David Cage was nervous last Saturday night. And with good reason. There he was, about to unveil a sizable chunk of Beyond: Two Souls in front of a packed house at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. This was only the second time that a video game was shown at the annual celebration of cinema founded by Robert DeNiro. (Rockstar showed L.A. Noire at the festival a few years ago.) So, yes, it was a big deal.
Over the next half-hour, gameplay footage — it wasn’t clear whether this was being played live or was pre-recorded — showed a segment of the game where Beyond heroine Jodie Holmes was living on the street. After a grim sequence where she stumbles around in a blizzard and passes out, Jodie wakes up in an abandoned warehouse after being rescued by a homeless man.
You can see what happens in the entire 35-minute preview from Tribeca above. I’ll list some highlights if you don’t watch the whole thing. Early on, an emotionally spent Jodie tries to kill herself.
Aiden — the disembodied essence that players can control and that Jodie communicates with — stops her. Later on, Jodie begs for change and gets harassed by a jerk on the street who offers to give her $US10 “to go ’round back”. After her first day on the street comes to an end, she meets Tuesday, a pregnant woman squatting with the other homeless people in the warehouse. Tuesday hadn’t felt baby kick in days but Jodie assured her — with some help from Aiden, it seemed — that the baby was still alive. And, just before the climax of the demo that was shown, Jodie helps deliver that baby.
Begging for spare change. Delivering babies. These are not the kinds of things that you do in most big-budget video games. On one hand, it seems like Beyond is telling a somewhat conventional genre fiction story about a young girl with special talents who winds up working for the military. Those are tropes we’ve seen before.
The chunk of Beyond shown at the screening did have combat sequences, dialogue decisions, environmental puzzle-solving and other elements that feel typical to, say, a Halo or Uncharted title. But that just makes the more realistic elements stand out more. “I was interested in putting you in the shoes of someone living in the streets,” Cage told me. “This is something that some films have done before but very few games try that. I think it’s important to do it in games because you actually can experience much more of what it means, because it’s you, you’re in control and you lead that. We just saw one walk-thru, one possibility, but there are many ways you can play this scene and see different aspects of living in the street.”
I asked Cage if he had any concerns about portraying people who are achingly poor and on the fringes of society. Did he worry about any kind of backlash? “These are not the kind of questions that I ask myself when I write,” he answered. “I write things that move me. You don’t even have the choice of what you’re writing. You write what you need to write.” So why did he need to write that scene?
“I don’t know,” he began. “Because I’ve been moved many times by the people living in the street and the indifference around them, and how difficult it is to live outside. One of the strong memories that I have about that was actually in New York. I was here 20 or 25 years ago, and I saw that it was really cold. Incredibly cold. It was minus 40 degrees Celsius.”
“I had a big coat and I was still really cold. I saw a woman with a kid and she was in the street and she didn’t have my big coat,” he continued. “It was freezing cold. These are the kinds of images that haunt you for the rest of your life. You really wonder what happened to her and her kid, if they even survived. This is why you need to write these kind of things.”
“I was interested in putting you in the shoes of someone living in the streets.”
And the childbirth scene? “When you write, your first audience is yourself. I’m not the first one to say this,” he told me. “You try to create a very unique moment, something that will be strong and emotional and moving. If it works for you as the first audience, you always hope that it’s going to work for others, too. We had a very strong response from the people who saw this part of the game, and they said how emotional and moving it is. This is really what I’m looking for.”
“You try to create a very unique moment, something that will be strong and emotional and moving.”
If you’ve been following the promotion around Beyond, then you might have noticed that it’s not going to be as sprawling as Heavy Rain. In that game, you would pass the story along to another character depending on various choices and events. But, Cage told me that players will control Jodie and Aiden all the way through. “I was fascinated by telling the story of someone through 15 years in their life — as a kid, as a teenager, as an adult — and seeing how the different events in her life would make her who she becomes. At the same time, there’s Aiden, who’s this continuing presence. You play Jodi at different ages. so she looks different. She moves differently and talks differently. She has access to different things in different situations.”
“My goal with Beyond was to create a strong sense of empathy between the player and the character of Jodi Holmes because she will become someone you will know by heart,” Cage continued. “You were there when she was a kid. You know what she went through. You’ve been there with her in the happy and difficult moments of her life. My hope is by the time you turn off your console and you’re done with the game, you really feel like you’re saying goodbye to someone close that you really like.”
When Cage made his comments about turning off the console, I wondered about the next game machine coming from Sony.
Beyond: Two Souls is the kind of game where, at some point. you’re going to have plot twists that players may want to share with each other. Like, here’s what I did, “I actually jumped off the bridge and Jodi’s dead.” Or, “Or I didn’t save Jimmy, he burnt to death.” I asked Cage he was worried about what a share button could do, in terms of how it could affect the uniqueness of the experiences for the player. Would he want to turn that function off or have it not to be shareable? Would something like the PS4’s share button change how he and his Quantic Dream peers design their games?
“No, it doesn’t scare me at all,” he laughed. “We want that ‘water cooler effect’. We had it on Heavy Rain. People talked about it, and they said, ‘I did this. What did you do?’ The only difference is that now they will be able to capture and share it with their friends. That’s fine. People bought the game. They are free to enjoy it the way they want. But my recommendation would be to really play the game on your own, hopefully without going back and talking too much to other people as you play. Just keep the experience unique.”
Speaking of PS4, Cage’s Quantic Dream colleague Guillaume de Fondaumière let me know that they’ve been working with a version of Sony’s next-gen hardware for a while now. “We started to work on PlayStation 4 more than two years ago. It did influence our developments on PlayStation 3 actually on Beyond. We are now at the point where you can see the possibilities of that console after two years of programming on it. We were really surprised to which levels we can push things from a graphical standpoint,” Fondaumière told me. “There will be quite an important gap between what we are showing here on Beyond and what is really possible sometime soon on PlayStation 4, which is a really, really powerful machine.”
“There will be quite an important gap between what we are showing here on Beyond and what is really possible sometime soon on PlayStation 4…”
Aside from graphics, one of the other big takeaways from Sony’s PlayStation event in February was the importance of connectivity. Does the emphasis on social experiences mean that Quantic Dream might make a multiplayer game or a game where there’s a collaboration between players? How will PS4 make them evolve the game design? “It’s too early to talk really about what this next project is. But what’s certain is, yes, everything is open today. Everything is connected. There’s a new controller. We need to look at this new controller’s functionality and adapt gameplay to it. But we also need to see these new connectivities. We need to find a way to embrace, not only the available technologies, but also the new habits of players. Yeah, we’re thinking a lot about it right now.”
“One of the features of the PlayStation 4 controller is the touchpad, for instance. These new features are very interesting to us because we think that we would like to bring casual gamers or occasional gamers or even people who don’t play at all to the medium,” he said. “I think we can only do that through what I would say are non-conventional gaming paradigms. The controller has always been to a certain extent a barrier to those non-gamers to jump into the gaming space. We’ve seen more and more people embracing gaming through those mobile devices. That’s something else that we’re watching very, very carefully. We’ll see in the future what this means.”
At the PS4 reveal a few months ago, Cage showed a glimpse of the new engine that Quantic Dream is developing. But, he wants to make sure that people understand something: “The technology is a tool. That’s what I tried to explain … It’s not because you have better tech that suddenly you will create something much more meaningful and interesting” he continued. “No. It’s a tool. If you have something to sell, to say, to explain, to express, and you have a better tool to do it, you will create something better. But if you have nothing to say, you can have the best tech in the world, you still won’t say anything.”