Showing Beyond Two Souls at The Tribeca Film Festival Was a Disservice To Gaming
Games Do Not Belong At Film Festivals
The Tribeca Film Festival official press release called the presentation of the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls at the festival "A groundbreaking example of the potential in the marriage of gaming and cinema." The 35 minute screening of Quantic Dream's Beyond Two Souls was received with rousing applause at its end and served as a terrific introduction to the ten hour long story of the game. Professional actors like Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe brought the script to life which should improve the sometimes stilted acting of Heavy Rain (Jason !). The technology used to capture the actions of the actors and translate them into the world of the game is remarkable. Aside from very minor imperfections upon second glance, if I didn't know better, I would be fooled by the visuals, cinematography, and acting into thinking that I was watching a movie.
That is a problem for a video game. If Beyond is a marriage between cinema and gaming, then Cinema was the controlling partner who pushed Gaming to the sidelines and insisted on speaking on both their behalf.
The game looked like it was on autopilot for the whole screening. Most of the gameplay where players have control of the protagonist Jodie was removed which made the presentation jump from scene to scene in order to stitch together the narrative scenes and not waste time with player exploration. That is understandable for a streamlined presentation but what is inexcusable is the attempt to pass over every gameplay element. The quick time events were sped through so the flow of the cinematic experience would not be interrupted. Dialogue decisions were so quickly chosen that there was no time for the audience to look at the other choices available. All the action sequences were done perfectly every time.
During the Q&A segment after the screening David Cage, the game's director and writer, insisted that they “were not shooting a film, [they] were shooting a game.”
"It’s very different in essence, especially because you need to break down every single scene and every single moment into different possibilities, different branches, different possible action." He continued, "For me, interacting is about making choices and seeing their consequences."
The game’s screening showed off not one of those elements that make it a game. What it did instead was take an interactive experience that is impossible in any other medium and reduce it to a passive experience for exhibition.
It is difficult to demonstrate such a unique game to a casual audience. When showing off a first person shooter, everyone understands the basic concept: you shoot, avoid getting shot, and make it to the next level. When it comes to a game like Beyond it looks like a movie to someone watching, but when they hold the controller it becomes an engaging experience. The player leads the characters’ actions on screen, not only through seemingly mundane tasks like turning on a car, but by choosing dialogue that will change the course and outcome of a conversation.
The player’s control over the world is best shown through action sequences. In Heavy Rain split-second decisions and timing for actions during these sequences would irreversibly alter the story, especially when it came to the fate of characters. If a character died, the story could not be blamed, it was the fault of the players who were too slow in reacting or made a bad decision. When players succeeded in aiding the character to safety and victory they felt even better because they knew that they had saved them -- they were responsible for their success. The emotional ties players make with characters is what deepens the consequences of their actions. That strong characterization and emotional depth of the writing shone throughout the screening, but there were none of the same choices and consequences shown. No bad decisions in dialogue were chosen, no missteps in combat. Every scene played out the way it was supposed to if everything was done right. There were no bad decisions made, and no consequences shown. A movie plays out perfectly, a player does not.
A game can have a cinematic scope of narrative that blends with its gameplay, but when a game is just touted and shown only as a sort of cinematic masterpiece, it devolves into something you pay $10 or so to watch for a couple hours at the local cinema rather than a $60 interactive experience. As prestigious of an honor as it was for Beyond: Two Souls to be chosen for screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, it was not the right setting to be showing a game. A film festival is where people sit down in dark rooms together and watch stories play out on screens and that is fine because movies are great. What movies are not are experiences where people engage directly with the action on screen and feel the weight of their decisions unfold in front of them.
Showing Beyond: Two Souls at Tribeca did the game and its medium a great disservice by stripping it of what defines it as a game and presenting it as a film. However, Quantic Dream does not want to just make a cinematic narrative, they want a narrative that engages players and holds them accountable for how their failures and successes while progressing through the narrative. Heavy Rain did this very well and Beyond also might succeed at this, but you wouldn't know it from watching this demo. Film festivals like Tribeca are the right places to show the next great film experiences, not the next big gaming experiences.