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.
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?
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.
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!