Beyond: Two Souls

Introduction

Four years in the making, Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain proved to be a commercial and critical success when it was released for the PlayStation 3 in 2010. It sold over five million copies, which was a remarkable feat for a console exclusive game at the time, and it even managed win three BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). It was praised for its emotional impact, visuals, and writing. Naturally, with a smash hit on their hands, Quantic Dream was spurred into creating a follow-up.

The founder and CEO of Quantic Dream, David Cage, announced their newest game at Sony’s press conference during the E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) conference of 2012. There, he showed the attendees a debut trailer featuring in-game graphics. Mr. Cage described this new game, titled Beyond: Two Souls, as more of an action-driven experience compared to that which Heavy Rain offered, affording players a greater degree control over the proceedings.

In a move that gave the upcoming game even more press coverage, the protagonist of Beyond: Two Souls was to be portrayed by Ellen Page with Willem Dafoe voicing another central character. Employing motion-capture acting in addition to on-set voice acting, the year-long project had the actors work in the company’s studio in Paris to perform the physical actions seen in the final product, which would in turn be translated to their character models. Mr. Cage once again served as both the primary writer and the director. Interviews with Ms. Page revealed that the script for the game was around 2,000 pages long. Film screenplays are typically 100 pages long with each page roughly corresponding to a minute of screentime.

The game was dedicated to composer Normand Corbeil, who tragically died of pancreatic cancer in January of 2013. He had scored two of Mr. Cage’s earlier works, Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in North America), and Heavy Rain. Quantic Dream hired him to compose Beyond: Two Souls, but he was unable to do so before succumbing to his illness. Lorne Balfe, who wrote the score for Assassin’s Creed III, replaced Mr. Corbeil after his death. Mr. Balfe even collaborated with the esteemed Hans Zimmer, the latter of whom joined him as a producer.

Five months before the game’s launch, Quantic Dream released a new trailer at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival with both David Cage and Ellen Page in attendance. Notably, it was only the second time the festival recognized a video game, the first instance being Team Bondi’s 2011 title L.A. Noire. In interviews conducted just before the game’s release, Mr. Cage explained how development studios such as his own have an obligation to provide interactive storytelling that can anyone could experience, including non-gamers. With bated breath, Beyond: Two Souls finally saw its release in October of 2013. While critics generally lauded Heavy Rain, their reaction to this new Quantic Dream title was more polarized. Critics considered the game a great technical achievement with its motion-capture acting, and Ellen Page’s performance in particular was highly praised. On the other hand, the plot itself was highly criticized for being nonsensical and unfocused. From this reaction, it can be extrapolated that anyone who sees Beyond: Two Souls through to the end is going to have a strong opinion of it. Is it an underrated masterpiece? Is it a pretentious mess? The only way to find out is to dive right in.

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Haze

Introduction

The members of Free Radical Design proved that they were the talent behind the famous Nintendo 64 adaptation of Goldeneye when they released TimeSplitters 2 in 2002. Considered a major improvement over the original, it’s often considered one of the greatest games of the sixth console generation. As it drew to a close, Sony, the company that dominated the generation with its PlayStation 2 console, hit a stumbling block upon launching the PlayStation 3. Though lauded as a versatile piece of hardware with the ability to play Blu-Ray discs, there was one major aspect holding it back: it had very few games to speak of upon launch. Indeed, the best games available for it in 2006 could also be played on the PC or the Xbox 360, making it difficult to justify paying $599 USD for it.

Nonetheless, Free Radical Design decided to take advantage of the new hardware offered by both Sony and Microsoft to demonstrate their continued relevance in this new generation. Their new project, Haze, was unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) of 2006. Notably, they elected not to purchase a game engine, instead choosing to create their own. The idea behind this decision was to have more freedom when implementing gameplay features. Haze was billed as a third-person shooter, but halfway through development, the game’s publisher, Ubisoft requested for it to be changed. They wanted Haze to be a first-person shooter to compete with other bestselling action titles such as Call of Duty and Halo.

Haze was slated to be released in the summer of 2007 whereupon it would see a simultaneous release on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the PC. The release date was then quickly pushed back to that year’s winter. After much speculation, it was eventually announced at Sony’s 2007 E3 press conference that Haze would be a PlayStation 3 exclusive. As even one year later, the console had a notable lack of exclusives, a game made by the people behind Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, and TimeSpitters 2 seemed like the perfect solution to Sony’s conundrum.

The game garnered a lot of attention from the press prior to its release. In the wake of the dual release of Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, some of the most anticipated games in the medium’s history, Free Radical Design had their work cut out for them. In October of 2007, Ubisoft announced that the nu metal band Korn had written and recorded a song inspired by the upcoming game also entitled “Haze”. Some outlets went as far as calling it a “Halo killer”. Sadly, the final product didn’t come close to making a dent in Bungie’s venerable franchise. Indeed, the only thing the game killed was Free Radical Design themselves, as its poor performance received ensured the company’s demise. In a spectacularly ill-advised move, Free Radical Design employees Rob Yescombe and David Doak boasted that making a game like Halo was “child’s play” and their other projects were to use the Haze engine. Once Haze failed, the bottom fell out, and the studio shut down in December of 2008. How does the final game Free Radical Design developed fare in hindsight?

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The Last of Us

Introduction

In 2004, a student of Carnegie Mellon University named Neil Druckmann participated in a group project. At the time, he was pursuing a Master’s degree in Entertainment Technology, and one of his professors happened to be friends with George Romero, the man who directed Night of the Living Dead. This 1968 classic is widely considered to be ground zero for the zombie apocalypse genre. For this assignment, Mr. Romero compelled the students to pitch an idea for a video game. Mr. Druckmann’s idea merged the three works which left an indelible impact on him as a creator. It would feature gameplay akin to Ico, star a protagonist with a personality comparable to John Hartigan from Sin City, and the story was to be set in the world of Night of the Living Dead. The game’s concept centered on a cop would protect a young girl in a ravaged land filled to the brim with mindless, flesh-eating monsters. However, the cop had a heart condition that would act up every now and again, prompting players to take control of the girl in these situations, thus reserving the roles of the protector and the protected. In the end, Mr. Romero chose another project.

Later that year, Mr. Druckmann met Jason Rubin, the co-founder of a game company named Naughty Dog. Mr. Rubin’s company had made their impact on the medium on Sony’s PlayStation platform with their Crash Bandicoot series of 3D platforming games. It was a success that would continue into the following console generation with Jak & Daxter. After “bugging” Mr. Rubin enough, the co-founder handed the enthusiastic college student a business card. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Druckmann joined Naughty Dog as an intern before being promoted to full-time employee as a gameplay programmer mere months afterwards.

When his tenure at Naughty Dog began, Mr. Druckmann began to revisit his rejected game concept, thinking to himself, “What’s another way I can explore these characters?” The answer to this quandary came in the form of a comic book named The Turning. It was to be about a criminal who found himself tasked with escorting a young girl across a dangerous land. The roles would be reversed in the end when he is captured by erstwhile criminal partners and the girl saves his life. He intended to write and draw the comic itself. When he completed the script for a six-issue story arc, he submitted it to an independent comic book publisher. Unfortunately, much like George Romero, the publisher rejected the idea – Mr. Druckmann being told, “I like it, but I don’t love it.”

Meanwhile, as Naughty Dog was in the middle of developing Jak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing, Mr. Druckmann asked co-president Evan Wells about joining the design team. Although Mr. Wells was hesitant about the idea, he allowed Mr. Druckmann a chance under the stipulation that he completed his design work after hours. Once Jak X: Combat Racing saw its release, Mr. Wells was convinced by his subordinate’s skill and put him in charge of design for their next project: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. This game and its sequel were commercial and critical successes, and Mr. Druckmann soon found himself as one of the lead developers for the series’ third installment.

As he worked on the design for the first two Uncharted installments, Neil Druckmann would often have dinner with co-worker Bruce Straley to discuss ideas about what they should do next. This time, his proposed story followed a man accompanied by a mute girl with whom every point of interaction was executed via game mechanics. During these sessions, they became intrigued with Cordyceps, a fungus that infects insects by taking control of their motor functions and forcing them to cultivate more of itself. This game was to be set in a world in which the Cordyceps began to infect humans, but only women fell victim to it. The girl was the only female immune to the fungus, and the hero had to transport her to a laboratory so a cure may be synthesized. The concept was vetoed when the company’s female employees voiced concerns about a game in which men had to band together against women who became ugly, irrational, and powerful. Not helping matters was its proposed title: Mankind. By Mr. Druckmann’s own admission, “The reason it failed is because it was a misogynistic idea.”

Undeterred by these numerous setbacks, he began to refine his idea, and in 2010, he and Mr. Straley felt it was ready to be pitched. However, it was rejected yet again when the higher-ups felt his new concept failed to mesh with his characters’ arcs. After weeding out the last remaining issues, Mr. Druckmann’s dream project was finally greenlit, being formally announced to the world in 2011. As Naughty Dog received innumerable awards and a large, dedicated fanbase with their trilogy of Uncharted games, this new title, dubbed The Last of Us, became one of the most hotly anticipated titles of its time. At long last, the medium would have a title to show the world that video games had grown up and were every bit as worthy of being considered legitimate artistic cornerstones alongside film, music, and literature. This heavily promoted game was released in 2013, and saying that it received unanimous critical acclaim would be a gross understatement. Critics felt it was one of the medium’s greatest artistic achievements while fans fell in love with the characters and the setting. Essayists have gone into great detail about the game, its themes, and how immaculate the experience is as a whole. Many spectacular titles were released within the seventh generation of console gaming, but many insisted The Last of Us blew every single one of them out of the water. That it managed to somehow surpass Uncharted 2 in terms of accolades is no mean feat. Was Mr. Druckmann able to use his determination over the better part of a decade to create something that stands not only as Naughty Dog’s magnum opus and the seventh generation’s swansong, but also one of the greatest games ever made?

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Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Introduction

Naughty Dog’s 2009 effort, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, received glowing reviews from nearly every major gaming publication upon its release. It wasn’t just a critical darling; Naughty Dog soon found themselves with a fanbase that utterly eclipsed the ones for their earlier games in terms of sheer numbers. It was largely due to exclusive titles such as Uncharted 2 that the PlayStation 3, which originally had been widely ridiculed, began taking back much of the ground it lost to the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in the seventh generation of video game consoles.

There was only one logical reaction to this overwhelming success and torrent of critical accolades: make a sequel. The game was formally announced during the Spike Video Game Awards ceremony in December of 2010 with a trailer depicting a table covered in Arabian artifacts. A few days later, a worldwide demo premiered on the American late-night talk show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In interviews, creative director Amy Henning stated that she and her team wished to push themselves by setting the next Uncharted installment in a desert region, as elements such as sand, fire, and water are considered “technically difficult to credibly render with animation”.

Naughty Dog spared no expense with their marketing campaign. Spike TV held competitions where the prize was the honor of getting to play the game before the official release date. Two important people, narrative leader Taylor Kurosaki and stunt movement coordinator Mike Mukatis, appeared on an episode of America’s Next Top Model: College Edition wherein contestants acted out a scene from the original Uncharted. Players who purchased certain items from the fast-food restaurant Subway would be granted access to the game’s entire multiplayer mode. By the time of its release in November of 2011, the anticipation for this installment, entitled Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, couldn’t have been higher. Its reception continued Naughty Dog’s winning streak by receiving unanimously positive reviews from critics and fans alike. It’s an impressive feat to be sure, but could Ms. Henning and her team truly live up to the lofty standards set by Uncharted 2?

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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Introduction

Sony’s PlayStation 3 console met with a lukewarm reception when it was released in 2006. There were several reasons for this – the two biggest sticking points concerned the lack of console-exclusive games upon launch and its initial retail price of $600 USD. It could have made for a handy replacement for one’s PlayStation 2, as the original models boasted backwards compatibility, but the prohibitive amount of money it sold for deterred even the most dedicated fans.

In 2007, Naughty Dog, a company known for making quality games exclusively for Sony’s platforms, released Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The game proved to be one of the console’s first bestsellers, showcasing its potential to any would-be adopters. However, many fans continued to express hesitance, as it would hardly be worth investing hundreds of dollars just to play a single game – no matter how good the press insisted it was.

Nonetheless, it sold enough units to warrant a sequel, the first trailer of which was unveiled in December of 2008. Earlier that year, the highly acclaimed Metal Gear Solid 4 saw its debut as a PlayStation 3 exclusive. As Metal Gear was a long-running IP with an existing, dedicated fanbase this action caused the tide to slowly turn in Sony’s favor, a trend that would continue into the following year after they reduced the price to a more reasonable figure. As a result, the anticipation for this new installment in this up-and-coming Uncharted series was far greater than that of its predecessor. The development period of this game took nearly two years, ending in 2009 with the final product being entitled Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Countless publications awarded Uncharted 2 perfect scores with many critics believing it to be a new landmark in gaming. It was to the point where these accolades found themselves bombastically emblazoned onto the game’s cover. From this, it’s evident that Naughty Dog was proud of their work. Was their effort able to end one of gaming’s finest decades on a triumphant note?

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Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

uncharted-drakes-fortune

Introduction

Much like in the fifth console generation before it, Naughty Dog had much success in the PlayStation 2 era with their Jak & Daxter trilogy of 3D platforming games. Shortly after the release of Jak 3 in 2004, Naughty Dog assembled their most technically proficient staff members and began development of a new project under the codename Big. Meanwhile, Sony was working on their newest console: the PlayStation 3. Rather than continue the Jak & Daxter series on this platform, Naughty Dog opted to create a new franchise to better suit the hardware capabilities, terming the art direction as “stylized realism”. Taking inspiration from pulp magazines and contemporary movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure, they sought to create an action adventure game with mystery themes that explore various what-if scenarios.

This project was unveiled to the public in 2006 at the annual gaming exhibition, E3, with the working title, Uncharted. When gaming fans learned of its platforming and shooter elements, they inevitably drew comparisons to Core Design’s Tomb Raider series of action-adventure games that became well-known in the original PlayStation era, eventually earning the nickname “Dude Raider” based on it having a male protagonist. The developers distinguished their game by placing a greater emphasis on a cover-based play mechanic, citing the pioneering third-person shooter, Resident Evil 4, as an influence along with other popular titles. The game saw its official release in 2007 under the name, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Critics and fans alike praised Uncharted for its stunning visuals and entertaining dialogue. As the PlayStation 3 met with a tepid response due to a lack of games, this was one of the exclusive titles that helped turn the tide in their favor along with Metal Gear Solid 4 a year later.  Doubtlessly was it impressive that managed to sell one-million copies before its platform caught on with enthusiasts. How did it accomplish such a feat?

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Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

Metal Gear Solid 4 - Guns of the Patriots

Introduction

Though Metal Gear Solid 3 didn’t sell as many copies as its two direct predecessors, it would go on to become one of the most critically acclaimed games of the 2000s. Many fans have since declared it the best game in the series for striking a good balance between the relatively grounded feel of Metal Gear Solid and the unbridled ambition displayed in its sequel. As good as it was, and still is, some were decidedly unsatisfied with the decision to make Metal Gear Solid 3 a prequel, as Metal Gear Solid 2 left many plot threads unresolved, and they felt that retreating into the past was an easy way to avoid having to address any of them. Coupled with the success this franchise enjoyed, many began clamoring for the series to continue.

The pleas did not fall on deaf ears, for in 2005, Metal Gear Solid 4 was unveiled at a Sony press conference just before E3. Hideo Kojima, the series’ creator, was initially uninterested in directing this game, and intended to pass the torch to another. As a joke, the director was announced as “Alan Smithee,” an official pseudonym used by those in the film industry who wish to disown a project. This development was deemed unacceptable by a select group of fans who subsequently made their disapproval known by sending death threats to Mr. Kojima himself. Likely as a response to this, it was during E3 proper that Mr. Kojima revealed that he would be writing, producing, and directing the game himself.

A year later, Sony released their third PlayStation console. Considering how successful the previous two iterations of their signature console were, it came as some surprise that it originally received a lukewarm reception. This failure can be attributed to a combination of the success of Nintendo’s Wii console along with having few noteworthy titles upon launch. Whatever the case may have been, it was decided that Metal Gear Solid 4 would be released on the PlayStation 3 as a console exclusive title. Using the new console’s capabilities to their greatest effect, Mr. Kojima set forth to create what was intended to be the concluding chapter of the Metal Gear saga. To this end, the staff went as far as undergoing military training and traveling the world to help develop the environments that would be implemented in the final product. After three long years of development, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots saw a worldwide release in 2008. The response to this game was overwhelmingly positive, receiving perfect scores in various publications such as Famitsu, Game Informer, and IGN. Indeed, many people who had reservations about the PlayStation 3 were convinced to buy one just to play this game. The question now is: what exactly what about Metal Gear Solid 4 was so good that it achieved all these accolades?

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