Games

David Cage and the Evolution of 'Beyond: Two Souls'

As a companion piece to Heavy Rain, it is easier to appreciate Beyond as an improvement for Cage and an evolution in his body of work, contentious though it may be.

According to a recent interview with VG247, Beyond: Two Souls Writer and Director David Cage very much considers his latest game as a discrete experience from Heavy Rain: “We didn’t try to replicate Heavy Rain, because we would have just done Heavy Rain 2. We really wanted to create an experience that would be different.” The game does diverge in places dramatically from its predecessors. Cage has critical reasons to separate the two titles. Over the years, Cage has built up a healthy group of naysayers and critics, partially for his overly-optimistic faith in “more pixels” and partially for his heavy reliance on cinematic design choices in his games.

However, we do the game a disservice by thinking of Beyond independently from Heavy Rain. What can appear arbitrary or strange in Beyond is better understood as a response to or evolution of ideas implemented in Heavy Rain. As a companion piece, it is easier to appreciate Beyond as an improvement for Cage and an evolution in his body of work, contentious though it may be.

In one of Heavy Rain’s Saw-like challenges, Ethan, one of the game’s four protagonists, weaves his way through live electrical wires. As Ethan bends his body and holds it in strange positions to slip through the gaps in the line, the game asks you you hold down a series of seemingly arbitrary buttons, each corresponding with Ethan’s careful movement. The result is an act of hand gymnastics as you stretch your fingers across your controller without letting the others slip from their position. It’s a silly but admirable attempt at abstraction in hopes of evoking some relationship between your awkwardly placed fingers and Ethan’s desperate acrobatics.

These feats of dexterity still appear in Beyond: Two Souls, but far more rarely and in a very much simplified form. Jodie, the game’s lead character, can climb walls or jump off ledges by following certain button prompts or the occasional controller shake, but most of the time, actions are determined by simple directional movement of the right stick. Jodie rarely attempts such complex maneuvers as Ethan’s. Instead, the emphasis on directional movement seems an attempt to divorce the experience from the physical presence of the buttons in a way that Heavy Rain failed to do. Cage is streamlining the interactive process in Beyond to emphasize his devotion to the cinematic, clearing away some previously clunky components.

The evolution of the action scenes between the two games highlight Cage’s design process in particular. In one scene in Heavy Rain, the game’s detective chases a suspect through a store. In the chaos, you are asked to shake the controller to toss a chicken, and then, in response to a huge button prompt, press left to pursue your target. The sequence, visually, is outlandish and recalls the “Press X to Jason” meme that earned the strange relationship between interaction and narration so much attention.

Action in Beyond: Two Souls, while occasionally just as ridiculous as its predecessor, more generally uses visual cues in animation to convey mechanical intent. If an enemy is swinging a punch at Jodie, the game triggers slow motion and, without any on-screen prompt, asks you to move the right thumb stick in the direction that the character moves. Press right as Jodie tries to block an attack. If you’re too slow or move in the wrong direction, the block fails. As a result of this visual movement based system, you become hyper aware of Jodie’s physical form and flow. Cage’s attempt to tie the play experience to the action on screen is greatly improved in his latest attempt. That being said, it has the side effect of drawing your attention away from the events on screen and towards Jodie’s movement alone.

These design decisions may have come from Cage’s intent to focus on one primary character in Beyond. Aiden, Jodie’s spiritual companion, is very much a secondary character and actually behaves far more like the player’s avatar within the fictional world than as a discrete persona. Aiden interacts magically and maneuvers through the environment like any other in-game camera. Since Jodie can see through his eyes (although he doesn’t really have any), the way she interacts with the world through Aiden is the same way we as players interact with the world through Aiden. Again, Cage bonds players closer to the game’s protagonist through the narrative environment that equates Jodie’s experience with our own. Considering some of the sloppier first-person scenes in Heavy Rain, Cage has come far closer to his player-protagonist ideal in his latest attempt.

The actual narrative in which these protagonists find themselves in has improved more slowly unfortunately. At its worst, the writing in Heavy Rain is nonsensical and sophomoric. Likewise, Beyond: Two Souls features some painfully awkward chapters. The romantic meanderings through the story, particularly the Navajo section of the game, feel completely out of place, and the motivations for some of the primary characters, especially Nathan, feel rushed and poorly implemented.

That being said, Cage rightly chose to abandon the multiple characters and protagonist mortality angle from Heavy Rain. Jodie carries the game and therefore is not as easily dispatched as, say, Madison. Cage and his team at Quantic Dream still maintain Heavy Rain’s efforts at offering diverse perspectives and environments by hopping around Jodie’s life in small vignettes. Instead of using a variety of characters, they use a variety of Jodies in essence.

Despite Cage’s best efforts, the game’s conclusion still comes off as messy. Erik Kain from Forbes is right to call the disjointed story a “parlor trick”, a failed attempt to hide poor storytelling. But even so, it is an act of deception meant to address Cage’s known weaknesses. Whereas Heavy Rain’s conclusion was frankly an outrageous mess, by moving around various points in Jodie’s life, Cage attempts to establish proper motivation for his characters before pivotal story beats. Something he failed to his earlier attempt. In light of Heavy Rain, the decision to break the story apart at least makes sense, whether or not you consider it a success.

While David Cage has only released two widely played games, he has become a contentious spokesperson in the games industry, as though he claims to have found the solution to all of the industry’s problems. Playing Beyond with his other work in mind though, Cage seems more like he’s making all this up as he goes along. Beyond: Two Souls is far from perfect, but it is a concerted effort by a games auteur to improve his own work and come closer to some personal vision. As Cage says of his own writing over the years, “it’s been a very interesting process.” As such, considering Beyond as anything but another stop in this process, another ongoing attempt by David Cage to grow as a director, undermines the value the game and the designer offer to player. Beyond may not be a critical darling, but as a cultural artifact, it stands out as progression amid so many other triple-A titles that feel mostly like iterations of the same design repeated over and over again.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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