Published Oct 24, 2013David Cage (the literal auteur driving Parisian studio Quantic Dream and its new Ellen Page-starring title, Beyond: Two Souls) is about as polarizing a figure as there is in gaming, largely because so many question whether or not his ambitious exercises in interactive drama even count as games.
Cage's first attempt was cinematic point-and-click throwback Indigo Prophecy (known as Fahrenheit outside North America). It began as a brilliant game noir before the hardboiled narrative collapsed on itself at the end when they ran out of money. They released the unfinished game anyway with a section missing, hoping we wouldn't notice how nonsensical the three-month time jump made the supernatural murder mystery.
We did notice, but many didn't care — it sold 700,000 copies and won several awards — because even if Cage quaffed the ending, the rest of the experience was an important departure from gaming's structural status quo, including its dedication to quotidian activities that connected the player to the protagonist. With a focus on an immersive story directed by decisions and dialogue trees, it minimized gameplay to context-sensitive thumbsticks and controversial quick time events during scripted set pieces.
Cage's follow-up, Heavy Rain, was a higher-profile release, more successful and controversial, and for those of us willing to accept that there were certain traditional gameplay limitations required to unspool this type of interactive story, it was well worth it. (For those who question how actually interactive it was, any of the four characters you play could die and the game just continued without them.) Once again, small, quotidian details, including a surprisingly dramatic opening level where you lose your son in a shopping mall, helped the title make its mark.
On Beyond: Two Souls, Cage abandons his signature serial killer trope, while keeping the supernatural stuff, to tell the intensely bleak story of Jodie Holmes, a woman who grows up with a psychic connection to a ghostly "entity" named Aiden. You are able to control both in the game, with the latter able to go through walls and floors, up to a certain distance, and even possess people.
Concerned more with character than plot, the game jumps to and fro across a 15-year span of Jodie's melancholy life as a spirit-connected lab rat-turned-CIA agent. On balance, it's a good decision, considering the plot's plentiful holes and occasional clichés, as well as this approach's ability to balance the more intimate moments of her youth with her more action-oriented older years. This nonlinearity does, however, rob the game of narrative momentum and confuses character development, not to mention that the intimate moments are generally the best ones.
I've played a million better action games, but I've never played one where my character is a young child who nearly kills a neighbour's kid by mistake, or later attends a high school party on a military base where decisions escalate from whether or not to drink beer, smoke pot and make out to the option of going full Carrie on the party's bullies. The time-jumping rarely makes you feel like you haven't much agency in the story arc, though Jodie provides the through line and the game is really about what kind of person your moral decisions make her.
This connection is enhanced by the hyper-realistic graphics and landmark motion-capture performances of Ellen Page and, to a lesser degree, Willem Dafoe, who plays Jodie's doctor and father figure after her parents hand her over to the government.
Player choice, rather than player action, drives Beyond, and while many have complained about the slow pace, the pregnant pauses, wrinkled noses and subtle touches (as when child Jodie takes a few extra seconds to adjust the stuffie she's tucking in) provide the realism required for the game's emotional weight to settle in.
In a medium where so many titles are indistinguishable, Cage's experiments matter, even if his ambitions have yet to be fully realized. Have you ever played a game where your character, huddled under a wintery bridge, tells her homeless rescuer, "I wish you hadn't saved me," before learning how to panhandle for food money?
Ultimately, Cage's greatest contribution isn't Beyond itself, but how it helps gaming reach beyond its cage. (Quantic Dream/SCEA)