On Beyond Two Souls And The Fatal Flaw Of Interactive Storytelling

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So I played Beyond Two Souls this weekend, and I absolutely adored everything about it. It had a strong storyline that justified just about every quirky narrative choice, a female lead who my heart ached for, and a large-scale story that ended solidly.
My daughter and I also mocked it relentlessly over the entire weekend.
The problem is that Beyond Two Souls is a videogame in the new “Interactive Storytelling” genre, and the failure mode of Interactive Storytelling is that you wind up pressing buttons to do the most trivial of tasks. (Heavy Rain, in particular, features you using the controls over the course of ten minutes, to get the protagonist off the bed, maneuvering him to the bathroom, working the joystick to shave him properly, turning on the shower, drying himself off, choosing his clothes, during which it is impossible to fail.)
So Amy and I kept shouting things like “Press X to coffee!” and “Press X to shiver from cold!” and “Press X to battle this ever-encroaching sense of ennui!” and “Press X to baby!  Baby harder, Jodie!  Baby harder!”
Interactive Storytelling is both glorious and ridiculous, and as such it is polarizing in the videogame community.  How can you call it a videogame if the game itself is an appendage, this sad dotting of Quicktime events?  I’m usually down for a good challenge in videogames, but I put BTS on “Easy” mode because frankly, I’d made a character choice to beat up this faux-Somali on this mission, and I didn’t feel like watching my heroine fail dismally because I forgot which button was the triangle.
Yet there is something compelling about being part of a story.  Yeah, you can watch movies, but when you’ve made the decision to either forgive or flay your parents, you get engrossed.  I couldn’t wait to see what happened next in Beyond Two Souls, just as I couldn’t wait to see what happened next in Until Dawn, just as I’m itching to complete Heavy Rain even though the controls suuuuuuuck.
The problem is the story’s never deep enough.
See, the issue with all the storytelling games I’ve played is that they promise “Interactive choices!” – by which they mean to imply you can change the plot.  But because these videogames are big-budget adventures, graphically beautiful, every genuine plot divergence is millions of dollars put into branching paths you may never see.
So after you’ve played through once, you realize that there’s never any real variance.  Heavy Rain is a mystery, but the murderer is always the same person.  Beyond Two Souls is a science-fiction action adventure, but it’s filled with lots of dramatic chokepoints of But Thou Must where you’re obliged to kill this bad guy or sneak out of this Navajo home.  You control who lives or dies in horror game Until Dawn, but the same sequence of events will play over and over again, with plot-dependent characters being immune until the final scene.
The Interactive Storytelling allows you to make choices.  And those choices can affect some of your emotional shading – if I decide to choke my father in Beyond Two Souls, well, he’ll be mad at me.  But my dad is leaving forever in that scene regardless of what I do, so the effect is that I feel bad but no events change.
And I think Interactive Storytelling will be forever stunted until they figure out a way to fuse plot and choices.  You can be furious at Ryan or you can be in love with Ryan or you can be indifferent to Ryan, but you can never leave Ryan.  And they give you all sorts of good rationales for that, because Ryan is your CIA partner and the missions need you, but past a certain point you realize that the stories they tell are constricted because they can only tell stories where you can’t alienate or leave certain people.  Every Interactive Storytelling tale in this has people in boxes, and after you play through for the first time you see the rails.
What would really blow the genre way open would be the introduction of true plot-changing decisions.  Like Ryan?  You keep doing CIA missions for him, and you have a plotline that blossoms into global politics.  Don’t like Ryan?  You branch off into another storyline where you go it on your own and never see the global politics thread.
Ah, but budgets are tricky, and it’s hard to justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on visuals that you’ll never see.  If they design a setpiece, they need to justify that you’ll see it, and pouring the cash into a scene that at minimum 50% of the game’s players would never see on the first playthrough because they told Ryan to go to heck is hard to swallow.
(And that assumes you don’t get the usual heavy videogame abandonment rate issues.  Lots of people never finish a game.  That “50% don’t see it” number might be closer to 80% when you count in the folks who never got that far.)
Yet if you had a true plot, well, you’d have more than one branching plot choice – you’d have this glorious iceberg of a game where 90% of it was hidden from you because you made choices that took you away from fully-fledged levels.  One decision early in the game would wall you off from 50% of the levels, and then another crucial decision an hour later would wall you off from 50% of the remaining levels, and so on until you talked to your friends and realized that hey, they played an entirely different game than you did.
That would be a game people would play in droves – assuming the storytelling was equally compelling in every segment, and you’d have to write dialogue and quality controls and graphics for each of these levels that were different, and economically I don’t think it’ll ever work.
As it is, I loved Beyond Two Souls.  But I don’t think I’ll play it again.  All the differences converge in 24 different endings, and hell, I know what happened until those final ten minutes of the game, I’ll just watch it all on YouTube.
But I long for a game I won’t see.  I want a game where my psychic character can walk away from The Institute and evade the FBI and have some plotline utterly unrelated to the ones where the character went to boot camp and became a psychic soldier.
Won’t happen.
But I can dream.

1 Comment

  1. Carolyn VanEseltine
    Mar 31, 2016

    Everything you say about the perils of interactive storytelling is true – *for AAA games*. But it’s important to note that you *can* set up that kind of situation in interactive fiction (aka text-based games), and many of us have.
    A favorite example: Try Kevin Gold’s Choice of Robots (https://www.choiceofgames.com/robots/). (The intro is very odd; get into Chapter 1 before making any judgments.) This is a medium where the kinds of things you choose to do can send your plot reeling across total extremes, with one firm constant – the existence of your robot companion – and everything else in a fluid state.

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