Monday, 24 August 2020

Why I Hate Frozen II's Ending - Into the Unknown

I'm pretty on record saying I love Frozen I but it suffers from massive problems that mean it doesn't quite live up to the standards of some of the best Disney Animated Canon movies (for more detail on that, go here). I have watched Frozen II only once recently, so my feelings on that one are still settling down.What I do already know is that I hated the ending so much that it actually ruined my weekend. Frozen II's ending made me angry, but not just angry in a way that it was an unsatisfying sequel to a movie that I rather liked (in many ways it wasn't, it was actually rather good). Frozen II's ending hit a much more personal nerve.

Spoilers for Frozen I and Frozen II (obviously).

Into the Unknown
Why I Hate Frozen II's Ending

In the first Frozen, an accident with Elsa's ice powers causes the King to keep her from away the outside world until she learns proper control. Instead what happens is that her growing anxiety and depression worsen her condition, so by the time she comes of age and is crowned Queen Elsa of Arendelle a small spark was all that was needed for her first public appearance in years to go horribly wrong. In order to protect everyone, and being goaded by the Duke of Weselton, she then decides to exile herself into the mountains so she can't hurt anybody (while her kingdom unbeknownst to her freezes over). In the end Elsa learns that locking herself away was the problem itself, and so thanks to the love and support of her sister she starts opening up and finds that everyone does in fact accept her the way she is despite still being introverted, suffering from anxiety and depression, and of course having ice powers. Her place is home despite being different from everyone else.

Then comes Frozen II. We learn more about the backstory of Anna and Elsa's parents and how they were actually more involved with Elsa's powers than the first movie led us to believe. In their own way they were preparing the young girls to deal with them but their temporary solution and untimely deaths ended up causing more harm than good, leading up to Elsa's state in the first movie. In the present Elsa starts hearing voices calling her to a mystical place thought lost during an incident years ago that magically closed off sections of the land from Arendelle. There they discover a lost civilization, remnants of Arendelle soldiers locked in with them, and four spirits raging over a mysterious past event Elsa and Anna must discover and find a solution to. In the end Elsa discovers the reason for her powers, what actually happened to their parents, the sisters settle a conflict that has existed since their grandfather's time and in the end save both Arendelle and Northuldra. All is well.

But then ...

Suddenly one of the new characters suggests Elsa's place isn't in Arendelle but within the Enchanted Forest among the Northuldra. Elsa somehow agrees to this and the movie ends with her living happily among the forest spirits with people she knew for a day while Anna is crowned Queen Anna of Arendelle instead.

This made me angry in a way I imagine longtime Star Wars fans must have felt when the sequel series showed them their childhood heroes lived a life of failure and misery after having defeated the Empire. This is casting a very dark shadow over everything that preceded and people put personal stock in. First of all, breaking up the sisters after spending the entire franchise building up that they truly belong together is apparently in line with the current popular and unoriginal plot twist of splitting up teams, after twist villains and true love not necessarily meaning romantic love (both of which appeared in Frozen I before it, albeit poorly executed) so an eye roll is already warranted. It was a bad decision for Ralph Breaks the Internet and it was a bad decision here. True, there is nothing preventing them from teaming up for future adventures and they still maintain a healthy relationship, but at the same time this movie is telling us that their relationship has irrevocably changed in a way that would never have happened if the characters were a romantic couple (with the exception of Pocahontas and John Smith but even there the first movie ended up separating the characters and historically she ended up with John Rolfe anyway) and in doing so made it feel more empty than is appropriate for an escapist fairy tale world where sisterhood ended up being the solution to everyone's problems. The adventures of the sisters as a team are now over and condensed into a mere three-year time frame.

However that part might just be my personal preference in having a certain status quo established by the first movie maintained. What truly struck a nerve with me was taking Queen Elsa out of Arendelle. Again we have been hammered with the message that despite Elsa being different and suffering mental issues, she still had her place among her people with friends who loved her. Now suddenly the sequel shifted that into telling us that no, she's different so she actually doesn't belong among regular people in Arendelle. It's not that she's suffering from the mental consequences of having lived a life in isolation scared she would hurt the people she loved, no, the real problem is that she simply isn't physically in the place where she would be happy. Her true place is in the forest with people she only just met (wasn't this also a point where the first movie mocked Anna mercilessly for?) where suddenly her mental issues seem to have disappeared because that's where a fire lizard, a breeze of wind and a water horse live.

It's a small world after all

So that in the end is what really made me angry about the ending of Frozen II. After the previous movie repeatedly made clear that being a depressed socially anxious introvert in a world of extroverts does not mean you don't belong, doesn't mean you can't be loved for who you are, and that you can thrive just by being who you are as long as you open up to the people who support you, Frozen II suddenly says we really do not belong and tells us to travel.

Therefore in my mind Anna is only the regent queen while Elsa is in the forest learning to properly control her powers before she returns to Arendelle as its queen. Kind of like how the Genie had an emotional departure from Aladdin at the end of the first movie where he left his friends to see the world but promptly returned to reset the status quo at the beginning of the sequel. Screw the previously unmentioned destiny, Elsa already has a place where she belongs.

I expect my opinion of the movie in general to improve over time, as it really was okay overall. The visuals were breathtaking, the characters were (mostly) still who they were supposed to be, I actually laughed at Olaf's antics several times, and the soundtrack was ... frankly a bit underwhelming (Let It Go might have had a fanbase who misunderstood the point of the song somewhat but Into the Unknown and Show Yourself simply didn't measure up to it). I just would have been much happier had they simply allowed Elsa to return home instead of making her a poorly-defined elemental goddess who needs to stay in the forest because of reasons.

Now we can only hope Walt Disney Studios corrects this grievous story error in Frozen III: The Search for Samantha.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Princess vs General

This article is a more elaborated version of a Twitter thread, which you can find here:

When people are insulting you, there is nothing so good for them as not to say a word—just to look at them and think. Miss Minchin turns pale with rage when I do it. Miss Amelia looks frightened, and so do the girls. When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they had n't said afterward. There 's nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in—that 's stronger. 
-A Little Princess (1905), Frances Hodgson Burnett

To start with I would like to make it absolutely certain that I do not dislike the characters that I will be talking somewhat negatively about (and I will repeat that several times). I think it's great that there are women in modern movies that aren't traditionally considered female roles. My problem is the narrow praise that gets heaped upon only a narrow subsection of current "subversive" roles while tearing down previous efforts. Especially since I think many of these new character types still feel like they are in their infancy written by writers who don't yet know how to properly handle them. Culturally this has the negatives of a) women being built up by tearing down others and b) female characters that are being hailed as positive influences actually not being all that positive, just something new the critics didn't grow up with. Hollywood especially is a bit trapped in the "girls can do stuff too!" phase, while a lot of us are well aware of that fact and waiting for them to catch up with stories that go beyond basic focus-tested pandering.

A Tweet that gained some traction summarized the sentiment as "My generation had princesses to look up to.Our daughters have generals."

Princess vs General
How glorification of the female general
archetype might not be all it's cracked up to be

Sara Crewe; or, What Happened at
Miss Minchin's

More female military ranks in fiction is fine. By itself that simply means there's more balance in what roles male and female characters can occupy and as such that's a good thing. Where the sentiment loses me is in the value judgment that princess characters are inherently inferior to high-ranking military characters. The military characters apparently being better suited as role models for young girls. As a Disney Princess enthusiast and defender, I take umbrage with that idea and feel that it is deeply rooted in how princesses are judged memetically rather than based on context (which ironically could be construed as a misogynistic reaction). As such the princesses tend to be judged harshly based on misconceptions and outright falsehoods rather than what is actually presented in the movies (a classic example is the 'common knowledge' that Beauty and the Beast (1991) is really about Stockholm Syndrome, when that description would fit Cogsworth more than Belle). Likewise these new military characters supposedly being awesome, empowering and good role models run the risk of also being more a memetic judgement rather than based on context, which could horribly date them when the next wave of progressive characters hit and previous ones are reevaluated. People who judge history harshly would probably do well to remember that future generations will do the same to us, because what is actually beneath the woman with a military rank as currently presented?

Black Panther (2018)

Monarchy Bad, Military Industrial Complex Good

A standard response to why Disney Princesses are supposedly bad is because they support the concept of monarchy, which in the eyes of many is apparently an inherently evil institution. However I can't help but wonder how much of that is a genuine sentiment and not a post hoc rationalization just to hate some more on Disney Princesses. Maybe it's not Disney Princesses that are bad because the monarchy is bad, but monarchies are bad because Disney Princesses are supposed to be bad. After all in the Western world monarchies are hardly the authoritarian oppressive regimes of yesteryear anymore. If anything the system is unfair to those born into the nowadays largely ceremonial role (1).
However princesses being supplanted by military leaders is where that train of though becomes especially odd. Suppose that we accept that princesses are bad because promoting monarchies is bad. What then are female generals promoting when we live in a world that is suffering heavily under rampant militarism? In the Western world monarchies have no bite, but reckless military intervention causing disaster is still our daily reality and shows no sign of stopping. Isn't it then more pernicious to have characters that serve as pro-military propaganda rather than to have characters that are largely relegated to symbolic fairy tale constructs anyway and have been for decades, if not centuries?

Looking at the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Black Panther (2018), Okoye, general of the Dora Milaje is certainly a cool character, but her morality is also largely overruled by whoever sits on the throne she has pledged loyalty to. Unlike Shuri who, in line with the princess archetype, gets to rebel against injustice as she sees it, Okoye's character is defined by duty to a post she might personally disagree with and requires T'Challa being revealed to still be king for her to switch sides based on a technicality. Meanwhile the struggle between the possible kings of Wakanda explores the morality of Erik Killmonger's destructive goal and T'Challa's efforts in course correcting his father's historic mistakes. This is because monarchy in modern fiction isn't about adoration of the concept of monarchy, but about the morality of a person wielding great power. Which is why the shift from stories about royalty so effortlessly shifted into stories about superheroes (which is especially true for Black Panther since the king of Wakanda also takes on the mantle of the Black Panther). With great power comes great responsibility after all. General Okoye meanwhile is restricted in her ability to be moral.

Deus Ex (2000)
In the action role-playing game Deus Ex (2000) the dynamic of loyal soldiers having restrictions on their morality is called out during JC Denton's escape from the compound of his former employers after he discovered that the anti-terror organization is actually just a front for the global conspiracy spreading a deadly virus in a plot to tighten their power over the world's governments, and the terrorists while employing imperfect methods actually have a justifiable and noble goal. When encountering quartermaster Sam Carter (a former general, ironically) JC urges him to defect UNATCO along with him. Carter refuses arguing the only way the organization will survive is for the good people to say, to which Denton responds with

"What good's an honest soldier if he can be ordered to behave like a terrorist?"
- JC Denton, Deus Ex (2000)

With Leia Organa in the Star Wars franchise the shift from Princess Leia to General Leia hardly changed anything at all about her position (except if you buy into adoration of the monarchy being inferior to adoration of the military, I suppose). Given Carrie Fisher's age and reduction in prominence in the new trilogy it is hardly surprising, but nevertheless funny how her 'promotion' from princess to general seemingly causes her to be less active in solving conflicts. Meanwhile the new trilogy centers itself on a girl who due to being born with her great powers takes up the mantle as successor to Luke Skywalker (himself technically a prince).

Fa Mulan from Disney's Mulan (1998) avoids many of these pitfalls by virtue of the soldier aspect of her character arc not actually being a glorification of her rank or the military, but simply a stepping stone into figuring out who she really is. Throughout the movie Mulan is shown to be terrible at meeting imposed expectations as they are presented, both as a future bride and as a soldier. It is only when she applies her own cunning and creativity to a situation that she meets success. After all, she defeated Shan-Yu and the Hun army not by being the best soldier, but by explicitly ignoring orders, and the very act of being a soldier as a woman is a rebellious act in her society. Elizabeth Lim's Reflection (2018) at one point plays with the idea of Mulan being made a general in the Emperor's army, but nevertheless reinforces that Mulan's true self lies outside of the restrictions imposed by either being the perfect wife or the perfect tool for the Emperor.

The worth of the female general as a character archetype runs the risk of being less focused on the character's individual actualization, and more based on how well she performs in service of the person pulling her strings. The princess rebelling against her conditions vs the general simply being the best tool under her imposed conditions. Adoration of a defunct ruling system it was only loosely connected to in the first place vs adoration of a system currently wrecking the world. It seems like an odd thing to celebrate as an inherent improvement.

A Little Princess
(1917 illustration by Ethel Franklin Betts)

A Little Princess

A Little Princess (1905) by Frances Hodgson Burnett tells the story of Sara Crewe, daughter of the wealthy Captain Crewe. The girl is sent to a boarding school in England where she is given special treatment due to her father's status (even though she is heavily disliked by the jealous headmistress Miss Minchin). Despite her privilege, Sara is nevertheless kind, generous, smart, helps those in need, does not speak ill of those she dislikes and stands up to those who do wrong. She holds herself to that standard by pretending to be a princess, and believes every woman has the right to be a princess no matter their circumstances (which is a point very much missed by movie adaptations who retitle their version THE Little Princess).
"It 's true," she said. "Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess.
I pretend I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one."- Sara Crewe

Unfortunately the story takes a dark turn when Sara's father dies (of brain fever after having lost a lot of money, because that was a thing in literature back then) and she loses all of her wealth, of which she is informed during her birthday party no less. Having no other family or guardian to turn to, Sara is forced to work for Miss Minchin as retribution for the cost of Sara's lavish lifestyle which now won't be reimbursed. She is routinely starved, abused, is given very poor clothing and has to live in a small uncomfortable attic. The true test of her character then becomes whether or not she can maintain her kind nature even through her unhappy circumstances, which of course she does.
"Whatever comes," she said, "cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.- Sara Crewe

She continues to help those around her and although no longer having any status to back her up, she nevertheless retains her strong personality and refuses to bow down to people who are unkind to her. Which gives us passages like these where Miss Minchin is continuously on the receiving end of blows to her ego because Sara refuses to be cowed down by an abusive bully.
"What are you laughing at, you bold, impudent child?" Miss Minchin exclaimed.
It took Sara a few seconds to control herself sufficiently to remember that she was a princess. Her cheeks were red and smarting from the blows she had received.
"I was thinking," she answered.
"Beg my pardon immediately," said Miss Minchin.
Sara hesitated a second before she replied.
"I will beg your pardon for laughing, if it was rude," she said then; "but I won't beg your pardon for thinking."

Sara Crewe leans so close to the archetype of the Disney Princess that it astounds me Disney never tried to make their own version (although there have been several other adaptations, the most prominent recent one from 1995 starring Liesel Matthews and Vanessa Lee Chester). Even over thirty years before Snow White had her introduction, Sara Crewe already embodied the ideals of a princess far removed from the concept of adoration for the monarchy. True, Marie Antoinette is a personal idol to Sara, but always as inspiration on how to act both from a position of privilege or as downtrodden. Disney Princesses, even early ones such as Snow White and Cinderella, also embody the same quality of largess under duress. When not careful that can certainly turn into the much more unfortunate messaging of "take abuse with a smile" (the Cinderella (2015) live-action remake struggles with trying to answer why exactly she even stays with her abusive step-family and is rather clumsy about it), but by itself the strength to be kind under hard circumstances should not be mistaken for a character flaw whereas punching your way out of bad situations is always the supposedly "stronger" alternative. Sara's victories where she shows Miss Minchin for the petty and sad woman she really is wouldn't be nearly as satisfying without Sara's strong character.

Captain Marvel (2019)

Captain Marvel vs Rapunzel

Since both of them have blonde hair that occasionally glows, I at one point pictured Rapunzel in the Captain Marvel suit. Turns out I was not the only person who made that connection so I went to the Google machine to check on other people making fanart. Some of the content however seemed more based around the idea that Rapunzel was the tired old boring princess while Captain Marvel is the new exciting hotness (mirrored by some forget Disney Princesses headlines on Twitter). And that annoys me just a bit too much.

Now please do not mistake what follows as me hating Captain Marvel or Brie Larson, as seems to be the style around certain parts of the Internet that for some reason survive on daily videos on how awful both are. I have on multiple times called out people who have made hating on the movie their entire online presence. I like the movie (although the sound design left a lot to be desired and it ruined several crucial scenes) and I have no personal problems with Brie Larson. What I will be doing is take shots at how "inspiring" she supposedly is.

Captain Marvel was heavily marketed around Carol Danvers being the inspiration for the Avengers Initiative seen in chronologically later films (which the movie itself confirms, both by showing Nick Fury starting the project after having met her, and titling it after Carol's callsign), "Everything begins with (a) her(o)" being a prominent tagline. However the actual character seems to be a fairly standard power fantasy who is deemed inspirational because she punches harder than the other Marvel heroes. When learning that she has been brainwashed and aided genocide and spending half a movie indiscriminately murdering people who are only trying to survive, Carol Danvers seems more bothered that the Kree had the audacity of lying to her. Her turn to the good side comes at no personal cost since her powers make her unstoppable and her bond with the villains was never that strong to begin with, and everyone is suddenly okay with her switching sides even though she murdered their friends. Being on the good side feels less like something Carol works towards based on her conduct and more like something she is owed because she's the protagonist.
Meanwhile in the same universe we have Bucky Barnes who was brainwashed into becoming a HYDRA assassin. His response in Civil War to Captain America protecting his life is a regretful "I don't know if I'm worth all this, Steve" and his character is further defined by his self-loathing because he could still be made to commit atrocities.  Captain America himself, while no slouch in the ass-kicking department, is consistently characterized as being inspiring because he's just a skinny guy from Brooklyn who will do the right thing regardless of what it costs him (which in that regard actually makes Thanos his ideal shadow). His title of "captain" is almost ironic considering this military man spends more time loudly questioning and disobeying unjust orders than following them.
There's a montage of all the times in Carol's life when she stood back up after being knocked down, which is good but ultimately rather pointless to her character since she uses the memory to unlock powers that ensure she'll never be knocked down again. For Captain America his recurring "I can do this all day" scenes occur both before and after he gained his superpowers. For Carol adversity comes off as more of a hurdle that she has conquered and now doesn't have to deal with anymore.

It seems like what makes Captain Marvel inspiring is thus actually very shallow. She's powerful and her supersuit is full body. That's about it. That's not necessarily a problem and there's plenty of other male heroes whose morality seems be centered entirely on them, but it seems rather odd and hypocritical that one of the figures that's touted as progressive and inspiring has more in common with unstoppable 80's action heroes who today get called out for promoting toxic masculinity for precisely the reasons that make Captain Marvel admirable.

Tangled (2010)
Now let's take a look at Rapunzel from Disney's Tangled (2010). Rapunzel was kidnapped as a child and grew up locked away in a tower with her abusive kidnapper pretending to be her loving mother, who fed her anxiety and fear about the outside world. Nevertheless her dream of one day seeing the mysterious floating lights lighting up the night sky on her birthday up close (that unbeknownst to her are meant to guide her home) causes enough of an impetus for her to escape her tower and in he process learn that her kindly mother was actually the danger she was supposed to fear all along. So like Hunchback of Notre Dame, the core message of the movie is that some abusers will pretend to be your only supporters. Regardless of the fairy tale setting, that is insight many people need.
Rapunzel is also hardly a passive participant in her own movie. Despite her significant fear and anxiety about the outside world, she is the one actively planning her own escape (although originally planning for it to be temporary) while forcing the kingdom's greatest thief to be her guide. Practically every bad situation they find themselves in is the result of Flynn Rider's past catching up to him while he needs her help to get by.

See the idea that Disney Princesses only sing all day while waiting for their prince to save them is an odd cultural construct not actually present in the films (2). Rather the princess movies tend to be about girls and women trying to find their place in the world because their assigned roles are too restrictive. The prince "rescuing" them, rather than the woman in the tower being a reward for the brave knight, tends to be reframed as a cooperative effort because the characters are people and people occasionally need outside help. The Disney Princess, especially the modern variety, are more rounded people than the morally-questionable asskickers we are supposed to see as inspiring (and Frozen's criticism of Disney's earlier princess movies ends up subverting cliches that were already being subverted more effectively decades earlier, while itself actually falling trap to a bunch of them). The cultural messaging angle ends up being very odd: TOXIC MASCULINITY! But also women are only valuable if they are good at punching people.

This is exactly why I think many of the supposed good and subversive modern female role models are actually going to be judged very badly by history by the same types of people who side-eye the princess archetype right now. The one thing that isn't subverted are the insane standards that women are expected to meet, because only a select number of culturally-approved female characters meet them. The answer to this probably lies in a more balanced approach that accepts ALL kinds of character types without Regina Georging whatever lies within the very restrictive currently accepted norm. Burying historical achievements does a disservice to the people who fought for them. Remember, you might not think early Disney Princesses are especially empowering, but what about the fact that Disney Studios' Ink & Paint Department was entirely made up of women at a time when women were barely able to get jobs at all? Snow White as a character might not be the most progressive compared to our modern sensibilities, but EVERY FRAME of those early movies was touched by pioneer women. It does them a massive disservice to ignore that.

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
Ink & Paint


The takeaway to all this should be one thing: like what you like or don't what you don't, but stop tearing down old female characters to build up new female characters in the name of social progress. Not only are you doing a disservice to the uphill battle those generations had to go through for that recognition, you also lose the high ground for future generations who will judge our generation just as harshly as we do previous ones. Furthermore you are limiting the range of available female roles and implicitly telling fans who are inspired by those kinds of characters that they are wrong for being so. Snow White is no less valuable as a woman because she's kind and occasionally frightened, Captain Marvel is not inherently a stronger character just because she punches harder, and the dialog surrounding it is very stifling.


1) My bias here is that I personally I still see the value in having a permanent representative of the people overseeing a temporary elected government, and the symbolic aspect of a royal family promotes societal cohesion similar to religion without having to invoke the supernatural. I thus can see why constitutional monarchies where the monarch's bite is limited are still a valuable thing and not inherently bad. Just imagine the deterring effects it would have on egomaniacs such as Donald Trump if the US Presidency did not enjoy the acclaim of the position as the highest office (and which culturally still enjoys a certain unfortunate 'appointed by God' quality), but one that needs to account to a higher one.
2) Although Tangled is a Disney musical and as such songs are an intrinsic part of the movie, ironically the stereotype of the singing princess is given a very dark twist. Rapunzel was kidnapped because her hair has healing properties that are activated by a song, which Mother Gothel uses to stay young forever. In story-relevant instances of Rapunzel singing thus tends to be a form of abuse rather than whimsy.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Charlie's Angels - Playstation 2

Charlie's Angels (2003) for PlayStation 2 (or GameCube) is a game that I for the longest time avoided despite me generally keeping an eye out for video games with female protagonists since it's notorious for being one of the worst games ever made and I'd rather not fill up my library with shovelware. That is until I saw Angry Video Game Nerd Episode 153 and didn't really understand what was supposed to be so bad about the game in the first place. Heck even the Nerd's rage felt forced compared to what was actually shown on the screen. The Metacritic score of the game stands at 23/100, which in an industry where everything below 70 is "bad", I interpret as "game is literally unplayable". So imagine my surprise when out of curiosity I did end up buying the game and it turned out that I liked it.

Now I like a lot of things that are considered bad so it doesn't exactly surprise me when I end up enjoying something generally deemed awful (short list, I like the Street Fighter movie, Batman & Robin, Duke Nukem Forever and Metroid: Other M). However that probably means I'm not exactly in a place to recommend it to anyone else, but I will say that its bad reputation might have been overly exacerbated due to being a tie-in to a goofy movie series with an already less-than-excellent reputation. I mean a few critics went as low as giving the game a 0/10. Seriously? Heck, I would have already awarded the game a 2/10 simply for the title screen opening up with Get Free by The Vines because that is one kickass opening song. However instead of a recommendation consider this an argument to have the game moved slightly more into "more okay than expected" territory.

Graphically it looks okay by PlayStation 2 standards. The levels look good and solid, if sometimes a bit uninspired. The quality of the character models fluctuates. Every level has the Angels in different costumes and some of them haven't been polished as well as others. Cameron Diaz/Natalie's model in the first level is one of the worst ones with a lighting issue on her hair making it look like she has a massive bald spot, which is especially unfortunate since she's the first in-game character we see and we see her up close (although I don't know what was going on in the AVGN episode because her face didn't look nearly that distorted on the PS2 version. Maybe it's worse on GameCube or it might have been an emulation bug). Otherwise the models tend to look fine though.
The gameplay is very straightforward. Each level consists of the three Angels having to fight their way to a specific target. When they reach the end, or when they require a door to be opened to proceed, control switches to a different Angel (which can also be done manually though is not really needed) until all three are where they need to be. Along the way you have to fight groups of (named) enemies to progress. All three of them have visually distinct fighting styles, but mechanically they control the same. You learn a couple combos and throws, and as you fight a bar fills up that gives you a special move which slows enemies down (which is apparently called "Angel Enhanced Time"). You can pick up a variety of dropped weapons such as knives, baseball bats, shovels and even grenades, and there's healing items and extra lives hidden in breakable crates ... It's Streets of Rage, it's just 3D Streets of Rage. It's not buggy, frustratingly difficult or hard to figure out, it's simply a barebones-but-solid 3D brawler.

The game does have an annoying camera that jumps around and times and which can't be manually moved. Also invisible walls provide a very restrictive playing area (even blocking off areas you previously could go), but the only reason to actually explore a level is to find CDs and memory sticks that unlock hardly-compelling images from the production of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2003), which Google images and IMDB would provide in better quality should you be in anyway interested. Ultimately the biggest problem with this game is that by 2003 standards it was simply outdated. It doesn't push any boundaries and certainly can't be held in the same category as say Primal (2003), Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) or Grand Theft Auto III (2001), it's simply a 3D version of Street of Rage with the then current cast of Charlie's Angels and surprisingly alright when approached as that. Not something you'd want to have spent 60€ new on, but as cheap second hand game I honestly can't consider this a blight upon my collection anymore.

It actually reminds me of another movie tie-in game. Sucker Punch back in 2011 had a promotional hack-and-slash video game on its website called Sucker Punch Annihilation where you could pick one of the five girls and had to fight through waves of enemies in one of three levels based on the movie's fantasy sections. I also ended up liking it despite its simplicity, primarily because the scoring system and leaderboards made it highly replayable. Unfortunately the game has since been taken offline, but there's YouTube (there's a bunch of reuploads but it's hell to get any of those to work on modern browsers).

In conclusion, Charlie's Angels is by no means a hidden gem of its generation, but surprisingly more "alright" and fun than I was led to believe.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Tomb Raider II - The Wreck of the Maria Doria

I always liked the classic Tomb Raider games more than the most recent Crystal Dynamics reboot series. However I got stuck in most of them when I was younger and it started to feel weird having these fond memories and singing the praise of games a bunch of which I never actually finished (especially since I've played through Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider twice already). So lately I've been through a trek of Core Design Tomb Raider to finally put that niggling feeling to rest, and to see if I still like these games as much as I used to. That has brought me to Tomb Raider II which together with III used to be the games I struggled the hardest with and gave up the earliest on. Now that I've finally did beat the dragon I have some thoughts on a couple particular levels of TRII and some design choices surrounding them.

The Wreck of the Maria Doria
Tomb Raider II

Tomb Raider 1, while undoubtedly still a masterpiece, shows its age in several significant ways. Going back from later games it was certainly surprising that Lara Croft in the adventure that put her on the map couldn't even crouch yet. In the visual department the most jarring example of age might be the complete lack of skyboxes (essentially the illusion of a horizon and surrounding distant landscape being created by painting them on a large, stationary cube that surrounds and follows the player specifically rather than being a part of the in-game map). That might not sound like a big deal, especially not in a game called "Tomb Raider" where the assumption is you'll be spending most of your time underground. However the apparent lack of an above-ground makes the entire game, and not just the titular tombs, feel rather claustrophobic.

Even in TR1's Croft Manor, the 'skybox' is
revealed to be just a background textured
on a small room outside the window
Now this was understandable as it was 1996 and developers were still figuring out how game development in 3D worked at all. Super Mario 64, the Nintendo 64 game that would set many standards for 3D gaming, only came out a few months before Tomb Raider (Tomb Raider was even released first in Europe), so the achievements of Core Design in creating a 3D game that still holds up despite its age cannot and should not be understated just because I'm nitpicking 22 years after the fact. The lack of skyboxes doesn't particularly hinder the game either, it just makes the game feel less like I am traveling the globe in a desperate race against time to prevent it from being destroyed by the former queen of Atlantis, and more like I'm on an extended trek through the same underground cavern system. Especially so on modern computers where the pre-rendered cutscenes stitching the game together are barely presentable, if they work at all (Am I asking for remasters that nevertheless keeps the Classic Era gameplay in-tact? Yes I am).

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (1996) vs Tomb Raider II (1997)

A year later in 1997 Tomb Raider II was released with many improvements over the first one. Not the least of which was an update to Lara Croft's character model which upped her polygon count, giving her a much less angular appearance, improving her textures, and generally giving her a more human look. Also she finally has her iconic ponytail which due to technical difficulties previously only showed up in cutscenes and promotional materials. Lara's moveset has been updated with the ability to climb ladders, to roll mid jump and to utilize vehicles (namely motorboats and snowmobiles). Lara Croft's voice actress was also changed from Shelley Blond to Judith Gibbins outside of grunts that were re-used from the first game.

The developers had also figured out how to implement skyboxes and this time they were very proud to show them off. Tomb Raider II starts by dropping Lara Croft at the Great Wall of China where she begins her investigation into the Dagger of Xian. The sky, the clouds and mountains in the distance all provide the illusion that we're in a real world before we delve into the booby-trapped underground (not a boob joke, the second half of the first level is actually brutal and saving often is highly advised) that hasn't been seen in centuries. Instantly the benefit of having skyboxes is apparent as the game's world suddenly feels much larger than the one from the first game, even though the structure of the levels themselves hasn't really changed all that much. This also meant the developers could experiment with different ideas for level locations since they were no longer confined to building underground tombs, thus giving us locations in Venice, an offshore oil rig and Tibetan mountains. While exploration is encouraged with secrets that grant extra items, the levels themselves are still as confined (and often fairly linear) as they were in the first game, but the mere idea that we have a blue sky above us is enough to remove the claustrophobia from the areas of the game that don't require it to set the mood. A seemingly irrelevant aspect of the game's design nevertheless turns out to have a massive impact on the player's experience of the game's world.

Tomb Raider Anniversary (2007)

The Maria Doria 

As far as fan favorites go, opinion seems to be somewhat divided between the Wreck of the Maria Doria and the Barkhang Monastery (Barkhang Monastery wins by a small margin according to Meagan Marie's 20 Years of Tomb Raider). Personally, while the Barkhang Monastery is impressively designed both in terms of visuals and gameplay, I feel the Maria Doria has made a bigger impact on me. Part of it might be my obsession with the RMS Titanic sinking, the wreck of which was apparently going to actually make up the Maria Doria levels early in development (it probably also isn't a coincidence that James Cameron's Titanic and Tomb Raider II both came out in 1997). However the name was likely inspired by the SS Andrea Doria, the wreck of which also bears some resemblances to the Maria Doria, namely its capsized state and a comparative depth of the wreck site (Andrea Doria at about 41.5 fathoms (76 meters), Maria Doria at 40 (73 meters)), but like Titanic the wreck of the Maria Doria is split in two. 

The section of the game starts with Lara Croft sneaking on board Marco Bartoli's sea plane, only to be discovered, captured and imprisoned on an Offshore Rig from which she has to rescue herself (the texture makes the bars out to be so far apart that she could just run out but this is what suspension of disbelief looked like in 90's video games). Tension gets raised by the fact that Lara's pistols have been confiscated, thus in the early sections of the level we are running around defenseless dodging Bartoli's henchmen while trying to reclaim them.
Once Lara's gear is found back on board of the plane we can more easily fight our way through the facility and into the Diving Area (where apparently the infamous ladder from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was previously employed). Although "easy" might not be the right word here since enemies come out in droves just like in the rest of the game, and it is here that we first discover some of these guys have learned the strategic value of utilizing flamethrowers in narrow corners.

At the end the Diving Area, Lara discovers a heavily tortured monk who tells her of the Seraph on board of the sunken Maria Doria, and which in fact was sunken to keep it hidden (oh no, that sounds like more Titanic conspiracy theories!). Lara changes into a wet suit, the monk gets killed by Marco Bartoli, and Lara escapes by hanging onto a submersible descending into the Adriatic Sea, which subsequently sinks when sharks attack (again, these were the 90's).

All in all the Offshore Rig section is serviceable but don't make up the most spectacular levels in the game. There isn't anything wrong with them, but outside of starting the section unarmed, it feels like a set of fairly typical Tomb Raider levels in a game that otherwise changes things up regularly to provide unique experiences. However the Rig is just the prelude and it is what they are leading up to that makes them memorable. Next level is where we finally discover and board the sunken ship.

Following the submersible sinking, Lara is dropped at the bottom of the ocean with rapidly declining oxygen. The shark from the previous cutscene stuck around and is vaguely visible in the distance, with another friend in the vicinity. Everything beyond that is a black void. The only other thing visible is a trail of debris scattered across the ocean floor, which when followed conveniently points to the overturned Maria Doria. Obviously a handy visual guide to point the player in the right direction, but following a field of debris rather than directly searching for the hull of the ship is also the method Robert Ballard used to locate the wreck of the RMS Titanic in 1985 so this might actually (accidentally) be a reference to the level's inspiration. We can then enter the wreck through an opening behind the ship's anchor.

This part is also the reason why I started out by talking about the effect of skyboxes on player experience. The level 40 Fathoms where Lara starts out at the bottom of a pitch-black ocean with limited oxygen could possibly have been done in Tomb Raider 1, but wouldn't be nearly as effective at conveying the oppressive atmosphere of the ocean floor and the wreck because the contrast with the more (seemingly) open levels would be missing. Yes, the lack of oxygen would have still made for a tense section underwater but the other wreck levels would simply have a similar atmosphere as the rest of the game. Sandwiched between the above water offshore rig and the trek through the Tibetan mountains however, the section becomes all the more memorable. Luckily the developers knew when not to use every tool they had available in their belt.

The bottom of the ocean doesn't provide us with a break from having to constantly fight off Bartoli's men though since a whole bunch of them apparently arrived here before we did and they did so in great numbers despite large sections of the ship being closed off. Perhaps this was the point when the designers should have realized that they were overdoing it in the combat department because a wreck at the bottom of the ocean probably shouldn't be populated with as many armed henchmen as the villain's main hideout. Combat is an essential aspect of Tomb Raider but the overabundance of it in Tomb Raider II is what I consider a downgrade from the first game, and it is especially noticeable in these underwater chapters which should be far more desolate. I already committed genocide against the population of Venice and the occupants of the rig above, how many henchmen does this guy have? Luckily the quality of the puzzles did not suffer as a result.

The section of the ship we've been exploring has been upside down the entire time, but it isn't until we drop through the floor of the swimming pool into the ship's recreational areas that we get the full weight of that Poseidon Adventure mood. The bowels of the ship were already great in terms of mood and design, but now we are finally hit with the realization that this is the site of a disaster that impacted real people (fictional real people at least). We see the upside-down cafeteria with water just outside the windows, the upside-down Titanic-esque staircase, the ceiling windows that now drop down into the ocean. Eventually we make our way to the heavily-dented bridge where the camera angles itself conveniently outside the ship to show us the key we need is in more shark-infested water.

Diving through a series of underwater tunnels leads us to the second part of the broken up Maria Doria, which is right side up and has its deck stuck dry in a cave, still with plenty of surrounding underwater caverns so we can still use that fancy harpoon gun on the game's last remaining sharks. Drops from high places have been a danger the entire time, but in this dry cave the puzzles actually revolve around managing to get off the ship without falling to your doom.
At last, down in the caves we discover the piece of wreckage that holds the Seraph. 

In a game already filled with excellent levels, the desolate atmosphere, the challenging (though not unfair) puzzles, the blueish green-orange color scheme, the contrast with the levels that come before and after, underwater controls that surprisingly aren't clumsy (though not that surprising since they work like this in basically every Tomb Raider), all of it comes together in what are easily my favorite series of levels of Tomb Raider II and some of my favorite in the franchise overall.

Also release The Golden Mask expansion on Steam, dammit.

Help, I'm being attacked by freedom!

Links & References

- Tomb Raider II on Steam and GOG

Monday, 29 October 2018

The Titanic-Olympic Switch

The story we were all told about the sinking of the RMS Titanic was a lie all along. Yes a ship did sink and plenty of people died, but it was in fact the RMS Olympic disguised as the Titanic sunk intentionally as an insurance scam by J.P. Morgan because earlier damage to the Olympic rendered her a liability. This is a conspiracy theory that pops up in many a Titanic discussion on the Internet (in part because of a popular Shane Dawson video where he parrots a conspiracy book without looking into anything critically). So is there any truth to the Switch conspiracy? (Hint: No)

This article is essentially an extended version of a Twitter thread that can be found here: With some added screenshots from the video game Titanic: Adventure Out of Time (1996) so I can at least pretend I made some video game-related posts this year. 

Were Titanic and Olympic Switched?
No, They Were Not
Titanic: Adventure Out of Time
Titanic: Adventure Out of Time (1996)

For a comprehensive analysis on why the switch didn't take place, there's the dedicated website The Titanic 'Switch' Theory Exposed. As a more easily digestible version in video format there's also Myles Power's 'Did the Titanic Really Sink? The Olympic Switch Theory Debunked'. My own research into the Switch Theory is much less extensive as I was only really interested in the Titanic disaster itself ("The Night" as I now mentally refer to it thanks to the books by Walter Lord and the 1958 film) when I accidented upon the conspiracy theory and immediately recognized several gaping holes in what was claimed. As such this is much less supposed to be the definitive evidence that a switch did not happen, but more like my homework in how I arrived to said conclusion based on the posited evidence not making a shred of sense. Throwing around more weight to debunk this conspiracy theory is a nice bonus.

1. The Difference in Windows Between Titanic and Olympic

Infographic 1
The first infographic (left) that proponents of the Switch Theory tend to show as evidence is one that supposedly reveals the difference in windows between the ship resting at the bottom of the North Atlantic, and the windows on the actual RMS Titanic ("Just count the windows", as they say). The sunken ship shows thin windows with uneven spaces between them, while the actual Titanic (again, supposedly) had larger square windows that were evenly spaced. The second infographic, usually posted alongside the first one (and shown below), also shows the same difference in windows between the RMS Olympic and the RMS Titanic. This one also reveals that the picture of the 'real' Titanic was taken during her construction rather than during her fatal maiden voyage, plainly obvious by the lack of her four iconic smokestacks and the clearly unfinished upper deck. It also shows that "Olympic" had her A-deck partially enclosed while "Titanic" had not. However it of course makes sense to use this earlier construction picture of Titanic when you believe that the ship that left Southampton on the 10th of April 1912 was in fact the Olympic. 

Infographic 2
Unfortunately it only makes sense when you believe the ship that left Southampton was the Olympic. In truth this supposed evidence for the switch is nothing more than the conspiracy theorists working backwards from their conclusion (or simply outright lying). The picture of the RMS Olympic that is being shown is in fact the Titanic departing from Southampton as photographed by F.G.O Stuart. It is no big surprise that a picture of the ship, already allegedly switched, days prior to her sinking would resemble the ship that actually sank on voyage. Since the full picture also clearly shows the name "TITANIC" on her bow (shown below), Infographic 2 can be easily discarded for telling us absolutely nothing.

To show just how silly this sounds, what Infographic 2 essentially claims is: "The ship named Titanic that left Southampton is the same ship at the bottom of the ocean. Therefore it is actually the Olympic."

Infographic 2 overlaid at 50% opacity with F.G.O Stuart's
photograph of Titanic departing Southampton.

Of course this only shows that the evidence is inconclusive. To completely sink (pun convenient) this evidence however requires us to go back in time before Titanic's maiden voyage. If the ships were indeed switched, it would stand to reason that post-disaster Olympic had the large windows that were evenly spaced. Therefore what we need to look for is pictures of Olympic prior to Titanic's maiden voyage.
Several such pictures of Olympic exist (during her sea trials in 1911 for example) but conveniently one exists that is explicitly dated 6/21/1911, almost a full year before Titanic's maiden voyage. As we can clearly see, she does have big windows evenly spaced apart. We can also clearly see that her promenade on A-deck wasn't enclosed while the Titanic that left Southampton had the enclosure (and also that her enclosure on B-deck stretched further backwards).

Arrival "Olympic" 6/21/11

Why then do these pictures of Titanic during construction exist where she also has the large, evenly spaced windows and the open A-deck? The answer is that both ships were built from the same basic plans since they both belonged to White Star's Olympic-class, but during Titanic's fitting she had several improvements done to her as suggested by J. Bruce Ismay from their experience with the Olympic after almost a year of usage. The most visible of those were the partially closed-off A-Deck promenade, and changes to B-Deck where the open promenade was sacrificed for more luxurious state rooms, private promenades for wealthy passengers and the Cafe Parisian (these resulted in the smaller windows being installed in some parts). Later several of Titanic's improvements were also added to Olympic, but Olympic's A-Deck remained open for her entire life in service.

To switch the ships over would then in fact require quite a bit of extensive remodeling to both ships rather than just switching some names around, and it seems even more unlikely that this could have been done in secret during a single weekend as is often claimed. (As well as being very costly when the point of the switch would be to recover cost)

RMS Olympic damaged in collision with the HMS Hawke
The final nail in the coffin are pictures that exist of the RMS Olympic showing the damage she had sustained from her collision with the HMS Hawke on 20 September 1911. Full pictures of the Olympic with the damage are apparently hard to come by (larger views exist but I don't have that kind of license money) but even from partial views it is obvious B-Deck isn't nearly as closed off as on the ship that left Southampton (on Titanic that would be the location of the Cafe Parisian), and there is no hint of an enclosure at all on A-Deck. So even if one were to assume that other Olympic pictures were improperly dated, it would be hard to argue that the ship showing the Hawke damage could be anything except the actual RMS Olympic since recovering from the loss of said collision is the entire reason why the switch supposedly happened in the first place.

Cafe Parisian location in Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time (1996)

There is no conclusive evidence in video game screenshots of the event of course but thanks to the extensive research by the developers these pictures of B-Deck from Titanic: Adventure Out of Time did help me picture the dimensions of the area that we are talking about. Titanic's B-Deck promenade is cut off almost immediately by the Cafe Parisian where on Olympic above this area would have been entirely open.  

B-Deck Starboard in Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time (1996)

Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time is handily available on Steam or GOG and handily comes with a tour function if you want to check it out yourself. It is actually rather weird because it involves time travel from World War II back to Titanic to alter the course of history.

2. The Letters "MP" on the Titanic wreck

There is an image of the wreck where the letters "MP" for "OLYMPIC" are visible where the letters from Titanic supposedly fell off. However this image came from shitty CGI made for "Titanic: The Shocking Truth" that is obviously fake once you see it in motion. It even seems like they created the rusted model first and then engraved the MP over it by how clean the edges are, and then added some rusticles over it to try to hide that fact. Overall it is very clear why this picture usually only shows up in poor quality with some filters over it, otherwise this would fool nobody. I suppose by 90's standards the makers of the documentary expected people to be less attuned to spotting bad CGI.
In truth the letters for Titanic weren't riveted on the bow plates at all, they were engraved (without embossing) and are still visible in actual footage of the wreck. If there really was an "MP" on the bow, you would think Dr. Robert Ballard (who rediscovered the ship) or James Cameron (who has spent more time with the ship than its actual passengers) would have mentioned it. Instead Dr. Robert Ballard believes that it really is the Titanic. Since the only evidence for these letters comes from this fabricated footage, there is simply no weight to this claim. It does however show the desperation required to make the Switch Theory's case.

3. Conclusion

Without actually having read Robin Gardiner's book on the subject or the documentary inspired by it (because it honestly feels like a massive waste of time and money when Myles Power's video already goes a long way in debunking them and his facts on Titanic match my understanding while the snippets I've seen of the former don't), the Switch Theory seems nothing more than a cheap attempt at capitalizing on James Cameron's movie that gets spread by people eager to find villains in disasters. The effort to maintain the secret even over a 100 years after the person who supposedly orchestrated it died would be so tremendous and require so much resources that the insurance scam would be rendered irrelevant in the total loss. The shipwreck has been explored and remnants of the dismantled Olympic still exist after all, everyone who examined them would have to be silenced too. Considering the documents of the insurance also still exist, that would mean the conspiracy for the insurance scam reaches so far that it includes the people being scammed.

In short, this conspiracy theory is so ridiculously flawed that it is not worth taking seriously.

The real question is: why is this lady explaining how she
escaped the sinking of a ship we are currently on?

4. Links & References

Images from:
- TitanicSwitch.comTitanic Switch: Olympic's name on Titanic Wreck
- Titanic: Adventure Out of Time (1996): GOG, Steam
- Wikimedia Commons (Titanic (ship, 1912), Olympic (ship, 1910, Belfast))

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Beyond: Two Souls

With the launch of Detroit: Become Human (personally I would have titled a game about androids set in Detroit "Detroid" but whatever) and a resurgence of the regular mockery David Cage games have to endure on social media, I thought it might be time to finally check out Beyond: Two Souls on that Quantic Dream PS4 collection I once bought. With already having tried out Heavy Rain a couple of years earlier, I was preparing for the absolute worst but to my surprise I discovered a story that was at least interesting enough to allow me to slog through the terribly odd (and oddly terrible) game design decisions. As such I want to talk a bit about narrative games and how I feel Quantic Dream does them wrong. I doubt I'll be saying anything that hasn't been properly discussed yet but playing through the entirety of Beyond has left me with a fair few frustrations to shed, so this will mostly be a long rant.

Some Thoughts on
Beyond: Two Souls

Personally I'm not really interested in getting Detroit: Become Human anytime soon for several reasons. Part of it might be motivated by somewhat recent accusations of a toxic work environment at Quantic Dream, or the fact that it was revealed there's a detailed nude model of Ellen Page in Beyond: Two Souls despite her not having agreed to it (seriously, why is that even in the final product?), but actually in truth it's simply because I've done what David Cage himself suggested and judged him by his work, which as it turns out really does not appeal to me all that much.

My short time with Heavy Rain annoyed me. Years after release I was already spoiled on the identity of the Origami Killer so I didn't have as much eagerness to see that particular mystery through to the end anyway, but my hopes for an enjoyable experience were already tanked when the message 'Hold R2 to walk. Use the LEFT STICK to change direction' appeared on screen. That is something I would expect to see on the PlayStation 1, not in a game released in 2010.
Then the game expected me to go through the main character's morning routine that included him brushing his teeth by forcing me to shake the controller and shaving him which had me moving the right stick at a precise speed otherwise I would have to do it all over again. Then I was supposed to explore a house I could barely navigate, had to witness doors that hinged in places where doors aren't supposed to hinge, and was continuously bothered by button prompts for the most mundane tasks imaginable. That combined with a rather unappealing art direction, unconvincing voice acting and character models that fell hard into the uncanny valley for me made it so I soon turned the game off and I haven't looked back since. Supposedly the story is really good though but because of the unwieldy nature of the gameplay I doubt I will find out first hand.

Beyond: Two Souls managed to grab me more than Heavy Rain did however. The art design was more appealing, the setup of controlling both a girl and a ghost tethered to her was rather original, and the non-linear story-telling raised enough questions that I actually wanted to know what was going on and what would happen next. The game does look great and the stellar acting of both Ellen Page (Jodie Holmes) and Willem Dafoe (Nathan Dawkins) goes a long way in balancing out the game's lesser aspects. Surprisingly I actually liked some of it. However that just meant if Beyond: Two Souls were a B movie or TV series it would probably be a decent one, unfortunately its state as a video game is what drags it down.

In general my problem with Quantic Dream's design philosophy is that it feels like they believe they are pushing the boundaries of game design, while actually they are implementing gameplay that has already been judged as horribly dated and unwieldy. Beyond: Two Souls only takes minimal advantage of the gaming medium because at its core it is overly concerned with being a movie, and so rather than being a bold step forwards, it feels like a spiritual successor to Dragon's Lair (1983). Rather than allowing the player to interact with the game world, it feels the game plays by itself and simply punishes you for not responding to it the way it wants you to (and is so surprisingly lenient with mistakes you might be forgiven for doubting your input matters at all). David Cage explains (rather infamously by now) that he feels game overs in narrative games are a failure of the game designer, and so his games implement alternative story paths that go around what would otherwise be a game over state.
While this sounds nice in theory, in practice it means a player who is at least somewhat invested in doing well is robbed of the ability to hone their skills, as the ability to retry scenes has also been removed. If you are lucky you can exit the game before the next save point and hope the previous save point wasn't too long ago, otherwise you just have to live with it. 

Life is Strange (2015)
I feel Life is Strange (2015) solved the problem of a narrative game without game overs much more elegant than Beyond: Two Souls did. At the start our protagonist Max Caulfield discovers during a traumatic moment that she has rewind powers with which she can turn back time for a few moments and so allow the player to experiment with how conversations will go or get out of harm's way when it should be necessary (when an action occurs that should harm Max, time simply slows down and turns the screen grey to allow the player to revert back). The player can't get stuck into a corner because we can simply rewind ourselves out of any situation again. Unfortunately where Life is Strange messed up is by making the rewind power an attribute of the main character that she herself is aware of rather than simply a player option, meaning it was unavailable when we took control of Chloe Price in the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm (2017), so Chloe also had to live with her decisions but at least she didn't have to wrestle with button prompts and motion controls to brush her teeth.

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999)
However I fear the inability to redo scenes to your liking isn't so much an unfortunate limitation of the way Beyond is set up, but instead an intentional design choice on David Cage's part, since the opening of Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999, also simply known as The Nomad Soul), Quantic Dream's first title, makes clear: 'There's no saving and going back if you get into trouble. You are entering a real world. If you make mistakes, you'll just have to accept the consequences'. Again this is stuff that sounds cool on a design document and might have even been an impressive selling point in 1999 because we didn't know any better, but some of us want the option to experiment with the game world. Of course we don't have to be aware of the long-term consequences of our decisions but it seems rather counter-productive to remove failstates by simply having the game continue with an obvious failstate still active whether we want to or not. Having to put up with situations we know little about yet being forced to make decisions on them we can't reverse is what we already have to do in our day-to-day lives and it being a horrible experience is why a few of us find solace in video games in the first place. It is especially troublesome in Beyond because the non-linear storytelling means we are making decisions independently of how Jodie Holmes might feel about the situation, simply because we have no clue of how we got to that point in her life. For most of the game's runtime we are controlling a protagonist where it has been made nearly impossible for us to actually play the role of said protagonist.

Specific Chapters

After the tutorial chapter where a young Jodie is being tested on her control with Aiden, the next chapter drops us several years later in a CIA operation in a Saudi Arabian embassy where an adult Jodie has to copy certain documents with the threat of torture should she be discovered. From a narrative perspective it might have been an interesting setup for the story to get us wondering about how Jodie's life went to bring us to this point. The problem however is that since we aren't actually watching a movie or a TV show but are instead given control of a situation we know absolutely nothing about. We aren't actually told what we are supposed to do until we stumble upon button prompts that allow us to proceed. Jodie Holmes was presumably briefed on mission parameters, but we as players don't have any context for why we are here. Mercifully this game without game overs doesn't allow us to make a fatal mistake, but that doesn't protect it from the massive narrative dissonance where we have to take control of a situation where we don't even know what the game expects us to do. So unless you accidentally stumble upon the next prompt, you could be stuck here for a while. From a control perspective here is also where we discover the awkward mapping of the right control stick controlling both the camera and triggering the environmental prompts. After finishing the game this chapter also feels like it barely fits in Jodie's story. Since nothing seems to connect back with this chapter I am at a loss over the entire point of it. I suppose it introduces Ryan but we learn so little about him and he disappears for so long it barely matters.

 "So you want me to just trade in my car for a Jetta just because
you flunked out of every private school I ever sent you to?"
The Party is a rather infamous chapter. In an attempt to let her have a bit of a normal life, a 14-year old Jodie is attending a birthday party for the daughter of one of Nathan Dawkins' colleagues. While I didn't hate the chapter that much as it did give me a bit of room to mess around, it does have two major flaws that annoyed me. The first is that the teenagers act completely unnatural just for the sake of having a bad ending, and the second is the inevitability of that inconsequential bad ending.
Jodie is presented as shy and introverted, not helped by the fact that she doesn't actually know anyone at the party, but aside from a few bitchy comments from the other teenagers, they at least somewhat try to be nice to her. That all changes when, of all things, the birthday girl doesn't like Jodie's gift (a rare book of poems by Edgar Allan Poe). Suddenly all these kids, who are at the very least aware that Jodie has supernatural powers (and possibly even demonstrated them just a few moments earlier depending on player choice), decide to torment her and lock her up ... over a birthday gift. One girl gives birthday girl a thong, but somehow a book is offensive enough for Jodie to be mercilessly bullied, burned, called a slut and locked below the stairs.
This chapter stands rather disconnected from the rest of the narrative, so the fact that the only real choice we have is whether or not to take revenge on the teens with Aiden is disappointing. Here is where the developers could have stretched their legs in terms of having multiple paths in a self-contained story but instead the chapter simply has us wasting time interacting with the environment until the inevitable bad ending. Why not make it possible for the party to go well? Weirder still is that the player can choose to ignore Aiden entirely and not take revenge with him, meaning the chapter is not even particularly relevant in Jodie's recollection of having had to live with him.

Then came the chapter detailing Jodie's CIA training. One tutorial would explain that during action sequences, time will slow down and you will have to finish Jodie's moves by following her direction on screen by moving the right stick in that direction. Fair enough, I've played enough Karateka to prepare me for stuff like this. However it soon turns out the game wants to remain being overly cinematic even when a good sense of direction is vital for completing these segments properly, so the camera circles Jodie, objects or particles obscure her from view and her movements aren't always clear or straightforward to begin with. The result is that without actual guidance these action segments more often than not devolve into a pure guessing game.
Rather mind-blowing is that this chapter also includes a tutorial on cover shooting gameplay with stealth sections. Partially it feels odd because they will only really be relevant for one other chapter in the entire game, but primarily because Quantic Dream apparently thought it was a good idea to include gameplay that has been refined over the last ten years in actual shooter genres and include it in a clunky quick time event narrative game. This is a game where walking through a simple door takes several tries, and now it expects to hold up in any way compared to a cover shooter?

"Ryan is great"
The Dinner. Oh boy, The Dinner. Jodie invites Ryan Clayton to dinner at her new apartment to the annoyance of Aiden, who is suddenly very possessive of Jodie. As the player we then have to prepare for the date while Aiden does everything he can to sabotage it. It's decently fun to explore Jodie's apartment while getting ready and you have a fair amount of freedom to decide how the date is going to play out (minus a bit of emotional scarring carried over from earlier chapters). However there's a glaring flaw with the entire setup: we as the player have been given no reason at all to like Ryan. At the start of the chapter Jodie launches into an angry monologue to Aiden about how she's allowed to have a relationship with however she wants, how great Ryan is and how she thinks she is falling for him, but from our perspective the only information on Ryan is the previous chapter at an earlier point of Jodie's life where he forces her to abandon the only people she loves to join the CIA while being absolutely heartless about it. This being literally about five minutes ago makes it feel like Jodie did not really develop genuine affection for Ryan but rather that she's developed a case of Stockholm Syndrome where she's now declaring her feelings for an abuser.
Ryan literally 5 minutes earlier
Should we still remember his sparse appearances early in the game, we might remember him from The Embassy chapter I mentioned earlier where we could find him talking about how his CIA job forces him to have limited empathy so he wouldn't really care should Jodie be captured and tortured. So essentially we are now forced into a dating scenario where we are given very little motivation for it to go well outside of Jodie's insistence that Ryan is great. That disconnect between our feelings on Ryan and Jodie's feelings for Ryan while still being expected to help Jodie is immersion-breaking to say the least. Personally I tried to sabotage the date without making it too obvious, so I just dressed casually, ordered pizza and refused to kiss Ryan. (I was rewarded with a scene of Jodie breaking down crying, so go me...)

Ryan only becomes a little bit likable in the final few chapters of the game where he has sort of a redemption arc (after a chapter where he also becomes so much worse) but that only means we might gain (emphasis on might) a little respect for Ryan when it's already way too late for the chapters where developing that relationship actually matters. What's even worse is that a relationship with him is essentially unavoidable. So even if you do everything to turn him down at every opportunity, he will still be there declaring his love for Jodie and kissing her in the final chapter. Romance is also an aspect I feel Life is Strange does better because even just a kiss between romantic options requires the player to have at least worked in the direction of said romance. Chloe Price does not appreciate being ignored in favor of other characters. Meanwhile Jodie Holmes can't seem to meet a guy (if he's handsome) without getting an option to immediately kiss him.

Navajo had some strange implications in that the Navajo people were apparently performing magic rituals that summoned demonic Infraworld entities into our world, and in general it suffered from the same problems as the rest of the game (including one especially annoying action sequence that is also tied to a trophy), but from a narrative perspective the build-up made the mystery engaging, the developing relationship between Jodie and the family felt natural (aside from yet another opportunity to kiss a guy we've just met and who was being a dick to us the majority of the time), the characters themselves were mostly likable and the desert setting makes for a nice break from the rest of the game and was enhanced by a great soundtrack, so I would say I actually like the Navajo chapter and wish more chapters were like it. However it was also home to a handful of glaring flaws.
On the PlayStation 4 version at least, the chapter endings have these percentages that show the amount of players who took specific paths. It's here you often learn about possible "paths" that the game prior didn't give you a clue was even an option (I replayed the Navajo chapter twice because of it, although that specific spoiler choice should have been obvious in retrospect). One of the best examples of awkward design choices here is that apparently there was a bike hidden on the farm that we could repair, but which was evidently so out of the way that only 8% of people found it (I only did because the second time I knew to look out for it). That also wouldn't be that much of a problem, except at the end of the chapter you are given the bike anyway regardless of whether or not you fixed it (if not you get it because the brothers fixed it). It might seem like a small detail but this was one of the major times during my playthrough when I realized my choices really didn't matter, and that's probably also the reason why David Cage doesn't want players to replay his game more than once, because a second run brutally lifts the illusion that the game was giving you agency in the first place.
For trophy purposes I replayed the Hunted chapter where I was supposed to get captured and escape three times, so on the train section I ignored all button prompts and refused to do any of the action scenes and still Jodie was dodging objects, opening doors and fighting policemen effectively (although with a short red flash supposedly to indicate failure). Jodie ran two entire cars until finally there was the single button prompt that was apparently relevant and I got captured. Out of curiosity during a motorbike chase I purposely stopped and found out the police simply stop chasing you. These sequences made me realize that much of Beyond: Two Souls's runtime does the equivalent of handing you an unplugged controller so you can pretend you are playing a video game. It felt like Beyond resented my involvement at all.

Dating your superior officer while on a mission. That's fine.


In conclusion, Beyond: Two Souls is a would-be decent TV series or B movie that was forcefully pushed into the mold of a big budget video game. Everything considered, I can't say I truly hated the game because the performances of Ellen Page and William Dafoe are great (though Dafoe feels a bit misused) and go a long way to make otherwise cliche or awkward scenes enjoyable. The game is thus surprisingly a rather effective vehicle to push Ellen Page. The story is interesting enough to get the player moving forward, but as a video game it ends up a mess of questionable, dated or otherwise frustrating design choices. That frustration is only exacerbated as the developer apparently insists these questionable design choices are actually deliberate and supposedly aimed at moving game design forward. So with that in mind, I am inclined to skip Detroit: Become Human.