Film nerds have long been admirers of European art house fare, as watching Max von Sydow checkmate Death or mimes playing tennis is a right of passage for those aiming to ditch traditional narrative in order to appreciate "pure cinema." French game designer David Gage has continued to push his medium's limits in the same way; his company, Quantic Dream has made two art-for-art's-sake titles that barely fit into the category of game.
I've been a fan since walking the snowy New York streets of Indigo Prophecy on the original Xbox. In 2010, on the PS3, his masterpiece Heavy Rain focused on four individuals racing to save a child from becoming the latest victim of the Origami Killer. Indigo was one of the first to employ motion-capture with real actors, but Heavy Rain took it to the next level with astounding visual clarity. The shocking ending left my jaw dropped and my right stick wobbly.
This week, Cage is back with Beyond: Two Souls. The game features Hollywood stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Page plays a young woman named Jodie who's connected to a very powerful unseen entity. Is it a new high watermark for immersion or just a slicker version of Dragon's Lair?
Tiny Disclaimer: The game features a co-op mode where one player controls Jodie while another, the invisible entity on one PS3 console. However, I haven't played with a friend, as I prefer multi-players solely online; never in my nerd cave.
7. French New Wave of Gaming Alive and Well.
If you've never played one of Cage's games, here's a quick run down:
They usually have big (convoluted?) stories involving multiple characters, which sounds like the territory of Bioware's Mass Effect trilogy. Except Cage isn't concerned with traditional leveling up, so this isn't an RPG-style adventure where the player can tailor the character to his/her liking. Instead, he puts us in the role of specific people whose natural behaviors the player must study. There are occasional dialogue trees to choose from, yet even then you're never acquiring experience points from the responses i.e.; you don't learn the talent of persuasion or how to up one's bartering skills. Cage (almost to a fault) focuses exclusively on the moment, no matter how ordinary; Heavy Rain had us changing a baby's diapers. His stories (when they work) are purely on a gut level. In many cases you can't even die, so you never see a "game over" prompt. This is one of his best accomplishments: you always feel like you're moving forward. It's never about "can I beat this armed guard?"
The downside to all this, which I'll expand on in the "Meh", section is that controls change on the fly in the most arbitrary ways. Why exactly am I hitting R1, L1, and square at the same time? No reason whatever, it seems.
In Beyond, you play two entities tied to one body: Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) whose life is covered from ages 8 to 23, and the spirit that's been tied to her since birth, whom she calls Aiden. The story is told in flashbacks and flash-forwards with load screens serving as a timeline of events. ("Separation," "Welcome to the C.I.A." and so on.) At the start, all you know is that Jodie looks and acts like Ellen Page (I mean that in the best way) and that Aiden is mute with super powers that can help Jodie out of a jam. (Fans of The East will recall Page's character's memorable line about such "jams.") As mentioned earlier, this works as it does in all Cage games despite wonky controls because I really want to know what happens next. The "beyond" of the title refers to life after death. Everything is in the service of getting to know the people that populate the world.
6. Oh, the Places You'll Go!
As Jodie, the player has a variety of locales to visit among the game's twenty-five chapters. Examples include: living near a freeway while homeless in the winter, enduring the hot Arizona sun with a Navajo family, and escaping an underwater Chinese military facility.
This isn't GTA V, though, in that each section is a tightly-scripted environment leaving little to explore in the traditional sense. This isn't a big deal if you're rapt in the big mysteries - who/what is Aiden? Is there another plane of existence? Can Jodie clean her apartment and make dinner in time for a date with her hunky handler, Ryan?
The levels themselves are super-detailed; walking the lonely snow-filled street scraping for change is pretty heartbreaking. You can't even run as your feet crunch the snow beneath Jodie's feet, so you must wander slowly since Jodie is freezing. By contrast, being blinded under a hot desert sun is eerily comforting. Plus, that Arizona setting lets you ride a horse around an amazing landscape.
It's true though, that, at times, when Jodie is in peril, you wonder why Aiden can't just make a fire, or break into a bank. As a gamer that can be frustrating. I think, however, that is deliberate...
5. Aiden: Stand in for the Player?
The most familiar-feeling gamers will get in B2S is playing as Aiden. Not just because the spectral being has the power to break down walls, possess humans and even make force fields, but because in essence, Aiden is the role we always play: the one to protect and fight. Aiden can even traverse areas through (most, but not all) walls. Still, Aiden is tethered to Jodie so you can only go so far. (In one setting, you're out to kill a warlord in Somalia. Exploring bombed out shacks is the closest the game gets to feeling Call of Duty-ish.) While you can only travel so far, you can always check back on Jodie by hitting triangle. The two are psychically linked so Jodie sees what Aiden sees.
At first, I was a bit let down when I heard that Cage's latest project would include a supernatural being like Aiden, but the linking works quite well. There's a notable difference between the two um, souls. One area reminded me a lot of the futuristic labs from Resident Evil, but since CIA-trained Jodie still pales in comparison to kick-ass Jill Valentine the stakes felt higher. Yes, I can take down armed assassins with standard QTE events, but Jodie always feel vulnerable so switching to Aiden gives that rush of power that satisfies the normal urges of a gamer.
4. Little Jodie, Believably Little.
Wearing her princess crown.
The sprawling city of GTA V's Los Santos may be bro-centric, but this is turning out to be the year of compelling female characters. There's been Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, Ellie in The Last of Us, and even the latest Tomb Raider fleshed out Lara Croft.
Now there's Jodie Holmes.
Several chapters focus on Jodie pre-Ellen Page (played by Caroline Wolfson) when she's 8 years old. We meet Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe), the kindly doctor who raises her when her adoptive parents pretty much dump her off fearing her to be a Firestarter freak. Many of her scenes take place under constant monitoring by Nathan and his assistant Cole. Incidentally, Kadeem Hardison plays Cole. Television fans will remember him best as A Different World's Dwayne Wayne.
A different world, indeed!
Cage's strength as an artist is how more often than not we end up behaving like the characters we're controlling. If I'm Jodie getting picked on by a bunch of neighborhood bullies, I'll cower, but you better believe I'm gonna pull out the can of Aiden to teach those punks a lesson ASAP. I relished these moments. At the same time, the vulnerability of little Jodie is refreshing.
Oh, and her pink stuffed animal is da bomb.