Beyond: Two Souls Woos Movie-Goers at Tribeca Film Festival
At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, David Cage’s newest game, Beyond: Two Souls, was shown in a special event honoring the common bonds of storytelling shared between cinema and videogames. The event featured a 35 minute demo of the game followed by the reveal of a new trailer, and a Q&A session with Cage and a trio of the game’s digital actors: Ellen Page, Kaddeem Hardison, and Eric Winter. “It’s really the story of a life,” Cage told the audience. “It’s a journey in someone’s life, and we’ll see [Jodie Holmes, Ellen Page's character] in different moments — when she’s happy and sad — in her life and just be with her and share a life.”
The demo is taken from one stretch of the game where Holmes, a woman psychically bound to a mysterious spirit called Aiden, has run away from her CIA mentors, winds up alone on the harsh winter streets and is taken in by a group of homeless people living in an abandoned building. As with Heavy Rain, the demo was filled with small personal moments, like when one of her newfound friends takes her out on the streets to try and raise money to buy food for one of the other homeless people who’s pregnant.
The game gives players control of Jodie on the street, which has a number of interactive action points that only become apparent as you freely wander around. Walking toward a bar will trigger an offer from an untrustworthy-looking man who solicits Jodie to go into the back with him for money, very probably for something sexual. The person playing the demo declined this suggestive offer and instead wandered to the end of the street, found a guitar, and began playing a song, Beck’s “Lost Cause.”
These moments of inspired improvisation are part of the common myth of filmmaking…
The scene as originally planned by Cage had no option for players to try and sing, but during the 12 months of motion capture required for the game he noticed Page playing a guitar he’d brought to the studio and decided to record her. The one song she knew off-hand was the Beck ballad and Cage was so moved by her voice and performance that he decided to write it in as one of the choices players could make for the sequence. These moments of inspired improvisation are part of the common myth of filmmaking, where filmmaker and actor feed off of one another, but it’s rarer in game design, where most of the inventions in the moment come from a clever designer responding to the limits of the computer rather than the creative abilities of a performer.
At first, Page had been unsure about what it would mean to star in a videogame. “I didn’t know how to wrap my head around it,” she said. “What does it mean to be in a videogame? I had no concept. I hadn’t really even played videogames in 10 years, I sort of stopped at Crash Bandicoot. It completely intrigued me.”
“I got Heavy Rain and was completely blown away. I had such a limited gaming experience in that time and technology had moved away and then to see what was happening — this combination of interactive gameplay with cinematic scope of narrative. It was fascinating. Then to sit down with David and have him explain to me this female protagonist and this journey she goes on — I was just completely blown away.”
The year-long process of shooting was done in a motion capture studio…
The year-long process of shooting was done in a motion capture studio with limited props and with the actors in body suits covered with 90 metallic beads while going through every possible variation written into the gameplay. “We were not shooting a film, we were shooting a game,” Cage told the audience. “It’s very different in essence, especially because you need to break down every single scene and every single moment into different possibilities and different branches, different possible actions.”
“So for example, when you shoot the dialogue in a film you have the dialogue and you record it and that’s it. But here we needed to record the fact that Jodie Holmes can say, ‘Yeah, of course I want to do this!’ And “No way!’ And “Maybe, I don’t know’ And all the possibilities that the player will have, we needed to record them.”
For those skeptical of Cage’s work melding cinematic praxis with interactive design, the demo offered a number of uneven moments. After an impressive few sequences moving around in Jodie’s new squatter confines, a group of yuppie hoodlums with baseball bats are introduced trying to mug one of her squat-mates, triggering an extended fist fight where she performs some high-level kung-fu that at times seems almost like Hong Kong wire work. The transition from reflective melancholy in a homeless encampment to trading solar plexus blows in bullet time is just the kind of jarring inconsistencies in tone and intensity that many complained about in Heavy Rain.
…the demo offered a number of uneven moments.
There also seems to be some inconsistency in what is and isn’t interactive. In one later sequence when Jodie is coming through a window frame, players will have to hit the L1 button and then the R1 button to simulate swinging her leg over the ledge one by one, a strangely literal attempt to transpose physical movement to button presses (an approach I’ve always loved, for the record). But in another scene, Jodie finds herself having to help one of her squat-mates, a pregnant woman, which is a mostly passive gameplay experience. Admittedly, graphic depictions of birth would probably be uncomfortable for many in the audience, but there are many outstanding examples of birth scenes in film, from the sweetness of the live-birth at the end of Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women, to the wild shockers in Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom or Takeshi Miike’s Gozu. It would be a risk to transpose a similar moment into a game, but one with appreciable artistic precedence.
“I guess there’s always a limit to tastefulness,” Guillaume de Fondaumière, Cage’s producing partner and co-founder of Quantic Dream, told me after the event when I asked him about the scene. “It’s very subjective. We never wanted to be shocking or gratuitously provocative. Provocative is good to a certain extent sometimes because you want to provoke a reaction from the audience, but just gratuitously pushing the boundaries just to try something out, that’s not interesting. For the birth scene what was important for us was the emotional moment. We didn’t want to capture the technicality of it but the emotional aspect of it. It’s a point of view, but it’s a point of view of the maker.”
Storytelling has become part of the never-ending debate about what videogames are, a nonsensical fretting over whether the pristine values of competition will be sullied by the inclusion of plots and characters. It’s often forgotten that story has never had a native medium. Storytelling is a technologically migratory phenomenon that’s only temporarily at home in one form or another, from sung poetry to spectacle-driven cinema.
Storytelling has become part of the never-ending debate about what videogames are…
Cage’s games have made good ammunition for both sides of the storytelling debate in videogames, with opponents citing them as barely interactive cutscenes, while opponents cite the subtle absorption that comes from being able to choose whether to turn on light switches and drink orange juice from the refrigerator with strokes of the analog stick. Cage’s games are filled with purposefully empty gestures, designed around a belief in the player’s willingness to use that emptiness as a space for reflection, to not necessarily merge with the characters on-screen but to consider where one’s life overlaps with the story and where it doesn’t.
Watching him on stage, it seemed like the divisions we build up between media are mostly unnatural. We create definitions for what should be played on a console and what should be shown in a cinemahouse. Almost as soon as we’ve said it there is someone off in the margins doing exactly what was thought unacceptable, someone who feels the walls built up between categories obstruct something essential in their personal point of view. So they set about trying to tear the walls down again, to reclaim as much technical space as possible for the imagination, to make something with all the tools we have brought with us to this point in history.
In that way, Beyond: Two Souls seems to be in every way the work of its creator, sometimes loathed and sometimes loved, but listening to him talk before a full theater, it was hard not to feel glad that he has more space to do what he does than ever before. I, for one, am glad he’s made it this far.
Beyond: Two Souls will be released for the PlayStation 3 this October.
Michael Thomsen is a former IGN editor who now lives a life of freelance in New York City. Follow him on Twitter and visit his blog.