Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.
I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.
You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and I'm trying to get some freelance work going. Among other things. Like a web serial novel. And getting books published. If ever there was a time for the world to learn the joys of ghost-punching, this is it.
So you know that whole “turn your brain off” mentality that people throw out sometimes? You know -- the idea that if you just go with the flow, you’ll have more fun? I don’t believe in that. Setting aside the fact that such passive action is what allowed stuff like Michael Bay’s Transformers to rise up, that mentality is a disservice to any given art form and the viewers themselves. It’s okay to let nitpicks slide, but playing apologist and buying wholesale into movies and games and stories that don’t deserve it won’t help anyone.
That’s my golden rule. But I’m willing to bend that rule just once if it means getting my brother and buddy to play through Beyond: Two Souls.
The mere prospect brings out my trollface in full force.
Said brother already has plans to pick it up when the price drops, but I’m incongruously hyped over the prospect of him finally sitting down with the game. I might have sweetened the deal by mentioning the co-op aspect, and my buddy’s on board thanks to the presence of Willem Dafoe (and similarly, being able to wreck the world at his leisure as Aiden). I’m assuming that neither of them knows just what, exactly, is in the game. But I do. I watched the Super Best Friends LP, and actually started watching it again semi-recently.
And I know, without a doubt, that they need to see what’s in that game.
If you think I’m trying to endorse the game, DON’T. It’s like a thirty-car pileup on top of a train wreck on top of an oil spill on top of a forest fire, with a ruined birthday party thrown in for good measure. This game -- and I can’t even use the word “game” properly -- gets so much wrong it’s almost fascinatingly terrible. Almost. I’m pretty sure I never bore David Cage and his crew at Quantic Dream any ill will before; that’s true even now, but after seeing them at their “best” I can’t say I have even an eighth of the good will I had beforehand. Whatever they’re cooking up next, if it’s anything like Two Souls they need to start over.
A part of me was willing to start this post by asking “Has David Cage ever played a video game?” It was going to segue into how you could use the medium to tell or enhance a story, given that his game has been done, and done better. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn’t the right question to ask. There isn’t even a question I need to ask. I have a theory.
David Cage doesn’t need to play more video games. He needs to watch something dumb.
WARNING: Spoilers for Beyond: Two Souls AND Kamen Rider Fourze coming your way. One of those is worth caring about. The other isn’t. Guess which one. Also? I FINALLY get to talk about Kamen Rider at length in a DToid post! YES!
Before I get too ahead of myself, let me say something upfront: when I say David Cage needs to watch something dumb, I don’t mean that in a way that makes 2011’s Kamen Rider Fourze out to be any lesser of a show. Indeed, I think Fourze is fantastic -- to the point where I’d say it has no right to be as good as it is, seeing as how it’s more or less a “kid’s show.” I’d sure as hell watch it (all over again) before I played Two Souls.
But with that in mind, I have no problem admitting that Fourze is a dumb, dumb, dumb series. Intrinsically dumb, that is; 75% of its soundtrack consists of blasting guitars, the first episode has a mech suit straight outta Robotech, the [s]collectible toys[/s] helper robots are based on fast food, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the show is pretty much Gurren Lagann meets The Breakfast Club…especially considering that the lead writer for the former is the lead writer for this series.
It’s worth noting that by designFourze is about a guy in a weird suit punching out guys in weirder suits as flamboyantly as possible. It’s a show full of catch phrases, over-the-top personalities, overflowing machismo, and the overriding theme (of course) being the power of friendship. From start to finish, it’s completely unapologetic about what it is and what it’s trying to do.
And in a way, that’s kind of what makes it brilliant.
If you’re wondering what this bout of gushing has to do with Two Souls, then it’s probably because I want to delay talking about that “game” for as long as possible. (It’s not even worth talking about how it botches its game aspect.) Or to be more precise, I want to give the proper setup. If I were to make a straight post about 2Souls, I’d be doing posts on it for several months. So to counteract that, I’m going to do things differently.
There are lessons that we can take away from both stories, regardless of their form and source. As such, this is going to be a compare-and-contrast sort of post. I think I can pare down my complaints and the major issues with 2Souls into three points -- and I can explain what I mean more thoroughly by using Fourze as an example. So, like the Goofus and Gallant comics of old…and new, apparently…let’s go ahead and put these two stories side-by-side, and see what we can learn.
I’ll go ahead and give you the crux of this thing, though: 2Soulsis awful because of its lead character, Jodie. Fourze is awesome because of its lead character, Gentaro. Why, you ask? Well, I’ll gladly explain why…in a whole lotta words. Strap in.
Jodie has no personality. Fans of Mr. Plinkett/Red Letter Media are probably pretty familiar with some of his more poignant ideas Namely, if a person can’t describe a character’s personality, independent of what they look like, what they can do, or what their position in their world might be, it’s a big red flag. I’d like to think it’s a rule that’s more of a formality than an ironclad measure, but when I think aboutthe number of charactersthat don’t pass what should be a simple test, can’t help but get a little nervous. And now I can pretty confidently add Jodie Holmes to that list -- which is a game-breaker when the main character of the game has no personality.
I’ve heard the argument that in a game like 2Souls, the player character(s) can’t have a personality because it would create a divide between the player and the game -- the independent thought versus the narrative. I don’t think that’s necessarily a dead-end (like others have), but this game doesn’t do anything to make an argument for itself. Jodie is caught in a purgatory, torn between being a puppet for the player and a slave to the plot…but neither of them works well together. At all.
What you say and do with Jodie only has the most tangential effect on what kind of person she becomes at story’s end, and that’s not helped by the fact that the story is told in a fragmented form. What could have happened to turn the shy bookworm Jodie into the rebellious punk rocker Jodie? We’ll never know, because there’s no connective tissue between one and the other.
Worse yet, it just highlights how little your input matters; the Best Friends immediately opted for revenge so bookworm Jodie could get back at the teens that mistreated her. So why, post-time skip, would she want to go out and hang with anyone? Wouldn’t she become a bitter recluse after that and other events? If not, then why would she go through the transformation that did? What events made her the person that we see at endgame, and long before that?
With 2Souls, there is no character arc. Just a bunch of random Ellen Page clones strung together.
But the biggest sin that Jodie commits is that she’s got zero emotional range. I’m not trying to take shots at Ellen Page here -- she’s a better actor than I’ll ever be -- but she’s pretty only allowed to have four modes throughout the entire game. The most common two are teary-eyed despair and fury over being slighted. Incredibly pleasant stuff, to be sure.
The other two, eerily stoic behavior and cloying awkwardness, are lucky to appear in more than two chapters -- and that’s a generous estimate. None of those four are very compelling. Nothing noteworthy, nothing to get excited about, nothing to enjoy. And as a result, she’s nothing to enjoy. And that just feeds into another set of problems…but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Let’s switch over to something good.
Gentaro has a simple but effective personality. It’s a strange day indeed when a character with hair like thatis more believable than someone whose face was LITERALLY scanned into a game. But here we are. Now, to be fair, I’m not going to say that a character like Gentaro is one hundred percent possible, or even fifty percent possible. But compared to the sad-sack taking top billing in 2Souls, he might as well be a revelation.
I can describe this guy in three words: passionate, friendly, and forgiving. Those might be the only three words that can be used to describe him (besides dumb, maybe), but that’s all I need out of a character like this. From start to finish, Gentaro’s goal -- something else Jodie lacks consistently, now that I think about it -- is to “be friends with everyone in his school”. And how is he going to do that? With almost manic, feverish dedication. And the occasional experimental weapon module. Times four.
He’ll get in the face of every student he comes across, forcing himself on them and demanding their friendship. He’s consistently entertaining to watch, because his passion has him doing things that no normal person would do. He’s the embodiment of the larger-than-life spirit a fictional character can show. He’s overflowing with conviction and good intentions…and that’s precisely what lands him in trouble on several occasions.
He’s a dumb character, but believe it or not he actually goes through some (subtle) character development. At the start of the show, Gentaro’s got good intentions, but they also make him incredibly inflexible. He wants your friendship, but he wants it on his terms -- he wants you to follow his lead, and screw whatever concerns you might have.
Over the course of the show’s run, he realizes that in order to be friends with a few of the more prickly students of his school (his foil, along with another Rider), he has to understand and accept their circumstances. He needs to learn how to listen and solve their problems, not just march past -- or even over -- them. Does he mellow out? No, of course not. But he does get better about his methodology.
Bear in mind that this is all independent of when Gentaro puts on his suit. But it is worth noting that his personality informs his fighting style -- a head-on attacker who’ll use every weapon he’s got (and then some) to bash the Zodiart of the day. Incidentally, this means that he’ll also willingly use VERY experimental technology -- the Astro Switches -- as his primary weapons. Some of them work out, while others lead to him getting blown up, electrocuted, or otherwise bouncing around like a doof. But over time, he learns the value of practice and preparation, and using his head. Well, somewhat. Relatively.
…Give him a break. He got a 4 on his test.
Jodie is barely a presence, even in the scenes she's alone in. If I had suddenly forgotten everything I know about 2Souls, and you showed me the game from start to finish while telling me that Jodie is the main character, I would have asked you “Really?” And then I would have hit you with a Death Fist straight outta Tekken.
It’s bad enough that Jodie can only be reliably counted on to cry or rage, because the definition of a good character has apparently become “someone you should feel sorry for, so cry for her. Cry, you fools! CRY!” It’s even worse when you realize that her actual effect on the plot is either minimal or contrived -- and no matter which road it takes, it (and she) is never compelling. This is a character that’s put at risk of sexual assault AT LEAST four times throughout the game, forcing the player to step in as her [s]Stand[/s] ghost-buddy to protect her from the big scary men.
She’s constantly getting strung around by forces beyond her understanding -- a patsy who gets used by scientists and the CIA to clean up dumbass evil ghost experiments and kill off African presidents because reasons. Stupid reasons, given that you’d think Jodie the CIA agent would read up on political affairs before going on a mission…but in her defense, she had to make goo-goo eyes at her superior officer, which I’m pretty sure is not something CIA agents are allowed to do. But hey, she’s a female character, so of course she has to fall in love with a plank of wood, right?
Remember when characters were allowed to have agency in stories instead of just getting jerked around by the demands of the plot? I miss that. Oh well. Bring on the faux-epic tales of misery!
Jodie has absolutely nothing of interest about her when it comes to her personality…but things only get worse when it comes to her skill set. As you’ve probably heard by now, players take control of Jodie as well as Aiden, her ghost-buddy who acts on her behalf to possess/choke enemies or interact with the environment. But he has more problems than that; he can put up a shield that protects Jodie from everything, he can use his magic to cure Jodie of anything, and his movement range varies from a few dozen feet to infinity.
So basically, Jodie can solve any problem she comes across. She’s invincible. Her struggles don’t ring true because there’s no tension. No chance of failure, unless the game contrives reasons for danger by way of omission. (Why doesn’t Aiden steal money for Jodie when she’s homeless, since we know he can act autonomously? Why doesn’t Aiden just pull up his shield whenever Jodie’s in danger? Why doesn’t Aiden just kill everybody?)
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the game warps around to make Jodie useful, at the expense of the player’s suspension of disbelief. A five-foot, hundred pounds soaking wet girl can punch out soldiers? And suddenly wear the uniform made for someone a foot taller than her? And tries to sneak into a Chinese underwater ghost base in spite of being white…when there’s a Chinese guy five feet away from her?
I don’t believe for a second that Jodie is capable of anything but crying and flipping out. And because of that, I don’t see her as anything more than a walking, talking, weeping pain in the ass. Why is she the main character, besides the fact that she’s the person the camera follows the most? That’s a question no man is equipped to answer, at least not without severe brain damage and a swimming pool’s worth of beer.
Gentaro dominates in nearly every scene he's in. There is never a doubt in my mind that this is Gentaro’s show. It goes beyond him being the titular Kamen Rider Fourze; he’s the character that defines and pushes forward the show’s ideas, as any main character should. He is the show’s premiere asskicker, seeing as how the only other character that can even hurt the Zodiarts is another Rider (and the occasional power armor-piloting comrade), but he’s playing a mental game of tug-of-war in-universe and out of it that sets him up as the lead character.
He’s loud, boisterous, and determined. He’s THE embodiment of hot blood, and exactly the sort of character you’d expect from the mind behind Gurren Lagann (so I guess it’s appropriate to call him Kamina 2.0). His passion is undeniable, but it’s part of what makes him a character worth getting invested in. Gentaro strikes me as the type of person who thinks that if you flap your arms hard enough, you’ll be able to fly.
You know it’s wrong, and stupid, and goes against nature, but you can’t help but shake your head, smile, and say “Bless your heart” -- because you know by the time you do, he’ll be leaping off the roof to give it a shot. But he’ll leap right back up, smile, and the two of you can laugh about it over manly discussions on what’s the greatest enka song ever created.
That all said, I feel like it’s important to remember that just because Gentaro is passionate doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s got no emotional range. Granted he’s usually hot-blooded, but he is capable of being quiet, or introspective, or respectful. He just tends to go about things his own, usually dumb way. More to the point, there’s a concept that he (and the writers of Fourze) understands that Jodie (and David Cage/Quantic Dream) doesn’t: the power of going out of character.
The expectation is that at almost all times, Gentaro’s going to be a loud, grinning idiot. And in many cases, that’s true. BUT in the moments when he isn’t -- when he does something you wouldn’t expect of him, like engaging in a rain-soaked duel with a friend-turned-Zodiart with none of his usual gusto -- you know something’s up. And it carries more impact.
I don’t want to spoil too much about what happens in the show (because you need to watch it, otherwise you’re doing the internet wrong), but I will say one thing. When Jodie cries in 2Souls, you just go with it and move on to the next scene, wondering when you actually get to play the game. When Gentarocries in Fourze, you know damn well he’s got a good reason to. And believe me, he does. There are a couple of scenes late in the show’s run that not only exemplify his character development, but make incredible use of going out of character.
Simply put, characters that have been happy, smiling idiots from minute one of episode one are trying and failing to fight off tears -- and you can’t help but do the same. “No, no, no, don’t do that, you’re not supposed to be this kind of character,” you might think (because that’s what I thought while wiping my soaking face). To say nothing of what happens a few scenes later, as well as the final episode at large. Fair warning: the final few episodes may or may not utterly destroy your soul. If nothing else, I get misty-eyed just remembering a few snippets. It’s that powerful, because it understands how to make use of different tones, emotions, and natures of characters.
Fourze -- and Gentaro, by and large -- masquerades as a loud and brash moron, when in reality he and the show have an understanding of emotional depth that a “serious drama” like 2Souls wishes it had. The “kid’s show” has proven its intelligence years before gamers were greeted by Jodie’s immensely zoomed-in, open-mouthed face shoved into the screen. (Because I’m working under the theory that David Cage has some kind of zoomed-in, moist face fetish.)
There’s something wrong with the situation when I get more out of a show with a conehead-suited protagonist than a multi-million dollar pity party starring a Stand user.
Jodie is only someone you care about because otherwise there would be no game. You know, it’s not often that I think to myself, “Gee! I sure know what I’m talking about in this situation! I must be a better writer than I thought!” But I sniffed out a BIG problem early.
See, I didn’t feel like I got the context I need from the demo, and that made me worry that I wouldn’t get it in the full game. So here's a question: in the context of the demo, why is killing the primary option? I didn’t know who Jodie was or what she’s been through besides the experiment and training in a gym. I can deal with her trying to escape, but why did I get railroaded into murder? Besides "because video games"?
If Jodie is so desperate and/or resolute that killing is her primary goal, then aren’t the police and SWAT teams justified in trying to capture her? Why was I supposed to sympathize with someone who choked an officer to death with her handcuffs? Was it supposed to be a bit of subversion? Was the intent to actually have me play as the villain? I sure as shit hoped that was the case, because a tragic backstory isn’t enough to justify the murder of people just trying to do what they think is right, and it shouldn’t be enough.
So, having seen the game played in full, what do I think?
Here's the number one question: is Jodie the villain? Not directly, but that’s only because the plot (such as it is) makes its antagonists into strawmen we’re not allowed to sympathize with -- and before you ask, yes, Willem Dafoe suddenly decides to become the bad guy at the end because A) he’s the number-two actor in the game, and B) rrrrrrrrrrrrreasons! But Jodie doesn’t make a very good argument for herself. There’s no internal consistency to this character, and not just because of the time skips. She’ll flip-flop in the middle of scenes, deciding to punch out or kill people just to fill some “you go girl!” quota.
Remember, no matter what you do the demo ends with Jodie threatening to kill people just trying to do their job, and this is after she’s already taken a few lives. But as it turns out, the context for this is that, because she was betrayed by the CIA and killed one person -- setting aside the dozens she had to hurt, kill, or possess along the way, AND the people she let Aiden harass in chronologically-previous chapters -- she suddenly has the right to hurt everyone in her path. What about their friends and families, Jodie? What about laying low until the heat dies down? What about not using your powers to effectively burn down a block of a town? If you’re going to be a remorseless killer, then there’s a reason why the cops are releasing the hounds on you.
The ending of this game has Jodie (and the player) making the one of, if not the only choice that really matters: deciding whether Jodie, after destroying the government’s big stupid accidental doomsday device -- don’t ask -- elects to go back to the world of the living, or stays dead and travels to “the beyond.” The Best Friends actually discussed this for a moment, and ultimately decided to leave Jodie dead…as a screw you to the game for forcing a romance on Jodie no matter how much they tried to resist.
Now, normally I’d disagree and choose life no matter what, but in this case, they made the right choice. They absolutely made the right choice. In a situation like this, the implication is that Jodie should wave away the beyond -- shown to be a fluorescent paradise -- and head back to the real world to start a new life. She should find new freedom, and new happiness. And above all else, she should believe that she has hope -- and a future created by her own hands. She made it through the rain.
The problem is that in the context of 2Souls, there’s absolutely no reason for Jodie to go back. There’s no reason to believe there’s any hope for her. This is a character that’s consistently under threat of sexual assault, consistently beaten down and lied to, consistently betrayed, consistently left unloved, feared, or hated, consistently forced to face nightmares beyond human comprehension (and nightmares well within them), and consistently shown to be suicidal.
Granted some of those problems are ones she created herself, but the damage has been done. The sheer oppressiveness of the “story” has completely invalidated the message. The intent. The one choice that matters. Why should the player believe that Jodie’s life will get any better when she’s probably in danger of being pinned to a wall as soon as she walks out of the building?
This isn’t just my reasoning. The Best Friends realized the same thing. Any gamer would, too. Any idiot would. Why David Cage couldn’t do the same makes me question the very foundations of reality.
Gentaro is a character anyone would gladly ride with to hell and back. How does the saying go? Every man is the architect of his own fortune? I don’t know how you’d say that in Latin, but it’s still a pretty good line regardless.
It’s true that in spite of being played by a real person, Gentaro is as fictional as they come. He’s the construct of a slew of writers, and probably more than a few business decisions (though in this case, that might actually be a good thing). But as I said, he’s a more believable character than Jodie will ever be. Why?
Because even though he appears in a medium that has an even more passive format than the common video game -- even 2Souls, albeit very slightly -- I believe that this character is living, breathing, and moving on his own. I believe he’s making his own choices. I believe he’s acting not just to fulfill the writers’ wishes, but for his own beliefs and satisfaction. I believe he’s free to choose for himself what he wants to do.
All he wants -- besides punching out the bad guys to protect his school and those in it -- is to make friends with everybody. Why? Because when he was a kid, he told his parents that he made a new friend, and that made them happy, so he kept on doing it. That's it. That's all there is to it, and part of what makes him the character that he is. Besides the hair. (Looking back, I think his pompadour got even MORE outrageous over the show's run.)
It’s true that his parents died in a car accident (something that he mentions off-handedly, and to my surprise didn’t feed into the main plot vis a vis some big reveal), but he doesn’t let his grief make decisions for him. He just believes steadfastly in his goal, whether he strides or stumbles toward it. Not a lot of people, real or fictional, would go to the lengths he does to befriend someone. But that’s precisely what makes him so charming. That’s what makes him such an interesting -- and dare I say it, GOOD -- character.
Gentaro is free in a way that Jodie isn’t. The only reason Jodie saves the day (after spending so much of the game faffing about) is because she just happens to be in the exact place she needs to be to stop the big dumb doomsday machine that shouldn’t have been built oh my God why are you people so stupid.
She has no plan. No will, no personality, no presence; she’s almost as invisible, and unknowable, as her ghost-buddy. She’s just a plot device, and a punching bag whose only merit is giving David Cage a chance to indulge in his face fetish by zooming in every chance he gets. (Seriously, Heavy Rain? 2Souls? That PS4 tech demo? Zoomed-in faces aplenty.)
Jodie is just terrible. Gentaro isn’t. He’s energetic. He’s dynamic. But most importantly, he has something that every character should have, regardless of whether they’re smiling heroes or stone-faced avengers: CHARISMA. If they can do what they do in a way that makes them compelling -- an irresistible force that you can’t help but get swept up in -- then they’re more likely to be a character worth remembering, and help make a story worth adoring.
It’s not that hard. Fourze shows this in every single episode; there are students in trouble, so Gentaro jumps in to help them, be it by taking on their problems or by beating the monster transformation out of them. (It makes sense in context.) He’s the kind of guy you want to see more of…while Jodie’s the kind of thing you can’t look at for long thanks to some uncanny valley swan-dives. And, you know, being kind of shit.
I don’t know how much effort went into 2Souls or Fourze. Nor do I know the exact budgets for each. (I’m guessing marketing cut deep into the wallets of both.) But it’s pretty obvious which one used its effort, talent, and resources a lot better.
I could go on and on about both. I could talk about all the failures of 2Souls, be it with the game design or that ramshackle thread they called the plot. Likewise, I could talk all about what makes Fourze a blast from start to finish, along with what makes it a deeper show than it appears to be at first glance (fun fact: revenge, filial piety, and the effects of drug withdrawal all make appearances.)
That's not to say that there aren't stumbles (example: if you thought the Clark Kent/Superman issue was bad, wait till you get a load of the second Rider). But it’s as I’ve said a hundred times before: the main character defines the story. The main character makes or breaks the story. And for all the effort that went into covering Ellen Page’s virtual face with blood, sweat, and tears, she’s been outdone a thousand times over by a grinning moron with a pompadour.
David Cage? Quantic Dream? Next time, be reasonable. Act within your means. Learn how to make your audience smile before you think you can make them cry.
And that’ll do it for now. See you guys around…when I figure out how to work Kamen Rider W into a post.