Wednesday, November 20, 2013

#67: To Heavy Rain and Beyond: David Cage's Problems

(Spoiler Alert for Beyond: Two Souls. I wanted to keep this post spoiler-free. However, as I was typing it I realized that my points are stronger in the presence of clear examples from the game.)

As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I purchased and played through Beyond: Two Souls: Starring Ellen Page and Willam Dafoe, developed by David Cage and Quantic Dream, when it came out a while back. Despite the similarities between Beyond and Quantic Dream's previous opus, Heavy Rain, Beyond has been much more negatively received than its predecessor. On Metacritic, for example, Two Souls received a 71 on Metacritic, whereas Heavy Rain received an 87. That is a grand total of a 16 point difference between the games, which is fairly significant. What is it about Beyond that makes people dislike it so much more? This week, I propose a possible answer.

One of the biggest reasons I feel that Beyond received a more lukewarm reception was that, unlike Heavy Rain, came out amongst stiff competition in the space of the “interactive fiction” genre. At the time of Heavy Rain's release, Quantic Dream was the only company who made games of that type. Aside from Heavy Rain, the only notable “interactive fiction” game was Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit, also developed by the same company. Fast forward to the time of Beyond: Two Soul's release, and this is now no longer the case. Now, there are quite a few competitors in this space. Chief among them is Telltale Games, famous for both the spectacular release of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. To The Moon is another great example, developed by Firebird Games in the indie space. Though these games lack the budget of the works of Quantic Dream, they command very strong followings in their own right.
Fans of the genre previously had only one place to go to get their fix. As a direct result, they were less likely to criticize games from David Cage. Since there are more points of comparison for “interactive fiction” than there were even 5 years ago, we see more of the flaws in games of that genre than we used to. Cage no longer has the defense of being the only developer in the field. He needs to do much more to impress audiences. Beyond really does not do much to move the goal post at all. In fact, it is much worse in many respects. Therefore, it is natural to expect it to have a lower score than its predecessors.

Another reason that Beyond might not have been as well received as well as other Quantic Dream games is that the control scheme is a much more ambiguous than in those games. Presumably in order to to avoid the common criticism that David Cage's games are nothing more than a series of Quick Time Events, the systems used during action sequences have been revised. Instead of displaying the button prompts on screen, the game uses a new mechanic. All action sequences are handled using the right analog stick. When the action goes into slow-motion, players are supposed to move the stick in the same direction Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is whatever action she is performing in. The problem with this is twofold. First, many movements can be ambiguous with regards to which direction they are going towards. Since the game expects players to perform them with relative haste, this leads to unnecessary failures. The other issue is that the game has an annoying tendency to have action sequences in dimly or poorly lit areas.
As a result, it is often hard to see exactly what Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is doing, let alone which direction she is doing it in. Compared to the discreet button prompts present in Heavy Rain, Beyond makes it much more difficult to correctly input the proper commands. As an example, there is a scene that takes place “early on” in the game (I'll explain later) where Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is on the run from the CIA. She is on a train and seen by police officers, creating a chase scene. When she makes it off the train, she has to jump over and/or duck under tree branches as she is running into a forest in order to avoid capture. As Ellen Page approaches a branch, the game slows-down, indicating that it is time to move the right stick. Unfortunately, it is very hard to make out if Ellen Page is ducking or preparing to jump in the darkness of the night. This gives players a 50/50 chance of guessing whether to move the right stick up or down. It results in confusion, irritation, and anger on the player's part, which are not the emotions David Cage wants to instill in audiences.

The final problem that Beyond: Two Souls had was its completely disjointed narrative. For the unaware, the game's story is not told in chronological order. Instead, the game flashes forward and backward in time. One moment, players can be playing as child Jodie. Then, the very next scene can involve Jodie as a homeless, young adult. This happens up until the last 2-3 scenes, where the finale suddenly presents itself in a linear fashion. The effect is that otherwise tense or dramatic scenes are undermined by either a lack of narrative context or knowledge of what occurs in scenes that chronologically take place later on.
A case of the first can be easily demonstrated by a sequence of two scenes from the middle of the game. In the first scene, Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is drafted into the CIA by high-level government officials, thanks to her powers. The man who takes her is extremely cold and unfeeling towards her, and she leaves in tears. The very next scene has her in an apartment, preparing for a date with the very same man, which she has apparently fallen in love with. It is up to the player to prepare food, get washed and dressed, and clean up the apartment in time for the date. All the while, the player has no idea what happened in the time between these two scenes to so radically change the relationship between Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes and CIA Jerkwad. While it is plausible that they have grown close in the time between, the relationship feels like a hallow one without the prerequisite context. Any emotional connections the scene could invoke is undermined by that.
However, the reverse of this phenomenon is also true. Sometimes, knowledge of what goes on in Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes's future undermines all the tension a given scene has in the present. For example, one scene in the game involves Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes escaping a burning building, rescuing her fellow homeless friends along the way. There are a few different ways this scene can play out, but all of them end with her on the ground, unconscious and possibly bleeding out. In most works of fiction, this would be a tense moment where we do not know if the protagonist survives. However, Beyond: Two Souls has the problem where players know that Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes survives because they just finished playing scene which chronologically takes place after the current one. Since we know Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is alive in a future scene, she cannot die in the scene the player is watching, making the tense buildup utterly pointless. Ultimately, the story's structure undermines the vast majority of it in very similar ways.

On some level, I respect David Cage and Quantic Dream. Those guys are doing something truly unique in the video game industry. Few developers do make games like the ones he makes. However, in light of what we see from other developers and obvious flaws in his own design, Cage is not good enough to justify all the copious resources and talent put his games. His largest problem seems to be that no one is willing to tell him when his scripts need work. Though he clearly subscribes to auteur theory, he is not skilled enough of a writer to be a auteur. Maybe in future projects, Cage will find an editor to improve the overall product. However, I wonder in Quantic Dream might start to crack after another few releases. It will be interesting to watch either way.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 32: DisclosureCast

Not much of note happens in this episode. We couldn't stop at Episode 31 because the cutscenes kept playing and there wasn't a good save point. Even when the cutscenes were over, we just kept talking and the result is that we ended up with enough material for an entire episode.

This is actually a very interesting conversation with Mina. I feel the need to point out that if Mina liked us at the end of the game, that she'd come in person to have this chat. (That would also be the point at which you can have sex with her to get XP and level up.) We'd also have the choice of asking her to find a safehouse to hide if we didn't want her to go back to Alpha Protocol. Since she hates our guts, this conversation is played over the monitor and Mina stays there regardless.
You can also use this point to uncover that Mina is the one who cut you loose, like we did here. If you fail to get enough dossier entries and connect the dots, then it becomes a bit of a loose thread. Although, by this point I don't think a detail like that matters. By now, Thorton has enough of an interest in stopping Halbech that Saudi Arabia is a passing concern.

In another nod to how old this recording is, we were discussing the revelations with Edward Snowden at the time. It had just hit the news and was a major topic. Without delving too much into politics, government spying and overreach have been massive topics for the past decade or so. As a result, it makes sense for a modern day spy game to have some commentary on the matter. This just happened to be an interesting thought in light of what was going on at the time.

"We might be able to finish this by the time I start class next month." In retrospect, that comment is one of the funniest things I said in this block of episodes. Such optimism. Such blind, stupid optimism.

So yeah, spoilers. We plan to do the finale without a guest. Sorry about that, but it's thematically appropriate!

I'm not going to comment much on the conversation we had with Shamus. Honestly, I think it stands for itself without requiring further input in text form. All I'll say is that it was a delight to bring Shamus on for the recording. In another season, sometime before Half-Life 3 comes out, he'll be willing to join us again sometime. For now, you may be interested in his other musings about Alpha Protocol: here and here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 31: Revenge of the Trolled

What follows is perhaps the saddest thing I've been a part of since that time when we went months without producing a single video.

Let the record show that I DID tell Aldowyn to "Pick Suave, and then pick Suave again." #AldowynIsDumb

I think both this scene and the Surkov escort mission are the only two point in the entire game where your actions can lead to game over (aside from the normal HP=0). I kind of wish they'd just make you live with the consequences of failing of save Madison or stop the bombs. However, I know that would cause tons of problems in and of itself. I'm sure Obsidian had this very same debate when creating this scenario and I'd love to have been a fly on the wall for it.

I want to make it clear that I've only shot Madison on accident once in the 3-4 times I made this choice.

To elaborate on the trick to killing Marburg easily: You need to have Shadow Operative and Chain Shot. Use Shadow Operative and then use Chain Shot while you are invisible and land all your shots on Marburg. If you do it right, Marburg will be completely still until he takes another dose of damage. It's actually pretty pathetic.

With regards to an "RPG where 'Attack' is always an option in dialog." I believe in our talks after recording the episode, we fleshed out that idea a bit more. It could be a check of your weapon skill versus the skill of the NPC. If you have a higher skill, then you win and kill them. Else, you fail and suffer the consequences. I wonder if any of you RPG fans have any thoughts on that?

Finally, considering that Deng came up in discussion and the author himself was featured in the episode, this post would be incomplete without linking Shamus's Stolen Pixels comic regarding that boss fight.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 30: Chain-Letter Terrorism

In this episode, we muse about the nature of life, shock traps, and tea. Also, some chick gets shot.

The e-mail in this game really is a missed opportunity. Since the game doesn't really allow for Thorton to really keep up casual conversation with a lot of his contacts, this could have easily been a way to build up (or maintain/reduce) Thorton's rapport with somebody well after you've completed the hub they were featured in. It also would've given them a chance to flesh out the world a bit more through newsletters, spam, and the like. (Yes, I know that Thorton's e-mail is top secret and encrypted, but Rule of Funny allows it.) It's a shame, really.

I actually really like the mission in the warehouse. It's a short section that establishes a few facts that become relevant in light of things we learn in other missions. Stealth and combat are both viable options, and some light hacking is involved as well. Anaphysik is correct, though, that it would make more sense as an introductory mission than one in the second half of Rome.

It is interesting to note that had Spoiler Warning actually started an Alpha Protocol season, we would never have started Disclosure Alert. The whole premise of this show is that "Spoiler Warning won't do Alpha Protocol, so we have do it ourselves." If they do decide to do AP in the future, I'd be curious to see how their commentary lines up with ours.

The "shallow way" that Shamus was playing games back then is exactly how I've been playing games lately. My Twitter is afoul with many many games I quit in the middle when I got bored of them.

I love how, in a matter of a one minute side conversation, we completely tear apart the very notion behind Rome's storyline. It is very much in the line of Bond villainy seen in many spy movies. Part of me wonders if that's the point. The other half wonders if I'm giving the game too much credit. With Alpha Protocol, it's sometimes hard to distinguish between what was intended and what was a quick rewrite. This is one of those times.

Really, once we get out of the broom closet, the plot to Rome doesn't make sense. Still, I can't help but adore it for being over-the-top Hollywood-style. As I keep saying in these posts, AP feels like a homage to spy movies of all sorts. This is a Bond-style plot, so it fits. Moscow and Taipei are also ripped straight from spy movies. I want to say this is intentional, but truthfully I don't know for sure.

True story, an alternate title for this episode was "Michael Thorton Comes Out of the (Broom) Closet."

Also, here's a clip of the "Shock Trap" scene we were talking about in this episode (Skip to 3:06):

Monday, November 11, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 29: The Spy-Themed Beard Simulator

At long last, Disclosure Alert has FINALLY returned. For those of you who haven't been following the saga on Twitter, Aldowyn meant to have this out to you guys months ago, but forgot to bring his desktop computer to college with him. This was a problem because that was the only computer capable of editing everything.

So, we no longer have to keep you from that week's special guest. Shamus Young, contributor to The Escapist and owner of Twenty Sided is here this week. As memory serves, this was a very fun recording session.

Wow. It's been so long ago that Tom Braider jokes were still relevant. (For those who don't get the joke, watch the Tomb Raider season of Spoiler Warning.) I wish I could say that I felt bad for making Shamus feel old, but I honestly don't.

That glitch where Al-Samad gets a reputation ding is an interesting insight into how the game originally was supposed to work. I wish I could peer into the original designs of this game. It's fairly common knowledge that this game was a victim of publishing meddling on Sega's part, which explains so many of its problems.

Shamus is right, this game is heavily designed around Pistols, to the point where it's actively worse if you specialize in any other weapon. Chain Shot is just such a strong skill that it makes every other skill look worse. Plus, you can shoot behind cover.

When we made jokes about how long it would take for these episodes to come out, we did not intend for those to be literal. I imagine Aldowyn felt really bad editing these.

I really dislike "ambush" style missions in general, but this one is particularly bad. This whole "protect the trace" thing is clearly an excuse to force you to mow down tons of mooks. Especially since in other missions, Mina seems perfectly capable of bugging and tracing things discretely, like when bugging the G22 base in Taipei.