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Interview: Breaking gaming expectations with Beyond: Two Souls

by Kat Bailey, shacknews.com, Sep 16, 2013 12:00PM PDT

In a very real sense, failure is not an option in David Cage's games. There is no "game over" when you fail to hit the timing in a quicktime event. Choices have consequences, but it's not a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Flipping to the wrong page won't result in the death of the main character.

Instead, in both Heavy Rain and Cage's newest game, Beyond: Two Souls, the story simply progresses uninterrupted until it reaches its logical conclusion, whatever that might be. For that reason, Beyond, the story of a girl literally attached at the hip to an invisible creature named Aiden set over the course of 15 years, can go in any number of directions. If Beyond's main character Jodie is captured by the police, for instance the game doesn't reload from the most recent checkpoint, it just continues to the police department. The story keeps moving, no matter what happens.

To Cage, that's the essence of "interactive storytelling"--the journey of one character, as determined in real time by the player. It's not the most traditional way to design a game, but then, for all his talk about avoiding non-interactive cutscenes, Cage doesn't seem all that interested in designing a "game" in the usual sense. Instead, he styles himself as more of a storyteller who likes to make use of the medium's interactive elements to draw people in and get them invested in the events of the narrative. This is most apparent in the way that he's at pains to distance himself from more traditional game design, whether in discussing a recently revealed scene set in Somalia. "She needs to kill someone, it's in Somalia... it's a basic videogame pitch," Cage sets up. "But the scene turns out to be something completely different."

"What we hope people enjoy about this game is that it's a journey. Maybe even more than a game, in that sense," Cage describes. "It's fully interactive, you're in control of your character from second to second, but each scene is different, and you never know what to expect."

Maybe that's the reason Cage seems a bit put off by any discussion of Beyond: Two Souls in game terms, and tends to see his game as being misunderstood. He talks a lot about what it's about (emotion, love, change) and what it's not about (game mechanics). In discussing the mainstream reaction to the recently revealed scene set in Somalia, he says: "It was interesting to see people who immediately, 'Oh no, it's a shooter.' They didn't try to understand the legacy of the studio, and if you know about my career and my past games, you can imagine that I'm not trying to do a shooter. So they misunderstood the scene, and they thought, 'Oh, this is a level, so we're going to get more levels where she does the same thing. She has more missions.' But actually no, this is the only mission she has in the entire game. Each scene is different. It told us a lot about the traditional expectations of our industry, which is, 'It's levels, it's loops, it's combat.' But that's not what Beyond is about."

In Two Souls, he suggests that the real tension is derived not from trying to complete various videogame-like challenges, or trying to avoid an untimely death, but from simply trying to give Jodie a happy ending of sorts: "For some people, 'game over' is probably a sign that they've succeeded or failed. But for most people out there who hopefully play Beyond, you just want the best possible story because you have this emotional connection with her, you want her to succeed. You want to do your best. And the thing is, that motivation is there, but I don't think we should really punish players if they aren't fast enough. You just offer a journey, and you want that journey to be frictionless. You decide your own path and your own journey, but it's not a series of obstacles that become harder and harder."

Because there's no such thing as 'death' in Cage's games, the rapid-fire conversation and movement prompts that pop up throughout each scene take on a different meaning. Most of the time, they are there to affect the tone of a scene, or the pacing. Jodie might accidentally anger a guy she's trying to woo by being too shy, for instance, or trip over a tree branch. The consequences of each action radiate throughout the rest of the scene, possibly resulting in, say, Jodie getting captured, or Aiden burning down a house. They also impact the overall story, particularly in the last third or so, but Cage is mostly focused on making their impact felt in the near term rather than the long term.

Of all the scenes shown during the Beyond: Two Souls demonstration, Jodie's flight from federal agents aboard a train is probably the best illustration of Cage's overall vision for the game. There are a dozen little moments that can change the scene at any given time, from whether or not Jodie successfully pushes aside a drink cart or suitcase, to whether she can get out the window in time. And it smoothly melds multiple gameplay elements into one, including a driving sequence in which Jodie attempts to escape by motorcycle.

The most memorable moment of the chase takes place in the woods, where Jodie is forced to feel her way through the darkness as dogs bark and a helicopter circles overhead. It actually plays a bit awkwardly, since it's not clear where Jodie is supposed to go, with the combination of darkness and an off-kilter camera further adding to the sense of confusion. But there's also a sense that it's supposed to be like this, since Jodie is just a young girl on the run, not some highly-trained super soldier.

Naturally, Cage agrees: "I wanted to feel like you're being chased. You're in this dark forest, and you don't know where you're going, and you hear the dogs. You're thinking, 'Where am I going, what should I do?' You're lost and disoriented. Very often the game will try and put you in her shoes and try and make you feel what she's feeling. So we played with gameplay, we played with the sound and animation, to make you feel as she feels. This is the most important thing."

And here is where it suddenly becomes clear that Beyond: Two Souls owes more to being a game than Cage first lets on. Because the tension is built not on whether or not you get a 'game over,' but on empathizing with Jodie's plight and wanting the best for her, it's especially important that we be able to imagine ourselves in her shoes. When Aiden goes berserk during an experiment, we have to feel her fear. When she gets tossed into a closet by a bunch of suddenly hostile teenage partygoers, we have to feel her shame and anger. And when she's being chased through the woods, we need to feel her fear. Otherwise, Beyond: Two Souls falls apart. Without a sympathetic main character, it can't even really be enjoyed on the merits of its gameplay mechanics, as other games can.

So Cage is pulling out all the stops to make us like Jodie, and interaction is an integral part of that. Even if we're only walking Jodie down the hallway, or flicking the right analog stick on a controller, the story still feels heightened with every interaction. And in a circular sort of way, if we're meant to care for Jodie, then eliminating the 'game' over' is important, as any interruption in the gameplay flow has the potential to hurt that feeling of immersion.

It's an intriguing way to build a videogame, and offers all sorts of interesting narrative possibilities outside of the usual summer action fare that tends to dominate big budget gaming. Even if the writing ultimately does fall flat, it's hard not to admire the ambition of a game that purports to show "all the different moments" of a girl's life over the course of 15 years, and non-chronologically at that (Beyond: Two Souls weaves its story by leaping between different points of Jodie's life).

There's a sense it will work though, and not just because the individual scenes have thus far been very well-constructed, absent a bit of 'hunt the context point' here and there (Cage's response: "Most of the time it's quite obvious what you want to do, and there are context points there to let you do it. So it's not like you have to explore every single pixel to find what you need to interact with"). It feels like it'll work because of its bigger and more ambitious than Heavy Rain, because it flows better, and because its scope is much greater than that of the traditional murder mystery, leapfrogging as it does across the world.

Mostly though, it feels like it'll work because of what Cage sees as the emotional connection it offers: "Jodie loves Aiden because when everyone else abandons her, he is always there. But at the same time, he is the one preventing her from having a normal life. So it creates this very interesting momentum of her trying to be just like you and I, and at the same time she has this power, and she can do so many things, but this is not what she wants for her life. What I like about this idea is that, of course, no one has a relationship with an entity, but we all wish we have something we could change in ourselves, or we wish we had a different life. And I thought to myself, 'Okay, this is the part that will resonate with people. That's the emotional connection."

If nothing else, it's a reminder that the line between interactive storytelling and plain, traditional storytelling is a blurry one, and that videogames may be finally getting to be good at both.

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