Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 2

WARNING: This series contains plot and character details from the game Beyond Two Souls.

Part 2: Cage

In part 1 of this series, I gave some background on auteur theory and the game that brought it to my attention, Beyond Two Souls. The director and writer of BTS, David Cage, is often praised as a video game visionary. He received the Legion of Honour in March of 2014, the highest decoration given by the French government to someone working in video games. He’s clearly an important figure in the industry, but can/should he play the role of auteur in the gaming world?

Part of auteur theory states that the artist behind the project completely understands their tools and the capabilities/limitations of their medium. In film, that is usually translated as a working knowledge of cinematography and mastery of the caméra-stylo or “camera as pen,” as well as lighting, blocking, and other aspects of movie-making.

Of course ‘camera’ angles and other cinematic elements come into play in a game, but there are also many more things to consider including programming, digital animation and physics, and gaming platforms and their specifications. Narrative conventions are also different for games and other media like literature, film, or television.

According to Cage, he aims to create games that tell a unique story and take a middle track between ‘hobby games’ like Angry Birds and the competitive first person shooters like Call of Duty. He sees story-driven games as inherently different from action games in that their core plot should move forward without punishing the gamer for playing ‘the wrong way.’ His remarks establish interactive, choice-based storytelling as his genre and characterize their use as more meaningful and artistic.

david cage

But do Cage’s own games live up to his style ideals? While the animation and voice acting are stunning in BTS, the characters and the universe they inhabit are more two-dimensional. As Jodie, Ellen Page has charm, but every non-playable character (except for Cole and her homeless companions) exists in the game solely as an obstacle for Jodie. Their motivations are predictable, their lines hollow-sounding.

This flatness carries into the more central NPCs like Ryan, who we are told is charming and funny but never really experience first-hand, and Nathan, who ends up the token mentally unstable good guy-turned-villain. Even Aiden ends the game with no voice, personality, or backstory beyond his poltergeist antics.

Story-wise, BTS bounces back and forth between coming-of-age tale and action-thriller. The highlights are the small moments like choosing what to pack when Jodie leaves for CIA training, or making dinner and tidying when she has a date. Other plotlines like placating ancient spirits on a Navajo family’s ranch or assassinating a Somali president are outlandish at best, manifestations of the pesky ol’ white savior complex at worst.

Ultimately, the science-fiction universe BTS establishes has few known rules and no real history. The Infraworld is simply a vehicle for the game’s human melodrama, never explained or explored. The ending choices of the game are interesting but have little weight when it’s unclear whether any of the player’s prior actions contributed to them, and leave us with more questions than answers:

What’s going on with Zoey, to whom Jodie’s soul may or may not be bound? What’s the significance of Jodie’s/Zoey’s dream of oncoming evil entities–who are these big bad spirits and why are they trying to end the human world? What does Aiden think about all of this? They’re not leaving it open to a sequel…right?

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 4.15.39 PM

So the game isn’t perfect, but does it represent the best of what the medium has to offer at this point? If we compare BTS to some of its narrative-driven, choice-based contemporaries we see The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Life is Strange also incorporate player choice and sci-fi/fantasy elements, arguably more successfully than BTS albeit on a smaller scale.

Games like Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age capitalize on interactive storytelling in a much larger universe with more fully realized characters and lore. And while Cage would have you believe BTS is different from the aforementioned games because it is more concerned with story, other games with more limited play mechanics like Her Story, Gone Home, and Dear Esther have a stronger emotional impact while still achieving their own interactivity and some level of player agency.

youve got the wrong person

What most agree BTS consistently does well is cinematics, but even Uncharted, Halo, and Call of Duty are catching up with its animation and star power. If Cage’s work in BTS doesn’t live up to his filmic ideals or the standards set by auteur theory, maybe he isn’t the auteur we want him to be, at least not yet. Is the question, then, not whether gaming needs auteurs, but rather are the right people stepping up to the plate? We look further into that issue in part 3 – check it out now!


Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 1

WARNING: as usual I’m spoiling all the things. This time it’s the game Beyond Two Souls.

Part 1: Introduction

While I’ve had my Xbox 360 for going on six years now, I only recently gained access to a PS3, which means I’m catching up on a few older games, including Beyond Two Souls. I’d never played a game by writer and developer David Cage before, and didn’t know exactly what to expect going in. In fact, even after finishing it I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, so I did what I usually do in that situation: I started reading.

During my research on the game, I kept coming across this particular term: auteur. The auteur theory came out of the French film review magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and essentially says that, while many people work on a movie before it hits theaters, an artful film has a single coherent style/bears the signature of a single visionary, in this case the director. A few names are consistently associated with the auteur label, including Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Renoir.

source: wikipedia

As video games have gained legitimacy as both a form of entertainment and an art form, game criticism has grown as well. Predictably, critics have attempted to use existing frameworks from film and literary criticism to analyze games. In particular, some people believe the gaming industry needs auteurs to be taken seriously, and for better or for worse David Cage’s name has been thrown in the ring.

I am not sure that I believe David Cage is an auteur, or that games need auteurs to survive, so I decided to use my experience with the game to try to parse that out. This first post will be an introduction for those who aren’t familiar with the game.

Beyond Two Souls (BTS) is an interactive drama game from Quantic Dream, the French studio that produced Cage’s previous games Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy, and Omikron: The Nomad Soul. In BTS you play as Jodie, a young woman who has had another soul named Aiden tethered to hers ever since she was born. As you might imagine, this catches the interest of many, including the CIA.

The game begins with narration from Jodie, who says she’s trying to patch together the past 15 years of her life, which the player then relives in non-chronological order, playing as both Jodie and Aiden in single-player mode or as one or the other in cooperative mode. Combat and navigation are handled through the joysticks, while puzzles and other action sequences require some button and trigger mashing.

Despite fairly straightforward controls, the mechanics and objectives in a chapter aren’t always intuitive, and the Quick Time Events (QTEs) can get repetitive. Playing as Aiden gives you fewer restrictions mobility wise, but feels more disorienting than empowering. Cutscenes are interspersed between periods of gameplay, but the game moves forward without indicating whether your actions influenced each plot event (spoiler alert: they probably did not).

The game received mixed reviews, with a metacritic score of 70, and was equally if not more divisive among fans, many of whom either love or loathe the game. The dialogue around BTS in gaming communities tends to be both passionate and polarized, as the die-hard fans accuse others of not understanding the game due to their shooter-addled brains, while the haters declare their disgust of all things Cage.

Which brings us to the question I’ll attempt to answer in part 2: who is Cage and how well does he fill the role of ‘auteur’? Thanks for reading! And for patiently waiting for these longer-form series to percolate.

Check out parts 2 and 3 now!

Flashback Friday: Morrowind

Source: Ocean of Games

Source: Ocean of Games

It’s been awhile since my last Flashback Friday, but this (belated – sorry!) post goes out to the game that cemented my love of the medium and took me from kid who gets her dad to kill the big bosses to capital ‘P’ player–The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Morrowind is an open-world, fantasy RPG released in 2002 by Bethesda Game Studios. Set in Tamriel, the game takes place on the island of Vvardenfell in the Dunmer province called (you guessed it) Morrowind.

You play as a prisoner kidnapped and sent to Morrowind on a slave ship, and are eventually recognized as a reincarnation of the Dunmer hero Indoril Nerevar, prophecied to defeat Dagoth Ur and his followers, The Sixth House. If that sounds like a bunch of crazy gibberish to you, that’s just the beginning.

The dense, beautifully complex universe and lore of The Elder Scrolls series are just one of the many things that make the game so enjoyable. The series’ free-form gameplay also contributes to its wondrous immensity; when you arrive in Morrowind, you are an unknown with little skill or money and even less direction. A herd of rats or a (g*ddamn piece of sh*t) cliff racer could kill you with ease, and in fact they do, many times over.

This difficulty, along with the game’s openness, depth, and (at the time) stunning graphics, makes Morrowind a challenge you can’t wait to face. It received generally good reviews upon release, but has accrued a large and incredibly dedicated cult following since then. So dedicated that a group of fans are working together now to create a non-commerical mod for Skyrim that remakes Morrowind in the Skyrim engine.

Of course, any remake (and especially one that plans to re-imagine many of the smaller quests and plot points of the game as it changes the mechanics behind them) is going to lose a little something of what made the original so important to its die-hard fans. For Morrowind, that list is longer than the 36 Lessons of Vivec, but a few stand-outs would be:


The fighting mechanics are…special. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Wiki describes Morrowind combat as “straight-forward,” but first time players more accustomed to the combat of Skyrim and other contemporary RPGs do not find it quite so simple. And really when you think about it, a lot is going on behind the scenes of each fight in the game. On top of that, you can conceivably kill people who are important to your quest without knowing it and totally screw yourself over, which while frustrating, adds gravity to your decisions that is absent in many other games.

Once you have a decent understanding of this deceptively complicated system, however, you can take advantage of it in countless ways, from levitating everywhere you go to smithing a weapon or making a spell that damages and heals your opponent at the same time to up your skill. You get as much out of Morrowind as you put in, and the game rewards creativity.

Skills and Attributes

Speaking of skills and leveling, there are a LOT of skills in Morrowind. 27 to be exact, compared to 21 in Oblivion and 18 in Skyrim. Skills are distinct from attributes like race, class, and gender. You can create your own class from scratch, and are best off if you map out your skill trees in advance, which makes the characters and role-playing delightfully immersive and customizable, but also very time-consuming.

NPC Dialogue and Voice Acting

This has got to be one of my favorite things about the third ES game. NPCs are not fully voiced, and many of the recorded lines are randomly repeated by different characters. This produces, in my opinion, some of the funniest character interactions in gaming history (and I say that having heard the bizarre, sometimes offensive, always hilarious things students yell in the halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter games).

There are entire forums devoted to this topic, so I won’t list all of the famous NPC lines here. The combat lines were the most memorable for me (“There is no escape!!!”) and are most enjoyable when you picture the character saying them as you’re decimating them in a fight. Of course they probably stick in my mind because I became irritated hearing them over and over as my character once again succumbed to death.


This aspect of the game may not change much with the Skywind mod, but of all the Elder Scrolls games I’ve played, Morrowind has the best soundtrack hands down. The soaring, epic tones of the main theme hit me right in the nostalgia, and some of the more playful pieces lift my mood as soon as I hear them. While the soundtracks of Oblivion and Skyrim are by the same composer, neither have quite the same awe-inspiring, world-conjuring effect on me.

Morrowind can be a quirky, buggy, and frustrating affair and, like any video game you grew up loving, the graphics and mechanics have aged rapidly as the industry makes leaps and bounds forward technologically and artistically. (Just look at the difference between the original Duke Nukem or Tomb Raider graphics and their 2013 reboots) But many fans would argue that the game is a masterpiece not in spite of those aspects, but because of them. And the massive world, intricate lore, beautiful art direction, and inspiring music don’t hurt.

Morrowind doesn’t give you anything easy, but the work you put in to advance through and even help write the story makes playing much more meaningful. The game magnifies what makes gaming special: the interactive and collaborative storytelling that allows you not just to experience a world, but to shape it.

Panoptic Icon: Thematic Analysis of Remember Me

WARNING: this analysis contains plot details, including spoilers for the end of the game.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been going back to older games recently, and one of those is Remember Me. Remember Me is set in Neo-Paris, allowing the developers to create a rich futuristic dystopia rooted in existing history. One of their most interesting choices is setting the majority of the game’s action inside a prison, in this case La Bastille. La Bastille is located where the original Bastille–a fortress later converted into a prison–once stood. Louis XIV imprisoned upper-class French citizens who opposed him in Bastille until it was stormed during the French Revolution.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

The real Bastille was used to support the state in censoring printed media and controlling social norms. In Neo-Paris, La Bastille is where memory hunters are kept, leapers are created and controlled, and prisoners’ memories are stored. Instead of confiscating prisoners’ belongings as they’re processed, Madame and Dr. Quaid wipe prisoners’ memories to keep them complacent and take the memories for themselves, implanting Quaid’s memories in exchange.

source: IGN

source: IGN

The prison uses a panopticon structure, which the French philosopher Foucault uses in his theories about disciplinary/authoritarian societies. A panopticon is a tower that allows a guard to see all the cells in a prison, but does not allow prisoners to see whether the guard is there or not. Foucault used the physical structure as an analogy for the mutual enforcement of social norms even when we can’t know whether someone is ‘watching.’

In the game, the use of Sensen technology and the commodification of memory is commonly accepted by citizens. No person owns their own experiences, and all people are watched by robots, security cameras, and other surveillance technology. Madame, governor of La Bastille, watches over the prison from the central tower and protects the memory servers until Nilin defeats her.

In Episode 4: Panoptic Icon, Nilin pursues Madame. In order to locate her, Nilin enters the prison through the sewers and confronts Sergeant Vaughn–the Sergeant of La Bastille S.A.B.R.E. Force–to obtain the schematics. This episode is brimming with platforming, combat, and collectibles, but it also does some pretty interesting things symbolically. As the child of the memory-control empire who doesn’t remember her own history, Nilin stands in for each of us who is born into society and inherits its norms.

Rarely are we forced to question where these beliefs come from, but in order to succeed Nilin has to. She has to look at the inner-workings of this prison and to engage with both the guards and Madame herself. In the panopticon of La Bastille, Madame represents not just policemen and prison wardens, but also our teachers, relatives, and even our own inner voices who hold us to social norms and punish us when we stray from them.

source: Flickr user JP Freethinker

source: Flickr user JP Freethinker

What elevates this symbolism is the fact that it is the shared pain and memories of society that starts Nillin on this path. Edge, the persona created by the central memory server AI H3O, urges Nilin to explore, subvert, and eventually destroy the system Memorize (and her own family) has created. The soul of humanity itself asks the player to question our own beliefs, to see how even well-intentioned efforts to eradicate sadness can become commercialized and oppressive.

I was drawn to both of Dontnod Entertainment’s currently released games, Life is Strange and Remember Me, without realizing they were made by the same studio, in part because of their use of symbolism and social commentary. Their games are nuanced and it’s clear the developers are fellow television, film, and game lovers, as evidenced by the abundance of allusions in each of their IPs.

source: Dontnod

source: Dontnod

More importantly, they never spell it out for you, because Dontnod trusts players to handle depth and complexity. That is such a rare thing in pop culture, and it’s something I really appreciate. I can’t wait to see what else comes out of their studio. What do you guys think of Remember Me? Are you excited for Vampyr and episode 5 of Life is Strange? Let me know in the comments!