Beyond: Two Souls impresses with its blend of narrative and technology

A preview of Quantic Dreams' upcoming Beyond: Two Souls.

It's not until Jodie Holmes, Beyond: Two Souls' protagonist, climbs atop a train that the complexity of her world becomes clear. The rain pours, and the fidelity of each individual drops causes mini-explosions in the environment. The whipping wind blows loose clothing and unkempt hair and knocks characters off balance. The music builds to a crescendo as Jodie fights for her freedom, leaping from the train as she's enveloped in an energy shield.

When the demo began a few minutes earlier, Jodie was curled into the fetal position, asleep on the same train. She's on the run, chased by "every law enforcement agency in the country," said David Cage, Beyond's writer and director. As she sleeps, players control Aiden (pronounced "eye-din"), an ill-defined spirit both literally and metaphorically linked to Jodie through a glowing yellow trail. Using Sixaxis controls reminiscent of Flower, Aiden glides like a ghost through the cabin, interacting with the occasional coffee cup, passenger and newspaper as any mischievous spirit would.

The train slows, stops and a group of police officers board. Sensing danger, Aiden wakes Jodie with a shove. A few minutes, fights and QTEs later, Jodie secures her escape with a daring leap off the moving train in pouring rain. She's in a forest, but far from the clear.

The juxtaposition of technology and story lies at the epicenter of Beyond: Two Souls and its creative force, Quantic Dream's David Cage, who spent a year writing the script. "I see myself as an interactive writer, which means that I design and write and tell stories at the same time," he tells me in an E3 interview. "I never write a story and figure out how to make it playable. And I never design mechanics and then try to put a story on top of it. You need to think about both at the same time."

It's immediately clear that Cage has internalized lessons gleaned from the criticism that his previous game, Heavy Rain, received. He takes every opportunity to remind us that, even though Beyond features QTEs, players will be constantly in direct control of the characters. Gone, too, are the occasionally awkward European voice actors. Jodie is played by Academy Award-nominated actress Ellen Page, whose entire performance — including facial animation — was motion-captured.

The variety of walking animations becomes apparent as Jodie scampers through the forest. It's an open environment, and the player must find a way to safety as the cops pursue her through wood lit delicately by moonlight. It's a testament to the new engine that Quantic Dream created, itself an evolution of the engine that powered Heavy Rain. The environments in the level spanned the continuum from the harsh florescent train to the gloomy forest to nighttime streets in a soon-to-be-wrecked town.

When her path is blocked, Jodie turns to Aiden who reliably drums up mayhem. Aiden finds a malleable aura and possesses a police officer at a roadblock. Cage stresses that this is but one choice among many. As in Heavy Rain, there will be branching paths with "very significant" choices to make along the way that lead to multiple endings. "This is not linear," Chase says.

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Cage describes Beyond as a "game about death." His interests are shifting as he ages — he's 43 — and he developed the game's premise as he pondered the death of close friends. Unsatisfied with the answers that religions afforded, his fantastical exploration led to the premises that underlie Beyond.

Unlike Heavy Rain, which took place over four days, Beyond's narrative spans 15 years, chronicling the maturation of Jodie and her relationship with Aiden. "It's a process of discovery," Cage says.

Beyond takes a minimalist approach to UI. The hyper-realistic visuals appear without a HUD, and prompts only appear when necessary. Interaction is up to the player. Cage is almost defensive, taking pains to point out just how much the player controls both Jodie and Aiden.

"Every scene in Beyond is different," Cage says, stressing that this experience was not indicative of the game as a whole.

It's a "deliberately emotional" experience, focused on one character — two, if you count Aiden. Emotion is part and parcel of his storytelling. According to Cage, 75 percent of players finished Heavy Rain in an industry where 25 percent is a more typical statistic. He attributes the anomaly to the prominence of emotion and narrative in his work.

Like the relationship between Jodie and Aiden, Cage believes that story and gameplay are inseparable. "They need to support each other. If one is driving, then you're losing something. You really need to imagine the interactivity that will allow you to tell the story and the story that will open opportunities for interactivity."

Beyond: Two Souls is scheduled for release in early 2013. Check out the E3 trailer below, and check out The Verge's deeper look into the technology that brings Ellen Page's performance to life.


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