Welcome to what i hope to be long-running series of articles entitled the Designer's Corner where i viciously take apart and/or praise game design issues in video games. Today we'll be talking about Beyond: Two Souls, a game that i finally found time to finish end to end after a good solid year.
WARNING: Mild spoilers ahead. Character names are used as well as their relationships and also vague references to plot points already shown in trailers or promotional material and chapter names.
Before i begin, i have to say i'm a fan of Quantic Dreams. I liked Fahrenheit and loved Heavy Rain and even though the reviews i'd read have put Beyond down, i still wanted to check out QD's latest work. Now that i'm writing this, i have to say it seemed more like a side-step more than a full foot forward like Heavy Rain was to Fahrenheit but let's take it from the top:
- Interactions and controls.
QTEs are indeed considered the cheapest way to tell a story, but the way Heavy Rain did it made the game come alive due to the controls. I clearly remember the sequence in the power building basement maze at one point were your character was wheezing, tired and stressed, and which at the peak of the experience, i ended up haphazardly grubbing five or six buttons/joysticks on the controller, my hands contorted in agony as i tried to maneuver the character through a series electric arcs. I could relate, in another dimension past what i can see and hear, to the sentiments of the character on screen through my own tactile and physical tension. While that was the peak, the rest of the game didn't fall too much behind but always made the player 'feel' the characters with how the controls were used.
Jump to Beyond, where the 'follow-through' QTE system was introduced, mostly used for action sequences in which you moved the joystick, during a brief slow-mo, in the direction your character, Jodie, or her arms or legs should be heading. This ended up being a huge problem since it felt jittery and out of synch, not knowing if you were attacking or defending in a situation sometimes, which meant Jodie getting a swift kick to the face or worse as you faced the joystick the wrong way thinking she was going to do something else. The actions of Aidan, the spiritual ghost attached to Jodie, were more reminiscent of the feel in Heavy Rain, with the release of both joysticks to perform the kinetic bashes and throwing of items around feeding the feeling of a paranormal juggernaut. Jodie on the other hand, rarely managed to get us the added sense of immersion with her range of controls.
- Story transitions and fragmented flow.
This was a major point for a lot of reviewers and i can understand why. From a high level creative perspective the concept is sound. It allows us to grasp the entirety of the story without feeling it is getting 'bogged down' since Beyond is a decently long game to linearly play. It also allows us to work, as Jodie does eventually, on repiecing together her life and memories, creating a cool question-answer loop.
Sadly, it didn't work too well.
The staggered storylines were built on the framework of having the player get more questions than answers from a sequence, pushing them forward only to be met with other questions with just a bit of sprinkled answers; a system of plot setup and plot reveals. But it fell a bit flat.
One of the clearest examples of it done well, which amusingly is one that they didn't even give an answer to, is Jodie's romance with Ryan, a CIA agent. The sequence where we meet Ryan is the one where she's torn from the people and the world she's known the past ten or fifteen years and she's visibly aggressive towards him. The very next sequence we play, Jodie is in love and preparing a romantic dinner with him. This works amazingly well because of the stark contrast that actually makes us go "How did THAT happen?" and pushes us to play some more to find out. Amusingly, that is the one that never gets answered.
The other big moments used, like a major turning point in the form of a mission Jodie goes on that is supposed to answer up the big "why" of the reason she's where is in the beginning of the game, doesn't provide a great answer for such a long pent-up arc. On the other hand, while Navajo is a great arc, an arc where our character realises she can help people, it feels like it's answering a question that never really gets posed, or was better answered anyway in a story of a group of homeless she meets in another sequence.
Overall, i feel like the contrast between sections should have been greater to maximise this staggered delivery. As it is, it really does feel disjointed to the point where you're really having as much trouble as Jodie is to piece it together.
- Aidan vs Jodie - Combatative agency
While mostly Aidan and Jodie are in synch in regards to what they want happen, the times where they are at odds really grinds on the horrible use of player agency. The Dinner was a sequence where the player was allowed to play both parts. Both as Jodie trying to get everything ready for an imminent date, and as Aidan trying to screw everything up since he was feeling, for a better word, jealous.
To be clear Aidan is a controllable entity the whole game minus very few events, this being one of them. You can create an image of that character through what you do with him in the game. I chose to have a very helpful and discreet Aidan. While i could understand his outbursts, he was completely under control of the story during that initial part of the sequence, causing mayhem for our Jodie. I accepted that as his character evolving and a necessary evil of story trumping mechanics. Like when Lara Croft falls down a pit in a cutscene when in normal gameplay that would never have happened.
But then in the second part, we're given full control over Aidan. Here, we can continue to cause havoc or choose to stand back. His character, if still under the control of the story, would most definitely at the least continued his shenanigans, even if subdued.. but given control to us, and having the option to not do anything and allow the night to proceed as usual, it feels like we were completely ignoring the character that was trying to form and just bending him to our will unnaturally.
And this happens, to a lesser extent, multiple times throughout the game. I can imagine the experience would have been MUCH better if Aidan was controlled by a second player, since the game does allow us that, but as it stands, it created a weird rift. The actions of killing and other acts are often also attributed to both of them, rarely one getting the blame for the other or having to work around them only helping to enforce the fact that player agency was thought of as symbiotic, not disparate.
Rarely do you also have a sequence which you can finish with both characters acting in the same events, allowing you to tailor the story between how Jodie and Aidan interact. Does Aidan do just the protecting, or does he have a deeper influence in her life? Does Jodie prefer to do things without Aidan's help? A curse or a blessing? To exemplify, in one instance i could shatter a glass blocking my progress with Aidan or Jodie, which added a lot of meaning, but that happens so infrequently that it doesn't get to matter, nor is it referenced in the game as such.
I give you this to ponder, how would the game have been if it would only be played from Aidans or Jodie's perspective? Still a good story, but you would have seen both Jodie's perspective to Aidan a mostly uncontrollable entity, and Aidan's to Jodie as she stumbles time and again into situations that force him to act, taking advantage of her ever-present and ever-helpful life-mate.
- "Choose your color"-effect and the legitimacy of choice
With Mass Effect 3's passing, the gaming world has been subjected to a lot of controversy in relation to endings, and more to the point, choices that have an effect on the ending.
I see Beyond didn't get much flak from this, and i wonder why. In one half of the large set of endings, you pretty much end up choosing during the last sequence who or what will be a big part of your ending.
I deliberately acted during my game as uninterested about a relationship with one character. At the same time, i also was very neglectful about another character, casting a cold shoulder on the relationship multiple times. Both of these options appeared on my last sequence screen.
While i understand why, since probably some people actually acted very affectful towards all of the choices and could reasonably pick any, i did feel my choices were cheapened by the ability to choose relationships i had turned a cold shoulder to and which i reasonably should have not been able to choose.
One of the options is also somewhat misnamed as to what really happens, and which comes with a huge end-game plot change. Not going to spoil it, and some may argue that it's huge, but there's no denying that the affect on Jodie's character would be large.
All i'm getting at here is that choices we made were cheapened in the end, and all the things we did were rarely choices even to begin with.
Aidan's outburst in The Experiment is scripted and you can't go around it to have a more pleasant Aiden and you can't fail to save many of the other side characters The sad thing is this wouldn't have required much more development on the game, and is purely a design choice, one think would have been very important to the ending as a whole.
The reason i'm making a big deal of the deaths of the side characters is that biggest choice on the ending comes in form of a binary choice that relates, indirectly, to how many characters are alive or dead. When i reached that point, there really was no contest, and that's horrible for a game that built up a great story for more than a dozen hours to just cheapen itself out.
- Too many overarching themes
While this doesn't fall in game design specifically i still felt it negatively impacted the game. We have a coming of age drama, we have a supernatural theme, we have an apocalypse scenario, we have a spiritual symbology, we have a new age Enterprise-level sci-fi setup and a grueling Tom Clancy-esque military blurb and commentary.
In the end, they all drown each other out. It's like reading a great fantasy novel with dwarves and orcs only to have it midway turn the orcs into AK-shooting unnamed third world country residents with child soldiers and then try to have a horror with haunted dwarves only to realise all of that was happening in the brain of a cybernetic AI. Yes it does end up being that jarring.
Hard to tell a story when you go 'actually...' on yourself almost every moment. It doesn't help that one of the last sequences also introduces a generic military threat past the first generic military threat you face furthering to weaken the drama by exposing it to a 'large world' frame.
All being said, it's by far not a bad game. The mocap was amazing, animations were great, landscape was beautiful, voice acting top notch, actual technical execution almost flawless and overall a great use of my gaming time.
... But it could have been so much better with just some reinterpretations and improvements of why the previous games worked so well and a stronger focus on the player experience instead of purely telling the story.
No matter how amazing the story in a game, there still has to be a person in front of the screen up until the end that cares enough to see the story get told for it to make its mark and get delivered properly.