11 PREVIEW: Beyond: Two Souls [PS3]

Playstation’s first big reveal in their media briefing was Beyond: Two Souls, the new IP of Quantic Dream. Pundits had been expecting something from the developers of Heavy Rain since early March, when they released a gorgeous tech demo featuring Kara. We can now be officially excited that this new engine and animation technique is to be fully deployed in the full service of quality interactive drama.

Beyond tells the story of Jodie Holmes, and aims to tell 15 years in her life story: this should allow for the kind of extended character development we saw in Heavy Rain. The trailer shown in Playstation’s media briefing emphasised the mystery narrative surrounding her: she has been found, lost, with no apparent identity or connection to anyone, and is reticent to answer any questions posed by law enforcement officers. Tension built during a SWAT raid and exploded into full action for the end of the trailer.

This development led to some mixed responses from E3 attendees. Of course, it was impressive, and garnered huge anticipation, but at the same time many felt that Quantic Dream were reverting to the same action tropes (replete with exploding gas station) that has become somewhat yawnworthy at E3. However, this disappointment turned out to be premature since there was no gameplay demonstration at the conference. In a floor show demo it became aware that it was certainly no running and gunning that led to the action we saw, and that Quantic Dream have gone well beyond (pardon the pun) the usual devices.

To be sure, interaction with the environment was initially undertaken with the quick-time-event-style gameplay that characterises Heavy Rain (with associated Move support). However, the use of analog sticks, shoulder buttons and sixaxis was then replaced by what looks to be the game’s key mechanic. To explain this though we will need to return to the narrative core, since (thankfully) it is deeply intertwined with gameplay.

As the title suggests, Jodie is not alone: she does have some sort of extra sensory powers, and in the reveal trailer we saw a display of telekinesis do some serious damage to a coffee cup. Further, she is accompanied by a companion or spiritual guide of some sort, named Aiden, who enables the player to mindjack NPCs in order to take control of their actions. Aiden’s movement take place via a first-person mechanic which displays pathways and actions with shimmering blue and yellow threads. Aiden is thus able to control the actions of others, whereby body the perspective switches to third-person.  In this way SWAT operatives will turn on each other or themselves, all while Jodie hides away, relatively free of blame. We have been assured that the problem-solving will be dynamic and the player will be able to explore different options for dealing with situations. This key mechanic in Beyond is what negates the scepticism around the action shown at the end of the trailer, and only serves to intrigue us further.

In terms of technology, what is so impressive here is what we might call “integrated animation”. This means that instead of the 28 motion capture cameras that were used for Heavy Rain, Beyond uses some 65, across the entire body and face of the actor. In contrast, Heavy Rain would sometimes use different actors for facial animation to those for body animation, and this was also a major problem for LA Noire. The full-body animation means that we no longer feel like we are watching human heads stuck on wooden poles, and allows the full range of expression to become apparent.

Here we have the other main drawcard of this game: the announcement of Ellen Page as the actor for Jodie Holmes. It should no longer surprise us that big developers are able to pull some heavy hitters from the world of Hollywood, but we can still get excited about it. A Canadian actress, Page is best known for her Academic and Golden Globe nominations for Juno, and may also be known for her roles in Inception and X-Men: The Last Stand. On set there was apparently some confusion about the pronunciation of Aiden’s name and they ended up having to go with what Page was saying (rather than how the rest of the crew understood it): this is surely to do with the fact that Page is from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Canadians from the Maritimes have different inflections in their accent.

[img_big]center,9587,2012-06-06/20418BEYOND_SCREEN_02.jpg,Aiden at work[/img_big]

Given the pedigree behind Beyond: Two Souls, it’s not too much to speculate that we may for the first time see acting in a game be given a major industry award. This would be further evidence of the increasing production values of game development that have taken a screening of LA Noire to the Tribeca Film Festival. In any case, fans of Quantic Dream’s previous work, and those interested in quality games generally, now have even more to look forward to with this project.

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