I am one of those people that tends to think, or at least associate, in quotes. Be it from movies, books, television, or even games, memorable lines from other works constanty pop into my head, even in only the most tangentially relevant scenarios. Following the end of the E3 press demo shown for Beyond: Two Souls, the latest game from Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream, a quote from the movie Doubt began playing over and over in my head. At the very end of the film, the character played by Meryl Streep slowly says "I have doubts...I have such doubts!" with increasing levels of volume and distress. By the end of the demo, I was practically mouthing those exact words.
It's not that I don't trust Quantic Dream to make a good game. Even at their worst moments, both Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain still showed at least a modicum of unrealized promise. My issue is that I don't entirely trust David Cage. Cage, who is simultaneously Quantic Dream's creative lead and designated mouthpiece, is a man who talks a very good game. He speaks in grandiose terms, talking of creating unprecedented emotional resonance, of truly cinematic gameplay, of creating wholly unique connections to the characters you play as, and play alongside. At times, flashes of those grandiose claims have appeared in Quantic Dream's games, though it's impossible to say that they have been wholly successful. It is, in some respects, similar to the situation one often faces when listening to Peter Molyneux talking about his various projects. He speaks with such clarity of vision that you sometimes don't realize that the things he says are kind of insane, and potentially impossible to deliver on. David Cage said a lot of things when demoing Beyond: Two Souls for me. I don't know how many of them I actually, earnestly believe.
I'll say this: if Quantic Dream actually does deliver on what Cage says Beyond will be, then it's going to be something pretty special.
If you haven't seen the demo from the PlayStation press conference, I've embedded the truncated trailer version below. You ought to give it a look before we go any further.
Having seen that video, you now have the basics of the game's concept. Jodie (Ellen Page) is a troubled young girl who has a connection to an otherworldly force she has named Aiden. Cage was unsurprisingly unwilling to divulge too much info regarding the nature of Aiden's existence, save but to say that Aiden has been with Jodie for much of her life. Players will actually see that relationship evolve over time, as the game takes place over the course of 15 years of Jodie's life, as she matures and finds herself in increasingly perilous situations.
Based on the single chapter Cage showed, much of that peril will come in the form of shadowy government forces that seem keen on capturing or killing Jodie for as-yet-unrevealed reasons. The S.W.A.T. cop you see in the above video is the central antagonist of this chapter, though Cage stopped short of calling him the game's primary villain. One gets the impression that there may be some additional antagonistic forces at work here.
Interestingly, the chapter sequence we began with played not from Jodie's perspective, but rather Aiden's. At various points throughout the game, you'll be able to take control of Aiden, who is not able to take corporeal form but does have the ability to interact with the environment in limited fashion. The scene opened on a train traveling through some unidentified corner of America. Jodie sat fast asleep in her seat, hood pulled tightly over her head so as to both shut out the light and perhaps avoid anyone seeing her face. As Aiden, you are effectively left to your own devices for a time. You can float through the train car, knock objects around, drop the temperature around people to make them shiver, or even bug Jodie, who generally admonishes you for bothering her. Interestingly, you can even float outside of the train car, watching the rainy, darkened world speed by from a closer perspective. However, you are limited to a certain distance of movement, as Aiden is "tethered" to Jodie. It can only travel within range of that tether, which only Aiden can see in the form of a glowing blue rope of pure energy.
It's not long before things start to go wrong. The train makes an unscheduled stop, and, while still controlling Aiden, you can wander outside to discover a number of cops surrounding the train. You can overhear their, frankly, kind of hammy dialogue regarding what's going on--one of them actually says "These orders come from THE TOP, man," with stone-faced seriousness. Curiously, the train then starts up again, but now there are cops on the train looking for Jodie. It's up to you to warn her, which you can do multiple ways. Cage chose to show Aiden knocking her stowed backpack onto her head, which she wasn't appreciative of. However, once she saw the law was approaching, she began frantically searching for an exit.
This was the moment where Beyond morphed into an actual game. Control switched to Jodie, and she began running through the train car, away from the cops. Periodically other cops or other obstacles would pop up, and in order to get past them, button prompts would pop up, requiring specifically timed presses, movements of the Sixaxis controller, or the old "mash the buttons until that really strenuous thing you're seeing on screen is over with" mechanic.
So, yes, in this regard, Beyond does appear to bear some strong resemblance to Quantic Dream's previous games, in that action is based heavily around contextual mechanics. However, Cage noted that in any situation where contextual actions weren't appearing, the player would be in total control of Jodie. Later during a chase through a wooded area, Jodie had the ability to wander just about anywhere in the area, only finding a few obstacles that couldn't be traversed. Cage stated that while there was really only one way out, there were different paths to take in order to get there, and varying challenges to overcome to escape.
Though not necessarily the case in the previously mentioned scene, player choice will have consequences on how the story plays out. Cage said that Beyond probably wouldn't feature the frankly ridiculous number of endings available in Heavy Rain, but that there were alternate paths that the story could take, depending on how you play. He was also quick to point out his general disdain for the idea of a "fail state," or "game over." He explained that he believes such a condition just creates an awkward loop in the story, so to counteract that, the team has simply created situations where less-than-ideal scenarios can play out if you fail a specific sequence, and not in a "I chose wrong or performed poorly, so now I'm dead" kind of way. To use the example he gave, he said that were you to unsuccessfully avoid the police anywhere along the way in this chapter, you could be arrested and taken into custody. You would then have to escape police custody in an entirely different sequence than what we were shown, though if you were successful there, the conclusion would more or less play out the same.
Cage also took great pains to emphasize that in Beyond, no two chapters would play precisely alike. He was reticent to extrapolate on that point, save but to say that the goal is to make each chapter feel "unique." He doubly emphasized that the chapter we were seeing was a much more action-oriented chapter than many of the others in the game would be. He explained the regrettable need to emphasize action over introspection when demoing a game to a public audience, given the desire to not lose the audience's attention.
The action was most certainly on display. Rather than just give you a blow-by-blow of every event, I will simply truncate things by saying that Jodie goes through some severely awful shit. At various times, she is chased by cops, chased by angry police dogs, knocked about by men twice her size, is forced to jump off a moving train, blows through a police barricade, and is repeatedly shot at by what looks like the majority of a metropolitan police force's S.W.A.T. unit.
Of course, all of this plays out with numerous contextual quick-time events, as opposed to standard action game mechanics. Much like Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream has framed every scene with an eye toward the cinematic, often pulling back and making quick cuts between individual QT events. There's also a preponderance of shaky cam during some of the chapter's more hectic moments that is, to put it bluntly, more than a little nauseating. Dear video games: we don't even like shaky cam in movies, so we extra don't want it in our games. Thanks.
Still, even with the questionable camera shaking, there's no denying that Beyond looks pretty phenomenal, even in its relatively early development state. Much ballyhoo was made about the use of Ellen Page as both the voice and likeness of the lead character, and it's clear that Quantic Dream has taken great pains to make Jodie's facial expressions subtle and believable. There were a few moments where things looked perhaps a bit "uncanny," but by and large the work they've done on her character is extremely impressive. Cage explained that all of the game's actors, including Page, were given the full motion-capture treatment. Heavy Rain used some facial capture effects, but the bodies were animated by the developers, which sometimes led to unnatural looking movements. Cage believes the motion-capture action has solved that problem, and based on what was shown, the animation has definitely come a long way. Some of the non-central characters still looked a little rough in spots, and the sheer visual fidelity of the game seemed to be dragging the framerate down in spots, but this being early code, that's perhaps to be expected.
The action really started flying fast and furious in the scene's climax, wherein Jodie finds herself surrounded by S.W.A.T. cops after arriving in a small town. Once again, control shifted to Aiden, as Jodie became pinned down behind a parked car. Aiden's task was to get rid of the army of cops milling about, periodically firing at the car she was sitting behind. This involved a variety of different interactions with both the environment and the enemies themselves. In some cases, Aiden could simply knock a car over, or even crush a nearby clock tower, causing it to fall on a bunch of cops' heads. However, Aiden also has the ability to take possession, and in some cases even kill other people. Possessing them allows Aiden to completely control their bodies, so it can, say, use a sniper to kill other cops, or have a helicopter pilot crash straight into a bunch of S.W.A.T. vans. Those who can be possessed glow orange, while those who can be outright killed appear to glow red. When Aiden kills them, you can see a glowing, body-shaped energy cloud float upward, which one can assume means they have died.
Some of these different concepts appeared earlier in the level, but the final sequence combined many of them into a flurry of action. The pacing of this scene was certainly frantic, though given the sheer volume of enemies around, it was a little weird just how long they stood around more or less waiting for Aiden to come over and kill them. It's also maybe a little bit hokey just how the determination between who you can possess and who you can't is made. Obviously those who can be possessed glow orange because there is a very specific thing you can do with them in order to kill them, but in the context of Aiden's powers, it just strikes as strange that he can only possess these very specific people.
I mean, it's video games we're dealing with here, so of course there's going to be some fudging of logic for the sake of mechanics and functional gameplay. However, when I'm faced with the lofty aspirations Cage talked up regarding the game, namely his desire to explore his own ideas about the nature of life and death (the game was partially inspired by the loss of someone close to him), and the various stabs at bridging the gap between cinema and game that the studio has made previously, I can't help but nitpick details that seem decidedly gamey, and even a little hokey.
I might be skeptical, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy what I saw of Beyond. It's a sharp looking game with some really intriguing-looking story elements, but I can't say that what I saw seemed overwhelmingly better than what the writing and mechanics of Heavy Rain offered. For some, that will be an exciting enough statement to get them interested. For me, as someone who enjoyed parts of Heavy Rain but not the greater whole of it, I can't quite bring myself to buy in whole hog.
My tack from here on out with all things Quantic Dream is to simply ignore the hyperbolic language and keep my expectations grounded. With a David Cage game, I know that there will be strong visuals, a story that will, at the very least, offer some intriguing twists and turns, and that my personal engagement with the action will largely revolve around simple contextual actions. If Quantic Dream can successfully push these elements beyond what the studio has done in its previous works in the ways Cage seemingly aspires to, then that will be a truly exciting thing. From what I've seen of Beyond so far, I believe that to be, at the very least, possible. Like I said, I have my doubts, but I'd love for them to be wrong.