Last week at the PlayStation’s E3 Press Conference, one of the highlights of the night was Quantic Dream’s David Cage stepping into the stage finally reveal his team’s next masterpiece. BEYOND: Two Souls for the PS3 impressed the crowd with its extremely detailed graphics and convincing performances of motion actors, including Hollywood talent Ellen Page. By now, you must have seem the debut trailer dozens of times and may have even checked David Cage himself coming to our stage live at E3, but unfortunately the game was not available on the show floor for the general audience to try. Luckily for us, we were able to witness the power of this interactive psychological action-thriller in a private session where Producer Ray Khalastchi from SCEE’s XDev Studio walked us through a 20-plus-minute demo running on a PS3 – in case we had any doubts that the game was high-tech smoke and mirrors.
The demo consisted of five areas connected by a gripping narrative, all of which showed off the game’s new graphics technology in all its glory, including the startlingly lifelike performances of actors achieved through full performance capture. Of course, many details of the story are being kept secret, but we managed to pull some tidbits from Khalastchi. “At this point in the game, Jodie is about 23 years old and has been on the run for two or three weeks from the authorities,” he explains, setting the tone for the demo we’re about to see.
On the Train
Inside a train, Jodie Holmes is trying to get some sleep, wrapped in a hoodie to avoid attracting unwanted attention. We’re soon in control of Aiden, the ethereal entity she’s tied to – and you can immediately notice that spiritual connection, which is represented by a blue light thread linking the two. In first person (you never get to see Aiden’s appearance), you can wander the place with Sixaxis movements. Taking advantage of the fact you’re invisible to the other passengers, you can startle them by interacting with objects indicated by an orange glow. You can even cross the walls of the train to look at the heavy rain out there, but you can’t stray too far from Jodie – your view starts to blur and eventually go black and white. Aiden is bound to Jodie. “[Your view as Aiden] will also change based on what situation Jodie is in,” Khalastchi explains. “If she’s scared or in danger, it will impact your view.”
The train eventually stops at a station full of cops. You can go outside and try to listen to their conversation to find out what is happening, or you can just go wherever you want to – by the way, the police lights on a rainy night give an idea of the visual tricks the team at Quantic Dream is wringing out of the PS3. Anyway, it’s interesting to notice how you don’t “trigger” events with your presence, everything just happens in real time. People will carry on their conversation or whatever they are doing whether you are there or not, so you have to pick carefully what you’ll be doing.
Eventually, two cops board the train and it’s immediately obvious that they are looking for Jodie. You have to warn her somehow, and you do so by interacting with the bottle near her to wake her up. Noticing the girl tries to avoid them, the officers realize it’s Jodie, and a chase scene ensues. You’re now in direct control of Jodie trying to make your way through the corridors. This direct control of the action sequence is something Khalastchi emphasizes, contrasting with Heavy Rain, where you would simply follow command prompts in action scenes. Not that you don’t have the usual on-screen commands to follow, and here they can also determine the outcome of a scene. “If I was to be caught, I would be arrested and I would be put in one of these rooms. I would have to find a way outside the train”, explains Ray. “You cannot get a ‘Game Over’ screen, the game always moves forward.”
Cornered inside a toilet, Jodie comes up with a plan: open the latch to the rooftop. But she’s not strong enough, so it’s up to Aiden to crack it open. On the rooftop, we’re again controlling Jodie directly, and we’re once more overwhelmed by the scene before our eyes: Jodie moves carefully through the wet floor, her clothes soaked by the pouring rain, swinging with the strong wind, the lights of signposts occasionally remembering you of how fast the train is moving, and Ellen Page’s expression of anxiety giving an unsettling sense of danger.
The girl tries to get around the police officers who are also climbing to the rooftop, but is surrounded by three of them. A brutal fight follows, but despite getting hit by some blows, Jodie seems to know how to get rid of them. “For this part we had a martial artists group that came to do the choreography and motion capture session”, adds Khalastchi. “Then we took that data and applied to the characters in the scene.”
Noticing the cops are still coming at her, Jodie jumps out of the train and, upon successful command inputs, Aiden protects her with an ethereal shield so she can land safely.
At the Forest
“Are you telling why she’s so skilled?”, we ask. Khalastchi just smiles and shakes his head negatively, probably happy to leave us with this piercing question. Jodie is now in a forest area, rising from the ground with an expression that mixes relief and fatigue. But soon after she begins moving away from there, a helicopter lights the area and searchlights comes in her direction. Furious with their tenacity, the girl curses and darts into the forest.
While dogs bay in the background, Jodie tries to overcome trunks and branches – again, under a combination of direct control plus Quick Time Events. “If you fail repeatedly”, I insist, “can Jodie die?” It’s something that kept hammering my mind, because in Heavy Rain you would sometimes have to live with the tragic (and permanent) consequences of your actions. “No, she can’t die”, assures Ray. “But the story still continues in the context of all that happens. She can get arrested or get knocked down and wake up later.”
Jodie builds some distance between her and the cops, but still can hear them not very far from her. With direct control over her, you begin running in every different direction in search of a way out, and it soon becomes a desperate hunt for an exit. “Jodie is lost. You are lost. You don’t know where to go, so you’re trying to find your way around. We really wanted to make you feel like you’re lost.” Yeah, it definitely works.
The dogs catch up with her and a battle between Jodie and nature takes place. “Did you guys motion capture dogs too?”, I jokingly ask, trying to alleviate me from the tension caused by the ferocious scene. “Actually, yes,” answers Khalastchi with that confident smile of someone who means it.
After getting rid of the dogs, Jodie manages to climb a rock wall and hide from the cops bellow. Then, while they are pointing their lanterns around in search of her, comes my favorite scene: the camera closes in on Jodie’s face and you can clearly see the benefits of marrying the latest in motion capture and graphics technology with an Oscar nominee of the caliber of Ellen Page, as you can see the expression of fear in her excited eyes, while raindrops stream down her bruised skin, her hair plastered around her still panting face. “Are her bruises dynamic?”, I ask after seeing how she gets injured after so many brushes with danger. “Yes. For example, when I jumped out of the train before, if I failed to shield her properly, she would be in a much worse state.” Poor Jodie.
At the Barricade
Jodie escapes the guards and is now by the side of a road, where there’s a barricade. Controlling Aiden again, you check the situation: there are three cops, two cars and a motorbike. The producer explains the meaning of the colored auras surrounding every people: white is neutral, orange means the person can be possessed and red indicates someone who can be choked. And it’s all contextual.
Khalastchi goes to the officer by the bike and possesses him, gaining direct control over him. Our guide them makes the possessed guard mess with one of the cars to distract the other two. I noticed from a previous play session that he made something different to pass through this area. “Yes, in this very instance, you have two options”, explains Khalastchi. “After possessing the guard, I can enter the car and drive it back and forth, or I can get the shotgun in the back of the car and keep shooting to the air. Either way, the other cops get distracted and give Jodie the opportunity to go around and get the bike.”
“Even in the small sections, we’d like to give you a little bit of choice. It may have no difference in the outcome, but if you choose what to do, it feels more like it’s your story.”
On the Bike
“Here we are in control of the bike, whereas in Heavy Rain it would have been like ‘hit R2 and watch her drive away’.” And again, the PS3 hardware easily handles the kind of lighting and effects on the screen as Jodie drives the bike at a rainy night. And we’re curious as to how they’re balancing between giving you control and telling you an authorial story. “We’re still trying to give you as much control as possible while still keeping it cinematic, keeping control tightly and, you know, keeping story intact.”
Being chased by a helicopter, Jodie is trapped when she reaches a bridge guarded by a S.W.A.T. squad. With Aiden’s help, she breaks through the blockade and reaches a nearby town.
At the Town
The chase comes to its climax at the front of a theater. “In this final part of the demo, it’s almost a sandbox of Aiden gameplay. There are lots of different things you can do,” explains Khalastchi. And he’s not kidding: while Jodie is cornered behind a car, you control Aiden and search for people to possess or choke, or explore various environmental interactions. You can control a sniper and kill his teammates, take over another soldier on the ground and command him to shoot nearby officers and himself, throw a grenade with yet another officer and cause a massive explosion, flip cars and… blow the fire hydrant? “Some things you can do are not useful.” Reminds me of drinking milk in Heavy Rain…But then, it’s all in the name of interactivity.
As time goes on, the S.W.A.T. team is closing in on Jodie, which means they get in range of some hazards and in Aiden’s range as well. You can make a clock tower crumble upon some soldiers, which highlighted a curious detail in the game: you can actually see their spirits coming out of their bodies and rising into the air.
After helping Jodie get inside the theater, you can possess the helicopter pilot and cause the ultimate destruction, which leads to the closing scene of the debut trailer: Jodie walks to the S.W.A.T. leader and menacingly yells: “Tell them to leave me effin’ alone, because next time… I’ll kill everyone”. And, walking away, she calls Aiden and says “I think they got the message”.
By the end of the demo, we were totally blown away by the graphical and narrative qualities of BEYOND: Two Souls, and also looking forward to going hands-on with the game at a later date. There are still plenty of details we don’t know (PS Move support? “It’s something we’re looking into,” says Khalastchi), but it’s exciting to see how Quantic Dream is ahead of the technological race. After this brief demonstration, we can’t wait to find out what lies beyond.