That 35 minutes of Beyond: Two Souls screened at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival is very telling. The next game from French developer Quantic Dream, Beyond is shaping up to be an incredible-looking, beautifully-constructed, and extremely cinematic title that far outclasses stablemate Heavy Rain in terms of performance capture and graphical fidelity. Like that game, it also appears to be a title that pushes narrative and spectacle over gameplay and player agency. This will no doubt make it a divisive release, but also arguably an important one for the continued evolution of videogames.
Given the centrality of the story in the game, the fragments seen in the two-hour preview build we played are best not described in detail. The bones of it are that for her entire life, Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) has had a constant connection to a spirit she calls Aiden. Only she can see and communicate with him, but his actions are very apparent to others. Consequently, from an early age Jodie is kept in a facility so Aiden’s poltergeist-like behaviour may be safely studied.
The narrative is presented in non-chronological order and jumps years ahead or backward with regularity. However, rather than spoil things, this instead builds intrigue better than a linear timeline possibly would, constantly leaving the player to wonder what transpired for things to have changed from one scenario to another.
We see Jodie as a child, afraid of and apparently not yet able to talk to Aiden. We see her recruited into the CIA and later, hunted by them for some reason. She’s in her early teens and allowed to attend a birthday. She’s eight and demonstrating Aiden’s abilities in the lab. Later, scientists open a rift to another dimension, and that realm’s hostile inhabitants drift through. While grounded by a very human story, it's clear that the supernatural will play a large part in the game.
Quantic Dream’s proprietary motion and face capture is stunning throughout, although it’s obvious the PlayStation 3 is often being pushed to its limits. Despite some very brief cover-shooting passages, the controls remain like those of Heavy Rain – an at-times confusing blend of traditional third-person adventure controls, motion controls, single button presses for the most mundane of actions, and no-fail quick time events.
Some passages of play are tranquil, leaving Jodie and Aiden – who incidentally the player never hears from either – to simply explore and get a sense of their environment, whereas others are linear marches to an objective. At almost any time, the press of a button will put the player in first-person control of the floating Aiden, who can pass through doors and some walls, but who cannot stray far from Jodie. He can possess other characters and walk about, but if they are touched by someone else – which invariably happens every time an attempt is made to wander – he is cast out and the character returns to their duties.
Aiden can also shift objects using his telekinesis powers, and much of this build of the game was spent clearing a path for Jodie or manipulating objects to elicit a reaction from others and move the story forward. The player isn’t given much leeway when it comes to going off-script in that regard, but Beyond clearly isn’t that sort of game.
Attempts to steer Jodie away from her objective simply result in her pausing, looking reflective, and then turning to face her intended destination. Similarly, if the player as Aiden is constantly possessing people or pushing things over, they are scolded by Jodie until each behaves. Both are elegant ways to get around the ‘invisible wall’ problem while keeping the player immersed.
But that is also something that may put some off – for its storytelling to be effective, Beyond must funnel the player relentlessly, so much appears to be out of the player’s hands. That means no player death, and what some would consider more movie than game. Such design may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does allow for a very specific, emotional story to be told with no clunky exposition. And that said, there are points in the game when a decision that appears to have consequences is made, but this demo wasn't long enough for any repercussions to be seen.
While Beyond's preview build is somewhat impenetrable in a lot of ways – many pieces of the narrative jigsaw are missing – it oozes atmosphere, and its commitment to environmental storytelling is refreshing. Even its more mundane scenes have a quality that sets a mood immediately, often without the aid of music or overt signalling.
In fact, its quieter moments are when the game really shines, and feels like it is doing something rarely attempted in the medium. However, it remains an enigma overall, equal parts transfixing and baffling. We're certainly intrigued though, and will see if Cage has managed to pull it all together into a cohesive whole when it releases next month.