Beyond: Two Souls – It is Bad, But That’s What Makes It Good

EDIT (2021): Because I’m an idiot and, at times, insensitive, I originally wrote some harsh things about a particular YouTuber that I’m no longer a fan of. While I don’t actually disagree with what I had originally stated here, I have since realised that it’s not good to publically throw shade at a person who is just trying to do their job and is doing no actual harm to anyone. This kind of negativity is the exact sort of everyday thing that is causing so much division in society at the moment, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I have therefore taken the decision to redact the identity of the YouTuber in question. I’ve tried to make this person as anonymous as possible. Thank you for your understanding.

I was wrong about Beyond: Two Souls. I used to tell people that Quantic Dream’s 2013 ‘interactive drama’ was a terrible game. The truth is that I’d never actually played it – I’d only ever watched a YouTube playthrough. It’s what I did back then; it was before I fully realised that watching a game is a very different experience from playing a game – so I can’t really give opinions on a game I’ve not actually played. I’ve corrected this mistake in recent days and now I realise how wrong I was.

2013 was a different time. The PS3 was just about still the latest and greatest console on the market (ignoring the Wii U, of course) and I was still watching [comedy video game reviewer] on YouTube – don’t judge me; I was young and stupid. I won’t get into my current opinions of [said comedy video game reviewer] here because I don’t think what I have to say is very helpful. It doesn’t matter at all that I think [pronoun] is bad at [possessive pronoun] job and makes really low-quality videos, and that I don’t understand why anybody watches them. All I will say is that I don’t follow [possessive pronoun] opinions on games anymore since [redacted — would give away who it is] – but back in 2013, I was a loyal follower. It’s fair to say that [said comedy video game reviewer] was, as far as I’m concerned, just a little overly harsh on Beyond: Two Souls back in the day and having rewatched the video recently, it seems to me that the majority of what [pronoun] had to say was redundant and hardly becoming of a supposedly professional critic. Since I now have a PS3 I thought I might as well pick it up and see what I actually think of it.

One of my current favourite YouTubers, Raycevick, recently talked about how a bad story or script can still be enjoyed if the presentation of that story is good. In that instance, he was talking about Max Payne 3 and how the flashy graphics and soundtrack attempts to cover up the uninspired story that the game tells. This was an interesting concept to me and lead to me realising that this is a problem in many games and films that I could list – for example, two of the worst games ever, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Dear Esther. Both games were highly praised for their amazing graphics and soundtracks, but that sort of thing only goes skin deep – below the presentation of both games lies a very uninteresting story and game mechanics which achieve nothing but bore the player with their simplicity and tedium. (Why is it that I seem to always get hooked up on these games? I think both of them made me so angry that I haven’t quite got over either of them – even after three years since I played either of them.)

What does presentation have to do with Beyond: Two Souls? One of the reasons I wanted to have this game in my collection was the graphics. I can say, without a doubt, that Beyond represents the absolute pinnacle of what the PlayStation 3 is capable of. You’d be forgiven for thinking the game was running on a PS4; it certainly looks better than some games I’ve played on PS4. The PS3 notoriously has a bit of a strange system architecture which many developers didn’t properly know how or didn’t have the resources to fully utilise. The PS3 technically should be producing graphics far technically superior to that of the Xbox 360, but often games released on both systems often looked equally good on either. Beyond shows us what happened when a developer pushed the PS3 to its very limits for one last hurrah before the PS4 came out later that same year. In short, the graphics are stunning and I remember being very impressed back in the day – I couldn’t quite believe how good it looked. Beyond still looks good by today’s standards.

Quick time learning event montage.

It may have just been for stylistic choices, but the whole game is played with a letterbox effect – that is black bars covering the top and bottom of the screen. My theory is that this is to help take some of the rendering load off of the PS3’s GPU, so the game can still have a horizontal resolution of 1280, but only a vertical resolution of 544, rather than the standard 720, effectively meaning you don’t have to render a quarter of the screen — clever if you ask me. As a disclaimer: it’s very possible that I’m completely wrong, but I hope I’m right because that would mean I am clever. Normally, I would only have bad things to say about letterboxing in video games. It’s used in The Order: 1886 and The Evil Within (until they patched it out by popular demand) to horrible effect, but that was combined with a startlingly low field of view (FOV), and the two factors combined apparently created a horribly cramped feel – making both games unpleasant to play (I should disclose that I haven’t played either but I’ve heard people say these things). I hardly noticed the letterboxing in Beyond – to be honest, I was convinced for a while that it can’t have been there the whole time because I would have noticed it before three hours into the game when I did finally acknowledge them. I realised that the interface, the wide FOV and the style of gameplay had come together to create an experience so streamlined that not even the letterboxing could get in the way of a comfortable ride. Some would say it’s too streamlined. More on this later.

The cinematography of this game and the graphical quality is awe-inspiring throughout, but the story doesn’t quite match up to the presentation. That being said, the story is admittedly where the fun comes from. The game tells the tale of a troubled young girl named Jodie, who was born with an invisible entity sort of ‘attached’ to her. His name is Aiden and he seems quite nice but is obviously a bit scary to people who don’t understand him. Aiden can do various things like throw things around, create a forcefield around Jodie, kill people, mind control etc. Pretty useful, you might think. The only thing about it is apparently Aiden sometimes just doesn’t feel like using his powers at times when it would be quite convenient. Need a keycard to get through a door? Why not use mind control? No. Aiden doesn’t want to right now. Let’s do something more complicated and time-consuming. Jodie is in the middle of the fight with like 5 bad guys trying to kill her? Aiden’s gonna sit this one out – wouldn’t want to get in the way.

Well at least the Green Goblin is happy.

So what actually happens in this story? That’s actually quite difficult to say. Quite a lot of things happen, but also nothing in particular happens. The game follows the life of Jodie, from a child to a teenager to an adult – but all the scenes are out of chronological order. Sometimes the order can be justified, a lot of the time it just seems random. The random order makes most things seem to have no real consequence. There’s one really long sequence in the desert which doesn’t seem to matter at all – but that’s not to say that it’s not an enjoyable part of the game – most of the sequences are pretty fun owing to the fact that many of them are pretty stupid. The story is filled with jarring clichés and painfully cheesy dialogue. The performances of the actors are pretty good considering the material they’re working with – you may have noticed Ellen Page’s and Willem Dafoe’s faces popping up in posters and the like. Quantic Dream clearly thinks this story was so much more clever and sophisticated than it actually is which makes the whole thing so much more enjoyable. There are various twists throughout, but most of them were things that didn’t really change anything in any significant way – more like just new information that can be simply ignored.

This game features dialogue choices. Most of these are timed, presumably so the player doesn’t spend too long deciding what choice to make. If they do run out of time, the game will pick a default option. This creates a weird effect – the game can mostly play itself. This is what I mean when I say that a game can be too streamlined – when it gets to the point that there is no longer any need for the player to do anything at all, why is it even a game at that point? It feels, at points, like David Cage – the game’s writer and director – only reluctantly gave the player some choices. Why did he not try and get this story produced a TV show for Netflix or something? It would have worked so much better – but would have probably been a lot less fun.

Sometimes the game wants you to make a dialogue choice based on how a character feels about something. The problem is due to the nature of how the story is told – that being out of chronological order – it’s often quite hard to know what that character thinks of that thing at that moment because it’s often not been well established. Should Jodie try it on with this guy? I dunno. I have no idea who this guy is or what his relationship is with her. The game eventually asks you if Jodie is in love with the same guy, but gives you no reason to think that she actually is other than the fact that he’s kinda hot so who wouldn’t be amiright? And then it doesn’t even matter what you choose so you wonder what the point of asking was.

A lot of the drama is lost in this game due to how it almost pretends to give you choices. Scenarios are set up in a way so that the game can very heavily hint to the player about what the game wants them to do while only subtly presenting alternative options which it clearly thinks would not be very interesting. Choices it does freely give you are very minor like what Jodie should have for dinner tonight. Defying the game’s intended path is met with much resistance, and quite often lead to no real change in the proceeding events – some things just didn’t make as much sense. Why even give me a choice if you don’t want me to choose? The good thing that comes out of this is how funny it can be to go against the intention of the design. The story is already not amazingly well told, but when the player isn’t quite taking it seriously it can be a helluva lot of fun. It reminded me a lot of the film ‘Olympus Has Fallen’, starring Gerard Butler. It’s a terrible, cheesy rip-off of an action film and it is so fun to watch because of how dumb it is.

While developing the game, Quantic Dream wanted to create an interface which will allow the player to be fully immersed in the game world and forget that they are in fact holding a controller. The chosen solution was the dots. Oh the dots, my arch nemesis. Everything that can be interacted with on screen has a little white dot over it. The player can select a dot by pointing the right analogue stick towards the dot of their choosing. Simple, right? To be fair to the game, most of the time it works fine, but some of the time it puts a dot on the screen which is in just enough of an ambiguous location that it makes it really hard to know intuitively which way the stick needs to be pushed. Often this is a problem with the up and down axis. I’d quite often be trying to interact with a dot that looked like it was below the centre of the screen, but it was actually slightly above. My theory is that this is a problem with the relative location of the dot – I’d think to push down because, relative to Jodie, the thing she is interacting with is downwards, but the camera angle places it upwards relative to the centre of the screen. Even worse is when there are two dots, one to the side and slightly up and one to the same side and slightly down. Quite often this leads to Jodie doing the wrong thing because the precision required to select one over the other is unprecedented and you having to direct her back to try again which takes up valuable time and even more valuable patience.

If you ask me, it doesn’t feel more immersive than just giving button prompts for all this stuff. The frustration of the ambiguous dots takes me out of the moment far more effectively than being given options like press X to do this, Circle to do this etc. Or perhaps the better solution could be to have the dots but have the player choose by pointing the stick and then pressing X to confirm which would prevent accidental interactions because, of course, the right analogue stick also moves the camera.

Combat is similarly weird and confusing. Any ‘movement’ (i.e. punch, kick, duck etc.) puts the game into slow motion as the player is required to push the analogue stick in the direction of that ‘movement’. So if Jodie is punching towards the left, the analogue stick must be pushed to the left. If she is jumping over something, the stick should be pushed upwards. A lot of the time, however, it’s not at all obvious which direction the combat is moving in, so you’ll more than likely push the wrong way. This would be annoying if it weren’t that it doesn’t seem to matter when you screw it up – the game will continue as if you did it correctly. I never failed a combat sequence, and I screwed up a fair number of times. It does bring up the question of why does the player have to do anything at all if it doesn’t matter when they make mistakes. The game feels like it’s playing itself. The interface is designed to not be a challenge to the player, but also to make the player feel like they are contributing. Which is effective if you are a five-year-old.

Pretty intense combat going on here.

Ultimately, this game feels a lot like it didn’t want to be a game, and only reluctantly fits into that category. There is very little choice throughout, puzzles are simpler than Skyrim’s and the ending you get is almost solely based on the very last choice in the game. The lack of any possible meaningful interaction by the player makes this a bad game, but the silly story makes this a very fun experience regardless. The game ends with what looks like a very clear and undeniable setup for a sequel, but David Cage and Quantic Dream apparently had never planned or intended to make one. This is the biggest plot twist of the whole game; the ending is such a cliché setup for a sequel it’s almost unbelievable. If there’s not going to be a Beyond: Three Souls then what was the point in the very final scene?

I really enjoyed this game, not despite its flaws, but because of them. I can’t, with any integrity, say that I can really show this game any love but I can proudly say that I’m eagerly awaiting Quantic Dream’s new upcoming game, ‘Detroit: Become Human’, which looks (touch wood) actually kind of potentially okay. It would be a first for Quantic Dream but I like to live in hope. In the end, good or bad, it’ll certainly be fun.

The First Half of Uncharted: Schrödinger’s Franchise

Last month, I posted a day later than I should have. I know, unbelievable. So, to balance out this terrible crime, I’m posting this one a day earlier than I normally would. Satisfied, Ambrose?

Last Christmas, I received the Uncharted Collection as a gift. Just what I wanted, especially as I had asked for it specifically. I wanted it because of a simple reason: PlayStation fans won’t shut up about it and considering I bought a PS4 to play exclusives, I thought I might as well give it a go. The series was developed by Naughty Dog, who, of course, developed Crash Bandicoot, Jack and Dexter and The Last of Us. I really liked The Last of Us, and I grew up playing the Crash Bandicoot games. I think Uncharted is worth my time. However, I’ve only so far been able to play the first two, so I’ve still got two to go (I also bought the fourth one when I got the collection), but I feel now is the time to share my thoughts. If my opinion is drastically changed after I play the second half, I’ll update you.

Uncharted is about a man called Nathan Drake, who is supposedly a direct ancestor of Sir Francis Drake, the famous explorer. Determined to follow in the great man’s footsteps, Nathan is basically Indiana Jones/ Lara Croft and he explores tombs, solves puzzles and fights the bad guys to stop some unholy evil from destroying the whole entire world etc. etc. etc. Fairly standard stuff if you ask me. Although I sound sceptical, I will admit that the writing in Uncharted is probably the best thing about the games; the characters are well developed, the story is, well, interesting enough to keep me playing, and as you’ll find out, that’s pretty impressive. There have been several times when characters have genuinely made my laugh and I can say that I do really care about most of the characters. The story is never anything groundbreaking or actively gripping and perhaps a little too complicated for me to bother paying that much attention to the finer points, but hey, I didn’t get bored and stop.

The visuals of the Uncharted games are pretty impressive. Even more so when you remember that these games were developed for the PS3. Naughty Dog somehow managed to work out a way of working unholy dark magic with the PS3’s complicated cell processor to make it produce graphics that, at the time, look absolutely face-meltingly, stunningly fabulous. I know I’m playing it on the PS4, and a version which has been optimised for the PS4 with improved graphics, but still, wow. Several times, especially in Uncharted 2, I had to stop just to have a look around and take in what I was seeing. Naughty Dog are wizards, and they know how to make this bit of hardware do magical things. Massive environments, colourful scenes and the small details which just bring the whole thing together.

The environments are the kind that you just want to spend all your time climbing about and exploring. It’s clear a lot of ideas have been taken from Tomb Raider here, and to be fair, the new Tomb Raiders have clearly taken some ideas back from Uncharted. I have had the most enjoyable time in Uncharted just climbing up the walls and solving the many, actually often quite challenging, puzzles. It’s not that it’s relaxing – it’s not like therapy or a spa day or anything – it’s interesting enough that if climbing and puzzle solving were over half the game, I’d be quite satisfied with it as a game.

I’ve played the first two hours or so of Uncharted 3 (I’ll get back to it when I don’t have so much coursework to do), and I got to a point where Nathan climbed out of a well and encountered about 20 bad guys. At that point, I sighed, heavily. I remarked to the world that I had been enjoying myself, and now I had to deal with this. Combat in the Uncharted games is many things: difficult, repetitive, irritating, but most of all, it’s tedious. When I started playing the games I didn’t mind the endless combat, but when I realised that it never changes, I started to loathe it.

Combat is the same format every time, and it never seems to end. Enter an area, get behind cover, shoot ten or twenty bad guys, despair as a second wave arrives, run out of ammo much quicker than should, scramble around getting more, get shot by three RPGs at once, die, start again. Do this a couple more times and you’ll eventually get through (assuming there isn’t a third and then a forth wave), but then feel your soul die as you enter a new area, get behind cover… It’s all just tedious, and there is hardly ever a break. In my Tomb Raider review, I said that one of the things about the game is that it never stops. To quote myself exactly:

The game starts off running, and practically never stops – this keeps you glued to the game. It’s like the game has grabbed your ankles and stops you from leaving until you have finished. Occasionally it lets loose a little bit and you can struggle free to rest a bit, but in my playing, I’ve just wanted to keep going until the game ended.

You’d think, then, that I’d like this endless combat in Uncharted, but the difference here is that Tomb Raider indeed didn’t stop, but it didn’t repeat itself too much – sometimes you’d be running, sometimes you’d be fighting, sometimes you’d be almost falling off a cliff. It’s tense, it’s full of action and – vitally – it never gets boring. Uncharted’s action gets boring and fatiguing, but Tomb Raider’s doesn’t. It’s called variety, Naughty Dog, and it’s very important to create enjoyable gameplay. The game isn’t even satisfying to complete, I felt glad, but only that it was finally over and I wouldn’t have to ever do it again. I felt like Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, I doubt he would describe his feeling as being ‘satisfied’ at his quest being over, but I’m sure he felt happy that it was all over. But at least Sauron didn’t make a sequel to the One Ring, so Frodo got off easy there.

It’s a real shame because the combat almost tips the balance against all the good things about this game and plunges it into a set of games I don’t want to play. If I’m brutally honest, if I didn’t already own the entire franchise, I’d probably not bother playing past the first game. Hell, I’d have probably not have bothered finishing the first one. It took months to do that because I got stuck on a particularly irritating combat section and got so angry that I decided I needed a break for a few months.

I’ll play the rest of the franchise because I own them and not because I would have bought each respective one after completing them. I just keep comparing them to the glory that is the Tomb Raider series. I’m very interested in the fourth installment, as it is post-Last Of Us, and I want to know how that game changed the series, probably not much considering it’s likely that they were working on both games at the same time, but I can dream!