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Narrative - A Subjective Quality

How the mixed reception of Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls brings to light an interesting case for subjectivity in games criticism.

While I may both hate and fear Metacritic, it is useful for quickly identifying when critical opinion is hugely divided - as it is this week over Beyond: Two Souls, the new game by auteur-type bloke David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream.

Now if I was going to be uncharitable I would say that Quantic Dream are a studio known for building awesome tech demos and less awesome videogames - but I won't, because I genuinely admire what they try to do with the medium as a form of interactive storytelling. I think there's a real market for the kind of interactive movie type experience Cage designs - I'm just not certain that Cage is the right man to head the movement, as it were.

Now I've not played Beyond, so I can't comment on that game's quality. I have played its predecessor, Heavy Rain, which I found to be an excellent proof-of-concept let down by a bad story and some iffy writing in general.

What interests me most about the split opinions over Beyond is not whether the game is actually good - which seems to rather depend on what you want from it - but the fact that, by and large, reviewers' opinions are split over whether they enjoyed the game's story or not.

Quite a lot is made over the simplicity and limitations of the game's controls, but I find this to be the less interesting issue - what's more interesting is that the reviewers who enjoyed game's story were willing to overlook the simplified gameplay, whereas the negative reviews seem to come from people who feel the story simply doesn't justify the mechanical limitations.

It seems that if you're going to make story the central focus of a videogame, then you'd better make sure you write a decent story. Who'd have thought it?

This was certainly my experience with Heavy Rain. I was thoroughly enthralled by that game and willing to accept its strange half-cinema half-QTE gameplay right up until the the story fell off the rails, at which point my enjoyment of the early game was replaced by a general sense of disappointment and missed opportunity. When the entire structure of a game is built around me absorbing a story, one dodgy plot twist can ruin everything.

I don't really want to discuss the successes or failures of Cage's writing - I'll just conclude that I consider him closer to the Shyamalan of gaming than the Scorsese - because that's neither kind nor interesting. Lots of games have bad stories. Lots of games have worse stories than Heavy Rain does.

What's interesting to me is the we're having this discussion at all - that game critics are rating a videogame based (almost) solely on the strength of its narrative. Regardless of the quality of their actual games, this is a big achievement for Quantic Dream - to move the discussion of videogames on from a purely mechanical or presentational focus and onto a discussion of whether they convey an effective story or not is an important step for the medium.

This isn't to suggest that Quantic Dream is the only studio moving games in the this direction, or to belittle the work of the countless other studios working in the same field; this is simply a particularly high-profile example. Beyond is a PS3 exclusive with a AAA budget and actual Big Name Movie Actors off of Actual Hollywood. It is, for better or worse, a Metacritic Front Page Game, and in mainstream gaming that's quite important.

It's also worth noting that I'm not the sort of person who thinks that every videogame needs to tell a story, or that games that do are somehow inherently better than those that don't - but I do have a particular interest in games as a narrative medium, and I'm also very tired of seeing games reviews primarily based around whether the game in question works properly or not.

Isn't it so much more interesting to discuss whether a game tells a compelling story than to argue over whether Grand Theft Auto deserves a 9 or a 10 on an arbitrary scale of objective goodness? This sort of subjective discussion is great - reviewers should have differing opinions of a game, if only because it's highly unlikely that any game is going to appeal to every reviewer, and they shouldn't have to.

This sort of wide-ranging review field is common in other forms of media, and it can only be a good thing to see some honest critical debate for games as well. Subjectivity should be cherished in criticism, because it sparks worthwhile discussion. And no, death threats over Twitter do not count as worthwhile discussion.

So maybe Beyond: Two Souls is a good game, and maybe it's not. Maybe it tells a compelling story and maybe it doesn't. One day I'll play it, then at least I'll have an actual opinion. But if all David Cage has achieved with his recent effort is to get us really talking about narrative in a big-budget console release, then he's done us a service.

I still think the twist at the end of Heavy Rain sucks, though. You're not getting off that easily, Dave.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.

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