Callum Petch Goes to Eurogamer 2013, Part 2: Beyond & David Cage

On the 27th and the 28th of September 2013, Callum Petch attended the Eurogamer Expo with the intention of playing as many games and attending as many panels as he could stand standing in lines for.  The following posts chronicle his adventures…

David Cage is the definition of a necessary evil.  On the one hand, the man is one of those responsible for kick-starting the drive for unique story-driven experiences with AAA budgets in gaming successfully with titles like Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy if you’re American and fat) and Heavy Rain.  On the other hand, his stories are often abysmal and if they were made in any other medium he would be laughed out of the room as a hack who writes terrible dialogue, hokey action sequences, under-developed characters, laughable plot twists that lack logic and shoe-horned in sex scenes.  But he works in the games industry, so these are considered high-quality scripts.

And, yet, if we didn’t have Heavy Rain, we wouldn’t have had Jurassic Park: The Game which would mean that we wouldn’t have had The Walking Dead Game.  Plus, Cage himself has something that very few AAA developers have the balls to admit in this industry, opinions.  Yeah, his opinions are often a bit stupid and out of touch with the games industry as it stands today, but at least he has them and he’s passionate about them which makes him fascinating to listen to.  That’s the thing with necessary evils, they’re always able to continue justifying their existence, and it’s also why I made playing Beyond: Two Souls and attending the David Cage developer session two of the most important things that needed doing whilst I was at the expo.

First thing I want to note about the demo is that it was long.  Really long.  At least half an hour.  I bring this up because 90% of the demos I ended up playing at the expo this year came in at just under the five minute mark, which is really not at all enough time to formulate lengthy, confident opinions unless those games had readily apparent quality (hello again, Octodad).  This makes the Beyond demo stick out immensely because it’s one of the few games of the expo this year where I did actually get enough time to formulate comprehensive and confident opinions on it.  So I would like to thank Quantic Dream, in that regard, for making my job that much easier.

Beyond: Two SoulsOK, first things that I noticed first: this game is absolutely freakin’ gorgeous.  Seriously, everything in this game looks fantastic.  The mo-cap, done using the same technology that powered James Cameron’s Avatar (and which Cage referred to, just as I was about to write it down myself, as allowing “stage acting… pure acting”), the lighting, the character design, rain, fire, even character’s facial animations manage to avoid the uncanny valley 80% of the time (most of the remaining 20% coming courtesy of kid Jodie whose monotone eyes will frequently pierce your soul).  Cage revealed at the developer session that the game is running on a modified version of the engine that Quantic Dream used to power the Kara tech demo for the PS4 a while back and it more than shows.  This actually had a way more noticeable “this game looks amazing!” effect on me than Ryse or DriveClub did.  The PS3 is clearly being pushed to its absolute limits here but it is worth it, right now.

The next thing I noticed: action controls are far less disorienting than it initially seemed like they would be.  There is a short little learning period to the system, the first time you accidentally mistake Jodie swinging her left foot right from a slightly unhelpful camera position for example, but as soon as you’re locked in with it, it works.  It’s basically Heavy Rain but without the button prompts, although those still do appear frequently for whenever Jodie has to perform more complex tasks, like climbing a rock-face or grabbing a stick whilst a police dog is attempting to knaw her face to shreds.  The system – which Cage, at the session, stressed was “bullet time” and not Quick Time Events, despite, you know, the evidence to the contrary standing directly in front of him – overall, is fair and gives you enough time to input the correct command before failure is initiated.

Although, and again much like Heavy Rain, missing a button prompt does not mean automatic failure.  Cage stated that he wanted there to be no Game Over screens in Beyond, instead having failure lead you to a new, alternative scene.  He’s not wrong, there.  Whilst waiting for a station to become free, I noticed various people end up visiting separate scenes to one another.  One ended up being discovered whilst in the woods, and so they had to escape a police car in order to procure an escape vehicle, whereas another was not caught and instead acquired said escape vehicle through more stealthy means instead.  I managed to complete the demo flawlessly and, as a result, ended it one scene shorter than everyone else.  It should be noted that all bonus sequences for being captured at various stages still led to the same end point, just at different paces, which does worry me for when some of the… more complex setpieces pop up later on.  Jodie is, quite frankly, going to have to be made of solid gold titanium to get through the game from somebody who screws up every action sequence.

Beyond: Two SoulsMaking the playing of Beyond slightly more complex than “push a stick in a certain direction when the game tells you to” is Aiden, the second of the titular two souls of the game’s title.  Aiden is an entity that Jodie is linked to and, though she can take care of herself, often relies on him for survival in overwhelming situations.  During these, the game will force you into Aiden’s perspective in order to bypass certain obstacles by either shielding Jodie, flinging objects, choking enemies or possessing them in order to knock off their team-mates.  It’s all very limited and the game makes it abundantly clear as to which ability you are supposed to use, but it is quite fun to possess an FBI agent and force him to pre-scriptedly drive his truck into the front window of a store.  Plus, the effect for performing these actions, different coloured sparks start charging up as you perform said actions, is GORGEOUS.

If I do have a complaint with what I played of Beyond, and this goes for both Jodie and Aiden, it’s that movement controls are abysmal.  Both parties are extremely sluggish in movement and the game has assigned moving the camera and a catch-all interaction button to the same thumbstick in non-action sequences.  It’s precisely as terrible a design decision as it sounds and it, combined with the terribly imprecise movement as it is anyway, makes any non-action sequence a mess to get through.

Otherwise, as a game, Beyond is shaping up to be Quantic Dream’s best yet.  It’s exciting, gorgeous and not a complete arse to control.  As for the story, dialogue and acting, however… I can’t accurately judge the acting as the volume of the performances was buried quite low in the mix and the Sony PS4 booth area was directly behind me with EXTREMELY LOUD video stations, so most of Ellen Page’s, who plays Jodie, dialogue was drowned out by, er, the E3 trailer for Beyond.  The dialogue was quite stiff and forced, or made-up of various people getting all sweary and wondering how Jodie is managing to pick them off one by one, but I am slightly more willing to let it slide for now, seeing as the section I played was very action heavy.  Although if you’re a fan of overly-on-the-nose David Cage dialogue, the exchange at the end of the first section of the demo after an experiment gets out of control – Willem DeFoe: “It’s alright, Jodie.  It’s over.”  Younger Jodie: “It’ll never be over.” – will more than satiate you.  The rest of us will be over here rolling our eyes.

David CageIt’s the story that worries me.  At the developer session, Cage finally revealed how the story would work… fragmented timeline.  The game will tell its various sequences out of order with Cage seeing the story as a “puzzle” or a “mystery” that gamers will attempt to piece together as they play.  Now, I remain worried because Cage, in the past, has shown that he is not particularly great at writing a mystery and I feel that telling the story out of order may be just an excuse to cover up plot holes or to be clever, which Cage claimed was something that the games industry’s stories typically try and avoid.  Cleverness for cleverness’ sake doesn’t always work out for the best, and it’s also a story-telling device that, by its very nature, works against Cage’s claims of the game offering you “organic, implied choices” which is a feature he left to imply meant that the story could radically shift.  Except that it can’t, because a fragmented narrative involves time-skipping so that you can already tell each stage of someone’s life.  You can’t, basically, show the future and the past, then have something different happen in the past that didn’t occur in your already shown future; not unless you’re stealth trying to make a time-paradox.  I worry that Cage is over-promising again because, by its very nature, Beyond’s story gameplay has to be extremely linear.  If it was a linear timeline, then I’d believe Cage’s claims because you can write around that.  Fragmented, though?  Not unless you’re a very, very good writer and, as we’ve previously established, Cage is barely above average.

I’m sounding a lot more negative than I really am towards Beyond because, honestly, this was one of the best games I played at the show and the David Cage developer session was extremely interesting throughout.  I left the Expo a lot more confident as to the quality of Beyond than I went in.  Or, to put it in terms that Cage may understand, if this were a movie, what I would have waited a few weeks for a matinee screening of is now something I need to see opening weekend.  The preview impressed me that much.

Oh, by the way, sex scene in Beyond confirmed.  After all, why else would the behind-the-scenes video show Ellen Page and a hunky man in mo-cap suits rolling around on the floor together, laughing uncontrollably and snarking about their predicament?


The Expo adventures will continue in further blog posts every weekday between Monday and Thursday until Callum Petch has ran out of articles here on GameSparked!

Callum Petch thought he’d found the connector.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch), listen to the Pupcast (iTunes link) and read his weekly gaming column Petchulant every Friday here on GameSparked!

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