McMillan’s Codex #11 By C.T. McMillan
David Cage: The Would-Be Spielberg Part 3
Videogames take after movies for story and gameplay. Developer Hideo Kojima understands the need for a separation between the mediums and uses film for storytelling outside of gameplay.
David Cage of Quantic Dream, however, has sought to combine them. His three games are styled after the point-and-click genre where players navigate environments to initiate instances of action or conversation. Cage is so confident in his work he refers to them as “movies,” wants them to be judged as such, and he is going to get his wish.
When I started writing online I began as a film critic. With 80+ reviews under my belt I will treat Cage’s games as movies and review each one in a format similar to my critiques.
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Beyond: Two Souls (2013)
Born with strange powers, Jodie has become the subject of government agencies that want to use her as a weapon. For as long as she can remember she has never been alone, haunted by Aiden, an invisible entity and source of her power. The two grow up together as a chaotic world takes Jodie from one stage of her life to the next.
If Indigo Prophecy is a mess, then Beyond: Two Souls (BTS) is a landfill. While the former was made of disparate elements that did not work with each other unless you turned your brain off, the latter is singula,r yet rendered incoherent through editing. What should have been a straightforward story about a girl and a ghost is told like a road map of Stockholm.
BTS’s structure is what happens when a writer attempts to tell a nonlinear story like Memento without knowing a thing about why or how it is supposed to work. Having no understanding of story structure is bad enough, but you cannot split your story into pieces and reassemble them out of order without a purpose. BTS gives no reason why it is told nonlinear while viewing or upon completion. Even the chapter labeled “Prologue” is at the tale end. Like Terrance Malick, Cage took a complete story and deliberately reshuffled the chapters. But where Malick edits out whole performances and character arcs, Cage thought it would be cool and original to tell his story out of order for no reason, resulting in confusion and disorientation. He had such confidence in his work it was previewed at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013.
Assembled in order BTS is one of Cage’s better stories, told in a biographical fashion similar to Of Human Bondage if it were less torturous to get through. It begins with Jodie’s early childhood, showing her home life with Aiden and her parents. After discovery of her powers they give her over to a paranormal research branch of the government. There the story truly begins as Jodie grows up under the watchful eye of scientists, becomes a CIA agent, and strikes out on her own to discover where she comes from.
Cage learned his lesson from Heavy Rain and cast real actors that have a better grasp of their respective languages. Ellen Paige plays Jodie, a part well suited to what she has played in the past, minus the wit. She mopes about most of the time with no real emotion other than sadness or silence. Willem Dafoe also stars as Nathan, the chief scientist closest to Jodie. He plays the father figure guiding her throughout her life while studying her connection to Aiden. His performance was also not unlike what he is used to, but he was not given enough room to really have fun.
Problems arise in the mechanics of how Aiden’s powers work. Basically, he is a ghost tethered to Jodie by a cord that limits how far he can move. The farther away he drifts, the more it causes her pain. However, the distance varies between chapters depending on how long the story needs it to be. It has no fixed limit like his powers, which work at random intervals. He can posses other people or kill them, but in Jodie’s most dire moments he can only use his abilities or previously unknown powers when the story wants to go in a predetermined direction.
The supporting characters are the worst part of BTS. They are all transparently difficult people who are always angry for no discernible reason. A group of teenagers that start out decent enough suddenly pull a Carrie and shove Jodie into a closet. A veteran CIA agent with years of experience is also a weak willed twerp who gives up under threat of death and is quick to anger because the story wants us to hate him… and we do. The other agents are no better as they constantly complain while on a mission and instigate arguments with each other out of nowhere. You would think CIA operators are tough people who do not whine about being cold or start petty fights amongst themselves.
These factors contribute to BTS’s main problem of convenience. It manipulates its plot and world for situations that would best suit whatever the story is trying to do. One of the biggest examples of this is the environments’ door, which will suddenly be locked so whatever is happening may continue unabated until a certain point. By contradicting its own mechanics and basic common sense when it comes to writing characters and reality, it shows a consistent effort on part of the writer to cut corners and put in as little work as possible. It is a decree of laziness that real storytellers know to avoid.
Beyond: Two Souls was an admirable attempt by Cage to prove his writing has improved since Heavy Rain. However, his reliance on convenience shows he had a vision in mind, but not the skills or the patience to bring it to fruition. It is clear he has a ways to go before he learns the process of story.
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If I were to rank Cage’s “movies”, Heavy Rain is at the top despite the contrived ending and lost-in-translation… well, everything. Beyond: Two Souls would follow in second, while the insane schlock maelstrom Indigo Prophecy takes third. Their quality is relative as playing each game is a far different experience than watching. But seeing as how Cage would like his games to be seen as movies, I am happy to oblige and say after three attempts, he should stop and focus on making actual games. Leave the storytelling and film obsession to Kojima, David, and git gud.