Quantic Dream's David Cage, writer and director of Beyond: Two Souls, has always been interested in emotional, engaging interactive storytelling. He may finally be able to make his vision a reality.
Quantic Dream studio head David Cage has referred to his company's next project, Beyond: Two Souls, as a "game about death." Upon the "shocking" passing of a close family member, he decided to explore his grief and loss in Beyond. He told me during an interview at Comic-Con last week that the game's story tries to "give some meaning to this strange experience that probably has no meaning." Those words appear to indicate he is not religious, a fact he confirmed in our chat.
Beyond also touches on other themes. Over the course of 15 years, it traces the journey of protagonist Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) as she comes to grips with Aiden (EYE-din), the supernatural being that is inextricably linked with her. According to Cage, "Beyond is about growing; it's about learning; it's about accepting who you are — even when you're different."
Cage would know. He's something of a maverick, a developer who has made a name for himself with games that, while flawed, aren't quite like anything else out there. He told me he's interested in "making you feel empathy, making you feel sad, making you feel uncomfortable" — emotions he feels are underexplored in video games.
"You create much stronger emotional experiences," said Cage, "when people can relate to what you're talking about." Plenty of games deliver a male power fantasy, but that's not something everyone can understand. Cage would rather explore more universal themes, because he believes that kind of experience would serve a more mature audience. Speaking of dealing with grief, he explained, "I'm sure that all people who've faced this kind of situation personally know what I'm talking about." If, as an audience, you can relate to an interactive story, its creators have done something right: "You're not outside the experience watching something; you're in the experience, and the experience talks to you as a human being — it doesn't just talk to your thumbs."
Cage and Quantic Dream have always tried to push the medium of video games forward, to make games that are "more emotional, more involving, more engaging — or at least, more engaging at a different level." In the case of Beyond and their previous game, Heavy Rain, the underlying technology has served as the other half of the equation. The studio has developed a sophisticated technique for Beyond, dubbed "performance capture," that is far more advanced than what it used for Heavy Rain. Along with a new engine, the company first showcased the method at this year's Game Developers Conference in a tech demo called "Kara."
For Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream recorded facial movements and voice in-studio, and shot the body movements separately. Cage thought it worked "reasonably well," but by splitting the capture in that way, the performance lost a consistency that "you can never get back." Once Quantic Dream tried performance capture, Cage realized just how much was missing. "It's crazy, it's incredible, the amount of message that [goes] through body language," he explained. Our bodies often betray our words, and the subtlety and nuance of body language "is ... the dimension that [Quantic Dream] gained" between Heavy Rain and Beyond, thanks to performance capture.
The vast improvements are immediately apparent. In the footage above, Jodie says very little, but her expression and body language make up for it. "This is something that was not possible before performance capture," Cage told me. The technology makes a world of difference, and Cage believes it's currently "the only option" to bring an acting performance to life in a realistic-looking video game featuring human beings.
That's an important distinction — Cage doesn't think his method is the only way, or even the best way, to tell an emotional interactive story. "Journey is incredibly different from Heavy Rain and Beyond, but it's as emotional, it's as strong, it's as powerful," said Cage. He also cited the games designed by Team Ico's Fumito Ueda (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and the forthcoming The Last Guardian) as personal favorites, because those experiences are also emotionally engaging in a fantasy world.
"the experience talks to you as a human being — it doesn't just talk to your thumbs"
Another way in which Cage attempts to build a connection with his audience is through branching stories. One of his greatest pleasures in Heavy Rain was seeing the spirited discussions between players who had dissimilar experiences. "They made it unique because of the choices they made and the things they [saw] or missed," he said, and Beyond's story has a similar structure.
The mind boggles at all the possibilities in a story like that, and Cage told me that the hardest part of crafting that kind of experience is staying inspired and creative in what is a "very technical way of writing." It's also a long process: a screenwriter can finish a typical 120-page film script in two months, whereas the 2,000 pages Cage wrote for Beyond took him a year. "Sometimes, during this year, your relationships with others suffer" as a result of the 15-hour days spent writing the script, he said.
At the heart of Beyond's story is the relationship between Jodie and Aiden; much of the game's dramatic tension comes from the differences between them. I referred to Aiden as a "power" that Jodie has, but Cage quickly corrected me. "Aiden," he explained, "is not a power, and it's not a pet." It's a capricious spirit that operates on its own plane of existence; it has no conception of human rules and mores. Aiden has a symbiotic relationship with Jodie: its strength is situation-dependent, and varies over time. It grows stronger as she gets older, and it is weakened when she is hurt.
Aiden "can be very nice [with] and protective [of] Jodie, but it can also be very repressive, very possessive, jealous — even violent," Cage told me. This free spirit "is what prevents Jodie from having a normal life, and she hates it for that." Like many young people, Jodie simply wishes she could be just like everyone else, but eventually realizes that can never happen because of her connection to Aiden. "It's stupid, but I think that we all have our Aiden, in a way or another," said Cage.
"Beyond is about growing; it's about learning; it's about accepting who you are — even when you're different"
Beyond has the potential to be the culmination of everything Cage and Quantic Dream have been working toward for the last decade and a half. The studio may finally possess the technology to realize Cage's grand, uncompromising vision of emotional interactive storytelling. And the critical and commercial success of Heavy Rain, which sold more than 2 million copies, signaled to Cage that "people could have interest in an experience where the hero would carry no gun."
In an industry full of games "for kids and for teenagers," Cage — and his desire to make mature experiences — stands out. Perhaps Jodie's 15-year journey is a metaphor for his own: the path of someone who's unique in a way that can be both helpful and harmful.
"Once you try something like this, and [you've] felt the difference as a writer, you can never go back and write a game about aliens or armies or whatever," he told me. "You just want to talk about real things that really talk to people. It's so much more exciting."