As video games become ever more lifelike and visually striking, developers have begun to approach their work with a cinematic approach to storytelling and verisimilitude. And when it comes to cinematic video games, few developers can claim the level of technical or creative prowess of Quantic Dream. The French developer's 2010 title "Heavy Rain" was an ambitious attempt to craft a film noir story, complete with four playable characters who would live or die depending on the player's choices. Now three years later, the studio is about to release "Beyond: Two Souls," its latest effort to prove the narrative potential of video games.
"Games can be more than just toys," Guillaume de Fondaumière, co-CEO of Quantic Dream and an executive producer on "Beyond," told NBC News at a recent preview event in New York City put on by Sony, the game's publisher. "They can also be meaningful experiences for more mature audiences."
If Quantic Dream didn't already prove that with "Heavy Rain's" gritty story about a serial killer and an abducted child, it's hoping to outdo itself with "Beyond: Two Souls." Fondaumière and his co-CEO David Cage enlisted high-profile actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe to star as the game's two main characters, and both developers are promising that the game will feature more variable outcomes and possible endings than even "Heavy Rain" did.
Speaking to Fondaumière about his work felt almost silly at first given how quickly he switched between talking about the more pragmatic elements of developing "Beyond" and the grand, sweeping artistic ambitions he and Cage brought to the game. It's going to be "more epic, more action-oriented, more spectacular" than "Heavy Rain" was, he promised, "but also, I think, more emotional." This means that playing as Page's character Jodie Holmes will have more blockbuster-style setpieces, but Fondaumière insisted they were all made in service of "Beyond's" overall goal of capturing her entire life as a character.
"We want players to feel free to explore the consequences of their actions," Fondaumière said as he walked me through a level of the game set in a poor and heavily militarized part of Somalia in search of a warlord to assassinate. "Free to see what lies beyond death, hence the title."
If that sounds a bit otherworldly, it's meant to. Fondaumière was tight-lipped about most of "Beyond's" story except for a few key supernatural-sounding details: Jodie ended up in this part of Somalia wearing military fatigues because she was recruited by the CIA for her unique ability to make weird things happen — things like controlling other people's minds or blasting open doors with the force of her thoughts. All this magic is actually a spectral entity known as "Aiden" that follows her around everywhere, and players jump between playing as either of them in a course of a given level.
Playing as Aiden is a much easier, albeit creepier, experience. Using the PlayStation 3 controller, I could fly around unwitting militia members, strangling them or forcing them to kill one another in turn. Without going into too much detail, Fondaumière said that Jodie's relationship with Aiden is at the heart of "Beyond's" story. It's an intriguing idea for story, no doubt. But does it make for a good game? On a basic gameplay level, Aiden's ability to crush almost anything in Jodie's path has the potential to make any challenge, well, not all that challenging.
Fondaumière didn't deny that his team is trying to do something unusual with "Beyond's" gameplay, something that may make gamers uncomfortable at first. But by focusing less on repetitive gameplay mechanics like running and shooting at bad guys and more on telling the game's story, he hopes that players will be moved in a new way as well.
"It's not so much putting the challenge on the controller," he said. "The challenge is in the moral choices you make. The player is always going to succeed at a level, and it's always going to be a success that's conclusive. But it's the emotional journey that's important.
"Beyond: Two Souls" will be released exclusively for the PlayStation 3 on Oct. 8.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.