David Cage’s reputation is a slippery thing; industry punching bag, egotistical oddity, potential visionary – all these labels swirl around him depending on the audience. His latest game, Detroit: Become Human has been welcomed as his most well-rounded and playable yet. His previous, Beyond: Two Souls, is a hot mess.
Cage is clear in his desire for videogames to tell sophisticated, mature narratives with meaningful branches according to player choices, and Beyond stands as a waypoint in the steady development of his stories. It is less confusing than Fahrenheit, less threatening than Heavy Rain, and lightly celebrity-studded.
Ellen Page plays Jodie, a young woman born with a ghostly companion, Aiden, who through a series of episodic chapters grows up under observation as the potential of her poltergeist is explored. The order of play for these scenes is scattershot, taking us back and forth from Jodie’s troubled childhood to later tribulations in the CIA and beyond. Throughout, she is mentored and surrogated by Willem Defoe’s Nathan, a semi-delusional doctor with kindly intentions.
These and other cast members are captured through impressive motion work, their performances often convincing and facially realistic. Not for the first time in his career, though, Cage’s ambition outstrips not only the technology available, but his own talent. His scripting is consistently suspect, especially as the emotion and science fiction is dialled up in later stages, and this is further undermined by tears oddly leaking from virtual eyes, and animations that don’t quite echo reality.
From adolescent grumps to adult anxieties, Page is required to run the gamut of not just emotions, but also ages, and the seams show when she is supposed to be a 15 year old. Her commitment, however, is clear. Defoe’s performance is utterly pedestrian, lacking in any of the weird touches he can specialise in, and one can’t help but feel that the actors’ ping pong-balled getups and bluescreen surrounds cannot have helped their processes.
Meanwhile players themselves take control of Jodie and her phantom friend with clunky animations and a prevalence of quick-time events that require reactive button pushes. When they’re concentrating and engaged, this can feel tense and narratively apt. More often, a mistaken press can lead to a bizarrely aborted half-movement, or a character walking into tables, walls and any other feasible obstacle. Consistently smooth the experience ain’t.
The story Cage is telling takes a couple of interesting, if not tremendously fulfilling, turns, including extended sojourns away from action. In time, though, it wends its way back to trite ‘save the world’ nonsenses, gobbledygook dialogue about ‘infraworlds’ and ‘compressors’ folding in upon itself until confusion reigns. In its closing moments, easy answers pair with baffling visuals to create a confusing mess.
The ambition to tell a personal story running through a larger-scale sci-fi epic is fair, but Quantic Dream whiffed the ball with Beyond. If Cage and his acolytes are to continue striving after the emotional resonance of cinema, and to ape its motifs and visual styles (letterboxing, anyone?) they will have to do better than this.