Beyond goes beyond
After watching about an hour of live gameplay of Beyond: Two Souls, I felt like I witnessed a string of truly meaningful moments in the life of a gifted yet misunderstood person. In this small glimpse into what was probably just a few days of her life, I saw this girl struggle with loneliness, disappointment, and even homelessness, but I also saw a helpful and hopeful side of this same person later emerge, leading up to a climax where her selflessness ended up costing her.
This segment of gameplay was enough of an emotional ride that, after watching, I felt like I had to honor Quantic Dream boss David Cage's gentle request. He asked attending press members during a studio visit to consider not spoiling the story elements shown during this session. I was moved enough by what I saw that I knew that going into too much detail would ruin the chance of anyone reading this preview feeling the same.
Beyond: Two Souls (PS3)
In this time, Jodie is an adult, a fugitive on the run. She has no family or friends, and her need to escape has left her alone, homeless, on the streets of a snowy city in the middle of winter. By this point she has moved fully beyond the down-on-her-luck stage, passing out from cold and exhaustion in the snow. She would have been left for dead if it wasn't for her invisible protector, Aiden, calling attention to her in the street so that a fellow homeless person could tend to her.
When she finally comes to, Jodie struggles with her self worth, to the point that she feels like going on isn't worth the trouble. Luckily, the homeless people that took her in cared enough to give her some purpose, which gradually puts her on the road to recovery. She begins to care about these people enough that she eventually opens up to them, sharing some of the secrets of her gift. This same gift, her tie to the invisible entity she named Aiden, lets her repay the saving favor in many ways. It's too bad that her past ends up catching up with her in the end.
Watching Jodie get to know these people played out exactly as it would in a movie, which made it very easy to be drawn into the story. There's a lot going on under the hood to make this possible. First, the seamless and nearly invisible system of Beyond: Two Souls had everything from character movement to item interaction looking like a cinematic event. It was easy to forget that this was not a string of cutscenes with button prompts, and that a player was controlling the entire session, making every choice and movement. Save for a couple of instances of graphical glitches (the demo was only in alpha state) or where another animation pass might be needed, watching someone else play was like watching a film.
While the game never breaks form in looking like a movie, it does lean slightly more towards the game side of things during action combat scenes. Thankfully, Quantic Dream ditched QTEs in favor of a nearly invisible, prompt-less system where the game slows motion down during combat and awaits simple input from the right analog stick. Players will have to watch the action for context clues to know how to move the stick. We saw a really impressive fight scene where Jodie takes on multiple attackers in the street, where she kicked, punched, dodged, and countered through this input system. Despite the use of "bullet time," the scene managed to be fast-paced and exciting.
Quantic Dream has the PS3 pulling off some graphical sorcery that goes a very long way toward making Beyond look like a feature film. Their engine does some absolutely stunning stuff with depth of field and bokeh, giving every scene the look of a filmic camera shot. Watching snow fall onto already deep snow drifts in the evening, as street lights flickered in the distance, made me wonder how the PS3 was able to display such quality. Quantic Dream told us that some of their early work on renderers for the PS4 showed them that they could apply some new techniques to their PS3 engine. What they've been able to pull over and implement is unlike anything seen in any current generation video game. Dazzling stuff.
The performance capture equipment and techniques used during 12 months of shooting real actors really paid off. Their impeccably captured performances seal the deal when it comes to working toward a convincing cinematic experience.
Outside of some of the walking/turning animations, every movement is so realistic that the line between game and film is so blurred that you'll forget to think about it. It's also good that the photorealistic faces of the characters never dip into Uncanny Valley. Forget stretchy texture maps with eye holes for faces -- these look like real, living, breathing people, with reactive eyes that have depth and soul.
I could go on about how fantastic Beyond looks, but it's not really about the visuals. All of this tech and mo-cap was to be used to further the storytelling power for the game, and from what I saw, telling an engrossing story was mission number one. The session was bookended by two rather critical story moments, both of which had my mind wandering, but even without knowing where the story started or ended up, all the stuff in the middle had me totally drawn in, itching to know what happens next.
Just about every scene moved me in some way -- harrowing, uplifting, reflective, or tense moments that came together to make for a supremely entertaining hour of watching. There was one particularly beautiful moment that I keep thinking about, even some days later. I can only imagine how these sensations would have been heightened if I were able to actually play it.
If you played Heavy Rain, you'll know that Quantic Dream was already well on their way toward their ideal cinematic game experience. It's just that the game was rough around the edges in so many ways that you could never fully be drawn in as intended. Too many off moments had it missing the mark.
From everything I've seen of Beyond, it looks like they've figured the rest out since then. All of their work, from the cast, performance capture, graphics engine, and new systems, makes it seem like everything has finally come together. Their desire to share an interactive emotional journey comes through cleanly, with no hindrances. Perhaps all of that ambition has paid off, as it seems they've been able to take a very large step from their last game. Beyond: Two Souls looks to be something special. I can't wait to see more.