(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.