you can go around the environment and discover new things. You can interact with objects to find clues for solving a puzzle or find out new details about the running narrative and gain a better understanding of the characters. Unfortunately, thanks to the anachronic storytelling, the very first level establishes that the game doesn’t like it when you go off the rails. That’s right; an experience centered heavily on going off the rails discourages you from going off the rails. This sets a precedent for the rest of the story by creating the illusion that the game is super linear, which causes the player to ignore the other details of the environment, therefore you don’t get that extra information, and so you actually believe that the game is super linear. The only reason I even got the most out of the Homeless chapter is because I read about the problems with the game’s interactivity system online beforehand, thus allowing me to know that you can cross the street in that chapter and giving me new story opportunities. No game should do this to the players and then wonder why they didn’t get to see everything they should have (I’ll admit that at certain points I just went right for the goal without searching every inch of my environment).

Protip: Cross the street and you can see this.

I think this problem may have to do with the fact that the story is in anachronic order in the first place. As I kept playing, it felt like the story would have made more sense in chronological order, as there were certain plot points that not only would come up later, but would have a long section in between that focuses on something so different, you may not even remember exactly what happened before or even know that your decisions in that chapter matter to the next. This sort of haphazard storytelling is what is partly to blame for the illusion of game linearity, as there is a chapter about halfway through that feels like the real first level, one which actually encourages exploration and lets you do whatever you want with no real or perceived time restraints.

In any case, there was one other problem with interaction, which involves how it is mostly bound to the right analog stick. Interactivity points are indicated by small white circles that appear when the player approaches them. Moving the right stick in their general direction will activate them, which makes sense from a design standpoint. However, in times where you may need to make an important decision, such as how to make money in the Homeless chapter, it is possible to accidentally make the wrong choice and have the game refuse to let you take it back. This meant that in order to correct something, I had to go back to the main menu and continue my progress from the last checkpoint, which was also hidden behind about 10 seconds of loading (which occasionally felt like an eternity). It also doesn’t help that the right stick is also the camera, leading to moments where I didn’t even want to interact with the environment, but was forced to go through it just because I wanted to try and look across from a wall (though the camera is pretty fixed anyway).

Two mechanics which are done mostly right.

Action sequences are sprinkled throughout the story, which I suppose was to either fit in with the narrative or appeal to a broader audience. Either way, these can be pulled off well, but one mechanic in these moments requires the player to shift the stick in the direction that Jodie is moving in to successfully complete her motion (as a nice touch, any visible damage she suffers here continues through the rest of the story segment). This is a neat idea, but sometimes I found it a little difficult to decipher exactly which direction I was supposed to flick the stick due to some of the camera angles used to try and illustrate her motions. I think this feature should have been worked on before release to make it work even better.

The action slows down so you can complete Jodie's movement.

While I have gone on about the game’s faults, there are some things that are fully deserving of praise. Though the story may be oddly written, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe act it out superbly. Their performances are filled with emotion and have subtle movements to help sell them. Watching them act out each scene with stunningly detailed motion capture can sometimes distract you from the quality of the writing, but that shows just how good they are at acting. These two are perfect to play the parts they are given and watching them do it may be reason enough for fans of them to invest in the game.

Pictured: The extensive motion capture used to make this possible.

The graphics of the game are also very detailed and sell the world extremely well. It’s a wonder that the uncanny valley was fully avoided considering how difficult it seems to be with motion capture technology. It’s a good thing too that the rest of the game looks good enough to balance out the very realistic humans. I also liked the music of the game, which admittedly does help heighten the atmosphere of the game.

Beyond: Two Souls is an interesting game, but not one without flaws. Despite being superbly acted and having some serious star power, the weak storytelling and not-quite-perfect gameplay counterbalance a lot of what’s actually good. In the end, David Cage seems to have really good ideas on improving interactive drama, but he needs to create a more compelling story, perhaps with a team of writers, for the intended audience to see them as worthwhile. It may be worth checking out for the sake of watching the actors perform their parts, but there unfortunately isn’t much for those who are on the fence.

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