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Press X to Jason: 'Beyond: Two Souls' and Interactivity

The illustrious Erik Kain over at Forbes wrote an interesting piece yesterday about the 'decidedly mixed' reviews currently coming out for Quantic Dream's new interactive film/game 'Beyond: Two Souls'. I've had a good read of both the praise and criticism and one of the more sticky area's reviewers are trying to get their teeth around is the games level of interactivity. As a big fan of 'Fahrenheit' (Quantic's first title) and currently ambling my way through 'Heavy Rain', with some experience of 'Shenmue' and 'The Walking Dead' as well as a love for 'Gravity Bone' and 'Thirty Flights of Loving' I thought I'd offer a more broad outlook on the relationships between interactivity and gaming.

But let's look at what some reviewers out there are saying about 'Beyond', shall we?

'I think these sorts of titles exist in a dimension between games, books and films, and it’s something we really need more of. Making them too easy sort of defeats the purpose of interactivity, and I wish there were more choices I actually knew I was making.'
     ~ Paul Tassi, Forbes.

'It’s just plain boring. Like a sociopath, 'Beyond: Two Souls' knows how to act like it has a heart, while providing nothing of the emotional depth required to connect with an audience.'
     ~ Jim Sterling, Destructoid.

'Same depth of emotion as great works from the mediums of film and literature.'
     ~ Mark Langshaw, Digital Spy.

‘Made me feel too much like a passive participant, which made “playing” it a very confusing and unrewarding experience [...] never before have I felt like such a passive participant in a video game, my choices and actions merely icing on a dense, multi-layered cake. Playing Beyond is a memorable experience, yes, but a good video game it is not.’
     ~ Lucy O'Brien, IGN.

'Cage’s quotes are often sneered at and derided as the lamentations of an arrogant and misguided creator who yearns to be a filmmaker. In truth, though, he’s a true visionary; someone who believes in the power of games and of interactivity.'
     ~ GamesTM.

'Whether or not it was intended as such, I think it’s an excellent way to make combat feel organically tense. Rather than simply breezing through every fight unscathed like a superhuman, you’ll take your share of blows along the way.'
     ~ Josh Harmon, EGM.

Marmite much? But what we can see from these isolated quotes is just how controversial the level of interactivity in 'Beyond' is. Stephanie Carmichael over at GamesBeat claims that 'the controls and gameplay are tiresome, and can be difficult to manage (or boring), but they're of little consequence compared to the well-written story, the depth of the characters, and the empathy you feel towards them' whilst other reviewers wish the gameplay had been taken out completely, but without that level of interactivity wouldn't 'Beyond' just become a CGI film? Well, yes, but also no - it's complicated:

'It’s disappointingly unadaptable.'
     ~ Lucy O'Brien, IGN.

'Unless you’re truly awful at it, though, there won’t be any negative impact on your story. Even if you “lose,” there are no fail states—the game just adapts to the outcome of the fight [...] Everything is very context sensitive, and there are usually only a handful of ways to resolve any scenario. You can’t, for instance, simply possess or choke out anyone you encounter—only explicitly marked targets.'
     ~ Josh Harmon, EGM.

If there 'are no fail states', and if Lucy is right about 'Beyond's' 'unadaptability', then whether or not you're interacting with the story makes no difference. If you 'win' the fight without actually pressing the buttons in order to 'win' then what's the point? But, and this is a big 'but' - when you're deluded into believing that in order to win you must press the buttons correctly, then I'll be damned if you don't find yourself trying to get it perfect first time. The belief that your actions could have an effect on the story or on the character encourages you to play along. Only when this deception is revealed does it start to irk the player. I had a similar experience on 'Heavy Rain' during a section where you find yourself chasing a man through a supermarket. I messed almost everything up, but the game seemed to hold my hand, and it ruined that experience for me. The masochist within me was shouting 'PUNISH ME! PUNISH ME FOR MY CRAP HANDLING OF THE PS3 CONTROLLER' but no, apparently not. 'Heavy Rain' would rather cuddle me to sleep than give me the physical pounding I so relished.

This raises another issue; that of interactivity without progress or pressure. Whilst preparing a cup of coffee or juggling with fruit might reveal a small aspect of a character in 'Heavy Rain', to be encouraged to perform that same action again later makes it repetitive and unrewarding. Does making coffee and walking around the garden in the morning instead of working and washing up impact the main storyline in any way? If these actions are there to tell me about the character I'm controlling then couldn't the sequences be a little more revealing? Whilst these small interactions serve as interesting activities during long conversations, making discussions appear a little more natural are they anything more than play-pretend? I don't remember the interactions in 'Fahrenheit' being so banal - the smaller interactions such as learning to play the guitar or boxing seemed to reveal a significant amount about the character I found myself controlling at the time. Perseverance, courage, leaderships skills - as opposed to the ability to use a coffee machine, or the ability to open a fridge... the application of this 'interactivity' is very important.

The opening section of 'Fahrenheit' is easily the best sequence of the game. The pressure of having to clean up a murder while the cops close in puts the player in a very similar situation to Lucas. Panic, confusion, desperation. Then, when the roles switch and you find yourself in control of the two detectives you see a difference in approach; walking leisurely around the scene of the crime, examining, extracting information from witnesses. You find yourself in a quandary - do you help Lucas, or the investigation? These kinds of interactions are plot-affecting so any kind of interaction here is engaging, the other successful kind of interaction is the emotional which works only if the player is invested in the games characters. Which takes us back to...

''Beyond: Two Souls' knows how to act like it has a heart, while providing nothing of the emotional depth required to connect with an audience.'
     ~ Jim Sterling, Destructoid.

Which conjures up the notorious and hilarious 'Press X to 'Jason!'' from 'Heavy Rain', as well as Ethan's cliche 'fall from grace'; from rich architect to hopeless father in a few short sections. I spent most of the early section laughing rather than empathizing, which has somewhat tainted my experiences with Ethan further down the line. Without this engagement the character reveals his artificiality, the less human he becomes the less important the choices or actions we make are - he becomes a puppet, and we become aware that we are playing a game rather than suspending disbelief. The more this occurs the less the player cares about interacting with the game.

This is not always true of course - the smaller moments in 'Fahrenheit' like pottering around the flat putting the washing on and playing with the stereo was a welcome break from the intense button-flicking action moments, but if a game can't hit the right balance between intrigue and interaction then any degree of immersion falls flat. 'Gravity Bone' and 'Thirty Flights' had plot information plastered all over the walls - every interaction appeared significant and the player was aware of that. Whilst it may have strained the minds of some, it positively piqued the interest of others. Perhaps, 'Beyond's' Blockbuster-y plot is simply boring those gamers that want something with a little more edge - those bits they don't empathize with, the conversations and interactions they're not interested in make them want to put down the controller.

Games are about balance, and balance is subjective. In a game where explosions aren't going off every five minutes to distract the player perhaps this balance is harder to achieve. As the saying goes; one persons meaningful interaction is another persons meaningless thumb movement.

How we interact with objects/people in a video game defines what kind of video game that is. Quantic are rocking the boat with interactive films as it's a genre that hasn't yet found it's footing, all they need is a good solid print and they'll be on the right track but it doesn't look like they've hit soft ground yet.
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About NeoVALISone of us since 3:30 PM on 06.15.2013

I'm a writer, long time Xbox/Nintendo/PC gamer with a keen interest in the stealth, strategy, indie, psychological horror and RPG genres.

I'm better known by my poetry, creative writing and occasional cultural reviews over at White Coffee Magazine.

When not writing for other places, I blog here.

I have an MA in Creative Writing: Poetry from the UEA, and currently live in Scotland.