For a moment, up on screen, the PlayStation 4 became all about Killzone.
We all watched this spectacle of moving images and an immersive world. We saw some unknown beautiful future city resting on the cusp of cascading waterfalls. The vibrant greens and blues of this world alone set the game apart from the bulk of first-person shooters of this generation.
When natural beauty gave way to manufactured violence, one couldn't help but notice the little things in the bedlam of explosions and gunfire: The leaves swirling against the minutely detailed ground, the trailing tendrils of smoke, the cinder and ash floating in the sky.
Later, when a clutch of reporters meet with two of the developers of PS4 launch title Killzone: Shadow Fall, we hear about the social aspect of the game, the backstory, its colorful landscape and the engine used to create it. But what is most important, we're told, are those details and the developer's ability to create them almost as an aside.
Next-generation gaming means you don't have to choose which one thing to focus on when creating a game, because you can deliver them all, we're told. And that's the best way to give players more control of the stories they experience and to in turn get players to care more deeply about them.
Killzone: Shadow Fall will be, at times, a game of "quiet infiltration" powered by the simmering cold war between the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance and the remaining Helghast. The game takes place about 30 years after the ending of Killzone 3. The ISA has decided to give shelter to the surviving enemies on the colony planet of Vekta, the setting for the original Killzone.
"While that was great initially, these guys, the Helghast, turned back to their old doctrines, based on militarism and their duties," said developer Guerrilla Games managing director Hermen Hulst. "Where there was a good peace initially, it's now an uneasy peace. That's kind of how it ties in. I don't want to say much more about it."
The game takes place during a cold war between these two factions that is about to go hot in this iconic city now divided by a wall. While the game will still feature the gritty look that Killzone is known for and its traditional shooter play, the setting will also allow for this new sort of play that Hulst describes as "quiet infiltration."
That scene from the PlayStation 4 demo was part of an actual level in one of the earlier stages of the game, he said.
"There are a few things that we wanted to communicate with that play-through," he said.
Chief among that is that the game includes a new look, one Hulst describes as "very photo-realistic and crisp." That new look, and the accompanying colorful landscape, are both the offshoot of a very specific goal.
"I think what we wanted to do for this game is to provide you with a created world that you want to be in and give you a reason to fight," said game director Steven Ter Heide. "So you see this world and then, if you understand that that's going to be under attack, it's something you want to fight for. And I think that's something that's powerful.
"I think what we wanted to do for this game is to provide you with a created world that you want to be in and give you a reason to fight."
Early on, Ter Heide said, the team looked at one of the original levels of the original Killzone that featured the dichotomy of a beautiful blossoming tree and brutish Helghast enemies. The team prototyped some ideas based off that and liked what they saw.
To deliver the experience they wanted, the team tore apart a modified in-house engine they used to create Killzone 3, Hulst said.
"For all intents and purposes the engine is brand-new," he said. "It's our PlayStation 4 Killzone engine. Some large components, like pretty much all the animations, everything that's got to do with lighting, reflection, all of that has been ripped out completely [from the Killzone 3 engine] and replaced. It's been a real deep investment for us. This is all new stuff."
The end result is a game powered by the sort of storytelling that wouldn't be possible on current consoles, a game that was created using technology that didn't exist before.
"What we are trying to do with this game is create a vibrant world, something that feels very alive where your existence is acknowledged, so people look at you, people respond to your actions, all of that," he said. "And that takes a lot of different elements. It's not just the quality of the facial animations, not just the effects, not just the lighting. It's not the photo realism. It's not the environment. It's all of these different things that need to work together to create a coherent kind of experience where you believe that, 'Yes, I am in this world because it all makes sense.' Nothing falls out of place and jerks you out of that experience."
All of these smaller elements combine to allow game developers tell better, more engaging, more dramatic stories, Ter Heide said.
While the visual fidelity of Killzone: Shadow Fall most immediately stood out when the game was demoed on stage, that's not what sets the experience apart, Ter Heide says. Nor is that what sets the PlayStation 4 apart from its predecessor.
The key is that when working to create an experience for the PS4, developers will no longer have to decide what they want to focus on. Where once, Ter Heide said, developers had to choose if they wanted to focus on creating a living city, or pushing the animations or something else, now they can do all of that at once.
"So rather than just focus on, we have X amount of characters on screen, now we can do X amount of characters, plus we can have really good lighting models, plus we can have all of this," he said. "And I think it's all these pluses that add up to this big leap with what we're able to do now. The key is in a combination of things not in one single feature."
The way Guerrilla plans to use that is to produce not just a more immersive experience, but a more complex one. And it's that complexity, more than anything else, that Ter Heide believes will help cement the bond players feel with the games they play and the characters that inhabit them.
Making a person care about a game, he says, is as simple as giving them control of the stories they tell within it.
"It's not necessarily about the story that we're telling, but it's your story," he said. "How did you play the game? It's interactive entertainment, so we can give you one play-through of the game, but that shouldn't be representative of everybody's experience. It should be different for everybody, and they should be able to tell their own story, to say, 'This is what I did in this game.' I think those are the moments that, if people are actually going to say those types of things about our game, I think we did a really good job with."