LOS ANGELES--At Sony's 2012 E3 press conference, one of the high notes of the entire show turned up during the opening minutes. Beyond: Two Souls, a new game from designer David Cage and his company, Quantic Dream, showed a lengthy, if noninteractive, trailer. In one sense, it's a new game from a quirky cult favorite who shies away from mainstream gaming conventions. In another sense, it's Sony, the only console maker that also runs a major movie studio, embracing the true cinematic potential of games.
To fully understand why I think this is one of the under-the-radar highlights of E3, we should look back at why Cage (the nom de game of French designer David De Gruttola) is up there with Miyamoto or any of the other handful of name-brand game designers, by taking a look his unique genre-bending projects over the past 14 years.
The first one that sucked me in was Omikron: The Nomad Soul, in 1999. A PC game that was later ported to the Dreamcast, it combined elements of a free-roaming adventure game, a shooter, and a fighting game, but it was much more than the sum of its parts. The game cast the player as an outsider sucked into a virtual world where you had to solve a conspiracy-filled mystery, but could also jump your consciousness from body to body in an attempt to evade bad guys, blend in, or access restricted areas. And, David Bowie and Iman made cameos, with a Bowie song as the main theme. It was flawed, to be sure, but a lot of its more-inventive ideas eventually became commonplace.
Fahrenheit, or Indigo Prophecy, as it was known in some regions, was released on the PS2, Xbox, and PC in 2005. Its intertwining narratives and real-time puzzles led to shifting plot points that changed on the fly depending on your actions. It opened with seemingly wide-ranging possibilities, but ended up trapped by endless quick-time button-mashing segments, and a branching story whose threads eventually funneled down to a single unsatisfying conclusion. But, it was still a great exercise in developing narrative choices and complex storytelling.
The David Cage model seemed to culminate in 2010's Heavy Rain. It was a game that stripped away most of the gamelike elements players were used to, and replaced them with a near-total focus on dialogue and investigation. The game, unwisely, I thought, did away with some of the basic rules of movement in a virtual space (you had to hold down a trigger button to move forward, for example), but the twisting story and excellent voice and motion acting were more than worth the trouble. I don't think there's ever been a game, including Dragon Age or Mass Effect, where you felt dialogue tree choices mattered quite so much.
In the end, the Heavy Rain floundered a bit because of the unorthodox controls, a few too many red herrings in the plot, and a mystery with a solution that was, at best, a bit of a cheat. But, it was still one of the most forward-looking examples of interactive entertainment I've played, and genuinely enjoyable.
And now, with Beyond, Quantic Dream is again approaching games from a very cinematic point of view. First by casting actress Ellen Page, and then building a very David-Cage-like story around her.
"For the first time ever, players will live the life of a video game character over the course of 15 years," Cage said. "They will experience her life and help her to become who she is." In the brief bits of the game we got to see, Beyond was slow-paced, mysterious, and dialogue driven. It appeared to occupy a reality-based world, but with elements of the supernatural.
Although details were sparse, and there's no hint of a release date (I'm sure we'll be seeing this game again at E3 2013), Cage's past work is more than enough for me to trust him on this one until we get to see more.