2014/01/29

Unpopular Opinion – Beyond: Two Souls is Better Than Gone Home


When David Cage’s new game came out in October 2013, I skipped it due to bad reviews and waited for a future sale to buy at more reasonable price. PlayStation Network Christmas and January deals provided me with some awesome games (Rayman Legends, Muramasa Rebirth), but Beyond: Two Souls was still evading my collection. Finally, last week I borrowed the game from a friend and after playing it I was actually sad that I had not bought it day one.

Beyond: Two Souls (2013).

Take this personal history as an introduction to a comparison of two seemingly similar games which differ in two very crucial aspects: the price tag and the position of their developers. While Gone Home is a debut by the indie studio The Fullbright Company and costs 20 $, Beyond: Two Souls is a fourth game by the so-called “auteur of video games” David Cage and had a regular price of 60 $.

Despite these apparent differences, the overall reception was very similar, at least from a qualitative perspective. Both critics and players alike complained about the lack of “gameplay mechanics”, by which they mostly meant the focus on casual oriented gameplay that does not require any special skill. Both groups praised the story, atmosphere and emotion. If we were to oversimplify and at the same time use JesperJuul’s ideas on the game structure, we could say that players liked the game because of its fiction and disliked its rules. This would of course be too simplistic and it would overlook the interconnectedness of both parts of a videogame.

Let’s take a closer look at both games and their structural differences. Gone Home is built within the genre of a traditional adventure game, one could even say that it is a puzzle game. There is only one ending available and the player is forced to go through the game in a very linear fashion. One can spend some time reading through optional documents scattered throughout the fictional house of the Greenbriar family, but it does not in any way change the outcome of the game. Of course it can change a player’s interpretation of the game and its ending, but the game itself is a fairly static space which allows for some basic exploration. It is certainly a video game (even though some players think otherwise), I would even argue that it shows its “game-ness” too much (compared to Beyond: Two Souls or Dear Esther). Borrowing the terms of Alexander Galloway, we can say that it shows its interface (non-diegetic relations between its parts and sociohistorical condition) in a sense that it borrows the genre conventions of a traditional adventure game and lets a player know that he is not playing right by not allowing him to progress – it literally tells the player to interact differently. On the other hand, Beyond, Dear Esther or this year's The Banner Saga employ a bit different tactics. They allow for a seemingly organic gameplay and are able to cope with many outcomes of a player’s interaction. To put it simply, they accommodate to a player’s interactions while Gone Home forces the player to follow a certain path. Metaphorically speaking, Beyond: Two Souls or The Banner Saga strive to simulate a fictional world, Gone Home tries to manipulate the player into solving a puzzle. 

Gone Home (2013).
It definitely comes to a question of preference – do you like puzzles or reactive simulations (even though they may allow for a very limited amount of possible scenarios). The title of this post hints that I personally prefer branching games and player choices. Beyond: Two Souls was a big surprise for me, it presents the player choice organically and the solutions that the player in the end chooses, always seem logical and right (the same thing the Telltale's Walking Dead Season One was praised for). 

Beyond and Gone Home focus a lot on the mundane – but while the opening of shelves and telekinetical rotating objects in Gone Home get boring very soon for me, the environmental interactions in Beyond seem always interesting even though they are in fact very familiar and ordinary. The tone of the stories and their focus on female protagonists (in Gone Home it is not the protagonist itself, but her sister Samantha who leads the story) can be found in both games, but the tempo is very different. Gone Home is building tension up to a finale from the start, Beyond: Two Souls probably due to its length (Gone Home takes 2 hours, Beyond around 9 hours) alternates between personal drama in the vein of the American Independent movie scene and B-movie sci-fi catastrophe. These shifts, which are allowed by non-chronological storytelling, also make the game suitable for brief gameplay sessions.

I personally think that the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Gone Home was caused more by a theme, setting and soundtrack than by the actual flow, gameplay or storytelling of the game. The “revelation” that game can tell a personal story in the style of independent personal movie dramas in my opinion inflated the review scores, even though some games mastered similar themes before Gone Home and in a much more competent way (Dear Esther, Thirty Flights of Loving).

Quantic Dream’s games were always interesting experiments in an interactive storytelling genre but until Beyond: Two Souls they were bogged down by serious flaws. Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in North America) stopped making sense halfway through and it featured an inappropriate love scene with a man cold as a corpse. Heavy Rain had one of the worst English translations in history (for a big AAA game), awful voiceovers and a recurring phrase “deserted wasteland”, otherwise minor faults in most genres can definetely ruin an interactive storytelling game. Beyond: Two Souls sometimes suffers from a clumsy dialogue or some slight story inconsistencies, but the variety of locales, different moods, possible endings and playthroughs and the exquisite performances of Ellen Page and Willem Defoe as the two leading characters makes it the best Quantic Dream game for me… and a much better experience than the overrated puzzle game Gone Home.

Disclaimer: Unlike previous articles on this blog which were based on actual research, this one is an opinion piece with just a little bit of game studies theory to hold it together. Thank you.

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