'Binary Domain' and the Joys of Cut Scenes

by Nick Dinicola

15 February 2013

Binary Domain is something of a revelation: a linear action game that feels significantly affected by my decisions.

Good characters can enliven even the worst of stories, and the one thing better than watching good characters is watching good characters interact with each other. One of the best things about any BioWare game is the emergent conversations between characters. But that kind of adaptable incidental dialogue seems (to me, at least) solely the domain of the RPG, a genre that’s partly defined by your acquisition of a rotating roster of characters. The action game, on the other hand, seems defined by its linearity—all the way down to your party members. Binary Domain switches things up ever-so-slightly by applying the idea of squad choice to a very traditional cover-based third person shooter and the result is something of a revelation: a linear action game that feels significantly affected by my decisions.
At multiple points throughout the story, your squad will split up, and you’ll be able choose two of the five characters to come with you. This changes the incidental dialogue during combat and slightly alters some cut scenes. The end result is always the same regardless of your choice—this is still a linear action game after all—but the real joy isn’t in seeing how the plot changes. It’s in seeing how the character relationships change.

Binary Domain uses its cut scenes in the same way that Uncharted or GTA use their cut scenes. These cinematic moments are frequent without ever becoming overwhelming. They’re effective and concise, using animation and facial expressions to convey emotion instead of relying on forced dialogue. Since the characters don’t have to constantly state the obvious, they’re free to talk about other things, and it’s those “other things” that change depending on who is in your group. Binary Domain thus understands a very simple fact about people that most games forget. We don’t act the same around everyone; we act different when in different company. It’s much easier for a character to grow when we can see multiple sides of him, her, or (in Cain’s case) it.

You play as Dan, who looks as clichéd as video game characters come. Occasionally a teammate will ask you something, and you can either respond positively or negatively. This will either increase or decrease that character’s trust in you. This feature allows us some measure of control over Dan’s attitude, even though the game still retains control of his relationships.

For example, Bo. He’s your longtime partner, and whenever he and Dan are together, they team up against the third character in conversation. If Faye is the third wheel, they ogle her while she walks ahead. If Charlie is the third character, they tease him about his stoicism and professionalism. The camaraderie between Dan and Bo is unique to them. They don’t have that kind of relationship with the others. As a testament to that camaraderie, you can’t decrease Bo’s trust level through conversation. His trust will lower if you shoot him, but the two characters are already friendly enough that they can disagree without causing bad blood between them. The same can’t be said for the others, like Charlie.

Dan’s relationship to Charlie is particularly interesting. Dan is an odd protagonist for a video game because he’s not actually the leader of this squad, Charlie is, so Dan’s attitude towards Charlie represents Dan’s attitude toward the chain of command. When Charlie is absent, Dan becomes the de facto leader. Teammates will come up with a plan of attack (“You take the left, we’ll take the right!”), but they always ask for your permission. They’ll be upset if you ignore them, but the important point is that they ask. Charlie doesn’t ask. He just tells you the plan. You can still agree or disagree, but the context of the conversation has changed. You’re the subordinate in this situation, and how you react determines what kind of follower Dan is. Is he a rogue leader who still respects the chain of command, or is he a rebel through and through?

Moments like this allow us to form personas based on our current company. Comparing and contrasting those personas makes for a more interesting character overall. Dan is a very plain when you think about it. There’s not much to him beyond the white, rugged male soldier cliché, but because the game encourages us to forge multiple personas for him depending on the group, he comes out in the end feeling like a well rounded, fully realized person. Not an archetype.

The cast is the best thing about the game. I want to mix and match some more people. I never ran with Rachel, and now I want know her story and see her relationships develop. I want to see how she and Charlie team up against Dan in conversation (since those two former characters are longtime teammates). Binary Domain is the first shooter that I’ve played in a long time that I’ve started over immediately upon finishing, and I didn’t do that for the gameplay.

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