In 2010, game makers Quantic Dream found a hit with Heavy Rain and a disruptive formula for using technology to create emotion. Beyond: Two Souls, the company's latest epic, is an interactive drama based on two playable characters, Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) and her supernatural entity called Aiden who embarks on a journey centered around death, self-discovery, emotional growth, and acceptance. And it pushes the technology again to create something more powerful than even the most realistic virtual gun.
"When we finished Heavy Rain we wanted to improve certain things but we were unsure exactly about how we can push the console," explained David Cage, founder of Quantic Dream. "Actually we started working on PlayStation 4, which is the next-generation console, and we developed an engine for the next-gen console and we realized that there were some features that could be adapted to PlayStation 3 and that could be used in Beyond."
Working on this next-gen console, Cage and his team of 45 engineers developed a new 3-D engine while introducing motion capture technology to the platform to capture real-time voice and body language in the game—at the same time. Sound familiar? The tech was made famous by James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009. This is, however, the first time the technology was applied in full scope to a video game, where the actor that is voicing a character is acting the part simultaneously.
"The performance was split in two so you lose consistency, you lose the body language, you lose all the sync between what you say and how you move," Cage says. "So when we saw what Avatar did in cinema we said maybe we can adapt this tech and do it in a different way."
Gamers that played Heavy Rain know Cage’s vision: combining video games with emotional cinematic scope of narrative, as actress Ellen Page puts it.
"When I sat down with him and he told me all about Jodie and her journey," Page explains, "the core of it, this very specific thing that she’s dealing with—feeling different and being told that she has this gift and it’s sort of making her miserable and it’s having this sort of love-hate relationship with this abnormality, and I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to."
The result is an interactive, cinematic experience that follows Jodie through 15 years of her life from her childhood to her teenage and then young adult years. Cage wanted to create on screen an experience that the players could actually feel. With the new 3-D engine, he and his team were able to create more vivid realism in various layers of the game that may not necessarily stick out to the average player but certainly solidifies the connection between what’s happening and what ‘s being translated.
"We improved the lighting, because lighting is something incredibly important," Cage says, "and we improved the depth of field, which is much better than with Heavy Rain and how the light interacts with the depth of field."
From the screening and trailers for Beyond we can see just how that lighting and depth of field play out on screen that almost portray a very sophisticated animated film. When Jodie cries, you see real tears. The characters appear more human and less robotic, to borrow a term from Cage, displaying emotion that wouldn't be possible without the new 3-D engine and performance capture.
"We start scanning in 3-D the face and body of the actor to recreate their perfect avatar in the game," Cage says. "This is very technical and precise work during which we will gather all possible information about the actor’s body."
After establishing what the characters will look like—essentially, Ellen Page’s Jodie Holmes and Willem Dafoe’s Nathan Dawkins, a government scientist studying Holmes’s abilities—the team at Quantic Dream starts shooting for hours, with camera after camera tackling 30 to 40 pages of script a day.
"On set, we motion-capture the performance of the actor, so we have the movements of his body and face, as long as his voice is recorded in sync," Cage says. "Then we apply these animations on the 3-D avatar to get the full performance in the game."
What Beyond represents for the gaming industry is almost a shift in the way game creators think about building new games. Before this tech, characters were their own being and the actors were almost secondary, whereas with this game the characters are the crux. Whether this is something the industry will adapt as a whole is debatable, but Cage looks forward to a future of gaming where games have more meaning than just action for players.
"Interactivity is a fantastic medium to express ideas and trigger emotions because it is the only medium where the audience is not just watching, but can actively contribute to the experience," Cage says. "Maybe one day, they will become a new form of art, as respected as cinema or literature."
Beyond: Two Souls will be available for PlayStation 3 starting October 8, 2013.