For the most part I’m a huge proponent of the idea that a game is simply a game by being interactive in such a manner that it enriches the player’s involvement with the story, setting, or even mechanics. Hence games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead or Virtue’s Last Reward are unquestionably games to me. No matter how linear they truly are, the very nature of being interactive generates such an emotional involvement that the story is improved by the interaction.
Beyond: Two Souls, on the other hand, stretches that idea so far that I must wonder if David Cage, the lead designer and “director” of the game, would just be better off making subpar films.
There are things that David Cage is trying to do that I like. I not only like that the protagonist to his game is a female, but the player is forced to go through very feminine experiences. From the troubles of adolescent boys steered by their hormones, the terrors of creepy bar flies that don’t know the meaning to the word “no”, or even something as light and fluffy as preparing for a date, players are forced to go through experiences from a woman’s perspective. David Cage did it in Heavy Rain, and he manages once again to make a male player such as myself sit there, chin resting upon my hand, thinking “Huh…” It is the best of what interactive entertainment can provide. It forces the player (assuming they are a male) to experience something they might otherwise never experience.
At the same time, these brief successes are over-shadowed by a veritable crater of mediocrity. You see, David Cage has a vision, and he’s not going to let you interfere with his vision. The player has choices that can change certain outcomes only when David Cage deems they exist, but otherwise things play out like he wants them to. The story must be what David Cage wants it to be, which makes you wonder why give the player certain choices at all.
I feel what David Cage really needs is a game designer to help him execute his vision. Cage’s efforts to simplify his game for the casual audience member, the person who might otherwise only play Angry Birds on their smartphone to kill some time, are noble. Yet there’s more to design than simply reducing the number of buttons used.
Interactive objects are merely highlighted by a white dot, a splotch of color that is not always clearly visible. This leaves a variety of potential interactive objects hidden, as there is nothing to highlight what can or cannot be used or touched until the player is in close enough proximity. The game is so tied to realism that nothing stands out or calls attention to itself. The environment is not designed to subconsciously lead you to the ideal path, and key items do not stand out brightly against the background.
Instead, David Cage will have Jodie or another character vocally communicate to the player what they need to do and where to go. In other words, when David Cage cannot tell you what to do with a button prompt, he must do it verbally.
That is the experience of Beyond: Two Souls in a nutshell. Doing what David Cage says when he says it. Even Heavy Rain provided a greater sense of freedom and choice, and even provided a greater difficulty with certain button prompts. Even when you select the “experienced gamer” difficulty Beyond: Two Souls is easy.
The real shame is that there are some good game design elements being implemented here. For two chapters of the game’s story Jodie has to use cover and stealth in order to navigate an environment and complete an objective. These are the most engaging moments in the game as they feel almost like a puzzle. However, even here the actual design is weak. Any attempts to use Aiden, the soul that manifests Jodie’s psychic powers and desires, to scout the environment or deal with potential problems ahead of time, are met with limitations through the game or of the game. Areas that will appear empty will suddenly be full of life two minutes later, all because the game decided to spawn the characters then.
If the game designed more of its action-based encounters around these mechanics, it would have been more interesting. I recognize how sad it is to say that if Beyond: Two Souls had tried to be more of a cover-based shooter it would have been more fun, but it is only because it feels the least like playing Simon Says.
The Walking Dead had puzzles, or it even had shooting elements. Virtue’s Last Reward was filled with puzzles and tough choices. Beyond: Two Souls asks you to tap or hold buttons down while occasionally asking you what dialog options you’d like to choose.
This game is barely a game, which isn’t something I ever thought I’d say. It provides a lot of emotional experiences, both well done and also frustrating, but you cannot even use the story to defend it. At some point the story itself becomes derivative and too crazy, a plot that should have been left as a small personal journey of a woman through life. That’s where it excels, and it falls apart when the game ventures beyond that.
David Cage has some good ideas, and a mind like his is certainly a necessity to the modern games industry. However, the man does not understand the basics of usability and design, and that keeps Beyond: Two Souls from achieving anything more than being an interactive drama.
As in, mash L1 and R1 in order to cross the river.