The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is not the best place to sample “Beyond Two Souls,” the upcoming narrative game to be distributed by Sony from video game auteur David Cage.
Enter, for instance, one of the main halls at E3, the video game industry’s annual trade show, and you will immediately see caged, model-thin actors and actresses.
They are playing zombies, and they are trapped on the showroom floor to advertise a forthcoming game from Capcom. They will lunge for you, grunt at you and sit cross-legged in skintight pants for your enjoyment while munching on fake flesh.
Walk a few steps in another direction, and it’s possible you will find yourself unwittingly stuck in an hour-plus line for a free, customized toy for an upcoming Disney game. Leave the conference hall and barely clothed adults dressed as Hansel and Gretel — scratch that, just Gretel — are there for photo opportunities.
E3 is built for maximum distractions. “Beyond Two Souls” requires near devout attention.
The Ellen Page-starring game will be released in late October by French studio Quantic Dream. What it asks of the players is patience as it explores 15 years in the life of Jodie Holmes.
In footage of the game shown at E3, she’s a CIA agent with a questionable mission to fulfill in Somalia. In footage of the game shown earlier this year she’s homeless. In both she’s accompanied by Aiden, a highly protective yet deadly supernatural entity that only Jodie can see.
“It’s the collection of all these moments that form her life and the experience that is the game, so it’s always frustrating for us to pick up just one piece and show it to people,” Cage said Wednesday at E3. “It must be very difficult for everyone to connect the dots, but that is what the game is about. This is the journey into someone’s life.”
There’s action, as the Somalia scene showed Holmes having to fulfill assassination orders from the CIA, and it required plenty of ducking, sneaking, running and the possession of others, the latter courtesy of Aiden. But unlike the majority of action-thrillers shown at E3, when it came time to pull a trigger in the Somalia episode, “Beyond Two Souls” took control out of the hands of the player.
For a few seconds, the action simply unfolded. There were no prompts floating above the player’s target, and there was no extended cinematic scene. The choices had been made, and the action would be done. Story, in “Beyond Two Souls,” comes first.
“There are some moments,” said Cage, “where you need to take control in order to tell the story you need to tell and to provide the best possible experience to the player. It’s not something that’s always very popular. Players like to be in control of everything, but it doesn’t work that way.”
But Cage isn’t interested in how things have previously worked.
“If I had to give you one word to qualify what I’m looking for, I would say ‘meaning,’ ” Cage said. “I’m looking forward to seeing more and more games having something to say and not someone to shoot at. This is my hope for the future. I want to see more games say something and not just give you adrenaline.”
E3, then, isn’t necessarily the place to be. Simply scan the major launch titles for the upcoming next-gen consoles the PS4 and the Xbox One, and one will find that the majority of the games center around taking aim at a target, be it with a gun, a sword, a fist or fire. “The Order: 1886,” a PS4 exclusive, is set in Jack the Ripper-era London and boasted a moody trailer — with modern weaponry. During a demo of the adaptive, expansive “Ryse: Son of Rome,” an exclusive for Xbox One, a game representative described it as a “killing box.”
Maybe, one could argue, that studios like Quantic and designers like Cage are starting, little by little, to change the tide. This Friday, for instance, sees the release of Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us,” another Sony-distributed title that finds more tension in relationships than it does action. Also shown at E3 was the latest episode in Telltale’s interpretation of “The Walking Dead,” a downloadable game subtitled “400 Days” that does little more than ask the player to choose various paths of conversation.
Yet, despite mentioning those examples, Cage wasn’t optimistic that major publishers would wholeheartedly embrace game mechanics that favor storytelling in big-budget games.
“You mention a couple of examples, but when you look at the show today, it’s very marginal,” he said. “It’s a very small share in the industry. These games are very challenging to put together. They’re difficult to write. They’re not as immediate as a shooter. In a shooter, you give a gun to someone, he has a controller and he knows how to play. Immediate fun.”
There’s fun to be had in Quantic’s games — the studio’s 12-minute comedic PS4 demo film “The Dark Sorcerer” is evidence that Quantic knows how to throw a good time — but you have to work for it. Or at least wait for it.
“In this type of game, you need more time,” Cage said. “You need to pay attention. You need to listen. You need to get involved. It’s deeper, in a good way and a bad way. In a bad way because it takes more time to get into, but once you’re in, these are games that will leave an imprint, like the best books you’ve read. By the time you complete ‘Beyond,’ what I’m looking for is for you to have the feeling of having lived something, not played something. Lived something.”
Playing through the Somalia scene in “Beyond Two Souls” wasn’t necessarily easy. To use Cage’s book analogy, it was like starting the story on page 345. The controls were easy to grasp, but the complex relationship between Page’s Holmes and the supernatural entity inside her had long been formed, even if it seemed she wasn’t entirely sure of it.
Without giving away any major plot points, the scene ended with Page questioning her affiliation with the CIA, as well as the bonds she was forming with those she had met throughout her life. In 10 minutes, the game had raised numerous questions — of patriotism, imperialism and the evil seemingly innocent people possess.
“Beyond Two Souls,” at least, doesn’t seem as if it will shy away from tackling big issues head on. This is also outside the norm of the mainstream video game industry, which too often presents a corrupt, immoral world in a game, and then backs off from it, allowing a player to shoot his or way through it and obscure any message that may or may not have been originally intended.
“It’s the difference between a toy and an art form,” Cage said. “A toy is something you can have a lot of fun with and it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a toy and to give you some fun and good times. An art form is something that can be something less accessible. It will maybe require an effort from you to really enjoy it. It says something, whether you like it or not.”
He wasn’t done.
“The game industry, for whatever reason, most of the time decides to be on the toy side .They don’t want to say anything. They want to give you fun. I respect that and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you can do more with this medium than make toys.”
– Todd Martens
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