Breathe, blink, think, repeat.
Six Ellen Pages stared out of screens, looping the same facial animation, lining a wall at Sony's Pre-E3 Judges Tour event. I thought for a second that each PS3 displayed the menu from a DVD starring Ellen Page, like maybe she was dreaming or giving birth. Then I saw Beyond: Two Souls next to her face, and I was pretty sure that's not the tagline for Juno. The realistic render of her face fooled me, and so I wondered why anyone would need a PS4 at all.
I sat down to play, but really dramatically so, with slow motion and an intense look on my face all in an effort to get into character. We know Beyond lead Jodie Holmes leaps from trains to escape the police, befriends the homeless, and even rides in a submarine, but three weeks ago I played a sequence revolving around one of her missions as a CIA operative behind enemy lines. Despite a few technical hiccups, Quantic's got muscle for interactivity with cinematic weight making Beyond's character-driven drama immediate and impactful.
There I am… Africa, I think. Jodie, dressed in desert fatigues and without a firearm, meets a local boy who helps her find her bearings and points towards her objective. Jodie ducks behind cover and navigates around enemies to approach one foe silently and knock him out, triggering a cutscene. Jodie asks her spiritual partner Aiden to scout the enemy compound nearby and eliminate the target. Now I had control of Aiden and not Jodie. I spin Aiden around to look at Jodie, but she urges the spirit away to find the target.
Normally, I'm reticent to engage with two characters so readily in a preview, but there's a mysterious attraction to Beyond: Two Souls that I can't deny. Who is Jodie? Why does she have the simultaneous burden and gift of Aiden? Why is she being used as a weapon here, an assassin with a spiritual gun pointed at the poor bastard in the adjacent building? Thankfully, I could stop wondering as it didn't take long for Aiden to identify the target.
The leader of this outfit sat inside at a table with other angry-looking men, but Aiden couldn't simply float over and possess the target. Certain individuals can be controlled and others can be manipulated, but some aren't fazed by Aiden's chilling touch. Aiden invades the brain of one guard standing outside and tries to wrestle a gun from another. Cage has said these aren't Quick-Time Events as they were in Heavy Rain, but the experience is similar enough that a modern gamer will readily adapt, When I fail the struggle with the other guard, Aiden is booted out of his host.
Rather than retry the struggle, I repossess the guard and wandered around the compound. The meat bag
Aiden… we… I controlled headed inside and overheard the target's conversation. I head left and find a stash of assault rifles only for chills to run up and down my spine. The reality of violent shootings has certainly pervaded our American consciousness and something about the hyper-fidelity of the scene unfolding in front of me stung.
The cinematic presentation put a spotlight on my host's grimace. Aviator glasses hid any life in his eyes and I felt an odd sense of responsibility as his finger slid over the trigger. Was there another way to complete my objective? Was killing my only option? Probably not. I'd seen other players explore the level further and find different options. Like Heavy Rain, failing or differing from your fellow gamer doesn't mean you'll get a Game Over screen. Events can play out differently, though the primary narrative beats remain the same.
I hesitate for a second before pulling the trigger and watch my puppet spray the entire room, emptying his AK-47 magazine. Bodies crumple and fall, with screams and flashes of light signaling the end of life. Jodie crosses the street to confirm Aiden's kill. Here a small glitch bounces Jodie on either side of the door frame and prevents me from entering. Highly cinematic presentation and graphics aside, Beyond is a game with months of polishing ahead of it. I could proceed forward, but early previews like this illustrate how close to the edge Quantic Dream is riding. With so much drawing the player into the story and characters, any little thing can derail the experience.
Surveying the damage, Jodie turns to see the boy from earlier crouched over one of the fallen enemy combatants. Page's performance capture echo through Jodie with crystal clarity, lending emotional weight and gravity to a situation I had no real understanding of. That's powerful. I was surprised to be gripped by a scene taken out of context from Beyond's 10-hour campaign.
When I preview games, I usually end up taking left turns when I'm meant to go right. Sometimes I like to make characters spin in place or explore corners I'm clearly not meant to. Beyond: Two Souls kind of defeats this neurosis. I'd have liked to make Ellen Page run in circles but the animations and highly detailed models make it impossible not to feel like you're controlling a real person. Facial capture and voice acting only furthered the sense that Jodie was truly remorseful of the effect she'd had on this boy's life, stealing his father from him inadvertently.
More immediately troubling was the mob that Jodie's attack had drawn. Yes, like the crazy mob that blows up cars in the beginning of Inception, the end was coming. I could see distinct differences between my playthrough and my neighbor's at this point. The writer next to me escaped steathily, allowing Jodie to slip out unharmed. My compound had militants and angry citizens crowding around the compound, so Jodie and Aiden took off running. That's when a single shot rang out and pierced Jodie's leg. She stumbled a little further, but as I said, the primary story beats will not be interrupted for the player's mistakes, and a few soldiers in a helicopter came to Jodie's rescue.
Bugs and technological hiccups like the door Jodie couldn't walk through could scar the experience, ruining all the attention paid to detail and cinematic effect. Quantic Dream and Sony will likely test the hell out of Beyond and wind up with the best movie-game you've ever played, drawing on the greatest assets from Hollywood and every ounce of power in your PS3's cell processor. Beyond is shaping up to present a point where movies and video games collide in spectacular fashion.