A Closer Look At “Beyond: Two Souls”

It has often been said that films are becoming more like video games these days, but to some extent the reverse is also true. Production budgets of individual titles are skyrocketing fast, marketing budgets are rising even faster, and billions of dollars are being made annually by game studios of varying sizes.

In the past decade we’ve seen the growing erosion of the middle in both industries – where product is being pushed towards two extremes. On the one hand there’s the low to mid-budget indie films and games that take artistic risks and push the envelope. On the other there are big budget movie tentpoles and ‘AAA’ games that, due to their massive budgets, often play it safe with formulaic sequels and minor tweaks designed to appeal to the masses.

In terms of content though, games in particular have seen a distinct move towards the world of filmmaking. From far more dynamic and cinematic level design, to use of motion capture and big name actors to weave rich and complex stories, the line between gaming and filmmaking grows increasing blurred by the day as an actual narrative becomes a more integrated part of many game titles.

One of the companies at the forefront of those efforts to escape categorisation is French developer Quantic Dream. Founded by David Cage in 1997, the company’s first title was “Omikron: The Nomad Soul” for the PC which sported original music by the thin white duke himself David Bowie.

Several years later came “Fahrenheit” (aka. Indigo Prophecy), a well-reviewed award-winning game which was the first of their titles to utilise what has become their signature – interactive storytelling. Like a far more sophisticated version of those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books many of us would read as kids, the game discarded conventional gameplay in favor of telling a story with multiple options – resulting in a narrative that takes vastly different directions depending upon one’s decisions.

It was 2010’s “Heavy Rain” though that really put them on the map. Taking what they had learned from “Fahrenheit” and combining it with then cutting-edge graphics, a more obvious cinematic flavour, and multiple narratives that intertwined and impacted on each other, yielded a game that many still label as one of the greatest titles ever released for the PS3.

Even so, there remains a push back from certain sections of the gaming community. Much like there are audiences out there who have set minds about what constitutes a film and rarely dabble outside of major Hollywood blockbusters, there are gamers who are afraid or don’t like to experiment with the idea of what they consider a game. The kind that will spend hundreds of hours with only a few repetitive key franchises (eg. “Halo,” “Call of Duty,” “Fallout,” “Elder Scrolls,” etc.) and dismiss all else.

Quantic Dream’s games aren’t for that player, they are designed to appeal to those who can appreciate gaming outside the often mundane confines of the first person shooter genre. They are appealing to those who can see gaming stretching beyond basic skills testing exercises and into a world more familiar to films – character driven stories with emotional engagement. Their new PS3-exclusive “Beyond: Two Souls,” which just hit stores this week, steps even further into that realm.

The other week I attended a special presentation by Sony Playstation Australia to showcase and discuss “Beyond: Two Souls” with Quantic Dream founder Cage and a panel of experts to talk not just about the game, but how the filmmaking and gaming genres are coming together.

While a major movie takes 3-6 months to shoot a 90-120 page script, the varying choices and nonlinear narrative of “Beyond: Two Souls” is far more complicated. Quite literally the largest performance capture animated project ever made, the game is a combination of 2,000 script pages, a full year of filming, 160 cast members, 300 characters, and 23,000 unique animations.

Actors Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe and Eric Winter led the cast of an intense shoot which saw them decked out in the now familiar wetsuits and ‘tracking dots’ of motion capture performance work. Tacking place on a stripped down stage, the ultimate result is the actor’s performances shine through the graphics and allow for a more emotionally engaging story to unfold.

As for the story itself? The supernatural action thriller follows Jodie Holmes, a young woman who possesses extraordinary powers through a psychic link to an invisible entity. Spanning a stretch of fifteen years, we see Jodie growing from a troubled young girl into a highly capable CIA operative who traverses the globe.

This allows for a huge variety of settings and actions. From hunting a warlord in the deserts of Somalia, to delivering a baby in an abandoned building, the actions are all quite distinct and variable depending not just upon how far along in the game you are, but what choices you made to get that far.

Video games are mostly about the challenge, and that challenge is often just straight up survival. ‘Beyond’ isn’t about that, nor is it about point scoring. This is very much a single player game that’s more about determining which way the story goes and how you emotionally respond to that direction.

The narrative runs around 12 hours, but the game itself sports 53 hours of animation which goes to show you how many other options that exist in a game like this. Each time you sit down you’ll get a different narrative – some with only slight alterations, others sporting drastic differences.

The little moments however are what make the game standout. From a scene with Page’s character busking with a Beck song, to exploring topics rarely seen in gaming such as teen suicide. The game itself also sports technical advancements under the hood with a new animation engine using real-time physics and inverse kinematics for organic and natural movement. There’s also a proper musical score composed by Lorne Balfe and produced by “The Dark Knight” trilogy composer Hans Zimmer.

Cage is nothing if not ambitious, and the non-linear narrative and complexity on offer here could prove a challenge for even major “Heavy Rain” fans. While the gameplay itself is fairly restricted, the storytelling isn’t which allows for not just an incredible amount of scope but also a refreshing and challenging take on some complicated moral decisions that have to be made.

Debates will no doubt continue to rage though about whether this is truly a ‘game’ or an interactive movie. There’s still a large reliance on ‘quicktime events’ and both the mechanics and puzzle-solving elements remain fairly simple which may be an issue for those who like a lot of freedom in their gameplay.

Yet with many AAA games following tired formulas of their own, reliant on overpriced DLC, or focused on multiplayer brawls that are all about petty competition, it’s games like these which push the boundaries of what traditionally constitutes a game. In the process, they are quietly and effectively redefining the genre and dragging it into the future.

“Beyond: Two Souls” is now available on PS3 in stores worldwide.