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.