Quantic Dream, the developers of Heavy Rain, aren't trying to follow in anyone's footsteps. If you played Heavy Rain, or their earlier Fahrenheit, you'll know what I mean; their games are less about telling a story by way of traditional videogame tropes, and more about ensuring that the narrative is everything and that the mechanics exist simply to serve that singular purpose.
Beyond: Two Souls, announced at E3 this year, doesn't stray far from the formula. It's not Heavy Rain 2, as Quantic Dream founder David Cage doesn't want to milk his franchises, but if you've played Heavy Rain you have a good idea of what to expect. Made up of a vast number of gameplay sequences David described to me as "scenes", no two parts of the game are the same; at no point will you be doing the same thing as you have previously done.
But what are you doing? The story follows 15 years in the life of a very special young woman called Jodie Holmes. While her name might be fairly pedestrian, her situation certainly isn't. Her entire life she's felt a presence with her, for reasons that haven't yet been explained, and she's come to call that presence Idan - the reason for which she isn't sure of either.
This Idan entity is a character you can actually switch to at any point, where you'll find him to be a ghost-like being, tethered to Jodie at all times. He can move away from Jodie, even traveling through solid objects without hesitating, but he can't go too far. Being a ghost-type of being, his ability to directly interact with the world is limited, however he is able to move some objects around if he expends a lot of effort, and he can even possess people and then control them directly where necessary.
When we caught up with Jodie, she was being pursued by the police. Exactly why isn't clear, but at one point during our hands-off demonstration, Idan flew near a couple of policemen who were overheard suggesting that Jodie, who's 23 at this point in the story, was suspected of treason. Whether that's true or not, we don't know, and David wasn't telling.
At the start of the demo, Jodie is asleep on the train and we're in control of Idan. Flying around the train, the demo operator demonstrated Idan's ability to mess with people's heads. By directly control his abilities with the analogue sticks (rather than the button prompts people might be familiar with for characters in Heavy Rain), the person playing the game knocked people's drinks off the arm of their chairs or ripped magazines out of their hands, causing consternation and confusion among observers.
Idan can actually go outside of the train, too, hurtling along through the reeds and miscellania outside of the speeding vehicle should you so desire. After a while, though, it became apparent that Jodie's short snooze (her first in 3 days) was about to come to an abrupt end; the train was to make an unscheduled stop at a disused station bristling with cops.
At this point, Idan's ability to interact with the world was suddenly very important, as waking Jodie up would be key to escaping the situation. Much like a very dramatic movie, what happened next was high-energy and interspersed with powerful music; all of which was shot using clever cameras, to ensure the intensity of the moment translated, even for people simply observing the activity.
Jodie, much like the various actors in Heavy Rain, is controlled primarily using quick-time event (QTE) style input; at various points in her locomotion, button prompts appear super-imposed onto the 3D world and you have a few sections to perform the action they imply. This allowed Jodie to flee her pursuers, clambering up onto the roof of the train (with a little help from Idan along the way), where she fought the various coppers and evaded capture by leaping off the (now moving) train into the woods beyond.
It might sound like what I've listed above is extremely spoiler-tastic, and in someways maybe it will be. But the fact that it's a "maybe" goes a long way to highlighting one of the monumental differences this game has over any other that will come out alongside it. Like reality, you can't "fail" in Beyond; any given situation can play out in a seemingly endless number of ways. Even if you get caught, all that means is that the next scene will be set in a police station, and your goal at that point will become attempting to escape.
You can also play the game in many different ways, with David assuring us that a later sequence - in which the operator set about obliterating the police force in brutal fashion - could have played out very differently, even without necessitating the killing of anyone at all. How you play, too (just like in Heavy Rain), will dictate which of the "many" endings you get to see.
The sheer punch of every sequence, action or otherwise, was undeniable and epic. The highly cinematic presentation, which conjures up the very best in high-production film sequences, keeps you focused and motivated - even as an outside observer. Heavy Rain had a 75% player completion rate, as compared to 25% for other game types, thanks largely (David believes) to this exact kind of driving, emotionally-connected story. Walking out of the room, I have no difficulty believing him; all i wanted to do at that point was sit down and play through the rest of the game. Writing this up hours later, it still grips my very soul and I ache to know what happens next.
If you liked Heavy Rain, it should come as no surprise to hear that Beyond is shaping up to be another extremely compelling interactive narrative - even if it is largely a continuous QTE. If you're the Call of Duty type, however, that loves to have direct control of their character and the warm embrace of predictable interaction, it's unlikely Beyond is going to do anything to dissuade you from your (perfectly valid) preference.
But if you're curious, I implore you to check it out when it releases next year. Quantic Dream are pushing the boundaries of what videogames can be, and their creative vision is simply breathtaking to behold.
NZGamer.com appears at E3 2012 thanks to Orcon Broadband.
The Good: It's like playing through a beautiful movie
The Bad: It's mechanics aren't for everyone
The Ugly: The imagination-deprived might not have as much fun