FBT doesn’t play a game.
A young woman, injured and silent, is brought to a local sheriff's office. Before they can get anything out of her, a SWAT Team descends. Moments later Willem Defoe runs in and finds her gone and the SWAT Team in pieces. Flashing back, we discover the girl, Jodie, has an imaginary friend who is anything but imaginary. Or friendly.
For all of Quantic Dream’s claims that they’re trying to create something new in the gaming medium, this feels incredibly hackneyed and seen-it-before. Girl has superpower that she struggles to control, is cared for by kindly doctor who is decent but has dangerous plans, she winds up working for a shadowy government team looking to weaponize her, she rebels, becomes a fugitive … I’m guessing, at this point it’s still downloading. But once I’ve got it loaded up, I see what QD are trying to achieve; remove the last obstacle in preventing a game from being perfect – the gamer.
I’m not playing this. I’m just doing the stuff QD couldn’t be arsed to animate. Opening doors, sitting down, standing up again, turning on taps. What is it with QD and their obsession with the mundane? Why break a cut-scene to have me open a door then resume the cut scene? No other developer puts so much emphasis on the daily crap we game to escape from. It's not absorbing or immersive, it's annoying. Why do I do all the admin and the cut-scenes get all the fun? Is this to justify the cost of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe?
And when we do get some action, it’s QTE time. At its most challenging it’s that goddamn car bouncing scene in GTA San An. The only gamers who’ll enjoy this are closeted Dance Dance Revolution fans. Why can’t I actually control the fist fight, or the gun fight, or stealth? It’s so arrogant of QD, like I can’t be trusted to play this. Every action is pre-ordained – I have to do it the way they say. I’m an afterthought. They lovingly animate Ellen Page doing something exciting, then think ‘oh yeah, chuck in a QTE for the ape playing this’.
Plus, when we do get control it’s impossibly frustrating; a dot appears, you sway her toward it like a drunkard, and make her interact. But if you don’t hold the button long enough or press the wrong one, she cancels the action, the camera swaps to a different perspective for no reason and you have to start all over again, or it counts as her failing and moves on. Or you get stuck in a ‘NO! AGAIN!’ loop over and over. It’s not me! Why am I here? What is the f’ing point?! This is like watching a movie that randomly pauses and all you have to do is press play again. I’m close to pressing Eject.
Playing as her ethereal sidekick can be fun at times though. Often, while we’re ‘Aiden’ there’s options to be a complete bastard, and you take them just to get out all the frustration. But here comes Quantum Dream making sure we’re not having too much fun. Almost all the actions, responses and behaviours Aiden or Jodie exhibit can have repercussions, which just paralyses you, turns you into the world’s most well-behaved poltergeist.
This is basically one of those old Chose Your Own Adventure books. Sure, we’re picking the path, but what happens on it is totally out of our control. As I button monkey my way through the plot, I realise its rail-game nature isn’t just exposing the plot’s shortcomings, it’s exposing the mo-cap’s limitations. They look like Ellen Page and Willem Defoe, and sometimes it’s beautiful, but you’re watching so intently it reaches Uncanny Valley levels, it’s the dead eyes and lack of emotion you pick up on, not the feeling or story.
And since the game is non-linear, bouncing back and forth through her story, it's hard to anticipate or build the kind of person Jodie is, or what Aiden is. Is she really this reluctant, or hiding the true scale of her and Aiden’s powers? Is Aiden her protector or abuser, is she using him? It doesn’t involve you in a way that gets you curious or invested – for a game dedicated to storytelling, it’s all at QTE-arm’s length. QD, either put me in charge or just make a movie. Oh for crying out loud, they entered it into the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
If we’re supposed to be so invested in the story, why make is so achingly cliché and corny? An early moment sees young Jodie attend a birthday party - all the cliches are here; jock kid, stoner, slut girl, toadies, who bully her with such ferocity it’s screaming ‘bring out the demon and screw them up like every teenage horror movie that has a girl with dangerous powers does’. We’ve all seen Carrie. Even the reveal of Aiden’s true nature is a groan-worthy ‘didn’t think it would be that obvious’ moment we’ve seen in a ton of straight-to-video horrors that caused me to QTE my way to the exit screen. Easily my most hated game of the year.
So many Walking Sims have done this story-driven experience far more effectively; at least there I control the walking. This isn’t even an original concept let alone plot. I do applaud what they’re attempting here, making games as art, favouring narrative over action. But I need to be involved in a way that doesn’t boil down to a boss battle with a doorknob.
I loved QD’s first game, Omikron: the Nomad Soul and really wanted to like this, and at first I didn’t mind the interactive element but this is not “Interactive storytelling”, it’s Quantic Dream not letting us play with their toy.