My Thoughts On: Beyond – Two Souls.

It’s been a little while since I did a “My Thoughts On” article, but boy, do we have something to talk about.

Beyond: Two Souls came out for the PS3 on Tuesday, and I’ve been playing it non-stop since. Before I get into Beyond, however, I want to talk about my history with Quantic Dream, the studio behind the game.

I’d always known about Quantic Dream, but I’d never actually played one of their games before. My first experience with them actually came from a tech-demo they put together, called “Kara”. Check it out below if you like, I’ll wait

A seven minute tech demo that felt like a fully realized short story or film. It had more impact and delivery, to me, in those seven minutes than most movies get in a hundred and twenty, or most games get in 10 or more hours.

I was addicted, I needed to see what they could do with a full game, rather than just a seven minute tech demo. Thus, I went out and bought a copy of Heavy Rain.

I put it in and played it for three hours straight, then I never picked it back up again.

The story felt uninteresting, and the pacing was horrid; I felt like I had accomplished nothing in those three hours, and that I’d not even seen or experienced anything of consequence. With the pacing, I understand that you want to take some time to showcase a bit of who these characters are as people, and even a bit of what their lives might be like on a normal day. Still, it felt completely wrong and like the game was wasting my time.

When I saw the announcement for Beyond: Two Souls, however, I was captivated by the idea. I decided to give them another shot, so I picked up a copy of Beyond on Tuesday and have been playing it without pause. That fact alone should give you the impression that it is an improvement over my previous experience.

So, let’s get down to talking about what Beyond actually even is as a form of media and what it’s about. Shall we?

Beyond: Two Souls, while technically a video game, will challenge your definition of the medium. It isn’t something that you “play”, but more of something that comes out as an interactive movie experience. Make a note of all three of those words in particular, they are there for a reason.

The game differs from just about all others in that events play out on their own, you just happen to choose some dialogue options that affect the way you interact via conversations, or you interact with certain objects in the game that cause certain actions. It’s something akin to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, or for those of you familiar with the title, an evolution of Dragon’s Lair.

You don’t play the game, you merely interact with it and the characters therein. Actions taken throughout the game come in the form of quick-time events, something that is normally reviled in games. For this title and its story, however, it fits.

Everything about the game tries to emulate a movie, trying to act as a bridge between films and games. The camera angle and the way you see scenes, the film-like score by Hans Zimmer, even the casting choices; Ellen Page plays the role of the protagonist, while Willem Dafoe takes on the role of the biggest supporting character.

When you refine or strip down everything so you can leave nothing to get in the way of the story and immersion, however, you put just about every bit of scrutiny on those two elements. That in mind, how does the story, its characters, and that immersion hold up? For me, quite well. It’s got some rough patches, but it felt stronger than most other games.

You play the role of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), who has been bound to an entity known as Aiden ever since she was born. No one can see him except her, no one can hear him except her, but he can interact with the world and Jodie. Aiden is able to move objects (or throw them), possess or even kill people, act as a link so Jodie can experience visions, ect. He is helpful, but he’s temperamental, possessive, and fiercely protective of Jodie.

Because of how he can sometimes gets temperamental or bored, along with how defensive he can get, he often acts out on objects and people around her. This, as you might imagine, gives her some small blessings, but becomes a curse that derails her entire life.

The entire game plays through important events in Jodie’s life, ranging from when she was a small child, to growing up in a research lab under Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe), all the way into her adulthood. You, as the player, witness how Aiden’s presence drives people away from her, attracts the attentions of others, and how her link to him affects the world at large.

You also switch to Aiden, using his powers to interact with the world around you and even make some decisions. His powers are how you interact with the world and advance the story beyond Jodie’s own actions. Possessing people to open gates or even attack other soldiers, choking certain people to death, linking a vision to Jodie’s mind, ect.

So that’s the premise, but how is the execution? It’s a mix between a few scenes of brilliance, an overall quality of very good, but spots a few blemishes.

The story plays out of sequence, so you’ll bounce from a scene with Jodie as a young adult all the way back to when she was five, to then fast-forward to just before the present day. It works very well some times, but other times it seems to fall a bit flat and feels slightly disjointed. There are some plot-holes that can be noticed if you pay attention as well, but they aren’t too glaring.

The pacing was also a noticeable improvement over Heavy Rain for me. The first and second acts mostly avoid any sense of feeling “epic” or larger than life, with even some scenes acting as a normal moment in a normal life (cleaning up the apartment and cooking dinner for a date, as an example). Even then, however, we see how Aiden’s presence influences those events and the meaning of them.

In addition, the third act took a turn that felt a little far fetched, making it seem that it would maybe have been better off staying a bit more “grounded”. From what I understand, however, this is something of a recurring theme in Quantic Dream games.

At the same time, the game falls victim to violating the rule of “show, don’t tell”. As an example, it goes from one scene of us seeing a supporting character acting like a complete toss-bag, only to fast-forward to the next scene where Jodie tells us (through Aiden) that he’s smart and funny while providing no evidence to show how the character’s personality changed in between scenes.

Some of the dialogue also feels like it could have been written better, but the cast makes the most with what they have. The solid performances, when combined with the exceptional facial animation and detail, felt like it brought some scenes to life and made their impact that much more real.

I got involved in the story enough, mostly through the characters, that I was hooked to it. I’d even be lying if I said that some scenes didn’t bring tears to my eyes as you watch Jodie’s entire life story play out in front of you, all of her hardships included.

Keep in mind, this is not a happy story. It deals with abandonment, life and death, and even societal segregation. Jodie’s life is a mess because of Aiden’s presence, and him being there warps the meaning of the smallest and greatest of things.

From what I understand, there are more than a few endings depending on how you chose and influenced things, so I will definitely go back and do a new play-through at some point.

That, however, is what the game is in a nutshell. It’s going to attract and scare away players because of what it is and what you experience.

You’re not buying and playing a game, you are getting and interacting with an exceptionally long movie with quick-time events and some dialogue choices. You are playing more of a role as an observer who is able to influence the story, watching this tormented girl’s life play out before you.

Gamers who are looking for a challenge or engrossing gameplay will not want to even try it, because that is not what Beyond: Two Souls is about. If you’re like me and live for stories and characters, no matter the medium, then it’s worth considering.

I enjoyed my time with Beyond: Two Souls. I thought it was a unique experience in its form of delivery, and the story was interesting to watch play out. There were some hiccups along the way, yes, but I am willing to overlook them in favor of how I felt as everything played out on the screen before me.

If this story sounds like one that you want to experience, and you’re willing to recognize that it isn’t a game in the traditional sense, then I would recommend Beyond to you. I’d maybe suggest waiting for a price drop, since some might take issue with what amounts to a $60, 10-hour movie with QTE’s, but I would suggest trying it none the less.

~ James.

The State of the Mind: September 2013.

Another month, another “State of the Mind.” You know what to expect from these by now, don’t you? If not, it’s simple: I rant and ramble about the things I’ve been thinking about, doing, or being entertained by, all to supplement me jabbering about the writing.

Any questions? No? Alright, let’s get to it.

First up, work-wise. The Veil is continuing on well after the recent bump into a bi-weekly upload schedule, rather than the weekly release. I personally think the last chapter was also a bit more improved because of it. The views have also been not too bad as well, so I can’t complain. However, leave it to me to not be satisfied with that amount of info. Instead, below, I’ve created a straw poll to try and get people’s thoughts on it.

If you want to participate in the poll, just click this link. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it scratches an itch of mine.

As for stuff that isn’t The Veil, there’s definitely a lot of things in the line-up. Getting back to work on Blood in the Machine is in order. At the same time, I am still frothing to sink my teeth into Dark Stars, but there’s plenty of time before that becomes a priority. I am just itching to write something new, however, and I’ve even had an idea hit me that I’d love to test.

The idea I actually want to try is a bit of a Sci-Fi horror story, though I don’t know how well I’d pull it off. It’d be more of a psychological horror attempt, using allegory about the research and creation of highly destructive weapons. Again, I have no idea how well it would turn out, but there’s also a lot of other projects to wrap-up between now and then.

On the social end, I’ve been on a bit of a silent-stretch on Google+, so I am working on changing that. At the same time, i installed and linked up Janetter for my PC and my phone, so my Twitter has been getting more organized so I can use it effectively. It’s all about that connection and such, so I may as well try and actually get connected.

On the media front, I’ve been on a bit of a binge. I finished two books (World War Z by Max Brooks and Andromeda’s Fall by William Dietz), watched three movies (World War Z due to Amazon Instant, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Silent Hill Revelation), and finished playing through Lost Planet 3.

Both the books were spectacular, with my especially loving Andromeda’s Fall. An interesting book, even if somewhat simple in concept, that had great characters and a good idea for battlefield detail. I’ve heard that Mr. Dietz intends to turn it into a trilogy, so I am rather looking forward to future runs with it. It is, as well, an exemplary showcase for how a lack of abundant visual description can help the mind create its own mental image for what you’re reading, something I believe I need to learn to adopt better.

Movies-wise, it’s a mixed bag. I thoroughly enjoyed both the novel and the film of World War Z, even if there are flat-out contradictions to the overall story including the fact that the entire film story doesn’t happen. But hey, it’s still an enjoyable zombie film, and I personally believe it’s one of the better films of the genre.

ST:ID was better the second time around, I’ll give it that. It’s an enjoyable SciFi action movie, but not a good Star Trek film. Then again, we’ve never really had a “great” Star Trek movie, so that doesn’t mean much. Silent Hill: Revelation, however was … it was an okay horror movie, maybe even a decent one, but it’s not a good tie-in to the series. Just as well, the later games in the series haven’t been good tie-ins either, so not much has changed.

As for Lost Planet 3 … ugh. I like the Lost Planet series, I even really enjoyed the emphasis on character and story in 3. However, for all of you developers out there, please do me a favor: Optimize your damn game before you release, okay?

In this one’s case, I’m one of those guys who has a fancy headset that emulates surround sound. For a guy like me who can’t use speakers without disturbing someone, it makes everything better from watching movies to playing games, even listening to music. However, LP3‘s movie files did not mesh with that surround sound what-so-ever, so every time a movie would pop up, either the game would crash or I’d have to do some dumbass dance between Windowed and Fullscreen mode.

I only found out about three-quarters of the way through that my headset was causing the conflict, so I had to swap it out for one of my older headsets. All the crashing, window-dancing, and instability really destroyed my ability to get into the game for those first three quarters, then being forced to use inferior hardware on a modern title ruined my experience for the last part. It’s a shame too, because I actually really enjoyed my time with LP3. Once they get it patched and fixed, I’ll probably go back and replay it.

I’ve also been playing Final Fantasy XIV on-and-off, really enjoying the time I spend with it. If you’re playing it as well, I am playing on the server “Coeurl”, and my character there is “Vaerys Dirion”. Currently in the high-teens now, looking to work up the tradeskills before I take my main class a bit higher.

Well, with all of that said, I’m still wide awake and some of my work is calling. Time to get to it. I hope you lot have a good rest of the weekend, and I hope to hear from you all soon.

~ James.

The State of the Mind: August 2013.

It’s been quite a wild ride for the last month or so. Kinda thinking a monthly “State of the Mind” might be a nice thing to throw together. Gives plenty of time for some new and interesting stuff, yet not spam people’s emails and social media filters.

What’s been happening, you ask? Well, let’s go down the list…

1: I am redesigning the way that people get notified about my posts on Google+. If you follow me over there and have no idea what I’m talking about, give this post a quick check.

2: Work continues on Blood in the Machine, which might be getting a new title. Something simpler and, admittedly, more story-focused. The story itself, however, has had entire new scenes added, thousands of words in new dialogue and details, and has had quite a few of the beta notes taken into account. That said, the work still goes on with it. I am eagerly awaiting the point where I can read my own finished version.

I am quickly approaching the point where I have to start considering my options for editing and cover art. I do know a couple approaches for the editing, but the cover-art aspect actually has me quite beat. I’ll start doing some more research as time goes on, but it’s definitely going through my head.

3: The Veil … yeah, there’s definitely some problems abound with this one. While I’ve yet to hear back from anyone in regards to pacing, it still remains a concern of mine. I still love the story in my head, but it feels out of place as I put it on paper.

I know that if I went back and reworked how it opened, I would have started it much, much later on than it did. That doesn’t mean, however, that I will be abandoning the story. No, I won’t leave the story half-done or abandoned or anything like that. Instead, I’ll write it through to completion, then take a damn chainsaw to cut and trim it before reworking it into a far more coherent version.

Every first draft is shit, right?

You lot said you wanted something episode, so you’re getting it. It just happens to also be a rather transparent example of the Work-In-Progress period of a piece. For all of you non-writers out there that are reading the series and this article, think of it like a learning experience.

If I went back in time, I doubt I’d honestly stop the project from starting even if I could. Instead, I’d have just done it smarter, and perhaps rebranded it less as an episodic piece and more as an “inside the writer’s workload” project.

4: As far as gaming goes … damn, this week is gonna kick my ass. Between Saints Row 4, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and my recent foray into State of Decay, there’s a ton to go around. I’ll probably also post up some “My thoughts on …” articles about a couple of them, so there’s something for ya.

5: For something that isn’t digital, however, there’s health. As some of you might be aware, I recently made a comment on Google+ about my level of fitness. From there, I started changing my eating habits and started working out, and there’s already been results.

I started this whole thing out weighing 242 Lbs at 5’5″, none of that being muscle mass. My main diet, at that point, consisted of frozen foods, crackers, and soda. Yeah, not exactly fun to admit, but it needs to be said.

Since then, I’ve started cooking real food after having cut all frozen food from my diet, and have slowed down on the soda consumption, replacing it with more water and some Gatorade (not the best, I know, but it fills a craving and is better for ya). Now, I’m down to 234, am feeling more physically fit (still dismally bad, but an improvement nonetheless), and have had to tighten my belt a couple more notches.

What’s my secret? I cut down on my portions, I replaced M&M’s and crackers with yoghurt and apples, and am eating chicken made with dry rubs instead of boxed, frozen pizzas. Throw in some water, a bit of exercise every other night at the minimum, and it’s actually been surprisingly effective.

No massive diet overhauls, no P90X, no insanely priced gym memberships, nothing like that. Just a bit of sensibility and shame, along with the voice of a lovely sounding English woman as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

So yeah, that’s where I’m at physically and mentally. Just thought I’d air out some thoughts and let you folks know where things stand and address some topics.

~ James.

My thoughts on: Remember Me (Video Game)

I finally got around to finishing Remember Me today, a title that has had me in a bit of a tizzy, so I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on it. By the way, this is for the video game, not the damn Robert Pattinson movie, so go ahead and cry your little Twilight hearts out.

I’ll try and not mention anything that’s spoiler material, but I might let something slip. You’ve been warned. These thoughts are also from the PC version of the game, so don’t ask about the console ports.

Remember Me caught my attention with their very first trailer, sparking my interest with its concept of memories becoming a shared commodity and specialized people being employed to pilfer and steal everything from small secrets to entire identities. In entertainment, I’m honestly not sure if I have ever seen something with a concept such as this, with the closest examples being Deus Ex in video games and Total Recall in films.

In Remember Me, you play Nilin, a memory hunter who’s been imprisoned and had her memory erased. Upon being broken free from captivity by a form of resistance that apparently has some measure of history with Nilin, she goes about trying to track down the truth about her past.

Now, this is the first time I have made a “My thoughts on” about a game, so I’m going to make a separation between the story, settings, and characters compared to the gameplay, engine, and sound assets. In this title, it actually will be quite helpful.

~ Story, setting, and characters ~

I’m not going to mince words here, the setting and main characters in Remember Me were brilliant. Seeing the world of Neo-Paris was, at times, breath-taking. I remember seeing the Eiffel Tower the first time and just stopping to admire the amazing scenery. On top of the world’s aesthetic, all of the holographic and digital displays and warnings that appear out of thin-air truly did give me the idea that this was a world of ours that had moved beyond us and our technological understanding.

Nilin, as well, became a protagonist that I latched onto stronger than most. By watching the trailers and promo footage, and even by playing the beginning of the game, you get the feeling that she’ll play out as a stereotypical “badass action chick” character. Perhaps it was just me, but there came a point in the game where a pivotal plot point occurs that seemed to break that illusion and reveal a scared little girl underneath it all. To me, I found her character more human than most protagonists I find in gaming. It also helps that her voice acting was top-notch and helped convey the emotion behind the character.

The story was a bit confusing at first, but it eventually played itself out to a point where it was both comprehensible and refreshing. As large as the story seems to be in scope, it actually scales down to the story and fate of three characters. When I learned that it was actually smaller in focus than it seemed, I found myself enjoying it more.

In total, the game is one that reaches for the stars with its concept and themes. It’s refreshing and new, with an aesthetic and characters that populate it in a way that had me interested and carried me through the title.

~ Gameplay, engine, and sound assets ~

This … is where Remember Me struggles. Where as it reaches for the stars with theme and characters, it stumbles and falls a bit flat with its actual mechanics. From a gameplay standpoint, I found myself having to use my 360 controller for an input method, rather than my mouse and keyboard, due to the imprecise movements and actions. By genre, it’s an Action Platformer, but there are far better titles for both. You have essentially no freedom at all for the platforming, forced to follow guiding arrows or else you go nowhere or die. The combat, as well, relies upon you building and stringing together melee combos, but it becomes aggravating when you keep getting interrupted and lose your combo.

The engine, as well, has some issues. Between stuttering and texture popping, there comes points where it feels like the tech just couldn’t quite support the theme and aesthetic they were aiming for. At the same time, such issues were uncommon for me, and the level of detail felt solid enough to not make me note anything that detracted from the visual works on display.

For the sound assets, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The voice acting, with the exception of Nilin and another character you meet towards the very end, hovers around “average” and, sometimes, dips down into “poor”. This isn’t helped when the written dialogue for most of the characters, with the exception of Nilin and the other character, goes from “tolerable” to “cringe-worthy”. The best defense of the dialogue is that Dontnod, the developer, is a smaller French developer, so it might simply have been something lost in translation.

The music takes cues from the aesthetic and setting, sounding like a techno-remix of a dubstep album. The thing is, for this title, it works brilliantly. It blends in with the setting in a mesh that feels completely natural and helps augment the experience. While it isn’t something I’d listen to in my car or at work on its own, it helps the experience.

~ Conclusion ~

Remember Me is a title that I have a difficult time wrapping my head around. It bets everything on its characters and setting, leading the actual gameplay mechanics to fall behind a bit. Perhaps the combat and platforming aren’t as bad as I am making it sound like, but when you see how much promise the title has, the slightest fumble feels like they’re throwing themselves off a cliff. I really hate saying this, especially given the fact that it’s such a new, fresh setting that has a few great ideas in it, but it does suffer from the gameplay.

If you’re trying to make up your mind about whether to buy it or not, I’d say wait and see if you can get it on a good sale. If you’re bent on getting it or have already got it and haven’t tried it, I’d implore than you try and approach the game with the story and characters as your main focus. When you go in for the combat and platforming, I think you’ll likely be disappointed. In hindsight, I enjoyed my time with it, but I also play games with a heavy focus on story and characters, so I can look past a lot of gameplay and technical quirks.

Anyways, that’s just my thoughts on Remember Me. I hope this helps you decide if you want to take a peek at the game, but I just wanted to have a brief talk about it. Now, off to go get some more writing done.

~ James.

The State of the Mind.

Well, this has been awhile. So what’s going on? Well…

1) Flash Fiction submissions. I’ve recently written and submitted two pieces of Flash Fiction out and am waiting to hear back on. Both are technically pieces of contemporary fantasy, though in their own way. As a whole, however, I am actually thankful to be done with Flash Fiction. The restrictiveness of it, while great as a learning instrument, is just unbearable for someone like me. I enjoy having some room to elaborate and unveil things, something that Flash Fiction doesn’t afford you in the slightest.

2) Under a Falling Sky is back in the re-working chamber. Not after a draft, mind you, but on the conceptual front. I’m just not pleased with the current state of the story, so it’ll be being reworked and re-engineered for now. It is a setting and a story I want to show, but it’s just being a little … difficult.

So, why don’t I just shelve Under a Falling Sky in favor of working on the Dark Stars universe? Well, I’d rather not have my first novel out the door being part of a larger, sprawling series which is rather intertwined. So, for that reason, I am wanting to make this story be my debut, but I want it done in a proper way.

3) On the revisions and editing front, I have Echoes which needs a plot revision before I post it up for beta reading. I also still have Guns of Asgard which needs a load of edits and revisions, so there’s that. Then, to round that off, Blood in the Machine still needs some work, though actually only a little. So, as you can see, there’s still plenty to be done.

4) On the gaming front, I’ve actually become quite engrossed in three titles for the moment. I’ve fallen back in love with The Secret World & Diablo 3, while I’ve also been starting to play Defiance. All three are unique and quite enjoyable. In case anyone wants to track me down, I’ll make it easy for ya.

TSW: Vaerys; Defiance: Alec Rho; Diablo 3: Makon#1350.

Anyways, I am off to go grab a few groceries, stew on some ideas for UaFS, and see about getting into trying tea (the proper English way), so I’ll be off for a little while. Ciao.