Have you played Heavy Rain? The PlayStation 3 exclusive nudged and poked narrative-based gaming in some interesting directions, and while it had a number of quirks (those accents!), I really enjoyed my time with the game, and was interested to see what director David Cage would do next.
And here we are in 2012 with a look at Beyond: Two Souls. So what’s new? Two things pop out immediately: new forms of gameplay, and Ellen Page.
Let’s start with the latter first. Two Souls is based around a central character (played by Page) and spans 15 years of her life, from when she’s eight to when she’s 23. Page has always been accompanied by a supernatural spirit called Aiden, who’s not necessarily a nice ghost: he can be capricious and jealous of anyone else who gets close to Page, and seems to have prevented her from living a normal life. And over those years, she’s forced on the run after some governmental departments get wind of what makes her special.
Cage spent a lot of time showing and explaining how deeply woven Page is with the game: she provided not only the voice over, but also her likeness and all the body movements. Similar to the Uncharted series, all the actors filmed every single scene in rubber suits in a warehouse. The difference, however, is that at the same time, every facial movement and their voice work was captured as well. As Cage explained, you lose a hell of a lot if you separate those elements out. Every morning, therefore, about 100 silver gluey balls were attached to each actor’s face, so the cameras could pick out the smallest of muscle movement.
The result, as I saw, was pretty impressive, although it still runs the risk of occasionally wallowing in the depths of the uncanny valley. However, it’s arguably the most advanced performance capture work ever attempted for a video game, approaching a level of sophistication comparable to Avatar and the like.
This was all done to give the player a greater feeling of attachment to Page’s character, said Cage. You are, after all, following her from childhood to adulthood — an uncommon thing for games to tackle. The greater level of realism achieved from the filming techniques is supposed to immerse the player, to really empathise with the character. And Page, by all accounts, rose to the challenge: from all the footage I saw, she certainly wasn’t phoning it in.
That’s all well and good, but this is a game, not a movie. So how does it actually play? The actual gameplay I saw went some way to answering that, although I got far from a full picture. As was seen at E3 earlier this year, the scene I was shown involved a grown-up Page pinned down outside a cinema by a ton of cops, snipers, and even a helicopter. The power of Aiden was the focus here: the player took control of him, and found out what he could really do.
As a ghost-like being, Aiden is invisible and immaterial. From a first person perspective, you can swoop around the scene as much as you like, albeit only within a certain range of Page’s character — the link between them providing a handy narrative reason for why the ghost can’t just travel wherever he likes.
In a very Cage-like way, the scene can be approached from a large number of angles. Aiden can choke policemen, send their cars flying, or be a bit more clever: a nearby petrol pump, for example, can be blown apart, and an overhanging neon sign can be torn apart, providing the spark that lights the petrol on fire. Possession is also possible, allowing you to take command of, say, a sniper, who can then shoot his companions before inevitably being shot himself. And of course, you can make that helicopter that in a big barrage of flames.
It can take a while to do all this, though, so the rest of the police force is always creeping in on Page’s position. Thankfully, at this point Cage remarked that the scene can play out in various ways: you can escape, or the police might actually manage to get you and take you in. The relative nonlinearity couched in a series of cinematic vignettes is a Cage hallmark, and it looks well intact here.
So there you go: it looks like we’ll be getting a story full of drama, desperation, love and — of course — player-led outcomes. Beyond looks gorgeous, the acting seems top notch, and the gameplay — what little was shown, anyway — seemed fun and involving. Can it build on the success of Heavy Rain? For that, we will have to wait until sometime in 2013.
The Good: Polished as all hell, good acting, open-ended choices.
The Bad: Gameplay still mostly up in the air.
The Ugly: Some of the things Aiden can do are pretty vicious!