David Cage, the writer and director of Beyond: Two Souls, a thriller released last week for the PlayStation 3, starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, is among the most divisive figures in video games.
Thats partly because of his outlandish pronouncements about the future of the medium, such as when he said last month during a lecture to the British Academy of Film and Television that developing an algorithmic Martin Scorsese artificially intelligent software that imitated Scorseses camera style and recreated it on demand would be an interesting way to improve video game storytelling.
Its partly because of Cages backward-looking emphasis on borrowing techniques from cinema to try to tell better stories in video games. And its also because Cage, who is the founder of the French studio Quantic Dream, seems to think that his games are the only ones about something other than killing.
But mostly hes divisive because his games are a weird mixture of wonderful and awful. More precisely, theyre weird in their wonderfulness and in their awfulness. How you feel about Cage and his work depends largely on which weirdness you think is dominant.
In his games, the interactive scenes about the mundanity of life you might find yourself directing a character to brush his teeth can be transfixing, and theyre unlike anything else in big-budget video games. Yet the sometimes leaden writing (and, in earlier Quantic Dream games, acting) may lead you to wonder how you could be engaged by something so terrible. At times, Cage and his collaborators appear to be creating a performance-art project to prove the power of interactivity by isolating it in relief against intentionally ham-handed narrative elements. At other moments, these games can provide, as writer Tom Bissell said of a scene in the 2010 mystery Heavy Rain, Cages previous effort, maybe the most electric, traumatizing feeling Ive ever had while playing a game.
In Beyond, the player mainly controls Pages character, Jodie Holmes, a young woman saddled and blessed with a connection to a silent, otherworldly creature called Aiden. Dafoe plays Nathan Dawkins, a research scientist and father figure who is studying Jodie for the government. Scenes from Jodies life, from ages 8 to 23, occur out of chronological order. Players will find themselves doing unusual things for a video game: deciding whether to wear a dress on a date, whether to drink beer and smoke pot at a party, or whether to kiss a boy and let his hands roam Jodies body. In one scene, you are prompted to decide whether she should attempt suicide.
But choice is wildly overrated in video games. Interactivity does not demand that all games become Choose Your Own Adventure stories. The decisions you make in Beyond are still significant, and they allow for a collaboration among player and designer that isnt possible in other forms of storytelling. The point of the choices in Beyond is not to make the game replayable but to make you emotionally invested in the story.
Yet other recent games have done this more successfully. If you are curious about video games that treat you as an adult and are emotionally cathartic, play Journey, Papo & Yo, The Walking Dead and Gone Home, to name a few.
Beyond: Two Souls is a misstep for Cage and Quantic Dream, but its failings are not the result of the limitations of Cages preferred medium. That it is interesting at all hinges on its interactive nature. It would be one of the worst movies youve ever seen, even though Page and Dafoe give fine performances.
Theres still something mesmerizing about what Cage is trying to achieve, even if the gumbo endemic to his work is seasoned with too much awful and not enough wonderful this time around. I cant help but look forward to playing whatever he makes next.
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