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E3 2012: Beyond: Two Souls [Preview]

11 Jun 2012  by   Tim McDonald
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If there’s one phrase that will make gamers of a certain age shudder, it’s “interactive movie.” This isn’t surprising: back in the 90s, the genre was populated almost exclusively with steaming piles of excrement. Releasing a triple-A game now and burdening it by naming it as being part of that particular genre would likely give it the same sort of commercial success as releasing a mature psychological thriller movie with the title of Daddy Day Camp 2.

It’s a bit of a shame, because there is little that describes Quantic Dream’s recent output better than the much-maligned interactive movie label. Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain were both games that weren’t really about taking enjoyment from their actual mechanics, but rather from guiding the storyline through the use of those mechanics. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone picking up Heavy Rain because they heard it had some great quick-time events.

So far, Beyond: Two Souls looks like it’s being developed along the same lines: the focus is on the characters, the story, and the events that transpire, rather than the discrete mechanics employed. In short, if you enjoyed either of the aforementioned two games, then you should probably start looking forward to Beyond right now.

While Heavy Rain eschewed the supernatural elements of Fahrenheit (for which I was – at the time – eternally grateful, as Fahrenheit‘s level of quality took a graceful swan dive off a cliff at about the point where its supernatural elements came to the fore), Beyond looks like it’ll be bringing them back in full force. Our protagonist this time around is Jodie Holmes, who has spent her life attached to an ethereal entity she calls Aiden.

While the game looks like it’ll largely revolve around Jodie (spread, as it is, across 15 years of her life) Aiden forms a second playable character, with spooky powers ranging from simple telekinesis to outright bodily possession. He’s so far been primarily shown as a force of destruction: when Jodie gets pinned down by police, Aiden is capable of possessing a police sniper and wreaking havoc on the poor chap’s colleagues, or, uh, hurling a grenade into a petrol station.

The shift in terms of action highlights some of the big changes from Heavy Rain, in fact. Areas will apparently be a lot larger, with more choice in terms of how to get through any given situation, and more direct control over the characters will be afforded. If you get into a chase scene, for instance, it’s unlikely you’ll essentially watch a movie play out while tapping buttons to pass QTEs – it seems like you’ll remain in control of the character throughout. While you’ll probably still be tapping buttons to pass QTEs in these scenes, the hope seems to be that more direct control will give you a stronger link to the character and the events.

Jodie herself will be played by Academy Award nominee Ellen Page, and for once, “played” seems like a better term than “voiced.” While Heavy Rain used motion capture to record the face and voice separately from the body movement (as is, indeed, the case with most games), Beyond‘s tech records the whole shebang at once. When Jodie is moving or speaking, it is – for all intents and purposes – Ellen Page moving or speaking. As all of this goes along with a brand-new engine built entirely from scratch, the graphics and animation should be as impressive as I’m hoping the acting will be. I’ve yet to see any Scott Shelby-esque gurning, at least.

But we’ve heard the least about what is arguably the most important element. Other than it following Jodie across 15 years, with apparent police trouble somewhere along the way, we know very, very little about the actual story. Thematically speaking, all indications are that it’ll focus primarily on growing up and on death, which link together in a few rather obvious ways.

Naturally, with its 15 year span, it’s also focused very much on getting attached to Jodie as a character. As we’re not going to be hopping around the storyline viewing things from different perspectives, Quantic Dream has a chance to really emphasise this character and how she grows over time – and, with branching paths apparently back, we’ll also hopefully get a chance to see the long-term consequences of decisions we make early on.

Personally, I’m looking forward to it. Despite its issues and despite occasionally not living up to its promises, I always felt that Heavy Rain was a massive success – particularly in terms of telling a story, and letting us influence the way that story unfolded through use of an interactive medium. “Peeking behind the curtain” by replaying it certainly dulled its impact somewhat, but I don’t think that made it any less of a triumph.

I’m just hoping that the fast-paced action we’ve seen so far doesn’t overshadow the elements that Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain got spectacularly right: the calm, domestic, day-to-day moments that provided a wonderful juxtaposition to the chaos that later erupted. All things considered, though, I don’t think I’ve got much to worry about.

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