"It's been a long time for us keeping secrets we've been trying to keep," Quantic Dream’s CEO and founder David Cage tells the assembled journalists crammed in a dark mocap studio to see a presentation of "Beyond: Two Souls." That time and effort meant a new engine, a new, UI-light, contextual style of gameplay from the "Indigo Prophecy" and "Heavy Rain" developer.
During the hands-off guided tour of “Beyond,” Cage seemed to prime us all for our time with a brief pre-beta demo later in the day, setting our expectations for how the studio's new piece of interactive fiction would play out. Not playing the game and hearing Cage talk about it was instructive in its own strange way: we go to learn about some of the new tech and (most importantly) see and understand how almost pathologically Cage and his team are driven by visual fidelity and getting out of the player's way in their new game.
"We've tried to create a unique experience that's based on different paradigms from other games," Cage effuses early on, laying out his team’s philosphy through a series of PowerPoint slides (he promises that we’ll get to the juicy stuff soon). “Beyond” is a heavily interdisciplinary game with an emphasis on cinematic talent, involving a large camera team, hundreds of minutes of motion capture, and Hollywood talent in actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe top-lining the supernatural thriller (television veteran Kadeem Hardison was featured in one scene as "Cole," a worker at the research facility where Jodie is being kept as a child).
Since the initial E3 reveal last year, Quantic Dream has been selling "Beyond" as a slice of heroine Jodie's life alongside her spectral companion Aiden. That slice will encompass 15 years, following Jodie at aged 8 to 23 told in what Quantic Dream is describing as "chronological disorder," requiring over 40 different versions of Page's character from childhood to adulthood. This means that Jodie will have a different look in each scene (among the game's cinematic aspirations, Cage name checks "Memento" here, saying his team wants to play with ideas of memory and time).
Cage wants to assure everyone that Dafoe and Page's involvement isn't marketing-driven, that neither performer was simply thrown into a booth and required to repeat endless voice over loops. Instead, Quantic Dream used a process more in line with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," using extensive performance capture via wireless rigs with the game's cast (including 300 characters shot over 12 months) performing at Quantic Dream’s in-house mocap studio.
There's a defensiveness to Cage's presentation for "Beyond"--which is currently somewhere between its alpha and beta--he's aware that the first question he'll get is "how will it play" and he knows that Quantic Dream will have to deal with concerns that their latest is simply an extended interactive cutscene. Cage has said before that the E3 presentation, where Jodie is being chased by gun-toting men, isn't necessarily representative of the overall experience--it's not one long series of chases. The gameplay will instead allow players to control both Jodie and Aiden throughout the course of their 15 years together, the source and motives of the sometimes jealous spirit part of the mystery of "Beyond."
But he feels like his studio has answered that criticism already with 2010's "Heavy Rain" which, like "Beyond" utilizes a context-sensitive set of controls and animations, which Cage hastens to explain aren’t QTEs (in fact, “Beyond” seems to eschew fail states altogether). “Beyond” evolves beyond the UI-heavy “Heavy Rain” with a mostly UI-free interface. Since the action in “Beyond” isn’t reliant entirely on, well, action, that allows Quantic Dream create free interactions with the environment. If you see a little white dot above or near something or someone, you can flick the right stick on the controller to allow Jodie to use it in some way.
Jodie is controlled in the third person, Aiden in first, the latter able to slip through walls, and interact with objects (from possession to killing enemies). In case you’re worried about getting disoriented, the spirit is bound to Jodie by an electric blue cord, and she’s easily identifiable wherever she is in the environment. Interestingly, Cage promises that the player can unleash Aiden at any time.
Without the interface for Jodie, the player will have to make best guesses about how to interact with a scene, Cage showing us a video of Page's character as a young adult sparring in a boxing ring requiring the player's contextual left and right inputs to come out on top in a match with a brawny bruiser. The action slows down bullet time-style to allow the player time to choose their input. Movement uses a traditional control scheme, with the player navigating the environment using the left analog stick.
During the live code presentation--set during a sequence where 8-year-old Jodie is placed in a research facility--Aiden floated out of Jodie and into an opposite room to help with a remote viewing experiment, guessing the correct cards in a sequence, the controls split between prompts in Jodie's room to select the correct card and later, Aiden terrorizing one of the technicians by cracking glass in the facility and generally throwing a tantrum (this earned the trophy "No Conscience"). The player can control the intensity of Aiden's blasts, pushing them out as light sparks or intense kinetic pushes. It still has the beats and feel of an adventure game with Jodie/Aiden basically trying to find the next thing in the environment which would push the sequence forward.
Continuing on to the live demo of the sparring sequence, the fight controls are handled using the right analog stick with Jodie delivering contextual kicks and punches to her sparring partner. The action slows down, the camera centers in on one of Jodie's limbs, and the player analyzes the best course of action. Cage tells us that if you watched this scene 20 times in a row, the unique animation system would allow it to play out differently each time. An interesting note: while the player can choose to use Aiden at any time, sometimes Jodie's little friend will go on the offensive if provoked, at one point strangling her sparring partner when the fight gets too rough (the spirit can also provide a kinetic shield to protect Jodie).
On the tech side, "Beyond" uses a new engine (impressively, Quantic Dream updates their camera between each game, so this isn't exactly unexpected). The 180-employee-strong Quantic Dream has nurtured ambitions towards bridging the gap between games and film, toiling away at the visual fidelity of its virtual performers while avoiding the AAA nexus of jingoistic shooters, space marines, zombies, and whatever other ready-made pitches other developers are chasing to reach those multi-million unit sales counts. It's a game that looks great and doesn't sound like it's afraid of going a little weird.
Case in point: the centerpiece of the presentation was an approximately 45-minute segment from later in Jodie's life, with our heroine on the run, escaping her past and apparently some of the bad things she's had to do up to this point in the story (bits of story here and there indicate a history with the military and Jodie being used as a weapon). Hungry, alone, and perfectly rendered as dirty, tired, and emotionally-broken by Quantic Dream's artists, Jodie is given shelter by a small diverse group of TV-friendly homeless people in the middle of a bitter winter.
For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t comment on the specific story beats here but I will give you my broad impressions of how I reacted to it. The emotional content--how Jodie feels and how we're supposed to feel about that--are constrained by on-the-nose dialog, moments where characters spend a lot of time extemporizing on their feelings instead of letting the impressive graphics engine and performance capture do the heavy lifting of communicating character feelings and needs. Great tech doesn't mean a thing if you're still a slave to not-great dialog. I almost checked out entirely when one of the band of friendly hobos used the phrase "I reckon"--it's such a small thing, but if your characters don't sound like actual flesh and blood people, then it doesn't matter how great they look.
This last part is important, because I respect what Cage is doing even if I’m still on the fence about how it’s being accomplished: Quantic Dream wants to push story forward in their games which is great. And they’re throwing their time and effort at building out the technology to create deep interactions with photorealistic performers, going so far as to cast incredibly talented actors like Page and Dafoe. But it can all be undone if the script isn’t there—“Heavy Rain” could be incredibly clunky and “Indigo Prophecy” notoriously went off the rails in the final act. We’ve only seen snippets of “Beyond,” so obviously it’s too early to say where Cage’s script will go.
So how does it play? Well, come back tomorrow and I can tell you about dancing around in fire with a ghost during "Beyond: Two Souls'" hands-on demo.
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