The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Gamer's Corner column [The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa]
(Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 13--When is a game not a game?
It's a rather vague question I've addressed several times over the past few years, but I believe "Beyond: Two Souls" writer and developer David Cage answers it best.
"Some people can be very conservative about this medium and this is sometimes frustrating," Cage said in a recent interview. "Some people wish that games would always stay what they were in the past 30 years, just with more polygons. No one should be allowed to define what a video game is or should be. No one has this power."
It's an admittedly self-serving answer from a man often criticized for crafting barely interactive fiction, but that doesn't make it any less true. An award-winning indie film may not have a thing in common with a summer blockbuster, but you watch both movies the same way. Playing a game of "Tetris" and working your way through "Grand Theft Auto V" requires a completely different set of skills and commitment, making the definition of the medium rather hazy.
Some snobbish gamers may try to tell you that "Beyond: Two Souls" is far too linear, restrictive and easy to be a video game. But if that's so, how did it end up being one of my favorite games of the year?
"Beyond: Two Souls" available exclusively for the PlayStation 3. Rated "M" for Mature. $59.99
No matter what you think of the mind behind "Beyond: Two Souls," you've got to give Cage credit for making video games accessible to non-gamers. Much like the indie PC game "Gone Home," "Beyond" serves as an olive branch to the mainstream populace -- an experiment of storytelling that carefully treads the line between narrative and interaction. The results aren't always perfect, but the material is compelling enough to drag that non-gaming spouse or significant other to the couch cushion next to you. Just tell them it's a 10-hour-long movie you can play together. If they don't believe you, show them the box cover. They'll see the names Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe right over the title.
I certainly don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of video game covers, but I can't remember one that featured the two main actors above the title of the game. Celebrity voice actors certainly aren't new to video games, but the stars in "Beyond: Two Souls" actually went to the trouble of wearing motion capture suits so they could appear as digital representations of themselves.
You play as Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), who starts the game as an 8-year-old girl living on a military base. Jodie fosters a constant connection with a ghost-like entity she calls Aiden, who has the ability to float through walls and manipulate real world objects in a telekinetic-type fashion. Though Aiden always is awake, he is constantly tethered to Jodie through a spiritual link that doesn't allow him to float too far away.
The game covers 12 years of Jodie's life, constantly jumping back and forth between her childhood and adult life. This circular plot structure is old hat for movies ("Citizen Kane" immediately pops to mind), but it's rather unique for a video game. It boils down to a collection of vignettes that illustrate Jodie's everyday struggles.
As in previous Cage games such as "Heavy Rain" and "Indigo Prophecy," game play is minimal, serving only as a way to engage you with the tight narrative. Walk into a room, hit the button prompts for appropriate actions, and watch the game play out before you.
This kind of quick-time event gaming can be traced all the way back to the 1983 arcade game "Dragon's Lair," which required you to move the joystick to match the flashing sections of the screen. It may sound a bit dry when explained in clinical terms, but Cage has a way of mapping the quick-time button presses to the action on the screen, making it feel like you're interacting with the environment. It's an art form not all gamers appreciate, until they play a game that does it poorly.
The game does get more interactive when you take control of Aiden, who moves through the environments with a familiar first-person control scheme. Floating above people's heads while they are totally oblivious to you is pretty fun, especially when you startle them by knocking over lamps and slamming doors.
The most surprising aspect of "Beyond: Two Souls" is the inventive two-player option, which likely will go ignored by the majority of players. I only stumbled on it because my wife happens to be a big Cage fan, and she actually went to the trouble of pre-ordering the game for us. Always one to feed her occasional gaming habit, I promised Alicia I would turn the game over to her as soon as I was done.
When I booted it up, I was delighted to discover it would be one of the few casual games we could experience together. I played the first few chapters while she was at work just to get a feel for it, then restarted the game with her in the lead. She took control of Jodie, while it was my job to guide the ghostly actions of Aiden.
The subtle dynamic between the two players is fascinating. As Jodie, Alicia got to make all the decisions in the game, which do have a small impact on the very linear narrative. I couldn't play until she released Aiden with the push of button, and she couldn't play until I decided to return to Jodie's body. You can even select different difficulties for each player, which is perfect for those unfamiliar with video game controllers.
The power of the relationship between the two players is demonstrated early on in the game when the pre-teen version of Jodie attends a birthday party populated by kids she doesn't know. It doesn't take long for the kids to start picking on her because of her special ability, and then they take things too far by locking her in a room under the stairs. Once Aiden helps her escape, the player in control of Jodie is given a simple choice -- leave the party or take revenge.
If Jodie takes revenge (the option my wife chose), she unleashes Aiden for some simple mischief to scare the kids. But since Alicia had no control over my actions as Aiden, I took things a little too far and set the house on fire. She didn't exactly disapprove, but if she had, her only option would have been to knock the controller from my hand. Thankfully, our cynical sense of humor resulted in a fun bonding experience.
Though the game excels in these quiet moments, the overblown narrative is as shaky and broadly written as every other Cage game. Just like my favorite Japanese video game developer Hideo Kojima, Cage (who was born, raised and lives in France) is so obsessed with American cinema that he emulates it nearly to the point of piracy. His previous effort, "Heavy Rain," felt like the video game version of "Se7en." "Beyond: Two Souls" is like his spiritual sequel to "Carrie" and "Firestarter."
I still loved every minute of it. Though the narrative never reaches the emotional heights of the previously mentioned "Gone Home," "Beyond: Two Souls" manages to squeeze amazing graphics into a weird mishmash of cinematics and rudimentary game play that makes it feel totally unlike anything else out there.
Play this one with your sweetie or best friend if you can. Neither of you will be disappointed.
Three-and-a-half out of Four Stars
(c)2013 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)
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