As technology evolves and unlocks new possibilities in the creative media, the onus lies on content creators to use it meaningfully and take their craft to the next level. Hollywood's dalliance with CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery), however, has had a chequered history. Over the years, it has seen expensive post-process effects squandered away on resurrecting dead historical figures, airbrushing out nipples and genitals, and let's not forget the horror that was Jar Jar Binks. However, when CGI was used well, it delivered an unprecedented potency to the horror and sci-fi genre. These modern genres pivot around this technology to provide compelling experiences, which would otherwise be impossible.
As opposed to film, the video game industry is fundamentally limited by technology. Since this is a medium that's completely procedural in nature, games don't merely rely on technology to enrich experiences. Unlike in films, technology in video games is a fundamental building block that dictates the scope and complexity of the content that's invariably created from scratch. Any advancement in this basic foundation therefore can potentially enable profound and fundamental improvements to what developers can achieve with their games.
The result can be seen in the medium over the years. We have moved on from the 8-bit era, where games were punishingly difficult to prolong gameplay because the cartridges weren't large enough to store enough data. When video game developers finally managed to nail compelling gameplay experiences, they moved onto the next logical milestone—delivering a deep and complex narrative that's on par with the medium's celluloid counterpart.
Will a big name be enough to pull audiences for Beyond: Two Souls?
The '90s are rife with many stabs at achieving this herculean task in the form of point-and-click adventure games. These have ranged from ones using both bizarre and beautiful 2D/3D art to those cobbled out of numerous cut scenes created from full motion video clips bearing real actors. This genre was a good proof-of-concept of sorts, but it expended too much of its energy on cinematics to deliver any real form of gameplay depth. The technology available at the time obviously wasn't capable of delivering truly cinematic videogames that were fun to play as well.
It was only after the turn of the millennium that semiconductor technology became mature enough to deliver the sort of polygon crunching and pixel shading power required for rendering complex and lifelike scenes in real time. This kind of power allows contemporary video games to achieve what point-and-click games of the past failed at—delivering cinematic depth without compromising on gameplay.
Unfortunately, even though the means exist, most video games tend to gloss over the narrative. In the past, you could cite the lack of technology as an excuse; however, when contemporary developers shove a plot in as an afterthought, they do it solely out of laziness. Therefore, it's a pleasant surprise when stereotypes are broken and a studio goes the extra mile to add depth and quality to what could have otherwise been achieved with a lot less effort. That's why I genuinely appreciate games that try to tell an elaborate story. When they nail the narrative though, the medium's interactivity ensures the result is arguably more profound than any film can achieve.
That just might be the case with Beyond: Two Souls. Although the game may appear to be a step in that direction, I am not too enamoured by it. I find the developer's choice to use Ellen Paige's likeness plain lazy at best and a sign of mediocrity at worst. While this may seem as a kneejerk reaction and a premature assumption, my opinion stems from empirical evidence from a sister medium. The logic behind my apprehension is best illustrated by an example straight off Hollywood.
Ico leveraged the medium's strength to emote instead of aping the linear narrative of films
Pixar and Dreamworks Animation—two rival studios specialising in animated features—have diametrically opposite philosophies. Dreamworks prefers to pump a large amount of money to enlist the biggest names in Hollywood to voice characters in their animated films. Pixar, on the other hand, doesn't believe in such extravagance. The quality of films and their box office performance, however, stands testimony to the studio's superiority. Whether it's a case of complacency brought upon by banking on big-ticket cast or simply Pixar being the better studio, the fact remains that the budget can be spent better on hiring good writing talent or just eye candy.
On the other end of the spectrum, games such as Ico have already shown that you don't really need Hollywood stars or even conventional trappings of bleeding edge graphics to tell a poignant and touching story. This is the rare game that successfully leverages gameplay and uses the medium's strength to create pathos, instead of blindly aping the linearity of the film narrative. The point here is that whatever the means used, modern video games shouldn't just be content with delivering good gameplay alone. If the medium has to break out from its niche and target the masses, it must tell a compelling story as well.
With your average gamer being in the late 20s, this is the sort of maturity and universal appeal that our beloved industry needs. You see, it is only when the content creators bring a modicum of seriousness to this medium that it will be taken seriously by the masses.