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October 1, 2013

RE: Beyond: Two Souls

Man, it’s weird making a title with two colons.

Anyway, not that long ago my brother and I -- as so often is the case -- were having a random conversation that led back to video games.  And he asked me if I thought the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls would be any good, which inevitably meant that it’s a game that’s been on his radar.  If not for some time beforehand, then at least recently.

I guess that’s the thing about trying to play Nostradamus with video game quality.  The only way for consumers to know whether or not a game is good is to buy it themselves -- and once they realize that they’ve bought the laser disc form of garbage, it’s too late for them to do anything about it.  The publisher has already won, and by and large they’re done with you once they’ve got your money.  So what do you say when it comes to a game you can’t possibly know enough about to comment on?  More importantly, what do you say when it comes to a David Cage game?

My answer at the time was “Mehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…I don’t know about that one.  I would wait and see.”  But looking back, I wonder if that was even close to the answer I should have given.

The two of us had long since tossed around the idea of grabbing a used copy of Heavy Rain.  We’re both gamers, but he has an eye for art and visuals in the same sense that I have an eye for writing.  So in theory, Heavy Rain -- a game spearheaded by David Cage -- should have been the perfect intersection of our tastes.  Something for us to really sink our teeth into, and have some in-depth discussions over what it, and games at large, could offer.  Even beyond that, the game had a certain allure for me.  At the time of its release, it seemed like the sort of game that had the potential to change the way I view games.  I didn’t know Cage by name back then, but from what I saw in screenshots and previews, the game made promises of something more.  I couldn’t help but be intrigued, and I didn’t bother trying to hide said intrigue, either.

For whatever reason, Heavy Rain never made it into our hands -- and even the concept of owning it became little more than a passing joke.  There were just cooler games out there that took priority, and after a while I realized that I just didn’t care enough about the game to seek it out by name (even though all I had to do during any given GameStop run was turn my head far enough).  It certainly didn’t help that by then I’d started reading up on details about the game…and notably, how it wasn’t very good in spite of its best efforts.  And I'm worried that this new game might offer up more of the same.

David Cage was never really a name that meant anything to me.  In most instances -- as you may have seen across the blog -- I’d rather treat the product as the one at fault, not necessarily the people behind it.  (Except Squeenix, but the point still stands.)  But it seems like ever since the PS4 reveal conference this past February, it’s been getting harder and harder to ignore Cage and his…er…mindset.  I’m not trying to hate on the guy, and I respect the effort he’s put in, and I don’t want to devalue the opinions of his fans.  But holy hell, some of the stuff this guy has said worries the shit out of me.  And others.

I’m not exactly tailing the guy everywhere he goes and grilling him about his thought processes, but sometimes I get the feeling that Cage is a little…shall we say, misguided.  His overall intent isn’t wrong, and I respect him for even coming up with it.  There are just two problems.  The first is that he wants to go about achieving his aims -- elevating the medium of video games -- in a way that’s contradictory and even harmful to games, at least if we take his statements at face value.  The second problem is that based on what I’ve seen of his work, Cage’s execution is…uhhhhhhhhhhhhh…errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…

…Trying to put this gently is harder than I thought.  So screw it, I won’t.  His games have a serious case of try-hard.

Chalk this up to colored perceptions, seeing as how I’ve been watching the Two Best Friends Play LPs of Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy -- and indeed, I’ve finished watching the entire series of the former -- but now that I know what it means to have “written and directed by David Cage” appear in the credits, I’m EXTREMELY apprehensive about anything Quantic Dream puts out.  Both games have an unmistakable sense of awkwardness to them, which comes in part from the janky dialogue, motions, and of course the dead-eyed expressions of the cast.  The characters themselves have a bad habit of either not acting like normal human beings (Jason, you are the silliest provocation of the plot and character motivations ever), or being hilariously wrong in their application (fun fact!  Did you know that all black people love playing basketball in their jerseys in freezing weather?  And that everywhere they go rap and funk music plays in their heads?). 

More to the point, it seems like every time these games have a chance at offering up something good, they go out of the way to hamstring themselves.  Even with Matt and Pat’s commentary -- and the off-kilter voices from the game proper -- there were scenes and ideas in Heavy Rain that I wanted to like, and the concept at large could have worked perfectly.  But the overlong fight scenes, ridiculous happenstance, occasionally-absurd characters, and any number of plot holes makes enjoying the story a lot more difficult than I would have ever guessed.  To say nothing of the fact that Heavy Rain’s narrative gets completely undone with the reveal of the Origami Killer...or any number of eyebrow-raising events involving Madison.  As for Indigo Prophecy…well, based on the footage I’ve seen I’m convinced it’s actually a comedy.  A bad comedy, sure, but a comedy all the same.  That’s the only way to explain scenes including gigantic ghost termites and minutes-long assaults by furniture played 100% straight.  That’s the ONLY way.

I get the feeling that even if I didn’t have commentary playing over those videos, I wouldn’t be able to get as invested in the games as Cage would have hoped.  They come off as kind of dopey (less so with Heavy Rain, but still); they’re earnest attempts at telling a serious, deep story, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a complete lack of self-awareness that makes the proceedings all the more jarring.  It’s like the games themselves are in the uncanny valley; they’re trying to be like something super-duper serious and worthy of merit -- and as noted, you don’t need to confine yourself to certain ideas to have merit -- but in doing so they expose just how alien and just plain wrong they really are.  When the games revolve things like a depressed father trying to save his kidnapped son or a normal man having his life wrecked by a seemingly-supernatural murder, and I can’t bring myself to care about either, something has gone wrong.

And the gameplay?  The less said about that, the better.  I mean it; I don’t want to say too much about games that I’ve never touched before, but the actual controlling of characters and events seems -- like everything else -- problematic.  It’s pretty much just a bunch of on-screen prompts that move the game movie forward; they’re no Metal Gear Rising, or even DmC.  Again, in the case of Heavy Rain it’s obvious that there’s been some evolution, and the prompts at least try to be intuitive (although the fact that the gameplay in this case largely amounts to riveting activities like setting down files or sitting in chairs is bothersome).  In the case of Indigo Prophecy, I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through the devs’ minds.  Maybe they wanted to send a damning message to the gods of electronic board games. 

Then again, it’s like I said -- it’s obvious that there’s been some evolution going from Indigo Prophecy to Heavy Rain.  If that logic and that line of evolution continues, it’s very possible that Beyond: Two Souls will actually be pretty good.  Early reports have suggested less of the QTE prompts and “playing an interactive movie” bits, which is something that I’m thankful for.  Then again, games like 999 and the Ace Attorney series barely had any genuine gameplay in them, and they’re fan favorites.  The key difference is that their stories manage to be just that: stories.  And good ones.

999 understood gameplay and story integration in a way that I suspect Cage has yet to understand, or even care to understand.  It took advantage of the DS hardware without completely depending on it for the sake of superficial gains; better yet, it managed to use certain gameplay mechanics and concepts that are practically second nature to a gamer and weave that into its story, creating one of the most awe-inspiring twists I’ve seen in a game to date.  But even beyond that, it had a fantastic cast, real emotion, a simple yet effective plot, and the ability to create real tension…and emotion.  In a way, games like 999 have been doing what Cage has always clamored for, and doing it better than everything he’s put out thus far.  In a sad, ironic way, Cage’s far-reaching intentions -- and his team at large -- are almost obsolete.

That all said, I can’t bring myself to want to skip out on Beyond: Two Souls.  Not yet.  Not until I at LEAST try out the demo.  I’m worried as hell about its quality, but to me it represents something: potential.  A chance to conclusively prove that games can offer more, in a way that niche titles like 999 could never do.  A chance at redemption, and for Quantic Dream to realize their lofty aims once and for all.  This could be the game that makes everyone, gamer or not, stand up and take notice.  It’s true that in the past year or so we’ve had Telltale’s The Walking Dead, BioShock Infinite, and The Last of Us, all of which pined to add something more to games -- with varying levels of success -- in their own way.  So in terms of “proof”, once more Quantic Dream might be joining the party late.  Then again, maybe it’s not about being THE proof, but rather MORE proof.  Maybe it just wants to add another name to the library of high-quality titles. 

I want it to do well, or at least reasonably so.  But I want it to succeed because it evolved from the point Cage and Quantic Dream left Heavy Rain.  I want it to discard the wonkiness of old, and the vices of its creators that plague the present.  I want it to be a good game because it offers a meaningful story and (if it delivers on its promise) choices -- not because it has state-of-the-art motion capture with Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe.  Sure, you can make him look good, but if you're reading this you could name just a little under infinity games where the graphics didn't make the game better.

Am I being unreasonable here?  Am I asking for that much?  I don’t think I am.  And I don’t want to harp too much on Cage and Quantic Dream.  I respect effort, and I respect their mindset; they want to take games to the next level, which is the exact same end goal every single gamer on the planet wants.  But I get the feeling that those same gamers want them to reach the next level the right way…and not be dumbasses about it.

So, that’s about where I stand with Beyond: Two Souls.  Cautiously optimistic, hoping for the best -- for the game and its makers -- and praying that POLYGONS AND EMOTIONS don’t corrupt their desires and our industry…or at least corrupt it any further.  But that’s enough out of me.  Let me know what you think in the comments.  Excited about the game?  Nervous?  Hating it already?  Still don’t know what the hell it’s about?  Feel free to vent at your leisure; the floor is yours.  I plan to play (watch?) the demo sometime soon, so if there’s anything substantial that I feel needs to be said, then I might do another post on the game.  Until then, I’ll see you guys around.

Beyond: Two Souls…it can’t be worse than DmC, at least.  It…it just can’t.


  1. I don't own a Playstation 3, which I say when there is one about seven feet directly behind me, so I can't say that I'd play Beyond while the general consensus will be building up. But there is something I previously got from watching playthroughs of David Cage's other two experiments, and I'd describe it as being given a subpar rough draft that I annotate on how to make better.

    With Indigo Prophecy, I keep on imagining how exactly things would work if it was actually a movie and music video whenever Get Ready popped up. While Heavy Rain gave me a story about Quadriplegic Japanese twelve-year-olds from the future, who wanted to solve a murder mystery by possessing someone in the past. With Ethan and Page somehow fusing into one character who loses their left arm while being left handed and son while having spent years trying to have him live a normal life.

    I'm saying that I'd make the most of the material set before me, because no matter how I look at it, David Cage always makes games I like to at the very least think about. Maybe just enough for me to pick it up from my awesome library this upcoming spring. Also, the half hour of footage they showed a while ago looked genuinely cool. That and you have a ghost. Ghosts are keen.

  2. Music videos...it sounds like a ridiculous idea, but the more I think about it, the more I feel like it could work. The plots for Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Ran are on shaky ground, but the junk that goes on in the former and the visuals of the latter COULD make for some interesting sequences. If nothing else, your version of each probably makes about 87% more sense. Give or take.

    Side note: I watched the demo today (my brother played through it, and my buddy and I threw in suggestions/comments). I'm not 100% sold on the game yet -- and really, how could anyone be without getting the full story? -- but I'll gladly admit it shows promise. And yet it could go wrong in so many ways.

    I plan to do a playthrough of my own one of these days. Maybe then I'll have a better opinion of the game.

  3. Face-rendering tech... Bleh...

    I never liked. The chances of failing are too high for me to be comfortable with. Personal bias, maybe, but realistic graphics don't impress me much. If a want a hyper-realistic Ellen Page, I'll watch 'Juno' or the superior-beings-convoluted 'Inception', thank you, entertainment industry.

    But since developers will still invest in acts of suicide, I'll just let that face-rendering tech slide as a device. HOWEVER, I am not impressed if a game is marketed based solely on this gimmick. 'Beyond: Two Souls' simply does not impress me much. Cue the Shania Twain song. I'm just not interested. I'd rather gamble my college money on 'Skyrim', 'DMC', the Xbone, AND the entire US economy before I consider looking at this game.

    ... Okay, a bit extreme. 0_O

    After watching a full playthrough of 'Heavy Rain', I came to the conclusion that one game like it was more than enough for me. I'll just live in bliss missing out on graphics and celebrity porn.

    At least you're around with the pitchforks and party hats, depending on a game's worth. I'll at most read about the final verdict.

  4. No, no, you're totally right -- face-rendering tech just isn't there yet, and no matter how much Cage loves his POLYGONS and EMOTIONS, it's not going to be there for a while. I played through the demo (with a full post on it, natch), and already I can start to see ways where things could go wrong. Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe might have gotten the full-facial-funding, but others? In an environment uncontrolled by camera angles and cinematic lighting? Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...

    But entertain me for a moment. Let's say that the technology is there. And then what happens? Ignoring the fact that it's clearly not a real face, but an approximation of one (because videogames), there are so many problems that follow. The motion capture. The voice acting. Hiring talent. Funding the tech. Putting the faces in the game. It's all just a big money-suck that A) doesn't improve the story, and B) doesn't do the game any favors besides adding a gimmick and inflating the budget. I remember the guys behind DmC bragging about how they used the same technology as the guys behind Avatar for their cutscenes.

    And now I hear reports about how DmC is not only the worst-selling game in the Devil May Cry franchise, but how it barely met half of its projected sales -- itself a reduced number, going down to 2 million from the original 5 million -- AND how it only contributed to Capcom being in a financial situation si tight they might not even have the money to make a full game.

    But hey. I guess it was worth it just to have the most realistic shrugging animation ever seen in a game. WHAT GOOD DECISIONS.

    ...Boy, I sure do miss the days of Okami.