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.


Conclusion


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.



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