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'Beyond Two Souls' an ambitious leap forward for narrative games

Beyond Two Souls features some of the most realistic performance captures yet, with stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe effectively ‘cloned in 3D.’

There aren't a lot of video games that require players to panhandle on a street corner or deliver a baby – complete with umbilical cord cutting – but then again, Beyond Two Souls isn't shaping up to be a run-of-the-mill release.

The upcoming PlayStation 3 game, scheduled for a fall launch, is an unusual effort in a medium dominated by violent shooters. It focuses squarely on character and plot – the story of a young girl named Jodie Holmes and her relationship with a mysterious ghost-like entity whom she calls Aiden – and the emotional investment players make in them.

Beyond is thus as far away from the likes of Halo or Call of Duty as a Lars von Trier movie is from a Michael Bay blockbuster. For David Cage, the creative force behind the game, that's a positive development for the medium.

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"This conception of what a video game should be is evolving and changing and the more it goes, the more people accept that games can be different things," says Mr. Cage, founder and co-chief executive of Paris-based Quantic Dream. "They accept that it can also be something that's more meaningful and more of an emotional journey, rather than just a way to get adrenalin."

Mr. Cage's previous effort, Heavy Rain, was a surprise hit for Sony in 2010. Similarly story driven, it focused on the relationships between four main characters and how they affected each other. It was heavy on psychology and light on action, but was a critical success that also managed to sell 2 million units.

This week, Quantic Dream hosted a preview event for journalists at its studio in Paris, providing the first glimpse of the game since its unveiling at the Electronic Entertainment Expo last summer.

Beyond features some of the most realistic performance captures yet, with stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe effectively "cloned in 3D." All of the performance work was done in the on-site capture studio, a cavernous room ringed by a rigging of 65 cameras. Ms. Page and Mr. Dafoe – who plays a university professor that Holmes goes to for help early in the game – acted out their roles wearing traditional motion-capture suits, but also advanced wireless facial-capture rigs. The actors had 90 small dots attached to their faces, which made them look like veritable pin cushions, but it was all in name of getting the hyper-realistic expressions Mr. Cage was looking for.

Ms. Page and Mr. Dafoe weren't brought on simply to add star power to the game, he adds. Rather, they wanted to do the game because they were attracted to the script, while Quantic Dream sought them out because they were capable of providing the believable performances the story would require.

Shooting took 12 months, with more than 23,000 unique animations created, a number Mr. Cage says is, "totally insane, totally unreasonable." That's because every action in the game is unique, with no repetition. Going through a door, for example, is animated differently each time, depending on the context, emotional state of the character and what's on the other side.

Much of the game has been developed on Sony's upcoming next-generation console, the PlayStation 4, which will also be released this fall, yet Mr. Cage insists it's for the current PS3. It seems likely the game will also be released on the PS4, but he's not saying one way or the other.

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The story itself plays out over 15 years of Holmes' life, starting when she's just a precocious eight-year-old who claims to have an invisible friend. Her relationship with Aiden evolves in Memento-style flashbacks, with the narrative jumping between different points in her life.

Players control Jodie in third-person view, but they can take control of Aiden at any time through a button press. The invisible and incorporeal entity has numerous powers, including telekinesis and the ability to possess people, but he also has his own personality. He's protective of Jodie, which means he can be helpful and nurturing – but also quick tempered and violent.

The relationship between the two evolves over the course of the story, but in terms of game play, they must often co-operate to continue on. In one demo, Jodie was stuck in a burning office, her escape coming only after Aiden pushes over a shelving unit so that she can climb through a ceiling grate.

While Heavy Rain – which won three BAFTA awards – was successful in telling an interactive story, some critics felt it was slow-moving and didn't involve the player enough. Much of the action came from quick-time events, where players had to push buttons in time with prompts on the screen.

Mr. Cage took the criticisms to heart, with Beyond now requiring considerably more input from the player. Not only can Aiden freely fly around at any time, Jodie is also able to fight and perform actions using the controller's right analog stick. The emphasis, however, is still on simplicity – to open a door or stand up from a crouch, for example, all the player has to do is move the stick in the proper direction. Most of the quick-time events have also been banished.

The story also varies in pace, settings and gameplay style. At E3, Mr. Cage showed off a fast-paced, action-adventure chase scene that involved Jodie driving a motorcycle. The new demo with the burning office, meanwhile, felt more like a survival horror game, with an unknown creature lurking somewhere in the building. In another 40-minute-long demo at the studio, developers played through a slow-paced, character building sequence in which Jodie makes new friends – and delivers the aforementioned baby.

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The idea is to give players as much freedom and variety as possible. The choices they make will ultimately take Jodie's relationship with Aiden in different directions, with the story having multiple paths to multiple endings.

"We've tried to make the narrative line a space in which you can travel and move. We want this space to feel as organic as possible, which means we don't want to have big signs flashing, saying. 'Oh, there's a choice here,' " Mr. Cage says.

"When you see the limits of this narrative space, you see how the thing is built and you may lose interest. You may see the magic disappear. Our goal as creators is to make these boundaries invisible."

Story-driven games such as Beyond are gaining currency with critics and gamers alike. Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, based on the TV show, won numerous game-of-the-year awards in 2012, and sold nearly nine million copies of its five episodes. Like Heavy Rain, the downloadable series was hailed for its focus on character development and story.

Quantic Dream has doubled in size since Heavy Rain , with more than 180 employees now working at the Paris studio. To Mr. Cage, the interactive drama genre is only just getting started.

"Heavy Rain made Walking Dead possible," he says. "We helped them and I think their success helped us."

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 20 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More


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