Friday, October 18, 2013

What's Still Wrong With Windows 8.1

Probably my most popular post on this blog would be my post from over a year ago about the problems with Windows 8. As I've said there and continued to say in related posts regarding Microsoft's recent OS strategy, they want something they can't have: control. They want PC users to get all of their apps through their apps store, they want developers to develop their apps for the tiled UI, and they want to be the first on the market with hardware with things like the Surface. They just assumed for some reason that everyone would be OK with this. After all, it pretty much worked out for Apple. But they were wrong. Windows 8 was a flop. And inexplicably, they tried to do the same thing with Xbox One, attempting to seize control of their customers through constant online access and game installation. Again, customers balked at it and they have since gone back on their always-online plans. The moral of the story is that Microsoft can't change their entire relationship with their customers -- particularly not if the customers are blatantly losing out in that new dynamic -- just through simple marketing and rebranding of a product.

And on that note, here comes Windows 8.1, the second marketing attempt to rebrand the Windows 8 image in a last-ditch effort to somehow turn it into a success. They promised to alleviate some of the complaints most of us raised and finally manage to get us on board.

For those wondering, yes, I have been using Windows 8 since it came out. Not really by choice so much as necessity. I work in IT and the last time I skipped an operating system (Vista) it actually put me at a little bit of a disadvantage when it came time to evaluate Windows 7. So I decided to learn the ins and outs of Windows 8 through experience in order to have a better understanding when Microsoft inevitably releases the next Windows.

And on that note, I have also been using the preview build of Windows 8.1 for the past two months or so, and as it has just been fully released, I felt this would be a good time to give it a review.

And... well, it sucks. I'd go into further detail, but honestly, the biggest problem with Windows 8.1 is that it's pretty much just Windows 8 with a few minor cosmetic changes. If I were to review it, it would basically just sound like my review of Windows 8. If you just want to know whether or not 8.1 is different enough to get you to upgrade, the short answer is no, if you intend to use a mouse at least. You could probably manage to tolerate it, but if you aren't looking for a headache, just get a PC with Windows 7.

Reviewing it is pointless for me, so instead, I'll just outline what's still wrong in Windows 8.1 that's going to hold it back from being the savior Microsoft wants it to be.

Tiled Interface Still Unavoidable

It baffles me how Microsoft can so completely miss the point and nothing says it more than two of the most publicized 8.1 changes: 1) The start menu icon is back. 2) You can boot into the Desktop now.

On the surface, this might seem like a great change. Oh good! You can turn off the tiled interface, right?

Except, that's not what they're saying. Yes, you can boot directly into the Desktop, and yes you can see that old familiar Windows icon sitting in the corner again, but when you click on it... well, this Penny Arcade comic articulates it very clearly:

So really, what have I gained? Well, before, I would have to click the "Desktop" tile to get to my Desktop after booting. And before, if I clicked where the start menu icon used to be, it brought me to the "tile shit". So Windows 8.1 saved me a click at boot time and drew a bigger icon in the corner for me to mostly ignore.


This is a perfect example of someone hearing a complaint and not understanding it but trying to appease it anyway.

You know what I miss? I miss being able to click on my start button and easily scroll through my programs folders. Now when I click it, I can see my programs folders, but they're all expanded and they take up the entire screen and I still have to scroll along to find the one I want. I get that this is more convenient if you are using a tablet, but in case I haven't made this abundantly clear:






I have nothing against tablets and in fact I am very interested to see how tablets work in the future, but right now they just aren't good enough for me to use as my main computer. And so long as I'm using a mouse instead of a touchscreen, this interface is a very large and annoying step backwards. This is why we want to be able to turn it off. Not avoid it, not work around it, turn it the fuck off.

But no, we can't. Why? Well, that brings us to the next step...

The App Store Is Still Garbage

The App Store is Microsoft's entire reason for forcing this "tile shit". They want you to use the tiles all the time so that you will get your apps through their store so they don't have to keep supporting Win32 apps (the ones that end in .exe for my non-tech readers) and so they can actually have some decent apps for their phone OS that keeps getting its ass kicked by iOS and Android.

And... fine, whatever. I get why they want that. Frankly, so much of our computer experience has moved into the browser that it's not all that unreasonable. If I was forced to only use apps from Microsoft's App Store, even as it is now, I could probably survive and get a fair amount of my non-IT work done.

But they don't understand that this is a negotiation, not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We're their customers, not their hostages. If people don't like their new app environment, they'll just keep using and developing for the Win32 stuff. And if they stop supporting the Win32 stuff, they'll just keep using the perfectly good operating system that does.

They need to incentivize the switch to touch-based fullscreen apps, and so far the new app store doesn't do that. The tiles that show "live" information are hilariously out-of-date, next to impossible to manage the settings for, and take forever to load. When you actually do use the apps, navigating between them is ridiculous and requires what amounts to several different secret handshakes, which are made even more impossible if you don't have a touchscreen. Multitasking has never been harder. The apps can't easily be closed and the few built-in menus they have are hidden and unintuitive when you find them.

Why would I ever want to use the tiled version of Internet Explorer on my laptop when the Desktop version allows me to see all of the buttons and close a window without jumping through hoops or taking up my entire screen?

If they want people to use the tiled interface, that's fine, but they have to make it not suck. Even the one app I do use on the tiled interface (SmartGlass) is a headache to navigate and buggy as hell. If I am watching Game of Thrones and want to watch a behind-the-scenes thing on my Xbox, doing so will crash the HBOGo app on my Xbox. Every time. And this is the good app. This is the one I like and actually use.

So it's no surprise that basically no one is taking their app store seriously. And they will continue to not take it seriously until they improve the tile interface and the core app experience that's at the center of the problem.

Windows RT Is Still Useless

Windows RT used to be a waste of time that could only use apps procured through the App Store and offered no support for Win32 applications.

But now with Windows RT 8.1... it's still exactly as useless and still can't support Win32 applications.

You can apparently jailbreak it and run DOSBOX and some Win32 emulators (that I imagine don't work very well), but that's exactly the problem with Windows RT. You have to jailbreak it. As though it were a phone.

I really don't understand why Microsoft is intentionally holding Windows RT back. Yes, I get that it can't support Win32 apps and I'm fine with that. But we aren't talking about a phone here. This is a computer. A Windows computer. People expect to be able to just do shit to it outside of what you offer in your app store.

I get that it's supposed to compete with the iPad which also only supports things within its own app store, but you don't compete with something by being exactly like it. You have to be better than it. Have the app store but allow people to develop their own applications if they want to. Let people work outside of your garden and maybe people will actually start playing with it. Tinkerers are the reason technologies take off. Low-risk environments foster innovation. Without innovation, Windows RT (and Windows Phone for that matter) will die. It's just that simple. You tried it your way and it didn't work. Give it up.

Limited User Access

Windows Vista introduced this annoying feature where even if you were logged in as an administrator, you would typically only operate with the simplest level of privileges possible and anytime your computer needed elevated privileges to do something -- such as install an application or change system settings -- it would generate a pop-up that asked if you wanted to allow it. If you clicked OK, it would elevate your permissions to do that one thing and then proceed as normal. This was called User Account Control, or UAC. And it was the devil.

With UAC active, Windows started asking your permission to do just about everything. All this so that if you tried to install a virus, it would at least ask you first if you were really sure. While that might sound good in theory, when you just instinctively click OK fifty times a day, you stop actually reading it and deciding whether or not it's safe to elevate your permissions. It's just annoying.

In addition, having this setting creates a slew of problems with installing or running older applications that just assume administrative permissions while running.

In Windows 7, they created the feature to disable UAC in the Action Center and it was a godsend.

In Windows 8, they still allow you to disable the prompts, but doing that no longer disables the Limited User Access feature, which is the part that lowers your privileges. Even with User Account Control disabled as in Windows 7, it still requires you to manually run something as an administrator in order for it to function.

However, there was a minor workaround. If you went into the registry, you could disable LUA with the caveat that it would prevent most of the tiled apps from working (what a tragedy).

In Windows 8.1, however, disabling LUA doesn't seem to correct the administrative privileges issue. Everything still runs with lower privileges and the tiled apps still don't work. So if you're using Windows 8.1, sorry, but you'll have to manually use elevated privileges whenever you need them and as far as I can tell, there's no way around it. This probably won't be too big of a deal for most of you, but if you're a tech geek like me, this gets really annoying really fast.

Fun New Problems

I'm not sure if these problems are going to be resolved in the official release, but as of this week, Windows 8.1 Preview Build also has a fun suite of new problems that I didn't experience in Windows 8.

Adventures in WPAD

Excuse me, but this next part requires me to get a bit technical.

As I mentioned, the PC I've been using Windows 8.1 on is my work PC. At work, we have a web security service that requires our web traffic to go through a proxy server. We have the Automatically Detect Proxy Settings option checked, it finds a WPAD file through our DHCP server (we used to use DNS, but this caused problems for our remote site workers) and the browser uses the WPAD file to determine where to send the web traffic depending on the destination IP address. In addition, we have a service that determines what user to associate that traffic with through Windows' built-in authentication. In Windows 8 and below, this worked just fine.

Windows 8.1, on the other hand, is a fucking nightmare.

When I first started using it, it simply refused to work. Yes, I could set it to send traffic directly to the proxy tower, but this caused issues if I needed to access resources from my local network and we also have Group Policy settings to reset the proxy settings for users who use laptops (like me) so I'd have to reset it constantly.

And you might be thinking, "Well Pat, just don't use Internet Explorer!"

You don't understand. Among other things, the Internet Options that affect Internet Explorer also affect Chrome, Windows Updates, the App Store, and (dun dun DUUUN) Activation.

That's right, I couldn't activate Windows because of this stupid problem. And the previous trick I used to activate Windows 8 with a different product key (since you could no longer change the product key in the dialog itself for some reason) stopped working as well for some reason. It just... refused to work.

Eventually, after changing all sorts of registry entries to force a WPAD override, I now sort of got it to work. After I boot, I have to open up Internet Explorer, disable WPAD, load a page, let it fail, and then re-enable WPAD and reload the page (sometimes twice). After this, Windows 8.1 finally gets the WPAD information and allows me to browse and activate. However, even then it still has annoying problems with the user authentication part.

You see, if an application doesn't support the automatic user authentication stuff, it prompts for a username and password. Microsoft stuff never used to do this because this is an authentication system they created. But what happens if I ever try to get Windows Updates direct from Microsoft instead of through my WSUS server? It prompts for authentication. Of course. Same thing if I try to use the App Store.

I just... I can't. Since we've started using WPAD throughout the company, we've accepted that sometimes software developers don't properly account for the use of proxy servers and it can be annoying, but we usually have ways around it. But there's really no excuse for the company that developed the freaking operating system that uses the proxy to not properly support it. It's completely asinine.

This particular thing probably won't affect 99% of you, but it's probably the one thing about 8.1 that annoys me more than anything else.

Search Sucks Now

I'm not sure if this was just something I didn't notice in Windows 8 or something that actually changed in 8.1, but I've found that Windows Search apparently sucks at searching file contents. I mean, it still technically does it, but it seems to only do it for folders you have indexed. Unless I'm mistaken, if a directory wasn't indexed before, it would still search through the file contents, but it would take a long time to do it. But now if I'm trying to search through my files on one of my workplace's servers, it just refuses to search through the contents. And since Windows can't index networked locations, I don't know if there's a way around this.

This is just another one of those things that I just don't understand. Windows 7 used to be able to search file contents on networked locations. As far as I know, this was never a problem. But now, Windows 8.1 can't do it. Why did this have to change? Is it because your new interface is so terrible that it's next to impossible to use efficiently without using the search tool for basically everything?

Oh, and on that note, the search tool now searches Bing as well as your files and folders. Because I'm sure that's exactly what everyone was asking for. More Bing.

Things I Actually Like

While most of the changes in Windows 8 and 8.1 are irritating and stupid, I can't deny there are a handful of things I actually like, so for the sake of full disclosure, here are some things I don't hate or even like.

It Works Great On Tablets

I recently had to deploy a bunch of tablets for a new demo room. Three of them were running Windows 8, one was running Windows 7.

You know what? Yeah, most of the interface changes and weird gestures actually make sense on a tablet. With Windows 7, the targets are just too small to use effectively and so it takes you several attempts just to do the thing you want. In addition, you don't really need to multi-task quite as much with a tablet as you would with a laptop or desktop, so the more simplified interface makes sense too.

I don't know if I'd call it perfect, but if this interface could be turned off when you don't have a touchscreen, I'd probably be a lot happier with it since it clearly has a place with at least some devices.

In addition, the Windows 7 tablet had a much harder time installing the proper drivers for the hardware and I wasn't able to get it to sync with the Bluetooth keyboard, which worked great on all of the Windows 8 tablets.

So yeah. If you want a tablet, I'd... well, actually I'd recommend you wait until tablets get better because they still haven't quite hit that sweet spot yet, but if you really want a tablet right now and you have a decent amount of money, I'd probably recommend getting the Surface Pro. It's pricey, but honestly if it had 4G LTE built-in and I could get it through Verizon and the battery life were significantly better... I'd legitimately consider getting one.

It Is Slightly Faster

Yes, the operation speed is generally a bit peppier than Windows 7 was. Particularly the boot time, mostly through a complete overhaul of the BIOS and architecture. Beyond that, it's not really all that noticeable in your day-to-day.

I Love The File Copy Window and Task Manager

One change I absolutely love is that they finally got around to making the copy progress bar useful to look at. No more green or blue bar with an approximate completion time that makes no sense. Instead, you get this handsome devil:

Look at that. You can actually see the increase or decrease of transfer speed over time. It's so elegant and informative. Whoever designed this deserves a raise. I know it's a minor detail, but I just love it. Maybe I'm weird, but for a guy who spends half of his day waiting for progress bars to finish filling up, something like this feels genius.

On a similar note, I like how the new Task Manager gives a lot more details regarding particular applications and processes and groups them together. Very slick.

I Like The Style

Some of my friends and colleagues aren't fond of the new style of Windows with it's flat colors and capital letters. Now that I've gotten used to it, however, I for one actually kind of like it. I dunno, I just think it looks clean and that it pops really well. In certain cases it doesn't lend itself very well to readable interface design, but for the most part I think it's a pretty snazzy look.

I've Adapted

After using Windows 8 and 8.1 for a while, I've got a few simple tricks that have made it so I can pretty much operate without changing too much of my usual work habits.

1) If you miss the start menu, just right-click the new start button. Doing that brings up a lot of the old familiar things like Control Panel or Shut Down. You can also install ClassicShell for the complete classic experience, but I'm not big on apps that completely change the core experience of an Operating System just because they tend to break with updates.

2) Pin everything. If you like to use apps that you used to just find in your Accessories folder like Notepad or Calculator, just pin them to your taskbar. Finding them in the new tiled interface, even if you do look through the all programs menu, is like playing "Where's Waldo?" Oh, and the Accessories, which used to be at the top of the list, are now filed under "Windows Accessories" near the end of the list, so watch out for that.

3) If you don't want to pin things, the Windows key is your new best friend. If you don't want to waste taskbar real estate on simple Accessories, the fastest way to find an app is to hit the Windows key (the one between Ctrl and Alt that you probably never used before) and start typing the app's name. When you start typing, it automatically starts running the search tool and will hopefully bring up the app you're looking for rather quickly. Apparently, this is how Microsoft wants you to find your apps now. Have fun memorizing the names of all the apps you don't want to pin!

4) Disable UAC and Windows SmartScreen. Just as with Windows 7, the first thing you should do when you get it is go to Control Panel, change "View By" to icons rather than categories, find the Action Center, click "Change User Account Control settings" and drop it down to "Never Notify". Then go back and click "Change Windows SmartScreen settings" and select "Don't do anything". This will stop Windows from prompting you any time you want to run something as an administrator or download things. As I mentioned, this doesn't stop LUA from existing and ruining your fun, but it's easy enough to run applications as an administrator if you right-click them and select the option to "Run as Administrator". And at the very least, you won't have annoying pop-ups asking your permission every time you want to do something.

5) Win + I. If you must use a tiled application, just hit the Windows key and I and it'll let you access what little options that application might have. I had the hardest time trying to find out how to remove accounts from the Mail app until I found out how to find the in-app options menu. Why isn't it just a part of the interface? Why is it hidden? I don't know. But at least it's somewhere.

What Microsoft Should Do Next Time

Look, it's been a year, and a lot of the things I said last time still hold true. But having been able to actually use Windows 8 for roughly a year, I think I can safely say that it's not completely unsalvageable.

The obvious stuff from last time still applies. They need to either kill RT or open it up to more tinkering. It worked for Android, maybe it'll work for RT and Windows Phone. They need to overhaul the tiled interface and improve the overall app experience in their core products. They need to bring Office into the tiled interface. They need to improve multi-tasking in the tiled interface a LOT. If I can't hop between different apps with just a simple move and click, the Desktop automatically wins because that's what I'm already doing. And if they can't do these things right away, they need to make it so you can disable the tiled interface or at least make it so it can more closely resemble the former start menu.

But they also have to refocus on the things they're doing in regards to marketing. Stop hiding the Desktop. I know they don't want people to use it and they want people to get used to the tiled interface, but the Desktop is their biggest selling point over an iPad. The biggest problem with iOS is that there's no centralized experience. No true "home". The tiled interface is similarly problematic. Once you start clicking, you just bounce around from app to app and getting back to square one to get your bearings straight is difficult and unintuitive. People don't find the new tiled interface inviting, they find it alienating. If they offer us something familiar, something we've been using since long before the iPad, they'll make us feel welcome and open to trying new things.

I don't care about the snappy keyboard or the cool sliding tricks you can do when you hire a choreographer. I do care about the fact that if I get a Surface Pro instead of an iPad, I can play Steam games on it. I can manage files and folders on it. I can connect a controller to it. They need to advertise the things it can do that people have been wanting tablets to do for ages. This is a tablet that can do the things most tablets can't do without sacrificing the things some people like about tablets. The Surface Pro has the potential to be the link between the desktop/laptop world and the tablet world. It just needs to not destroy the desktop/laptop world in the process.

Right now they're trying to get people to switch to tablets by making it really hard to use a mouse. Every time I have to navigate the tiled interface, it's like Microsoft is telling me, "Man, this would be so much faster if you had a touchscreen!" And yeah, that's true, but it's still not faster than the start menu from Windows 7, so why the fuck am I forced to use it? What they should be doing is making it easier to use a touchscreen than a mouse. They should be trying to make me want to switch interfaces.

But really, I don't expect them to be able to. They aren't playing the same game the rest of us are. They aren't really all that interested in making us happy. Right now our best alternative to Windows 8.1 is Windows 7, so why should they care which one we buy? They get money either way. They just want an app store so they can actually compete with iOS, which is the one market they can't seem to get any footing in, but they don't want to go the Android route of opening it up and allowing experimentation because that requires them sacrificing too much of their potential bottom line. So they changed their entire primary OS just so they could try and strong-arm the development community into giving a shit about their mobile devices. Maybe they think it'll eventually happen if they just get stubborn enough. After all, Windows is ubiquitous enough that we can't all just collectively give it up. Maybe they expect us to all get the interface equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome if they hold out long enough.

Then again, Microsoft has been known to just give up when something isn't clicking the way they want it to. They gave up on Vista, they gave up on Zune, they gave up on most of the new features for the Xbox One. Maybe the probable failure of 8.1 will be the last straw before they finally just give up and start developing Windows 9, which will probably have a less terrible interface that you can completely turn off if you don't have a touchscreen.

Better luck next year, guys.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Ghost of the Player - A "Beyond: Two Souls" Review

While I was out picking up "Pokémon Y" this weekend (which I'll talk about later), I also picked up "Beyond: Two Souls", a game that I've been looking forward to for quite a while.

It is the latest game from Quantic Dream, a company best known in recent years as the makers of "Heavy Rain".

It took me a long time to get around to playing "Heavy Rain", mostly because it's not very well-received by most gamers and game critics. The closest I got to a review that made me want to actually try it was Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's review on his show "Zero Punctuation", during a part of which he outlined a scene that worked really well for him and said that "it gets better later", which isn't so much a recommendation as a caveat. Still, it just seemed really intriguing to me so during my brief stint with GameFly (which I quickly figured out was a complete rip-off) I decided to give it a go and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

I had some problems with "Heavy Rain", mostly regarding certain aspects of the presentation, but while the story was at times a bit overly-conventional, it certainly managed to surprise me and keep me hooked the whole way through and I genuinely cared about what happened to the characters involved. Was it a perfect game? No, but I certainly had a lot more fun with it than a lot of other games that have received a great deal more praise.

So even though "Beyond: Two Souls" got a lot of the same mixed reviews "Heavy Rain" got -- on Metacritic, it comparatively holds a lower Metascore but a higher User Score than its predecessor -- I didn't really hesitate to give it a try. It also didn't hurt that I'm generally a fan of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe.

And because I tend to bury the lead a lot on my posts, I'll just start off right away by saying that I sort of loved "Beyond: Two Souls", probably more than "Heavy Rain". I wouldn't say it's love on par with the likes of "BioShock", but I definitely feel that "like" is underselling my enjoyment for this game.

However, I'm afraid I can't just jump right into reviewing the game because the game itself is not really being reviewed on its own merits, at least not by everyone. More than just another game, it stands as an example to a lot of people of certain controversial trends in gaming: the limitation of player agency and the emphasis on cinematic graphics and gameplay.

Movies and Games

One of the things I find interesting about the relationship between movies and video games is how they often use one another as insults. If a movie involves a lot of frenetic action and CG, it is often said to "look too much like a video game". If a video game involves a lot of cinematic cutscenes and Hollywood-style set-pieces, the game developers are sometimes told that if they want to make movies, they shouldn't be making video games. That certain video game developers are turning to video games because they couldn't be film directors (as though become a game developer is somehow easier).

Hideo Kojima's games get a lot of this latter type of bashing and I really don't understand it. Do the "Metal Gear Solid" games involve a lot of cutscenes? Absolutely. Can the cutscenes sometimes be overwritten and unengaging? Definitely. Can it be frustrating when the gameplay is interrupted to throw in a cutscene? Sure. But I've never played a Kojima game where the gameplay wasn't excellent and fine-tuned. The amount of attention to detail that guy puts into his games is often staggering. The games often encourage and reward out-of-the-box thinking and contain a vast array of options for undertaking several different tasks. So what if the games have hours of cutscenes? So long as the games themselves are still excellent and engaging to play, he can put in all the cutscenes he wants (OK, maybe not ALL the cutscenes he wants).

Of course, things get a little trickier when it comes to someone like David Cage, the mind behind "Heavy Rain", "Beyond: Two Souls", and previously "Indigo Prophecy" (also known as "Fahrenheit" in countries that use the metric system, ironically enough). See, his games tend to be almost nothing but cutscenes, and that's more-or-less intentional. He attempts to keep the player involved through quick-time-events (hereafter referred to as QTE's) and simple decisions, but for the most part he wants to have control over the general actions of the characters and leave the smaller details of the direction of the narrative up to you.

This can be seen as the opposite of what most games do regarding narrative. In most games, the player decides on the majority of the character's actions (drive a speedboat into the side of a bank) and as you reach various milestones within the game, a cutscene will punctuate it and fill in small plot details for you.

In a way, I think a lot of players resent the idea of having their choice taken away from them, but choice is a very illusive thing in video games. You tend to only notice your choices when they are taken away or palpably limited. For example, would anyone have petitioned as much to have the ending of "Mass Effect 3" changed if the rest of the games weren't built around subtly and directly influencing the fates of various characters and alien races that were subsequently largely ignored or glossed over in the ultimate conclusion? I doubt it.

But honestly, I think a lot of this sort of movie-bashing comes into play because gamers in general fiercely defend the artistic merit of their favored medium. We know that a game can be great without a ton of cinematics (see just about anything made by Valve), we know that a game can be emotionally engaging without life-like graphics (see "Final Fantasy VII"), and we know that games often falter when they sacrifice gameplay in order to focus more on graphics (see "Crysis") and that games that rely too heavily on life-like cinematics to tell a story can have dull, repetitive, and limited gameplay (see most of the games from the era of Full Motion Video). A lot of us resent the idea that games need to be more like movies to be more acceptable as an artistic medium.

So in a lot of ways, David Cage's approach to games feels like a misstep to a lot of gamers and game journalists. When David Cage talks about his ability to faithfully transfer the performances of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe into "Beyond: Two Souls", people say that talented voice actors and animators are all you need and that attempting to just transcribe an actor's performance would only result in awkward visuals and uncanny valley expressions. When David Cage makes a game where the bulk of the experience is told through cutscenes where players have limited options or avenues of interaction, they say that the story would be more compelling if it emerged through the gameplay rather than through the aspects we observe. That QTE's aren't enough to keep us interested and they often don't really matter when you pull back the curtain.

As such, I'm not surprised that a lot of gamers look at Cage's games and tell him to stop trying to turn video games into movies.

But while I'm not surprised, I am disappointed.

QTE's as Gameplay

Part of the problem with the public perception of Quantic Dream games is that gamers often consider QTE's as one of the laziest forms of gameplay. They often draw comparisons to older arcade games like "Dragon's Lair" or "Space Ace", which were just long movies that stopped playing if you screwed up while matching the arrows on the screen. In addition, this practice has often been slightly abused by games in recent years, mostly thanks to games like "God of War" or "Resident Evil 4".

I used to more-or-less share the opinion than QTE's were often annoying and pointless, but then I saw how they were implemented in "Metal Gear Solid 4". During the majority of the cutscenes in the game, you will occasionally be able to press a button. If you don't press these buttons, nothing really happens, but if you do, you get a small reward. Maybe you shift to Snake's perspective and see a little easter egg. Maybe you see a brief flashback to something that happened in a previous game. It's always optional, but waiting for them keeps you drawn in and ready to engage.

When QTE's don't work, at least for me, it's when you need to correctly press the keys in order to proceed in the story and failing is punished by reloading and repeating the cutscene.

But that doesn't really address the concern over QTE's as a core gameplay mechanic as in "Heavy Rain" or "Beyond: Two Souls", since failing with those QTE's doesn't ever really stop the flow of the story, it just results in negative consequences for certain characters. So there must be something else about these QTE's that bothers a lot of people, and I think it more or less boils down to a difference of opinion.

See, for me, I don't generally mind when a game strips down the illusion of choice in an otherwise good game that never really offered any choice to begin with. It didn't terribly bother me that "Final Fantasy XIII" kept you moving along a designated path for the first part of the game because honestly, the first few hours of most "Final Fantasy" games require you to move along a designated sequence of events and pretty much everything else you do in between those events is tantamount to wasting time because you won't be able to access most areas until you get past the invisible plot line anyway. Too many times I've wandered around aimlessly in the starting areas of "Final Fantasy" games because I couldn't find the thing to move the plot forward. Trimming the fat really didn't bother me much.

And really, QTE's (at least in this context) can be seen as just trimming the fat of a lot of action-oriented gameplay.

But there is an interesting question here that I've been tiptoeing around. Say we have two versions of a scene. In this scene, there's a fight between the protagonist and a very large monster. In one version, you control the character the whole way through and it is treated like a boss battle where your mastery over the gameplay determines your success. In the other version, it plays out as a QTE cinematic where your success is determined by whether or not you time certain button presses at opportune moments for the protagonist to succeed in defeating the beast. Both versions involve very precise button presses, timing, and influencing of the protagonist, but in the former case, the primary difference is that you the player are the one deciding when to move and strike. Most people would say that that makes it inherently better. But why?

There are a lot of different possibilities, but my opinion is that the difference is that in one case you are the one slaying the beast, and in the other case, the protagonist is slaying the beast while you simply support them.

For some, they say that this breaks immersion, but is immersion really that critical in games? Do we have to always feel like we are the protagonist in the games we play?

Player Vs. Protagonist

Well, I think it depends on the reason you play games to begin with. Do you want to be challenged, overcome that challenge, and feel empowered by that triumph? Or do you simply want a compelling story told with interesting characters that you connect with?

One might argue that you can make a game that does both, and I'm not sure that's true. On the one hand, games like "Mass Effect" do a great job at giving the protagonist a lot of depth and motivation influenced by the actions of the player while still providing a challenging and rewarding game series, but on the other hand, because the character of Shepard can be played out in so many different ways, any attempt on the game's part to drive the character's direction down a particular path often feels restrictive and irritating. In that respect, while Shepard can certainly be an interesting character, s/he is not an interesting character created by the game developers.

Meanwhile, if you have a game with a clearly-defined protagonist, it becomes difficult to allow the players to do whatever they want. This is where the term "ludonarrative dissonance" comes up a lot. The character Niko Bellic from "Grand Theft Auto IV" is a rough, yet sympathetic character chasing after the American dream who typically has his heart in the right place, even if he sometimes makes bad decisions. Yet the typical player in "Grand Theft Auto IV" is sociopathic, aggressive, unbalanced, a terrible driver, and an adrenaline junkie, and thus, so is Niko. These two versions of Niko often don't make sense as the same person.

A seemingly reasonable conclusion to draw from this is that video games should just stop trying to have complex characters that don't match up well with the expected input from the player. If your problem is the player, just cut out the player and make a movie instead.

OK, let's take that conclusion and apply it to "Heavy Rain". If we just made "Heavy Rain" into a movie, what would we lose? Well, for one thing, the narrative would always be exactly the same every time you experience it. But is that a bad thing? A lot of people seem to say that having the branching narratives is no different from having a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, but generally speaking, didn't we kind of love "Choose Your Own Adventure" books? I know I did. When did we start hating them? This fluid narrative structure makes you think more about the motivations of the characters and the choices they make. When you make a movie, the characters' decisions are reflections of the beliefs and motivations of the writers, directors, actors, and other individuals that take part in the creative vision of the film. But as observers, we are rarely given that amount of creative agency. We will watch movies and ask ourselves why characters do certain things and sometimes complain loudly that they should have done one thing when they instead did another. Additionally, movies tend to lack suspense when you know with certainty that things will play out in a certain way, but in a game like "Heavy Rain", every time you play, there's a possibility that things won't work out well for everyone. Unless you rage quit and restart the current level, there's no backtracking. Every decision is permanent for that playthrough.

Another thing "Heavy Rain" would lose in movie form is the interactivity and pacing structure of a video game. One thing movies and video games have in common is that they both work best when they engage their audience and make them feel caught up in the action on screen. Video games can do this very easily by having the players just control the character, but movies have a much harder time pulling this off. They need to make you identify with a character, care about a character, put yourself in the mind of the character, understand the motivations of a character, understand the actions of a character, and do all of this seamlessly without bogging the story down. This is often why I feel video game protagonists tend to be blank slates. It's easier for a game to engage the player when the player can feel like they are the ones in the thick of it. But the more the game does to make it clear that the character and the player are two different people, the more video games have to rely on more traditional narrative techniques used by film to help the player maintain their engagement in spite of not being the direct subject of the narrative action. "Heavy Rain" knows that the characters are not the player, but it wants to make the player care about them. They manage this by carrying you through inconsequential little moments where the characters go about their boring lives so that you feel like you have a deeper connection with them. But scenes like this would be a waste of time in a movie because there's very little interesting or engaging going on unless you're the one miming the actions.

But all this is just technical mumbo-jumbo. If we get right down to the heart of it, why should "Heavy Rain" be a game instead of a movie? Well, because by giving the player a direct hand in deciding the fate of the characters, they are still given the ability to shape the narrative in a way that interests them. One might initially see that as lazy or indecisive on the part of the writer, but in a way it's much harder. You aren't asking the player if they want a happy ending or a sad ending. You're asking them whether or not you think this character should survive or if this character should make this sacrifice or if these characters should hook up. David Cage is asking you, the player, what you think is best and then he plays out the narrative based on your instincts. When he does this well, there's no clear "good" or "bad" end, though I will say that most of the choices in "Heavy Rain" do boil down to this rather clear dichotomy when it comes to the survival of certain characters.

All aesthetic differences aside, movies and games are both about meaningful decisions. The difference is that good movies manage to convince the audience that its decisions are meaningful while a good game engages the player enough to make them believe that their decisions are meaningful (though a few really good movies can do this too).

Which is not to say that the decisions have to be truly meaningful, at least in the context of the game. For example, some decisions in the "Mass Effect" series cause a great deal of internal reflection and impact upon the player despite having very little to no impact on the series itself.

So in that respect, what makes a Quantic Dream game different from "Dragon's Lair" or "Space Ace"? The difference is that in the old school arcade QTE games, the decision always boils down to "live or die?" However, in "Heavy Rain", the motivation is "save a child" and every decision along the way raises the question of whether or not it brings the characters closer to that conclusion or if the player even wants to reach that conclusion. Even if not every decision actually affects that possible outcome, the mere suggestion that it could gives every decision a great deal more weight.

But again, these aren't decisions that affect you, these are decisions that affect the characters.

I like to think of this particular kind of player/protagonist dichotomy as "Guardian Angel" gameplay. One particular example of this outside of the Quantic Dream games is the Atlus game "Catherine", where you often influence subtle decisions for Vincent which affect an unlabeled meter that defines his romantic tendency towards one character or the other. Rather than forcing Vincent to decide between his two love interests, you guide his behavior and his actions to help him decide what he wants to do. At the end of the day, Vincent decides who he wants to be with, but you act as a sort of friend, helping to nudge him towards the path that you think is best for him. In this way, the player is less inserted into the game as a character and more an agent over the world at large, not unlike a guardian angel, hence the name. Though, I suppose one could also think of this "guardian angel" character as an ally, a parent, a sibling, a ghost, or... perhaps just an entity?

Talk About "Beyond: Two Souls" Already

I'm sorry I rambled on a bit before, but I really wanted to explain where I was coming from before talking about "Beyond: Two Souls" because my enjoyment of it extends beyond merely it's own merits and more what it says about the aforementioned relationship between a player and a character in a game.

As I said, in "Guardian Angel" style gameplay, you are not the direct agent within a game, but more a subtle influence. Your actions are limited because you are not that character, but at the same time your actions have meaning even if that meaning is illusive to you in the moment. "Beyond: Two Souls" is indeed this type of game.

But what makes "Beyond: Two Souls" particularly interesting to me is that it's the first "Guardian Angel" game I can think of where the metaphorical "guardian angel" is an actual character within the game.

The central premise of "Beyond: Two Souls" is that the character Jodie, played by Ellen Page, has spent her entire life tied to an invisible entity capable of moving various objects and possessing a small handful of individuals and controlling a limited range of their actions. This entity, named Aiden, is always with her and through his powers impacts her life for good or ill.

Technically-speaking, both Jodie and Aiden are their own characters with desires and motivations, but Aiden is never given a face or a voice and his actions are almost always entirely defined by the player. While you control the actions of both, I'd say that Aiden is almost completely designed to be the direct proxy of the player in a way that Quantic Dream has never truly attempted before. For all intents and purposes, Aiden is the player in a way all of their other characters are not.

Aiden is not all-powerful. His range is limited by Jodie. However, while Jodie seems to be able to inhibit some of Aiden's actions, she doesn't really seem able to control him. And while your time "controlling" Jodie is usually very limiting and has a very narrow range, your time controlling Aiden is far less restrictive. You can explore most areas, eavesdrop on conversations happening in the next room, manipulate a much wider variety of objects, and find hidden secrets and easter eggs.

So Aiden is really the player-controlled character of the bulk of the game, but he is not the protagonist. And more interestingly, how does Aiden behave? When given power, he often revels in it. Though he wants Jodie to succeed, he often wants her to do it his way. He wants to break away from the restrictions of Jodie and explore and interact with the things that Jodie can't. He wants to completely control people in order to affect the physical world at the expense of that specific person's will or personality.

Intentionally or not, Aiden is kind of a typical gamer. And how does the protagonist Jodie react to this? She often feels trapped, restricted, not allowed to be herself, treated like a puppet, utterly dependent on the whims of Aiden, often wishing he would just leave her alone.

This dynamic between player and protagonist is what initially drew me into the game in a way I didn't quite expect. I don't want to spoil much about the game, but I would like to outline one scene that I think illustrates this dynamic rather well.

At a certain point in the game, Jodie meets a character who comes off as kind of an asshole and makes her cry. Because the game is largely non-linear and jumps around chronologically, this scene is followed up by a scene from a few years later where Jodie gets a call from this same person asking if she wants to meet up for a dinner date. Jodie invites him over to her place at the last minute and she has a few hours to get ready for his arrival.

As a player, this shift can be somewhat jarring. In fact, one reviewer, Jim Sterling, picked out this scene in particular to criticize the game's non-chronological structure:

One character, for example, is introduced in an early scene as a cold, unlikable hardass, right before we skip to Jodie falling in love with him years later. She tells us -- through Aiden -- that he's so funny, and great to be around, but we never see any evidence of this.

It is true that we are told rather than shown that this guy is really the guy Jodie seems to think he is, and just as Jim suggests, it's not particularly convincing given the scene that comes directly before it. However, this incredulity is expressed through Aiden who, just like us, isn't convinced that this date is a good idea. While you help Jodie decide on what to prioritize in her limited time, Aiden passive-aggressively expresses his annoyance with the idea of Jodie dating this guy. He piles a bunch of chairs on the table, he leaves messages on a fogged-up mirror, he even gets Jodie locked out of her own apartment until she forces him to let her back in.

Then when the date finally commences, we are at last given control over Aiden. There are no required prompts or anything. The game just gives you the keys to the car and asks you whether or not you want to ruin Jodie's date.

Just like Aiden, you as a player have no real investment in Jodie's relationship with this stupid character. He's just some guy. But then when you are suddenly given the opportunity to ruin it, you have to ask yourself whether or not your misgivings about some random shmoe are enough to justify ruining Jodie's date. After all, while this guy means nothing to the player, he clearly means something to Jodie, even if we can't understand what she sees in him. So when I played this scene, even though I couldn't have cared less about the guy, I decided to quietly observe the date and behave myself. Then at the end when she thanked Aiden, I felt a swell of pride and appreciation.

That's right. For me, one of the most engaging parts of the game was when I consciously decided to literally do nothing.

That, to me, is incredible. A game that can convince you that not playing it is a meaningful choice is a well-crafted game.

The "Heavy Rain" Problem

As I said before, "Heavy Rain" is not a perfect game and one of its biggest problems is that there is pretty much an "optimal" ending. The innocent move on and live happily and successfully, the guilty are punished, and everything is as it should be. Anything less than this feels like some kind of failure, and that diminishes a great deal of the meaning behind the choices in an alternate playthrough. Not completely, mind you, but at least partially. It's the same problem with "Mass Effect 2". While Bioware doesn't really make one ending objectively "better" than any other in how it affects "Mass Effect 3", it feels like the optimal ending is the one where as many people survive as possible, so when you get to "Mass Effect 3" where no particular ending feels completely satisfying, it got a lot of people really annoyed.

My point is that "Heavy Rain" kept the player invested by giving them a clear set of goals and if those goals aren't reached, it doesn't feel like a "true" ending, so non-optimal decisions feel like "failures".

Alternatively, "Beyond: Two Souls" has a lot less in the way of "losing" conditions. Failing certain QTE sequences doesn't necessarily result in dooming a character or preventing their eventual success, it just gives them a few bruises or stumbles along the way. There are situations where doing things a certain way results in negative consequences, but all in all, there really isn't a specifically "good" or "bad" ending as far as I can tell. You merely choose the ending that satisfies or interests you. So while individual actions may not feel like they have as much direct impact on the success of a particular goal (particularly during action sequences), the decisions you make still feel like they matter because of how they affect Jodie in the moment. Sure, if you screw up the QTE's Jodie will still keep moving forward and basically nothing important will change, but you still have to see Jodie get hurt or fall or bleed a little, and so it still feels important that you not screw up without forcing you to reload every time you make a slight error.

Of course, this all depends entirely on how much you care about the characters, and this is where we bring up the other side of Quantic Dream's controversial ambition: the inclusion of "real" actors.

Let me just say that I do not in any way think that voice actors lack the talent or capabilities of traditional actors. I love voice actors and I think they often require a great deal more talent and range than many traditional actors. Similarly, I love animators and think that they can often give characters more readable human emotional than a lot of traditional actors can manage.

That said, I think there is value in being able to carry over a traditional acting performance into a game besides the name recognition of having "Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe" on your box cover. You see, a traditional actor brings in a singular vision of a particular character. In most other games, a character is an amalgamation of the voice actor and the animators and this means that the characters are subject to varying interpretations. Sometimes things don't completely match up. But when you are merely trying to faithfully transpose an actor's performance, that actor essentially has the final say on how that character comes across.

When it comes to "Beyond: Two Souls", the success of the narrative and the meaning of the decisions made by the player almost entirely hinge on how much we care about Jodie. While I certainly think Jodie could have been portrayed through the typical methods of character design, voice work, and animation, it requires a lot of different moving parts to all be in sync throughout an entire game's narrative. In that regard, I think it makes sense to instead elect to allow an individual person to have the final say on the character in order to keep them consistent throughout the entire game.

Again, in "Heavy Rain", this had mixed results. The characters seemed doe-eyed, their movements were stiff and inarticulate, and sometimes the voice work was laughably terrible. However, in "Beyond: Two Souls", I think David Cage finally managed to jump the uncanny valley. I very rarely ever felt jolted out of the experience due to something feeling "off" about Page's performance or Jodie's appearance. The only instance I could think of was when she throws a tantrum in her room as an angsty teenager. Her anger there feels less than genuine and it's difficult to really buy into her frustration in that moment. Beyond that, however, I always felt drawn in by Page's performance and often forgot that it wasn't really her.

I think that there's value in including real actors in games that have a much more character-focused narrative, so long as it is done in a manner that best fits the game itself. In the case of "Beyond: Two Souls", I think it was a decision that paid off.

So What Doesn't Work?

Like "Heavy Rain", "Beyond: Two Souls" isn't perfect and falters here and there. The controls of the character movement tends to still feel like controlling a whale on roller skates. While playing as Aiden can feel freeing and powerful, often being inexplicably restricted from phasing through a simple wall or door is frustrating and could have been fixed by merely fleshing out more of the areas. The dialogue, though certainly not bad, is definitely very familiar-sounding and dependent entirely on how convincing the actors can be with their performances (which, to their credit, is usually pretty convincing). The action scenes sometimes feel like they go on a bit too long and Aiden's abilities could be used in far more creative ways that are often underexplored in those sorts of scenes. And while the plot aims to serve as some sort of commentary on life and death, I don't think David Cage has anything particularly meaningful to say on that front. If this game were less about the characters and more about the message, I think it would have been far less compelling.

Most importantly, though, I think that this game's biggest failing is that it probably won't appeal to a large number of people. Not all games are for everyone and a lot of gamers prefer games that are about skill and making the player the center of attention. And that doesn't make these gamers stupid or unsophisticated or anything, it's just not the sort of experience they're looking for.

It's a lot like an arthouse movie. Some people might enjoy it, and if they do they will probably really enjoy it, but no matter how well-crafted it may be, a lot of people just aren't looking for that kind of narrative experience.

I think it's perfectly fair to complain if the game doesn't engage you or interest you. If it fails to do that, it's certainly fair to give the game a negative score because that's basically the primary purpose of a game.

I do not, however, think it's fair to blame the game's lack of engagement on an assumed inferiority of David Cage's overall approach. That he shouldn't have focused on pretty visuals or have a specific character-based narrative or involve traditional actors. I don't think those sorts of criticisms hold any water here. I think they're just coming from a general resentment of the assumed denouncement of less traditional narrative structure and presentation in games.

If this game doesn't engage you, it's not because David Cage was trying too hard to turn games into movies, it's simply because his game failed to engage you. It is fair to cite your perceived reasons of disengagement as possible avenues of criticism, but to suggest that a game of this sort couldn't possibly have ever engaged you is ridiculous to me unless you are the sort of person who resists engagement because you actively want to dislike something.

Games don't have to be a certain way and games that attempt to try things differently aren't necessarily trying to change all games in the world. Not all games can or should be like "Beyond: Two Souls", but that doesn't mean "Beyond: Two Souls" can't be a great game.

Wrap It Up

Despite it's flaws, "Beyond: Two Souls" was a very gripping experience for me. It's rare for me to care this much about a video game character, and it's even rarer for me to care this much about a video game's protagonist, particularly one I'm not really actively controlling most of the time. Despite Jodie having very few long-term goals, I still wanted to see how her story unfolded. I wanted her to find peace and some amount of closure and happiness, I just was never sure how to help her find it. More to the point, this game made me question my narrative role as the player more than just about any other game I can think of. How do my actions inform and reflect the motivations of character? What if I want something different from what that character wants? I find it all incredibly fascinating and because of it, this game really provoked me in a way I hadn't felt since "Spec Ops: The Line".

When I say I love this game, I mean that this game moved beyond simply being fun or engaging or enjoyable. I mean more than just the fact that I admire it or think that it was very well-crafted, though I certainly think those things. I mean that even now that I have finished the game and written paragraphs of text about all of the thoughts that boil in my brain from just thinking about this game, I still can't stop thinking about it. I imagine I'll carry parts of this game with me for a long time.

One other thing I would like to state is that I would advise against just watching a Let's Play of this game. While I'm sure that can be enjoyable for some, I don't think it's the same experience. I think if this game sounds interesting to you at all and you can afford it, I think it is definitely worth the retail price. It is worth playing and connecting with these characters just to try and feel that almost invisible connection between two individuals, even if one of those individuals happens to be fictional.