Beyond Ellen Page

The Limits of Agency in the Interactive Storytelling

Essay - Beyond Two Souls

Matthew Wysocki is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Flagler College, co-chair of Game Studies at PCA/ACA, editor of CTRL-ALT-PLAY: Essays on Control in Video Games, and co-editor of Rated M for Mature: Sex and Sexuality in Video Games. He also does a lot of research on the BioShock series. Seriously, it’s a bit of an obsession.

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Beyond: Two Souls is an action-adventure video game developed by Quantic Dream and released exclusively for the PlayStation 3 console. It marketed itself on its extensive use of motion capture of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe and its emotional impact. Over the course of a unique non-linear story (and I stress that it is the non-linear part that is the unique part of the story) , the game resembles an interactive movie more than it functions as a game. The player has a basic level of control of the main character, choosing from limited dialogue options or simplistic actions to progress the story. Other moments have quick time event action sequences, requiring the player to react at the right time to succeed.

But ultimately, the interactive elements of Beyond: Two Souls prove to be of inadequate meaningfulness. Your participation as a player has minimal importance on how events unfold throughout the game. While players are given the opportunity to react to events and interact with the world, there is no real in-game penalty for failure, often including failure to act. The game creates numerous Deus ex machina situations to bail players out and reveals the general lack of agency the player has in influencing the game world. In Beyond: Two Souls, telling the story is more important than playing it.

Game Synopsis

For anyone not aware, B:2S is an adventure game told in a non-linear manner, flashing back and forth along different points in main character Jodie’s life. She is connected to a spirit named Aiden, the second soul of “2 souls”, that allows the player to perform certain supernatural actions, primarily of a telekinetic or telepathic nature. Over time, she comes to live in a research facility where Willem Dafoe plays a semi-creepy, semi-affectionate head of research. Eventually, she is recruited into the CIA and after the shortest training montage in the history of training montages, she is sent on various missions of questionable ethics and finds out, in a shocking twist, that the CIA is using her to commit immoral acts. She goes on the run, ends up homeless (this is arguably the most enjoyable mission in the game due to its emotional resonance), goes in search of her mother, gets re-captured by the CIA, pressured into doing “one final job,” and then has to attempt to stop the apocalypse. By the way, in a “twist” that will surprise no one who has ever seen a Willem Dafoe film, he is the one to trigger the apocalypse.

And much like Quantic Dream’s earlier game Heavy Rain, B:2S does have a very cinematic feel. David Cage, writer and director of the game, believes that game development studios should provide “interactive storytelling” that can be played by everyone, including “non-gamers”. In a blog post promoting the game during E3, he also wrote that “By granting players control over Jodie’s conversations and actions, it also empowers the player to change the evolution of the story in a number of exciting and different ways.” And furthermore, “What the game is of course NOT though, is just a series of cinematics with minimal gameplay in between.” In truth, though, this is exactly what too much of B:2S is, just a series of cinematics.

Interactivity

“Interactive storytelling” is a term that was coined by Chris Crawford, a main proponent and developer. He defines interactive storytelling as, “a form of interactive entertainment in which the player plays the role of the protagonist in a dramatically rich environment.”

“I dreamed of the day when computer games would be a viable medium of artistic expression — an art form. I dreamed of computer games expressing the full breadth of human experience and emotion. I dreamed of computer games that were tragedies, games about duty and honor, self-sacrifice and patriotism. I dreamed of satirical games and political games; games about the passionate love between a boy and girl, and the serene and mature love of a husband and wife of decades; games about a boy becoming a man, and a man realizing that he is no longer young. I dreamed of games about a man facing truth on a dusty main street at high noon, and a boy and his dog, and a prostitute with a heart of gold (1993).”

The experience of interactive storytelling differs substantially from that of a conventional linear story.  A linear story ‘runs on rails’ from start to finish in the most powerful manner possible. The interactive storytelling experience meanders through a dramatic universe of possibilities. It lacks the sense of directed inevitability that gives conventional stories such power. Crawford argues that all past efforts in this direction have not been “interactive storytelling”, but rather “interactivized stories” or “storyized games”. At a structural level, they are not storytelling, they are stories. It is the difference between the process of storytelling and the end result of storytelling, a story. Storytelling is not the same thing as stories: storytelling is an activity, a process, while stories are collections of facts, data. You can’t interact with data — you can only interact with processes.

Similar to this, Bogost (2008) discusses the idea of “procedurality” as being a crucial element to define what happens as players interact with games as, in essence, storytelling experiences. As he explains “[p]rocedures (or processes) are sets of constraints that create possibility spaces, which can be explored through play.” Yes, there are constraints to what a player can and cannot do. Not everything is permitted. But in order to explore those possibility spaces, it is crucial to be able to actually direct the play, again, to interact with processes.

My Playthrough

So based on this, I attempted to interact with the processes of B:2S. I completed a playthrough where I literally did as little as possible in the game. And let me tell you, I do not recommend it. It is, without a doubt, one of the most boring ways imaginable to spend your time. And while on the first playthrough, the story does have a level of creativity, there are no surprises second time through.

To begin with, much of the gameplay consists of merely finding a white dot and then interacting with it to trigger something, frequently another brief scene. This is done over and over. Time to go to bed? Interact with the white dot if you want Jodie to sleep on her right side. Or you can interact with it again to get her to sleep on her left. Need to find a clue? Wander around the room looking for a white dot to interact with. There are frequent bouts of tedious detail punctuated by intense moments of action involving timing movements during quick time events.

And here is the dirty little secret of B:2S. Until the end, much of it feels like it does not matter what you do. Because frequently, it doesn’t. I honestly tried to fail whenever possible. Every quick time fight, I did nothing. And the game would not let me lose. Either Jodie would take a great deal of punishment before finally just deciding to fight back herself or something else would chase off the assailants. I frequently tried to run out into gunfire only to have the game force Jodie back behind cover and in essence tell me to try again. I ran Jodie in to so many tree branches with her head and yet she would struggle back to her feet and start running again. I refused to pick a dialogue option, so once it had gone on long enough, the game just triggered the one it preferred. Often I would even choose to do nothing, remaining in one place till the game either insisted that I do something to move the story along or just went ahead without my input.

At another point in the game, Jodie needs to flee an undersea base before it is destroyed. Except I wasn’t helping. So mini-explosions kept happening that caused her to move down hallways just enough to repeatedly trigger the necessary scenes that lead to her escape. B:2S has a story it wants to tell and if I wouldn’t cooperate, it would tell it anyhow.

Though as a side note, I really feel like if I ever meet Ellen Page, I need to apologize to her for what I did to her in this game. I honestly felt bad at times. Hopefully she’ll forgive me. Though let me also add that repeatedly I felt that I was, in fact, watching Ellen Page play the role of Jodie. The facial capture was that impressive. What I did not feel though, was a sense of relationship with Jodie as my avatar. I was helping (or not helping) Ellen Page do things, not doing things myself.

While at a couple of points, my lack of action as a player did result in the death of a few NPCs, more often than not, there was little variation in results between when I “played” the game versus when I did not. I did end up with the “bad” ending, but replaying the final mission did allow me to finally to achieve the “better” endings. So honestly, only the final mission counts towards whether you “beat” the game or not. The lesson is “don’t try till the end.” Now again, it was David Cage who wrote that “[w]hat the game is of course NOT though, is just a series of cinematics with minimal gameplay in between.” But this is actually what B:2S ends up being, minimal gameplay. As I, and others, have argued in the past, gameplay is the crucial element for studying control and agency in video games. Voorhees (2013) was building out of Bogost’s concept of possibility space when he wrote “focusing on gameplay allows scholars to both see past game mechanics and discourses to discern the creative act of play and see through play practices to trace the affordances and constraints of the game.” According to Wysocki and Brey (In Press), “games without players are simply code. Losing the player means losing play, perhaps the defining factor of a game.”

CONCLUSION

To return to Crawford (1988-9):

The one thing that the computer can do better than anything else is interactivity …. This is why interactivity should be the proper focus of effort of the entertainment software designer. None of this suggests that graphics, animation, and sound should be eliminated from designs. These are necessary supporting elements in the overall design. The better we are able to marshal them to heighten interactivity, the more successful our designs will be.

But ultimately, B:2S is a “game” where interaction is barely necessary. In fact, as mentioned, there are times when the game does not even require the player. It will take care of things itself. Ultimately here not only do you not interact with the data, you frequently do not even need to interact with the process. So if games exist as spaces of possibility to be explored, when the player is not required to participate then they lose the largest part of their purpose for playing. If you do not need to follow a game’s procedures then, in essence, they do not need to exist. Interactive storytelling becomes a disguised form of non-interactive story watching.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008. 117–140. Print.

Cage, David. “BEYOND: Two Souls gameplay detailed in new videos.” PlayStation.Blog. PlayStation, 13 June 2013. Web.

Crawford, Chris. “The Primacy of Interactivity.” The Journal of Computer Game Design 2 (1988-1989): n. pag. Web. <Available online at http://www.erasmatazz.com/library/the-journal-of-computer/jcgd-volume-2/the-primacy-of-interactivit.html>

Crawford, Chris. Chris Crawford on Game Design. Thousand Oaks: New Riders Publishing, Print.

Voorhees, Gerald. “Criticism and Control: Gameplay in the Space of Possibility.” CTRL-ALT-PLAY: Essays on Control in Video Gaming. Ed. Matthew Wysocki. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013. 9-20. Print.

Wysocki, Matthew, and Betsy Brey. “’All that’s left is the choosing’: BioShock Infinite and the Constants and Variables of Control.” Pressing Reset: Restarting the Debate between Story and Play in Game Studies. Ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell. Jefferson: McFarland, In Press. Print.