Beyond: Two Souls isn’t a film. It isn’t a game.
The interactive adventure game, released by French developers Quantic Dream for Sony’s Playstation 3, is a melding of the two. Using sophisticated motion-capture technology, actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe are pitted against a backdrop of seemingly endless storylines. It’s the player who determines the direction of the narrative.
Welcome to the age of convergence entertainment.
But just what do we mean by “convergence entertainment”? It involves bringing together two or more media forms, styles, systems and platforms to produce entertainment we can all enjoy – and that is economically viable.
We see this convergence in most of our treasured media forms: television now outperforms cinema at its own game, providing the intellectual, emotional, even visceral experiences usually reserved for big-screen cinema; can there be anything more “cinematic” than the final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad?
Convergence is nothing new as media logic. But gaming opens up a brave and potentially disconcerting new world of aesthetic and economic convergences.
It’s not hard to detect the influence of gaming on cinema. The entire output of a filmmaker as popular as Michael Bay liberally borrows from a gaming sensibility, with its heightened spectacles, formulaic stories and reassuringly familiar character arcs.
And is it so radical to suggest that a movie such as Inception (2010) takes a lot of its dramatic punch from the humble platform game? After all, we enter the virtual dream-space with Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), complete a prescribed set of tasks (goals) and graduate to the next level.
As the release of Beyond: Two Souls shows, however, the future of convergence entertainment promises even more complex integration of media genres and platforms.
Companies such as Sony and Disney are increasingly invested across the entertainment media spectrum, channelling resources into cinema, television, music, merchandising – and the gaming industry.
These multi-faceted entertainment industries are no longer separated by production streams. Rather, they take a bit here, or a bit there, successfully converging revenue sources.
Rock Star’s Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V), released recently, recouped more than a billion dollars in its first three days, a time-frame roughly equivalent to the opening weekend measure of the studio tent-pole film.
Tent-pole releases refer to the films that will buffer a studio against the monetary losses from smaller, often niche-market releases. But not even 20th Century Fox’s Avatar (2009) or Disney’s The Avengers (2012) came close to the monetary performance of GTA V last month.
Faced with such a strong economic performance in an increasingly globalised entertainment marketplace, the film industry is facing a hard truth: gaming has outstripped films as a revenue source, even in their myriad distribution streams – theatre screening, Blu-ray, DVD and home entertainment providers.
The once humble console game has metamorphosed into a potentially more lucrative art form and commodity than any other in the history of entertainment media. And rather than being a pastime for adolescents and the maladjusted (a common perception of the ordinary gamer “out there”), gaming has the potential to reach the widest audience demographic, to speak to the widest set of personal and collective fantasies.
Of course, game designers have strategically used a convergence media ethos to diversify target markets. It only makes sense for an entertainment product to converge with other entertainment products, speaking to a range of interests. It benefits a complexly diversified company such as Sony to attract its cinema consumers to the gaming interface, drawing down double the revenue on a Sony product.
I was on a panel recently with the visionary head of Quantic Dream, David Cage, the man and the company behind Beyond: Two Souls. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious game which offers a densely layered narrative experience. The high-wattage personas of the stars, Elaine Page and Willem Dafoe, dominate the publicity posters. The promotional material looks much like any other set of film posters put out by Hollywood studios.
Talking at some length with Cage, I discovered the uniqueness of his vision was based essentially on his search for, and commitment to, a complex, sophisticated convergence of gaming and cinema aesthetics. Cage welcomed the description of Beyond: Two Souls as “cinematic gaming”.
There was something almost reverential in his description of cinema and its long century of evolution; by comparison, gaming is an infant in its early stages of development. Cage openly engages gaming as a new media form without limits.
But as a film academic, I have some strong reservations about how far this convergence can be taken. I welcome media experimentation, and mass media has thrived on precisely this process of transformation.
My concern is that the potential of aesthetic convergence will be constrained by the economic realities of the global entertainment industry. GTA V is a billion-dollar affirmation of one kind of gaming experience; and a billion-dollar economic return has the power to exclude other kinds of experiences.
How many games are out there rubbing against the grain of GTA V’s (or any other mass produced game) aesthetic and economic norm?
How can we possibly fathom what gaming will become, or what in the next couple of decades will constitute a gaming experience? All contemporary mass media forms – even, and perhaps especially, gaming – are shaped by the markets within which they are produced.
This is not to value one game over another, to exalt Cage’s “complex emotional experience” of Beyond: Two Souls over GTA V’s visceral game-play. But it is to project the notion of the gaming experience as open-ended, as having the capacity to reflect the whole gamut of intellectual, emotional and visceral experience.
Which is, in a sense, what cinema has attempted to do, with varying results, for more than a century.