Beyond: Two Souls preview: a playthrough with David Cage
Ah, David Cage, you’ve done it again. The eccentric Frenchman and his Quantic Dream studio has built a strong reputation on releasing products that are less games and more interactive experiences, and his latest PS3 release (due next year) looks like the most fascinating – and divisive – of the lot.
The story follows a character named Jodie Holmes, played by Ellen Page, of Juno and Inception fame. Now Jodie has a friend. An invisible friend called Aiden who’s an ethereal companion – think Willo The Wisp with special powers. Powers that enable him to possess, and even kill, people on Jodie’s behalf. Yeah, bit scarier than the pretend pal you used to bang goals past as a kid.
On one of the levels revealed so far set on a train, those powers are merely teased: tossing a soda cup off a table, for instance. (The entity is easily moved around with the left stick – essentially the free camera is Aiden – while thrusting both sticks upwards in tandem unleashes a burst of energy, hence the leaping drink.) But later on, they progress to Aiden forming a powerful forcefield that takes down an entire SWAT roadblock, and tipping a massive clock tower on to a collection of gun-toting agents just when it looks as though Jodie is cornered.
See, Jodie’s taking the chuckin’-it-down express to who-knows-where because she’s on the run. Clearly, her powers are no secret, and the authorities want them locked down. That’s pretty much all Cage is saying at the moment on storyline, but it’s enough to have her moving along the roof of the train to escape potential captors, being chased through woods while fighting off dogs, and finally trying to evade the SWAT team that surrounds her on a gloomy street – the start of an interactive scene that ends with that tumbling timepiece. At least, it does in this playthrough. Cage is keen to press home that the scene – which also enables you to kill off certain SWAT teamers by strangling them with Aiden – can be played in a variety of different ways, with the falling clock just one of many possibilities.
“There is no specific order to what you must do,” he explains. “The scene is organised round an assault where all the SWATs are getting closer and closer to Jodie, and you [as Aiden] must do whatever you can to stop that. The scene will progress and [at any point] you can enter the cinema (the only building close enough for Jodie to escape into without having her head blown off) but if you don’t, the scene will go in another direction.”
And if Jodie had been captured? Like Heavy Rain, there’s no game over screen. “In the context of a story-driven experience, having a game over screen is a nonsense,” says Cage. “If you fail in this situation, you’re arrested and you need to try to escape. It leads you to a different part of the scene where you need to find a solution, a way out. Any failure won’t lead you to a dead end – it’ll lead you to another version of the story. And sometimes it will have consequences beyond that scene.”
In terms of controlling Jodie, the mechanics are similar to when you handled one of the four characters in Heavy Rain: following button prompts to fend off a cop on the train and then escape through a toilet roof, pressing left and right to evade those thirsty hounds in the woods. Choice seems to come from when to do things rather than how – hence those Cage comments on the ways you can play through the scene where she’s surrounded by SWATs. And that’s why we say Beyond will be as divisive as it is fascinating – because those who argued that Heavy Rain is just Dragon’s Lair HD are going to be making the same claims all over again.
Even with Aiden, you’re never given total freedom. For instance, he can’t possess just anyone, nor kill who he pleases. People susceptible to possession have a golden glow around their necks, while those you can kill are marked in red. (Occasionally you see both.) This seems an oddly arbitrary design decision – if you’re not going to restrict players with a game over screen, why do so in terms of who they can interact with?
“The idea behind all this is explained at some point in the game,” responds Cage. “It’s really that every person has a different aura. We all have a different colour of aura, showing who we are and what [moral] shape we are – good or bad.” It’s the least convincing answer of our interview with him, but at this stage he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Even if your super-powerful invisible buddy is restricted in certain situations, it’s clear that just having him in the game at all makes this a very different prospect to Heavy Rain. But intriguingly, Cage is keen to play down the ghostly role of Aiden – reminding us that this is first and foremost a story about Jodie, whose in-game story arc kicks off at childhood and lasts 15 years. “I know it’s going to be surprising, but I don’t think that the supernatural is one of the main themes,” he says. “It’s totally secondary. She has a link with an entity, but [Beyond] isn’t about that. There are many ways you can be different, and this gift – and how to live with it – is what makes her different. It’s not like X-Men.”
No, it’s not like X-Men – it’s a damn sight more interesting in just about every possible way. There are still some big questions to be resolved – including a proper explanation of what that ‘aura’ concept means in storyline terms – but we’ve already seen more than enough to know this isn’t just Heavy Rain 2.0. And evidently, so have you. Between Beyond and The Last Of Us, Sony wants to prove that there’s still plenty of life left in PS3. And with those games sitting at numbers one and two on the Hot 50, it’s clear that you won’t be channelling your own personal Aiden over the lack of PlayStation 4 news just yet.