Beyond Two Souls — Reality Check
David Cage must be stopped. I'm formin' up a posse.
Everybody loves an auteur, myself included. An auteur is someone with a clear enough idea and a strong enough will to drag their vision into reality in such a way that it remains distinctly theirs. Auteurs are important, since movies and video games are such collaborative efforts that it's often virtually impossible to distinguish one creative voice among the chorus of swirling energies. They also often suck, and it's nice to have someone to blame. Triple A video game titles are so difficult to make these days that when one person has the courage or vanity to step forward and accept credit for the product at hand they draw our attention like a lightning rod, and unless they're as unabashedly beloved as Shigeru Miyamoto, they're not going to emerge from that kind of scrutiny unscathed, which is a shame, because none of us are above a good scathing once in a while. In the course of his video game career David Cage has accrued such a surplus of hate over the years that any legitimate criticism (i.e. MY criticism) of his work is reliably drowned out in the tempest of invective. Admittedly, David Cage is an easy guy to dislike. While I'm sure he's perfectly nice in person and an unqualified joy to work with, he's always portrayed in the mainstream media as THE MAN WHO'S FINALLY GOING TO DRAG VIDEO GAMES KICKING AND SCREAMING INTO THE REALM OF REAL ART JUST LIKE MOVIES WHICH WE ALL KNOW ARE REAL ART NOT LIKE VIDEO GAMES EXCEPT FOR DAVID CAGE'S. (I'm paraphrasing.) Granted, David Cage's old saw about how most video games lack emotive resonance and decent stories had legitimate weight in 1999 when his first game came out, but now it's almost 2014. Video games have changed, but David Cage hasn't, and in Beyond: Two Souls the cracks aren't just starting to show, they're tearing the game apart.
David Cage has never lacked for hubris. The first game he wrote and directed was 1999's Omikron: The Nomad Soul a hybrid RPG/Open World/First Person Shooter/Brawler/Adventure game that was set in a future totalitarian dystopia on an alien planet in another universe that was threatened by a conspiracy of shapeshifting demons, and also there's a supercomputer played by David Bowie. If it sounds dumb when I say it like that, it's because it was. Was Omikron: The Nomad Soul ahead of its time? Absolutely. Was it a good video game? No, though not for lack of trying. It managed to do a dizzying array of things, but didn't do any of them particularly well. The best thing that could be said about Omikron: The Nomad Soul was that it showed vision, and promise. Cage's next project was 2005's Fahrenheit, (known as Indigo Prophecy in North America) where he discarded traditional video game mechanics in favor of dialogue choices and quick time events, going from Video Game to Interactive Movie. Fahrenheit's story begins as a relatively straightforward supernatural thriller, with protagonist Lucas Kane getting his body hijacked for murderous purposes and hard-nosed cop Carla Valenti investigating as New York is buried in a freak snowstorm. As the game progresses the plot doesn't so much unfold as explode, with Lucas Kane hallucinating giant insects attacking him and developing superpowers as he becomes embroiled in a conflict between a secret world government called The Orange Clan and a group of artificial intelligences that grew out of the internet called The Purple Clan who are both after an autistic kid who has the ability to bestow god-like power on whoever hears the words she speaks just before she dies. Again, if that sounds stupid, it's because it was, but it was a fun, campy kind of stupid. Fahrenheit merited qualified praise. It wasn't a great game or a great movie, but it was interesting, and it was fun for what it was. Again, it showed promise, promise that should have been fulfilled with 2010's Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain was supposed to be the consummation of David Cage's vision, a piece of media that managed to be interactive while sustaining a story as good as the best film or television. It didn't quite work out that way. There were a lot of good things about Heavy Rain. The graphics were vivid and beautiful, the animation was smooth, the mechanics were solid, but the story was... uneven. Cage ditched the supernatural elements of his previous efforts for the relatively straightforward story of a cop, a journalist, a private investigator, and a father tracking a serial killer. Heavy Rain's central idea was a good one, and as a chain of cause and effect the central story hung together nicely, the problem was that individual scenes simply weren't written very well. The dialogue was dull and clichéd. Characters often did things for no apparent reason beyond the fact that that was what the script said happened. The tone was inconsistent, whipsawing from a conventional reality to one of exaggerated hysterics seemingly at random. Heavy Rain had a climactic, satisfying ending, but the game leading up to it felt like a series of good proof-of-concepts stitched together into a narrative Frankenstein's monster instead of a whole story. Story was the thing David Cage supposedly hung his hat on, it was supposed to be the raison d'être of his video game career, but now, with the release of Beyond Two Souls, it's finally clear that the thing holding Interactive Movies back was not the medium's disrespect for storytelling or primitive technology. The fault is not in our specs, but in ourselves. David Cage's problem is that David Cage is not a good writer.
Beyond Two Souls is bildungsroman about Ellen Page, who the game insists on calling Jodie Holmes for some reason. Jodie is born with an incorporeal sentient spirit that's tethered to her by a twinkling metaphysical umbilical cord. The spirit, which the game obnoxiously insists on referring to as an “entity”, is named Aiden, which the game obnoxiously insists on pronouncing “eye-den”. Aiden is invisible and immaterial, but he can interact with the physical world to an extent that's, obnoxiously, never clearly established. He can posses some people and kill some other people, but only certain people at certain times, and the criteria by which he can possess or kill someone is never established. Again, obnoxiously. He can knock around objects like a poltergeist, but he apparently doesn't have enough finesse to turn a doorknob. Sometimes Aiden can fly pretty far away from Jodie, and sometimes the umbilical snaps tight before you can get out of the room. He can wreathe Jodie in an energy field that will deflect bullets, cushion her falls, or let her crash through police barricades, but he can't stop someone from sneaking up and hitting her in the head with a baseball bat. There are a lot of times when Jodie is in physical danger and fighting for her life, times when Aiden really should intervene, but the game apparently decides to briefly pretend that its defining mechanic, the thing that the game is named after, doesn't exist. How to explain all these inconsistencies? One can only presume that a wizard did it.
Beyond Two Souls follows Jodie from her birth to when her powers first emerge to her being given up for adoption to the Department of Paranormal Activity as a child to her recruitment by the CIA to her going rogue. The narrative is nonlinear, meaning it jumps from from one episode in Jodie's life to another without regard for their chronological order, which wouldn't be a problem if David Cage knew how nonlinear stories are supposed to work. Nonlinear storytelling is not a right, it's a privilege. It's different if the writer is deliberately doing something surreal or absurd, but if they're trying to tell a traditional story, they have to have a good reason to derail the narrative. During an episode of Lost they did not arbitrary cut to any old point in a character's life, but one that informed the action of the current plot line, and even that got old very fast. There is a good reason why stories evolved the way they did, with A directly leading to B directly leading to C, and if you divert from conventional story logic you need a good, solid reason: the nonlinear narrative has to buttress the story's rising action, not interrupt it. It works with a movie like Memento. It works in a movie like Pulp Fiction. It works in the novel Lexicon. In the vast majority of cases, it doesn't work at all. When nonlinear storytelling doesn't work it's because it's used as a gimmick, and not in service to the story. Consistency may very well be the hobgoblin of simple minds (for the purposes of this analogy hobgoblins are bad) but its absence can drain the life from a story, sapping momentum from a character's development. I don't know why David Cage switches from adult Jodie to child Jodie and from secret agent Jodie to fugitive Jodie. I suspect he did it because he could. I suspect he did the vast amount of things he did in Beyond Two Souls because he could.
Beyond Two Souls could just be a story about a girl with a ghost attached to her. That's an entire game's worth of conflict in itself. Who is the ghost? Why is he there? How does she cope? Are there more people out there like her? This one subject, properly nurtured, would be enough for a whole game, but David Cage doesn't trust his characters to carry the story. Instead we get a haunted Indian burial ground in the desert, an assassination mission in Somalia, misguided government projects to open holes into other dimensions, training montages, and lots and lots of scenes where you're supposed to knock s#!t down as Aiden. The problem isn't that David Cage can't decide what story he wants to tell, the problems is he's decided to tell EVERY STORY. Beyond Two Souls can't just be a story about a brokenhearted young woman learning to live with her invisible friend, it has to be the new video game bible that does military action better than Modern Warfare and stealth better than Splinter Cell and horror better than pretty much everybody, and in the process of proving himself superior to every other developer working today, David Cage forgot to build a solid gaming experience.
There are good moments in Beyond Two Souls, but they're restrained, private moments. David Cage has proved himself to be fundamentally incapable of writing good dialogue. The words he puts in his characters' mouths are witlessly blunt and crushingly melodramatic. His emotional beats are unearned and as baldly manipulative as the come to Jesus moment that arrives during the third act of every Adam Sandler movie. His relationships feel contrived, and he orchestrates romance with all the finesse of an eight year old smacking Barbie and Ken together for the fist time. A game like The Last of Us was masterful at letting relationships breathe, at keeping two distinct parties at a steady emotional simmer until their personalities congealed into a solid relationship, but everything in Beyond Two Souls feels forced besides the relationship between Jodie and Aiden which, maddeningly, is never explored in any depth. The best moments in Beyond Two Souls come during brief interludes when David Cage lets his characters breathe. There's a point where Jodie is a child who's trapped in her house with her parents on a winter day with nothing to do, a situation that was immediately familiar to me and brought back memories of long, still, hermetically silent afternoons spent in a futile search for amusement, a familiarity so raw and fresh it felt like suddenly running into a beloved relative I'd long thought dead. The moment where Jodie has to choose which things to take with her before she leaves her room at The Department of Paranormal Activity forever is genuinely moving, but I drew no connection between her and the Jodie who slaughtered battalions of soldiers sent to apprehend her. There's no through line, there's no narrative cohesion, just a disconnected series of increasingly implausible events for the characters to slog through.
It has been reported that it took David Cage a year to write the script for Beyond Two Souls, which, having played the game, would seem to only make sense if he had suffered a debilitating brain injury and was forced to dictate the entire thing via a series of blinks in the manner of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Before Beyond Two Souls was released a 2,000 page blank script of the game was delivered to blogs as a promotional item—not just as a kind of Godfather-esque arboreal horse's head intended to show that Quantic Dream's marketing department readily butchered entire forests in Beyond Two Souls' name, but as a physical reminder of David Cage's actual, 2,000 page script. Presumably Beyond Two Souls' script is that long because it contains detailed blocking for actors that includes every possible control input with the corresponding dialogue and behavior trees, and not pages and pages of internal monologues we, the player, aren't privy to, which is too bad. The characters in Beyond Two Souls do interesting things, but they aren't interesting in themselves. David Cage apparently decided to focus on staging events and expected his actors' performances to make the characters live, which is a shame, because he's as bad a casting director as he is a writer.
Ellen Page is an excellent actress, but she's too likable to play Jodie; she's a wee Canadian Tom Hanks; I'd gladly divert a stampede of kittens and orphans into an active volcano if they threatened Ellen Page. Jodie needs an edge of genuine, maladjusted danger like Sissy Spacek in Carrie, but while you certainly feel sorry for her, you never feel threatened by her, even when she & Aiden dispatch soldiers by the truckload. Honestly, I would have preferred if Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page switched roles. (Since it's all CG it's not like age is a barrier.) Willem Dafoe is not miscast as Nathan Dawkins because it is impossible to miscast Willem Dafoe, an actor who's equally adept at portraying Jesus and the Green Goblin. Rather, Willem Dafoe is wasted, his considerable talents squandered in a role that doesn't let him do anything until the end, when the game takes a detour into a particularly bats#!t suburb of Crazytown. I imagine David Cage's direction of Willem Dafoe consisted exclusively of him saying “bland and fatherly” over and over again until the words lost all meaning.
David Cage has spent his life advocating for interactive cinema video games, but the best argument against interactive cinema is the kind of interactive cinema David Cage makes. No one wanted to believe in David Cage's vision more than I did. I played every game he produced, and every time I believed I was seeing the seeds of what would one day grow into something great, but in the intervening years something strange happened: David Cage's dream came true, only it wasn't David Cage who did it. It was other developers, developers who weren't wedded to the inviolable dogma of A Movie That Plays Like A Game who ended up making games that were just as good as, or often much better than, movies. At this point David Cage is like the villain in a Bioshock game, clinging manically to an unshakable set of beliefs as the world collapses around him. I'd have more sympathy for him if he didn't keep plying an ignorant media with anecdotes about how video games need to GROW UP AND GET EMOTIONAL ALREADY. Unfortunately for David Cage, emotions by themselves to not a objet d'art make. The movie The Room is very emotional, it's incredibly emotional, but a work of art it is not, at least not deliberately. I highly doubt David Cage will ever temper his rhetoric or his scorched earth approach to writing, so I'm going to do the classy thing and bow out. You had me and you lost me, David Cage. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen. Come back when you learn how to tell a proper story, or incorporate full frontal nudity.