Beyond: Two Souls expects too much from it's players
// Submitted @ 4:57 AM on 10.20.2013
I was told this website loves me, but hates my game?
When I finished Beyond: Two Souls, I was one of the many who assumed the game was a tightly pre-defined story that you play for some reason. I thought there were only 2 endings, and that every scene was basically the same for everyone. Then I replayed the game, and was astounded to find what I had missed.
So many conversations could be eavesdropped on as Aiden. So many objects could be interacted with and can provide visions. So many little decisions I made that caused subtle changes later on. There are more than 2 endings. Stuff like that.
I began to wonder why the hell I didn't realize this on my first playthrough. I'm the kind of player who takes their time to experience all they can. I pay attention, and give the game it's due process of examination while playing. I knew in Heavy Rain that I could have missed that piece of evidence, or that I could have beat that trial, or that I could have died in that situation. In Beyond, however, I was really just going with the flow, not thinking about consequences or alternate branches that I may have missed.
After watching a couple of group let's plays, group discussions, and reading the negative reviews, I began to see a pattern:
Players had no clue that they were making choices, or that there were consequences until they talked to another player.
Are you serious?
This sort of happened with Heavy Rain and The Walking dead, but it was more, "Who did you save? What did you use? What did you say? Did you lie or tell the truth?" type of questions that had very clear and obvious separate outcomes. In Beyond it was more like, "what did you do? What did you see? Where did you go?" type of questions that revealed the differences between playthroughs, because the choices were not already explicit.
It became clear when IGN posted their Beyond: Two Souls spoilercast. All three panel members happened to make a lot of the same decisions, missed a lot of the same content, and all chose the same macro ending scenario. So they all thought the game was more or less the same for everyone. They say that their choices didn't matter, things aren't explained, and that the story doesn't make sense.
They also assume that they saw everything.
Many of the panel's complaints were due to the panel themselves not actually doing any analysis or critical thinking regarding their playthroughs. They also did not trust the game. They didn't think it was as malleable, or as filled with interactions as it really is.
Their play was influenced by their preconceptions of how a game normally presents opportunities. They didn't expect that they would have to actively seek out the things they wanted to see:
1. Mitch Dyer, for example, didn't make it out of the burning building. He failed to dodge falling debris, so his Jodie got hit by a rafter beam instead of getting knocked out by the thugs waiting for her outside. Thus, he missed the explanation that the thugs started the fire. In the following scene, he could have found out about the thugs if he explored the hospital room that Jodie wakes up in. There is a newspaper on the wall and multiple interactable vision objects that provide the explanation. Mitch ignored all these things. Thus, the cause of the fire goes unexplained for him.
2. The panel unanimously thought that the Navajo chapter served no purpose, had no point, and didn't add anything to the story or character development. The chapter basically delivers its message on a silver platter at the end. Jodie enters the cave and there is a drawing of someone who is attached to a figure that looks just like her drawing of Aiden. She realizes that she isn't alone in the world, and that other people have had the same experience of being tethered to spirits. This obviously led her to believe her mom likely had the same experience and could provide her with answers. But of course, neither panel member bothered to walk into that cave, because walking sucks.
Did they really do that?
3. When strolling along the streets as homeless Jodie, many players who didn't watch the Tribeca demo of the scene had no idea you can cross the street. They all either sat and made a sign to beg for money, or possibly stole from the ATM-- the only two options on the initial sidewalk. There is no prompt that says "CROSS STREET?", letting you know you have the option. The only way you know is if you try, and actually walk onto the road. Players who didn't cross missed the bulk of options; A creepo who offers 10 bucks for you know what, a store to beg in, a mailbox that Aiden can blast change out of, a trashcan that has a rotten pizza in it, and the guy who lets you play his guitar.
The pizza and guitar are big ones too:
If you pick up the pizza, you see that it's old and rotten, and you have the choice to put it back. If you eat it, Jodie will take one bite and break down into tears. She looks at the pizza and realizes she hit rock bottom because she decided to run away. She ran away because she was used, and she was used because of Aiden. This explains why Aiden is willing to sack an ATM and murder the creepo in this scene. He wants to make amends in any way possible, even going so far as stealing and revenge-killing so Jodie can see that he just wants to help her no matter what pickle they're in.
If you walk all the way to the other homeless guy with the guitar, Jodie can pick it up and start playing. She sings a beautiful song and makes bank. She gives some of her change to the guy who owns the guitar. It's one of the most emotional parts of the game, and Ellen Page played and sang in mocap herself.
One of the best things about Beyond actually caused it's downfall:
1. The game only displays and telegraphs the main objective. All other interactions are the player's responsibility to look for.
2. Therefore, players did not do any exploration.
3. Therefore, they missed a ton of content related to plot, story explanations, and entire gameplay segments.
4. The game doesn't explicitly tell them what their choices were, and doesn't tell them what they missed.
5. Therefore, they assume what they saw is all there is, and deem the game as super linear and the story confusing.
How can this be?
The Dinner Date scene is a great example for examining why it's so easy to assume the game doesn't have any malleability:
In the panel's playthroughs, teenage Jodie sneaks out of the DPA and goes to a bar. While playing pool, she gets sexually assaulted by some douche-canoe. This causes her to break down when she attempts to sleep with Clayton.
They thought that's what always happens, and didn't know why Jodie broke down. They wondered if the bar scene had anything to do with it, but didn't bother checking. They wondered about it, despite Jodie saying to Aiden, "Yeah, I know what happened at the bar, and fuck you for reminding me" before Clayton arrived.
First of all, you can get caught when sneaking out of the DPA, and never even step foot in the bar. Second, if you do go to the bar, you can leave before anything happens. This means Jodie can bang Clayton. But again, only if you accept his advances. You can tell him to leave, he can leave on his own, or you can just talk. The bar itself, the bar incident, and naughty business can all be non-factors in the scene.
But why wasn't this obvious? Why didn't the panel know that their Dinner Date scenario was based on their previous actions?
It's because they were never given the explicit option to leave the bar. So naturally, they thought the scene was supposed to just play itself out and that's it. When things got fishy, some players decided to walk to the door themselves and leave. They thought that they should at least attempt to avoid the douche-canoes by leaving, and were rewarded for making their own decision. They didn't need the game to tell them they could do that.
Marking every interactive element throws discovery out the window
Most players are used to a "choice" moment, i.e. "PRESS X TO THIS, PRESS Y TO THAT". Since they never saw that anywhere in the bar, a lot of players didn't know they had the option to leave. This causes Jodie's breakdown later on to look like a pre-determined event of the game, that will always happen no matter what.
We are so used to systems like The Walking Dead that explicitly tell you when you are making a choice (even when it's a lie), and the Heavy Rain system where the bulk of consequence is literal death (like a "normal" video game).
You don't say
David Cage's design philosophy sticks to the notion that if players don't know when they make a choice, and the ramifications aren't obvious, their experience becomes more akin to real life. The flow of the story is more organic. You don't "choose" between option A or B with reassurance of what will happen. Your decisions speak for themselves. When you don't think of alternate paths, the story feels more like your own, it feels more real, as opposed to just "one of the branches".
If Beyond was more like other games, players would think to themselves, "Oh, Jodie broke down because of that one choice I made at the bar which obviously had a consequence. Therefore, if I made the other choice, she'd be bangin' Clayton right now". This exposes the systems of the game, and reminds you that you are playing a system and not a story. In real life, you wouldn't know if that one event in the past would surely change the present in the exact way you think it would.
The problem with this design is that no one believed David Cage when he talked about this "organic choice" implementation. Without trusting the game, you won't really know how varied it is until you replay it or talk to other players. This would not have been such a problem, had more reviewers trusted Cage. The initial wave of negative opinions were just like that of the IGN panel.
Don't look at those 2/10s! It's just click-bait I tell you
Player's who, for one reason or another, believe there relly is no choice will not benefit from Beyond's natural branching system. They don't believe that things could have been different, and therefore they do not think to themselves, "Hmm, I wonder what caused Jodie's breakdown. Perhaps the bar scene? Maybe the European guy at the party? Maybe it was because of how I behaved as Aiden in this scene?". Instead, they think to themselves, "There must not be any choices, lol not even a game."
Compare IGN's spoilercast with Gamespot's, who's panel consisted of players that understood Cage's design, and also admit their false conceptions when alternate paths were revealed to them during the discussion.
I think the gaming community is the biggest obstacle Cage's design has to overcome. Players just aren't ready for it. They aren't ready for the mere act of walking to be a decision maker. We still need HUD and markers to tell us where we can go and what we can interact with. We still need a menu to tell us what our choices are, and a text box to make sure we know that Clementine will remember that. We are used to being handheld through the story and shown everything so that no development time is "wasted". Cage's system requires a level of trust from his players that he simply will never get.
In Beyond you simply play, and accept that things will change based on how you play. You don't need to think about the game and it's systems, it's branches, or it's consequences. That stuff is a given. It's supposed to go without saying. It's invisible and organic. Most games shove the choices and options in player's faces.
They make the player adapt to the game, while Beyond adapts to the player.
See, it's actually pretty good ain't it?
It's not even just the dismissal of story malleability. Some people also just don't get how characterization works with a character as complex and player-centric as Aiden:
WARNING: I AM ABOUT TO KIND OF CRITICIZE OUR LORD, THE JIM STERLING
For example here's a section from Jim's review talking about the very Dinner Date scene I've been analyzing:
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.
He is referring to the fact that the scene preceding Dinner Date is Clayton's introduction when he takes teenage Jodie to the CIA. He is an ass to Jodie and makes us not like him. Dinner Date is years later with an adult Jodie preparing her house for Clayton who is on his way over. Aiden is against the date, but Jodie talks to him about how she likes Clayton so much and that shes excited to finally have her first chance at a relationship.
What Jim didn't realize is that having us rage against Clayton means that we are put into Aiden's position for the scene. He doesn't agree with Jodie and wants to sabotage the date. We get to instantly view the relationship through his eyes, and understand him. This is brilliant because we see the situation from his perspective first, yet we also play as Jodie:
We start by hating Ryan and thinking Jodie is a fool for falling for him. We start playing as Jodie as she gets ready, and despite our feelings about Clayton, we want to clean the house and make food. For about 20 minutes we do mundane things as Jodie in preparation for her first ever date. During this time, Aiden is autonomous and starts trying to ruin everything. He flips the chairs onto the table, locks Jodie out, and writes messages like "you don't need him, you have me" on the mirror. We identify with Jodie for a long time, and as she explains her plight to Aiden, we understand that this date means a lot to her. Finally, Clayton arrives and they sit at the dinner table.
Why do you think we don't converse with Clayton as Jodie? Why are we now Aiden for the whole dinner? At this point you see all your options, from flipping chairs, spilling drinks, etc. When I played, I was about to hurl a book presumably at Clayton's head until I realized something...
Jodie is having a good time. She is actually excited at the prospect of making a new friend. She is finally socializing with a romantic interest under her own terms. I didn't initiate the kiss with the blonde boy at the party, so as far as I know, Jodie hasn't even had her first kiss. She spent an hour getting the house, the food, and herself ready for this dinner. She is also scared of what Aiden- what I, might do to ruin the evening. For once, Aiden's inaction can only help her.
How about you just get to the fucking point.
And then I was hit in the face with the inner drama Aiden and I were currently dealing with:
Who am I to decide who Jodie can socialize with? Who am I to say I can take even more away from her?
I'm not controlling Jodie here, I'm controlling Aiden. The choice to call off the dinner is not in Jodie's best interest. It's what Aiden wants. I want to call off the dinner too, but I also want Jodie to be happy. And I, nor Aiden, want Jodie to hate her "gift" or her life more than she already does.
I end up letting them talk and get to know each other more. I'm just watching instead of thrashing. For the first time, when the room is filled with blue dots, I wanted nothing to do with them. I as a player am guiding Aiden's character growth through play. I was put into the shoes of 2 characters at the same time in a single scene. And one of them changed their perspectives.
Of course, I always had the option of sticking to Aiden's original agenda. I still had the ability to throw things and drive Clayton out of there. I exercised my knowledge that Beyond isn't on rails, and chose a path that wasn't shoved in my face by text or a menu. I didn't just blast objects because the game showed me blue dots. I was well aware of Cage's "organic choice", and so I used it to make my experience more fulfilling.
Interestingly enough, you do get to choose, as Jodie, whether to kiss Clayton after the dinner. Since Aiden's part was done, it was time to be Jodie again. I wanted her to finally get the human intimacy she always wanted, but I also didn't want her to risk another heartbreak. The choice was obviously more than a kiss, as it was in Heavy Rain. I was torn because I thought both options were completely viable yet had their drawbacks.
Choosing No meant Jodie was making the decision herself, so she won't be blaming Aiden, but she'll continue to be lonely. Initiating the face-eating will give her a night to remember, but the bar incident might affect her reaction. Both options were compelling, and the scene excelled because of how Clayton was portrayed directly before.
Interesting.......But was it a fine luncheon?
Wanna know what I chose?
LOL I don't kiss and tell.
A wild spiteful review appeared!
I'm not saying that's it's your fault if any of this stuff flew over your head when playing the game. I think, just like Heavy Rain, Beyond is ahead of it's time when it comes to what it brings to the ludonarrative theory table. It, also like HR, just lacks the sheer story quality of much simpler, and less advanced games like Telltales 2 current series. Even if you don't agree, you have to at least admit that what Quantic Dream is doing is consistently ahead of the curve in most areas, thanks in no small part to David Cage's massive French balls. Seriously:
- New damn IP
- Triple-A adventure game
- Unsexualized female player character
- Hours of playing as a little girl
- Scenes where you simply do things around the house
- Numerous whole scenes that took dev time and money can be completely missed
- The player character can be killed off, in her first game
- Letting the player choke out a child
- It failed, but you never know unless you try: The disorganized chapter structure
- Allowing choices and malleability to be as subtle as possible, in the name of immersion. The risk may not have payed off, as explained before.
- Executives think kissing male characters might be weird for the bro demographic? Too bad, here's THREE romance-able guys, with the chance to get in two of them's pants
- Rated M? GTAV did it? Doesn't matter, no indulgent nudity this time
- Non-experienced players can play a touch control version of the game via a free app, "hardcore" gamer cred be damned
- No cleavage, booty, "the look", explosions, guns, quotes, or gruff men on the cover
- Cage knows he is hated, but doesn't let the trolls get to him and continues to be QD's spokesman
- Cage won't dumb his ideas down to appease third party publishers that would allow him to go multi-platform
I for one would love to see more developers, and like Cage; CEO's, try new things and make creative decisions from the heart rather than the wallet. If you got anything out of this essay, please comment, and uh, support Beyond please?
What I tell ya. It ain't so bad after all.
P.S. the formatting just decided to fart all over itself for the end of the article, and I have no idea why. Sorry about that.
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