Beyond: Two Souls – Cage unveils opus in Paris

Thursday, 21 March 2013 14:00 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Beyond: Two Souls will take David Cage’s narrative vision to the next level in October. Patrick Garratt visits Quantic Dream in Paris to go hands-on and see brand new gameplay sections demoed.

Beyond: Two Souls is a very impressive video game, and probably the most exciting current-gen prospect. The wait for October promises to be excruciating.

David Cage doesn’t want us to spoil Beyond: Two Souls. Speaking to journalists at Quantic Dream in Paris yesterday, the writer and director took the time to tell us so. We could “do what we want,” obviously, but a factual run-through of what we saw would be “boring” to you, the reader, according to the Frenchman. He wants us, as writers, to focus on the emotional impact of the presentation and our brief play session.

David knows best.

We saw a long series of demos yesterday, the star element of which was a sequence called Homeless. It appeared to be a full level and lasted about 45 minutes. It certainly was emotional (we heard that word a lot yesterday), but we’ll go into that later. We then got to play a small section set in a hospital. This wasn’t particularly tear-jerking, but the whole point was just to show how the controls work. We weren’t even allowed to wear headphones during the first part of the playable demo because some of the dialogue gave away spoilers.

Some quick background. Beyond: Two Souls is Quantic Dream’s latest PlayStation 3 game. It’s out this October. David Cage has written the script. The French studio is known most recently for creating Heavy Rain, an innovative serial killer thriller which successfully blurred the line between “game” and “movie”. Beyond follows Jodie from childhood to womanhood over a story spanning 15 years. Jodie, played by Ellen Page, is joined to a poltergeist-like “entity” called Aiden by an ethereal cord, and it’s this partnership which forms the basis of Beyond’s play mechanics. The player controls both Jodie and Aiden. Willem Dafoe plays Nathan Dawkins, a government scientist who becomes a father figure to Jodie after experimenting on the supernatural elements surrounding her.

All set? Sensational. Here’s some new and absolutely emotionless facts before we get into the playable sections.

Cage constantly called Aiden a “ghost” in his presentation, but when I spoke to him later he wouldn’t elaborate on the plot at all. He said Beyond is a story about “growing,” “how events in our life make us who we are,” about “life, death, what’s on the other side.” The plot is “told in chronological disorder,” with the player being fed information out of logical sequence. You have to “rebuild the story” to find out what happens, and you sometimes see effects before causes. You can’t “watch passively” as the story is told, Cage said.

There are 40 versions of Jodie, ranging from a small child to a grown woman. Cage showed a set of images of her growth in a slide, and her homeless guise was second-to-last, the final picture being Jodie with no hair. Dafoe, too, ages throughout.

Cage has done away with Quick Time Events, a mechanic which bore much of the weight in Heavy Rain. Beyond’s combat is based on a bullet time-type system controlled only with the right analogue stick. If someone’s swinging a baseball bat at you, you just move the stick in the appropriate direction to block it. Cage showed us a training sequence in which Jodie is sparring against a man in a gym. We didn’t get to test the combat in the play session, but, as with everything else in the game, it looks completely contextual.

You can hear Cage explaining the QTE stuff below.

Beyond’s engine is new. It isn’t based on Heavy Rain’s tech. Some elements are based on Quantic Dream’s PlayStation 4 work, so depth of field, for example, is improved over Heavy Rain.

Here’s Cage talking about Beyond’s engine, including details of the PS4 features.

Beyond will take place across multiple locations and will last some 12-15 hours, according to Caroline Marchal. We saw a video showing Jodie in what looked to be an American wild west setting, skiing through a blizzard, and so on. Vehicles are drivable in places, and you get to ride horses and m0t0rb1k3s.

What Beyond is like to play

As I said earlier, the section we got to play was just designed to show us the controls. It was set in a hospital. I won’t talk about the plot elements at all. On a purely mechanical level, this is what it’s like to play Beyond.

You move Jodie with the left stick. You push it forwards and she walks in third-person, looking around her as she goes. The general UI is different from Heavy Rain’s. If Jodie is able to interact with an object, a small white circle appears next to it. You then move the right stick in the direction of the circle to complete an action. This could be getting up, crouching down, searching or whatever else.

The one thing that stuck out from my short time playing is how much you use Aiden, the ghost, who is accessed by pressing the triangle button. When you switch over to Jodie’s spooky friend, the controls become first-person in a traditional twin-stick format. The R1 and R2 buttons are used to raise and lower the camera. Aiden can fly through walls, hit objects and show Jodie flashback sequences based on the aura of corpses. This forms the basis of a great deal of the progression we saw.

To give an example. At one point Jodie needs to use a lift, but it’s stuck a few floors below. You need to switch to Aiden, fly into the lift shaft and through the roof of the lift, then move a cabinet to unblock the door. You do this by positioning yourself in front of the cupboard, at which point a white circle appears to tell you Aiden can interact with it. You pull the analogue sticks down and apart from each other, then let them go in a sort of catapult motion. This smacks the cabinet out of the way and the lift rises.

In this section we saw two other ways Aiden can interact with the environment. He can turn things on and off by moving the sticks in towards the circle of light instead of away. He can also do this with corpses, catching some of their aura and then moving it to Jodie’s head to show her a sequence of a usually grisly death.

Here’s how it can all come together. Jodie uses Aiden to watch a flashback of a dead person in the hospital, and this sequence shows the location of a fire extinguisher. All the rooms around her are burning. Aiden then flies through the flames to the fire extinguisher, turns back towards Jodie and does the catapult move to knock it back through the fire to her feet. You then switch back into Jodie, move the right stick towards the white circle next to the extinguisher, pick it up and put out part of the fire to progress.

Quantic described the state of the code as “between alpha and beta,” but there’s no doubting it works. Switching between the two characters became natural quickly, but needed to be explained by the producers on hand at first. It’s impossible to draw any conclusions from what we saw, to be honest. As I said, it was just to give us a quick feel of how play pans out. You can watch some of these sequences below.

Hands-off demos

We saw three hands-off demos. The first was Jodie being tested in a lab, and the second showed combat. The third was a large section called Homeless, which featured Jodie as a young adult. Here comes the emotion. Tissues at the ready.

The test section is about Jodie being held at a facility and using Aiden to tell the scientists which card another woman is holding up in an adjoining room. Jodie’s very young – she’s eight years old, apparently – and comes across as surly. For the record, the acting animations on both the child and the adults are incredible. I have three children and Jodie is immediately obvious as an unhappy infant. The way she doesn’t respond easily, the way she moves her mouth: it’s quite freaky.

Aiden turned the entire sequence from something melancholic into straight horror. The woman in the other room started to panic when he knocked over some blocks and really started freaking out when Aiden knocked over a table and started hitting the windows. Her aura turned red in the version we saw, and Aiden started to choke her. He also possessed one of the lab assistants, which gave the player control of him. If we’re talking about emotions, it definitely was quite nerve-wracking to watch, and the strength of the characterisations and motion capture was amazing. It engaged me because the reactions of the people involved were believable. Making a ghost story actually frightening is incredibly difficult in any medium, but Cage appears to have managed it.

You can watch parts of this sequence below.

The second demo showed off Beyond’s combat. Quantic Dream has done away with QTEs in the fights, and has instead employed a system of stick movements and bullet-time. Jodie was sparring with a partner in the gym is the segment we saw, and every time he tried to hit her his strike slowed down, giving the player enough time to counter it by moving the right stick. Every action is controlled in this way. If you compare it to the combat in Heavy Rain, in which everything was controlled by a blatantly obvious QTE press, it’s easy to see how Quantic’s built on previous work by refining. It looks good, no doubt. We weren’t allowed to test the combat.

Take a look for yourself.

By far the most significant section we were shown was the Homeless level, a long sequence which contained a string of emotional sucker punches culminating in a death. It included homelessness (obviously), pregnancy, an interactive birth sequence, parental worry, desperation, hunger, fear, pain, violence, suicide, camaraderie, hope, elation, horror, cold, warmth and sadness. It was affecting. I prickled when Cage asked us to not describe this sequence in detail – it was, after all, yesterday’s main event – but he was absolutely right. You should play this for yourself. You can see some of it in the screens below.

Let me put it this way. At one point in this presentation I literally had tears in my eyes. When it finished, everyone clapped. The only people in the room were journalists. I’ve been to this type of event many, many times, and can’t remember another occasion when a game demo was actually applauded. It felt as though we’d seen something new.

Beyond may stretch “reality” somewhat (anyone who’s witnessed a birth may be wondering what happened to all the blood), but that isn’t the point. Cage and his team took the entire notion of narrative to a new level with Heavy Rain, and this latest project appears to have trumped Quantic’s previous work in every department. Beyond: Two Souls is a very impressive video game, and probably the most exciting current-gen prospect. The wait for October promises to be excruciating.