I was lucky enough to be given a behind closed doors E3 viewing of Beyond: Two Souls, with David Cage, the creator and writer. Heralded by many in the industry as a genius, his most recent mega success was of course Heavy Rain.
The small room with about twenty members of the international press was in very sharp contrast to many of the other ‘three ring circus’ game events at E3. David talked along with the scene as it unfolded, while one of the developers of the game played through it on a PS3. (Yes, you read that right, not a PS4.)
In his very quiet and genteel French accent David explained that it is actually quite hard for his team to come to E3, where all the big boys are competing to have the loudest biggest explosion on the show floor. Beyond, and Heavy Rain before it, are just not those kind of games – they’re very different. He wanted to explore different themes than those commonly shown in other games, trying to tell a story, and particularly to portray strong emotions. He hastened to stress that while the scene that they demoed for us was probably the most “action-y” scene in the game, the title was most definitely not an action game. He described it as a game about “life, death, growing, being different, and being who you are.”
Before the scene began, David explained that the main character Jodie Holmes is a very special young woman. She has a link with invisible entity, called Aiden (pronounced Eye-den. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to point out that name would be pronounced Ay-den in New Zealand. Maybe next time.).
That aside, Jodie can’t separate from Aiden, who has been there her whole life. She can “switch” to him at any point, and he has special abilities to navigate around the environment invisibly. He can explore areas to check that the way is clear for Jodie, create a shield to protect her from bullets, take possession of people and control them, or even kill them. There is, however, a limit to the distance that he can travel away from Jodie, so he mustn’t stray too far from her.
Throughout the full game we will follow Jodie at various times, between ages 8 and 23, and witness many moments throughout her life. David also pointed out that the story jumps around, not always in chronological order.
The scene we saw showed Jodie at around age 23, having been recruited and trained by the CIA, for her special abilities. Her mission was to make her way into Somalia, to assassinate a leader called Jamaal.
The gameplay appears to be quite unique, as the player follows visual cues from Jodie, assessing the correct direction to move in to complete her movements, using the right analog stick. There are also quicktime events that you respond to. This is a totally new engine from Heavy Rain, and they aimed to really push the envelope, and create a sense of realism. There were lots of things happening around you in terms of secondary action, as Jodie moved through the beautifully rendered environment. Somalia looked bleak, rundown, and the air fairly throbbed with menace, as armed men roamed the streets around her.
Jodie had a small Somalian boy with her, named Salim, who was compelling and likeable from the first moment he appeared. Jodie had rescued him, and the strong emotional bond between them was gentle and touching, even in the violent, unstable and terrifying environment they found themselves in. A very nice effect used was that there were no subtitles provided for Salim, so Jodie spoke to him in English, but didn’t understand him when he replied in Arabic. This decision was consciously made to really focus on the way that they spoke to each other, which really amplifies the emotion between them. David explained that their goal was that you will connect with the character of Jodie deeply, and “will know her by heart”. He wants players to miss her, like a good friend, when you turn your console off.
Additionally Aiden is a character all of his own, rather than a ‘power’ that Jodie has. He has a different logic, because he is a different type of being. The story chronicles the relationship between them, which is mysterious and unusual.
One of the things that really sets this game apart from others is that you can play the story out in multiple ways. Burst your way out of a sticky situation, or rely on stealth to sneak around enemies and avoid a confrontation. Or do any combination of both. Obviously you do still have to complete the basic story as set out in the plot, but the focus is on how you do it.
When we started the session, a couple of people (including your humble reviewer) shifted a little in our seats uncomfortably when we were told that the demo was going to take about 40 minutes. (40 E3 minutes is like four hours elsewhere on Earth after all.) However, I can honestly say that it only felt like about 15 minutes had passed, and I was very disappointed to learn that the time had passed so quickly.
In summary, I liked the graphics (which were stunning, especially the characters faces and eyes), and the emotions conveyed throughout. I think videogames should be able to tell a deeper story than “they killed him because he was a bad guy” with no repercussions or even a second thought afterwards about the choices made. I also liked the innovative gameplay, the switching and relationship with Aiden, and especially the way you can progress through the story the way you want to.
Sign me up now... I can’t wait to see more of Beyond.