Thursday, January 1, 2015

PLAYER CHOICE AND BRANCHING NARRATIVE IN BEYOND: TWO SOULS


Originally posted on October 29, 2013

When I replayed Beyond: Two Souls, I was astounded to find so many little and big things I missed on my first playthrough. I found out about so many decisions I made that caused subtle and serious changes throughout the game. Changes that never seemed like variables, but rather scripted scenarios. After watching various "let's plays", group discussions, reading the negative reviews, and examining my initial playthrough, I noticed a pattern: Players had no clue that they were making choices, or that they missed whole scenes until they talked to another player, or replayed the game.

David Cage used what he calls an "invisible" or "organic" choice system. All options are not 
always explicitly presented to the player, because they are either implied or have to be discovered by the player themselves. This caused players to feel that their story was completely linear and pre-determined. To put it simply:

In most choice-based games, players are aware that X happened as opposed to Y. In Beyond, most players are aware that X happened, but are actually oblivious to Y's existence. Therefore, they assume X is the only outcome.

How can that happen?

It became clear when IGN posted their Beyond: Two Souls spoilercast. The discussion is an uncanny heap of bad luck. All three panel members happened to make a lot of the same decisions, missed a lot of the same content, and all ended up with the same endings. The panel members' opinions of the game were greatly affected by this. This is precisely why it's a great place to grab examples from.



Also, I want this analysis to be open for those who have yet to play the game. I will drop heavy focus on only three examples derived from the video. These are only light spoilers, so if you are on the fence, you can still use this essay to see if the game might tickle your fancy. I won't be using the ginormous plot points for examples.

Now, the panel all thought the game was more or less the same for everyone. They say that their choices didn't matter, things aren't explained, and that the story doesn't make sense.

They also assume that they saw everything. 





Jodie's Breakdown

In "The Dinner", adult Jodie is having dinner with Ryan. After the dinner, the player can accept Ryan's romantic advances and take things to the bedroom. If fun-time is engaged, Jodie and Ryan will either bang, or stop abruptly due to Jodie having some kind of panic attack. This depends on what happened years earlier in Jodie's life, in the chapter called "Like Other Girls", where teenage Jodie is alone in a bar with a bunch of creepy older men.

In the panel's playthroughs, they snuck out of the DPA as teenage Jodie and went to the bar. While playing pool, she gets sexually assaulted by some douche-canoes. This causes her to break down if she attempts to sleep with Ryan later in the game.

Ready for disappointment?

They thought that's what always happens. It seemed like a pre-determined event.  They also began to wonder why Jodie broke down. They actually wondered if the bar scene had anything to do with it, but didn't bother checking. They wondered about it, despite Jodie saying to Aiden, "Yeah, I'm aware of what happened at the bar... fuck you for reminding me" before Ryan arrived. Even though they ignored clear exposition, that's not the only thing that soiled their understanding of the scenario.

First of all, you can get caught when sneaking out of the DPA, and never even step foot in the bar. Second, if you do go to the bar, you can leave before anything happens. This let's Jodie bang Ryan because she avoided the traumatic experience. The incident at the bar and the bar itself can be non-factors in the story.

But why wasn't this obvious? Why didn't the panel know that their dinner scenario was based on their previous actions? Why did it seem pre-determined?

Why? Tell me!

It's because they were never given the explicit option to leave the bar. They assumed the bar scene was supposed to just play itself out and that's it.

When things got fishy, some players decided to walk to the door themselves and leave. They thought that they should at least attempt to avoid the douche-canoes, and were rewarded for making their own decision. They didn't need the game to tell them they could do that. Logical exploration revealed logical options.

That sounds like a good idea.

Most players are used to a "choice moment":

press X to this
press Y to that

Since they never saw that anywhere in the bar, a lot of players didn't know they had the option to leave. 

Players are also used to the outcomes of choices being obvious. Someone dying, someone leaving, someone lying, etc. Subtlety and nuance are not things that games are implementing left and right. When something as low-key as a buried phobia rearing it's head hours later in the game is a consequence, it's understandable for it to go over a lot of heads.

We are so used to systems like in The Walking Dead that explicitly tell you when you are making a choice (even when it doesn't change anything), and the Heavy Rain system where the bulk of consequence is literal death (like a "normal" video game).

In case you forgot.

David Cage's design philosophy sticks to the notion that if players don't know when they make a choice, and the ramifications aren't obvious, their experience becomes more akin to real life. The flow of the story is more organic. You don't "choose" between option A or B with reassurance of what will happen. Your decisions speak for themselves. When you don't think of alternate paths, the story feels more like your own, it feels more real, as opposed to just "one of the branches".

In real life, you don't know for sure if that one event in the past would surely change the present in the exact way you think it would. 

Most of Beyond's subtleties, fail states, and alternate paths are like this. This is good in theory, but the current gaming environment doesn't support this style of story malleability outside of works like open world games or rouge-likes. An adventure game like Beyond that does away with standard HUD elements just doesn't look like it's as advanced as it is. Players are most likely to assume what they are seeing is a pre-determined part of the game, and not results of actions they have taken or not taken.

So a more immersive and natural storytelling system also makes the game seem less interactive. Quite the double-edged sword.




Burning Building

One of the panelists, Mitch Dyer, wrote an opinion piece on the game, where he went to town showcasing the exact mentality I explained above. Pretty much every scene but "The Party" is completely linear and lacking in explanation according to him. "The Party", interestingly enough, has one of the few clearly prompted binary decision points of the whole game.

One such scene that he found unexplained, was the abandoned building that catches fire in "Homeless". He never found out who started the fire, and tried explaining it himself by talking about how human memory works, or something. He eventually just blamed Cage, as if he wrote the fire scene in for no reason.

Little did Mitch know, his path through the ending of that scene was different from the path which explicitly reveals the fire starters.


His Jodie died while trying to escape the fire, due to him failing the action sequence. If he made it out alive, Jodie would have gotten ambushed by those hooligans that she beat up earlier. Camera in hand, the hooligans admit they started the fire, hoping to get revenge on Jodie to quell the butthurt they acquired from earlier.

Because Mitch failed, he lost more than just the other story path. He lost tangible (albeit not that important) expository content.


But wait, there's more!

Mitch still had two more chances. In the following scene, Jodie wakes up in a hospital from a months-long coma. If Mitch decided to explore the room instead of bolting straight out the door, he could have seen a newspaper right on the wall that shows the hooligans being arrested for the arson. Or, he could have touched the flowers, which gives Jodie a vision of Stan's visit, where he mentions their arrest.

Because Mitch chose to ignore his surroundings, he lost his chance to recoup the expository content he lost.

Why would he do that?

Beyond, like Heavy Rain, invites players to move around themselves to find objects. When in proximity, a prompt shows up over an interactable thing-a-ma-jig.


This replaces a pointer. Frequently in The Walking Dead you can just click on something across the field, and simply watch Lee walk over to it automatically. Instead of navigating the world like it's a menu, you navigate it by controlling the character at all times. It also means there's no HUD aside from the little dots that serve as the pickup prompts.

Large prompts over every interactive element throws discovery out the window

Adding more immersion and interactivity is exactly what caused Mitch's problem though. It's very easy to miss dozens of important interactions if you don't explore the environment. Because you don't see everything on an overlay, you have to search around to see what can be toyed with. Sometimes, you simply don't expect things to be of any importance. He didn't walk past a prompt on purpose, like if it were The Walking Dead, in which case he could infer that he skipped what he was looking for. Instead, he just has no idea there is more than he saw.

Even I missed every object that sits in the hospital room at the end of "Homeless", just like Mitch. There's the flowers which give a vision of Stan's visit to Jodie during her coma. A picture frame that shows Tuesday's visit, where she talks about Zoey and reveals her real name. There's also a Jimmy vision, and the newspaper vision. You learn that the group is living in an apartment together and Stan got a job, all by interacting with the vision objects. I missed all that stuff because I never walked toward them, which would have spawned an interaction prompt. I didn't expect there to be so much crap worth looking at in a single room, so I didn't bother, and that's my fault.

So the game's better form of discovery also comes with the chance of unintentionally leaving things behind. Yet another double-edged sword.


It's worth noting that Mitch failed an action sequence, died, missed the explanation, and still believed it was all pre-determined. It shows just how well the "organic" choice system works; it felt real to him. He didn't think about anything but exactly what happened to him. "This must be the canon path," one might say. No systems, no text boxes, no reminders, no nothing. Just the flowing story.

The problem with this, of course, is that he actually does think it's pre-determined, rather than just feeling like it is. He assumed there is absolutely no explanation for the fire, and that he could not have escaped the building.

He got the wrong impression of the game, directly from the game's most unique mechanics. What a riot.

How could they not see this coming?


Homeless

Earlier in the "Homeless" chapter, there is a sequence where Jodie walks along a city block in an effort to make some money so she and her new group can eat for the day. This part the game serves as a more drastic example of content discovery, where what you can miss isn't mere exposition, but whole scenes.

From Let's Plays and "whoa you can do that?" discussions, it turns out that many players had no idea you can cross the street. They either sat down and made a sign to beg for money, or walked far enough until they stumbled across the ATM - the only two options on the initial sidewalk.

There is no prompt that says "CROSS STREET?", letting you know you have the option. The only way to find out is if you try, and actually walk onto one of the crosswalks. Players who didn't cross missed the bulk of options; A creepo who offers 10 bucks for you know what, a store to beg in, a mailbox that Aiden can blast change out of, a trashcan that has a rotten pizza in it, and the guy who lets you play his guitar.

These aren't just ways to get or not get money. They each say something about Jodie, Aiden, the current state of their relationship, and even the player (making money via prostitution or stealing are obvious self-reflection points). Also, the pizza and guitar harbor some of the more poignant scenes of the whole game: 


If you go to a certain trashcan you pick out a pizza from inside. You see that it's old and rotten, and you have the choice to put it back. If you eat it, Jodie will take one slimey bite then break down into tears. She looks at the pizza and realizes she hit rock bottom because she decided to run away. She ran away because she was used. She was used because of Aiden.




This explains why Aiden is willing to sack the ATM and murder the creepo in this sequence. He wants to make amends in any way possible, even going so far as theft and murder so Jodie can see that he just wants to help her no matter what pickle they're in.

If you miss this, Zoey's birth fills that gap automatically, but the pizza scene is a heap of icing on the cake that makes the whole chapter more meaningful. It also means a lot more if you ordered pizza in "The Dinner", because then it reminds her of Ryan and how her first relationship went down the drain.

Now look how easy it is to miss that trash can (it's on the left):

Gameplay from TheRadBrad

I could not find any Youtube walkthroughs where the player finds this scene. Not even the choice compilations have it. You can catch a glimpse of it in the gameplay trailer:


If you walk all the way to the other homeless guy with the guitar, Jodie can pick it up and start playing. She sings songs all day (it's manifested as just one for us) and makes bank. It's one of the most beautiful scenes of the game, and can be easily missed. If I recall correctly, playing guitar is also the only non-criminal way to get enough cash to buy the group chocolate.




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In Conclusion:

For the panel, and many other players, their play was influenced by their preconceptions of how a game normally presents opportunities. They didn't expect that they would have to actively seek out the things they wanted to see:

  1. The game only displays and telegraphs the main objective. All other interactions are the player's responsibility to look for. 
  2. Therefore, players did not do any exploration. 
  3. Therefore, they missed a ton of content related to story, choices, choice explanations, and entire gameplay segments. 
  4. The game doesn't explicitly tell them what their choices were, and doesn't tell them what they missed. 
  5. Therefore, they assume that the small amount they saw and did is actually all there is, and deem the game to be super linear, lacking in choices, and not open for exploration.


Player's were just not ready for the kind of responsibility Beyond puts on them to better their own experience. When a game does everything for us, we complain that it doesn't give us the freedom to express our agency in the story. When a game gives us the freedom to express our agency in the story, we complain because we don't know how to use it.

This also happened in some capacity last year with Spec Ops: The Line. There were a few invisible choices with subtle outcomes. Some people caught on, but we needed a sort of "movement" in the games writing sphere to really get it out there. I hope this happens with Beyond. Like Spec Ops, the non-handheld choices and exploration are a small part of the grand scheme, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored. 

For the most part, we still need HUD and markers to tell us where we can go and what we can interact with. We still need a menu to tell us what our choices are, and a text box to make sure we know that Clementine will remember that. We are used to being handheld through the story and shown everything so that no development time is "wasted".

Beyond is one step in the right direction, but I think it just stepped too far and too early for it's own good.

I should have known this would happen.

In Beyond you simply play, and accept that things will change based on how you play. You don't need to think about the game and its systems, its branches, or its consequences. That stuff is a given. It's supposed to go without saying. It's invisible and organic. Most games shove the choices and options in player's faces.

They make the player adapt to the game, while Beyond adapts to the player. 

I'm not saying that's it's your fault if any of this stuff flew over your head when playing the game. I think, just like Heavy Rain, Beyond employs some things that are ahead of it's time. It, also like HR, just lacks the sheer story quality needed for players to care and notice.

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Thanks for reading, and as always, stay tuned for more posts!



Essay DLC

I'd like to thank those who gave up their time to read the crap I wrote. I never imagined this would get so many page views and comments (you can see the original comments here). Again, thanks so much!

I'm going to plop in a little 'extra' content for you guys. After some discussions, I realized that I'm going to have to put back in a section I took out before publishing this (that's why I'm calling it DLC, hehehe). I was going to flesh it out and put it in a different topic, but it seems to be too important to leave out. So here it is:


Non-linear chapter placement

A lot of people don't like the non-linear chapter structure. I don't like it either. The idea is sound; You go from playing a part of Jodie's teenage life, to her as an adult, then a child, then an adult, then teen, then child, yadda yadda yadda. It's a fine idea, but didn't work out that well most of the time. It easily could have, but a ten hour malleable story is hard enough to design in order as it is.

It's generally regarded as a failed experiment.


Say that to my face.
But was it actually an experiment?

I think it's pretty obvious that the chapter structure was not a creative decision from Cage nor Quantic Dream. I actually think the game was originally designed to be played chronologically, and there was never any real intention to mix things around.

The earliest part of the timeline is the chapter called "My Imaginary Friend". You play as Jodie during downtime as she just lives out a typical day in her house. You can walk around and interact with things and people as Jodie or Aiden in a calm environment You can go upstairs and get the mirror scare, or play with dolls and see Aiden get jealous, draw on her desk, find a secret box that shows why Jodie was adopted, see that her dad ignores her, mess with her dad as Aiden, etc. All the controls of the game are shown in the house in some way while offering narrative and character elements on top of them.

Sound familiar? This is the exact same setup as Heavy Rain's opening. A downtime level where the player is free to explore and learn the controls through various interactions, while getting used to the shoes and life of their character.

Instead of this, what we play first in the real game is "The Experiment". Players are thrown into the game with the same ability to explore and interact with things, but with a catch; the story is already rolling. Cole is right there telling you to stop dicking around. You are keeping someone waiting when you try to learn the game at your own pace. That caused a lot of players to simply not take control of their agency, and go directly to the door.

This contributed to the misinformed style of play that has been examined in this essay. In "The Experiment", players are trained to follow orders, and are explicitly told by in-game characters that they are wasting time by interacting with their environment. If we played "My Imaginary Friend" first, we would get used to having the world to ourselves, and feel more in control of what we see and do.

How could you let this happen?

I think Sony came up with the idea to mix up the chapters, not Cage.

There are 7 chapters where you play as wee-Jodie. If the game was in order, the first 2 hours or so would be spent playing as a little girl. I would not be surprised if Sony told Quantic Dream that it was never going to happen on their watch (or rather their wallet).

If you change the order, you can like, put the train escape and the CIA shooty bits early, so the precious gamers won't get bored or too weirded out by playing as a kid.

- something a publisher would say 

David Cage himself only ever described it as some form of variety. You get to do something here, then something totally different there, and it's really quiet here, then it gets crazy there, etc. When asked about the structure during preview season that was pretty much all he had to say about it. It was clearly not something he had a big idea for, and the game was not written with that in mind. Many negative reviews made the comparisons of intent to movies like Pulp Fiction, in an effort to make it seem like Cage was just trying to be clever or something.

With complaints against Heavy Rain's slow start, (despite being the most completed story-based game this gen), the hate for child characters in general, and the odd vibe the industry has when it comes to playing as them, it's understandable that Beyond may have been tampered with in regards to the Childhood act. I can't fault QD for trying their best to make it work though.


ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS ON THE CHAPTER STRUCTURE

It really works with the aforementioned scene, "The Dinner". We see Ryan act like an ass to Jodie as a teen in "Separation", and then we play "The Dinner" which takes place years later. Jodie tells Aiden how much see likes him, and that she's a good guy. Most people saw this as bad writing and nonsense, having us believe Ryan is a good guy right after seeing him make Jodie cry years earlier.

What no one realized is that this allowed the player to instantly be put into Aiden's shoes. He doesn't want Jodie to go out with Ryan, and the player agrees. As the scene develops, you start to realize whether Aiden (i.e. you) has the right to decide who Jodie can date. Because you didn't see the time between "Separation" and "The Dinner", you wrongly assume Ryan is a bad guy. You want him out of there, but also want Jodie to be happy for once. You get a conflicted sense of agency, and have to juggle between the needs and wants of two player characters at the same time.

There are multiple ways for your actions as Aiden to cause Ryan to bail. If this happens, you get a heartbreaking scene of Jodie proclaiming that she hates Aiden now, and it's your fault. If you, as Aiden, eventually do let Jodie and Ryan engage their relationship, you right there caused Aiden to change, directly because of the change you went through since the start of the scene.


4 comments:

  1. Nice. Concerning the point where players miss things is I think due to the way THEY are, their personality, their way of thinking and seeing things in real life, PATIENCE etc. Some just want to see the ending without caring about the story. Some want to explore as much as possible. Some want the most epic outcome of the game and are willing to spend a lot of time just to make sure nothing else can be done. Except for "the bar" part (where I didn't know you could actually leave, I wouldn't have left anyways), I personally discovered all you said because I have always been a type of player that discovers; and try to go where usual games don't let you go. I think some games are just not meant to be for some. Bottom line.

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  2. Made me glad I bought the game. Already having fun, but this makes me think I should put more thought into my second playthrough

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