E3 Comments: “Beyond: Two Souls”

French studio Quantic Dream, the highly regarded studio behind the under-appreciated classic “Indigo Prophecy” and 2010’s highly successful PS3 exclusive “Heavy Rain”, has announced their next game, “Beyond: Two Souls.”  Surprisingly for a new announcement the trailer is substantial (over five minutes long) and offers a significant look into the tone being set by the game.

Quantic Dream has always approached their games firstly from a cinematic view-point and this one is no different.  Ellen Page’s acting, seen clearly and meaningfully through the filter of the studio’s updated motion capture techniques, is clearly the focus of the trailer.  However it’s also clear that this game will feature more action than many have come to expect from this team.

In what I think is becoming a theme for many publishers, but Sony in particular, this game is clearly not an attempt to break new ground.  The themes touched upon in the trailer are in many ways almost clichéd today.  Ruthless government agencies hunting down young girls with mysterious powers is nothing new.  “Firestarter”, “Serenity”, more than a few manga’s and many other properties have explored the concept before.

The theme here seems to be “polish”.  Any new hardware introduction (at least the good ones) are followed by a rush to utilize that new capability.  To introduce new ways to play or interact.  With greater processing power we had waves of massively populated games – hundreds of characters on-screen!  Perhaps the greatest single movement of the current console generation has been physics.  Almost all games feature, to a greater or lesser extent, realistic physics now.  Many (if not most) have physics puzzles.

With the releases of the PlayStation Move and XBox Kinect motion gaming (which was, let’s be honest, languishing on the Wii) really hit their stride and again we were deluged with attempts to bring new experiences to the table.  None if this is bad – any advancement is good – but it does tend to leave the landscape littered with good ideas that never really reach their potential.

With both Sony and Microsoft thankfully attempting to draw out the life-cycle of their current consoles we’re granted with an oppurtunity to see how developers are able to refine their ideas over several iterations without the additional pressure of new platforms.  This is a very good thing.

Returning to the game at hand and admitting that the story being presented may not be the most original it’s clear that the methods for telling that story are becoming razor-honed.  We begin with a highly talented, A-list lead in Ellen Page.  This is not Ellen Page voicing a video-game character this is Ellen Page playing a lead role.  The game character is, in effect, a costume – her whole-body performance with all the nuance and emotional impact is clearly conveyed.

Even in the trailer you can see the attention given to the setting and story.  Quantic Dream excels at the cinematic aspects of gaming and they’re all on display here: the lighting, camera angles, lens choice, framing and so on.  Like “Heavy Rain” it’s clear that this will be a game that’s just as much fun to watch as to play.  In a hundred tiny, subtle ways you can see how they’ve improved and polished the experience.

At this stage it’s still unclear how much the actual gameplay will be enhanced but considering the pedigree I’m betting on substantial – but again subtle – improvements across-the-board.  This year the best games are going to be all about subtlety and minor improvements; about raising the bar rather than redefining it.  This is going to be a great year for games.

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