So for perhaps the only time ever, I’m going to echo the words of David Cage: Don’t play Beyond: Two Souls more than once. In fact, don’t play any choice-centric game more than once.
I only replayed one section of Beyond: Two Souls, and it wasn’t voluntary. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to “fail” in the game (I never did, despite being pretty terrible at some of lengthier fight scenes), but for whatever reason my copy decided to freeze at the end of the chapter called “Homeless” (seen above). During that section’s big action setpiece at the end, my fingers had slipped off the analog sticks during a vital moment and I lost control, causing unfortunate consequences for Jodie.
In the ensuing cutscene, everyone was being sad and as the camera started to lift up and survey the scene, it just froze. I wasn’t really sure what was going on -- the dialogue continued, making it seem like this was supposed to happen, but maybe I had hit a game over, “Snake, SNAKE, SNAAAAAKE” style (a connection I make because I was constantly reminded of the Metal Gear Solid series, especially in the latter half of the game).
But I chalked it up to my accidentally putting some paper in front of my PS3’s vents, because the system was crazy hot. I let it cool overnight, and in the morning I was ready to play it again. So I did, and something interesting happened: I didn’t mess up. It turns out there was another few minutes of gameplay and an entirely different end to the scene, but then it froze again. Curious if my copy was defective, I had actually written up an email to the lovely Jim Sterling asking if he had been having that issue (not that he would have answered me, but whatever), when I thought, “What if I just need to clean the disc?”
And turns out, despite there being exactly zero visible marks on the disc, that rubbing it along my shirt made it work the third time. And in that third time, I forced myself into the same position I had been the first time around, because that was the narrative I had set for myself the first time around. It turned out that the game was supposed to continue, with the same end result being caused by a radically different event. I thought that was cool, and it showed me that small things can have big changes on a moment-to-moment basis, even though I doubt many of them are meaningful in a broader context.
But I also never wanted to experience it again. Earlier in the game, I had done things, chose responses, that I felt were proper (for example, I “shrugged” every single time I was given the option), and I was planning on going through some of these chapters again to see what I was missing. But seeing the way “Homeless” changed, I realized that doing so would break what I remember Beyond to be. What I think Beyond is. The game has a 2,000-page script, and I saw at most two-thirds of it and probably quite a bit less, but aside from the likelihood that the rest of the script isn’t particularly well written, it’s that I wanted to keep my story the way I had seen it unfold.
And it’s not just Beyond. In Mass Effect 2, I never went to the Citadel. I skipped a massive chunk of content. I have no idea what happens in that section of the game, and I think that’s amazing. Hundreds of hours of work went into content that I gleefully skipped. The fact that the vast majority of players did go to the Citadel (I told a friend that I had done that and he didn’t even believe it was possible) means they had a very different experience with that game than I did.
In my Mass Effect 2 universe, nobody actually knows that Commander Shepard is still alive, and that’s the way I wanted it. I’ll never get the achievements for going both Renegade and Paragon (Renegade all the way, baby), but I have my consistent character that I kept across both games (never played ME3, for various reasons). It’s my little version of the games that nobody else saw in quite the same way.
The rise of emergent systems in games like the numbered Far Cry sequels means that people are having truly unique experiences. They tell stories of games that play out only as they saw them. That kind of unique storytelling is what traditional narrative games can’t really reach, but these choice-driven games give people the ability to have these one-of-a-kind experiences.
Over the course of Beyond’s ten hours, I made tons of choices, some of them blatant and others hidden. Sometimes it wasn’t even a choice but a mistake. Because I never quite got the hang of the weird controls, there were more than a couple of instances where I very clearly screwed up, and I knew that if I had just moved the stick properly, things would have turned out differently, though how differently I couldn't say.
On a second, third, fourth playthrough I could see many of those slight changes and get a different experience. Heck, there are at least five different endings, but I went with the only one that made sense to me. It’s entirely possible that if I had played through the game differently, those other options would have been more attractive to me.
But the “What if’s are all-but-certainly more tantalizing than the reality, and the reality is that my story was just that: my story. Sure, I was forced to follow the rules predetermined by David Cage and his crew, but just because he knew every possible dialogue choice doesn’t mean he knows how any one experience will affect the player. To claim that the game really draws “emotions” in the way Cage does would be disingenuous, but there’s something about owning a narrative that is attractive. It’s almost like developer-sanctioned fanfiction, except without the sex (maybe other choices could have led to sex, I don’t know).
What I really like is the conversation that can come from these different experiences. If I go back through the game and see it another way, I would lessen my own experience with the game, but not if I talk to someone else about what they saw. In Skyrim, the person who saw a dragon fight a troll and a giant saw something unique (or at least something I never saw).
In Beyond: Two Souls, I decided not to get serious revenge on the teens who locked me in the closet, but I did mess with their heads just a little bit. One is the result of interesting game systems and the other a series of player choices, but both represent one person’s experience. Some may have sent Aiden in full force against them, and others may have just walked away. It’s entirely possible some people were never locked in the closet in the first place. I don’t actually know, but if I want to find out, I want to find out from others.
Just talking can keep the illusion generally intact. If someone says to me, “I did that thing!” that I didn’t do, I’m fascinated. There’s no grander context for the moment, unless they decide to give me a verbal “Let’s Play,” so it stays exciting. Were I to see it myself, replaying that choice-driven game would expose the seams in its narrative. Three lines of dialogue will be the same, and then there will be several more that are unique. But what happens when the dialogue becomes familiar again? Games like that can never be completely open, so eventually the branches will converge, followed by the realization that maybe the choices really didn’t matter.
And then the magic is lost.
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