Beyond gaming: Quantic Dream’s Guillaume de Fondaumière on merging cinema and video games

10 Oct 2013

Beyond: Two Souls is Quantic Dream’s second cinematic blockbuster coming soon to a PlayStation near you. We spoke to Quantic Dream co-CEO and executive producer Guillaume de Fondaumière ahead of the game’s European launch about blurring the lines between cinema and gaming, and reality and virtual reality.

“Not everyone is interested in killing zombies in dark corridors, and we think that there is a possibility to tell real stories and to treat certain subject matters in a meaningful way on this medium,” says de Fondaumière on the company’s attitude to game development.

Developed in partnership with Sony Computer Entertainment, Beyond: Two Souls comes exclusively to PlayStation 3 on 11 October. It follows in the footsteps of 2010’s Heavy Rain, a dramatic action-adventure video game that was awarded thrice at the 2011 British Academy Video Game Awards (the gaming world’s BAFTAs, essentially), for its story, original music and technical innovation.

These three elements play a key role once again in Quantic Dream’s next psychological thriller. Rather than making Heavy Rain 2, the French video game developer is back with something fresh and new, but still with stories, chracterisation and meaningful narrative at its heart.

Beyond Two Souls

In Beyond: Two Souls, as with Heavy Rain, players’ decisions and actions will impact on how the story unfolds. After three and a half years in development, de Fondaumière is excited to see new people getting involved with this unique experience.

If you bought, played and loved Heavy Rain, de Fondaumière promises ad even more immersive and interesting experience in Beyond. From a gameplay standpoint, the game offers more opportunities for players to interact with other characters and the environment around them. For core gamers, a lot of work has gone into ensuring that the game is compelling and offers a more organic experience.

A cinematic experience

Beyond also ‘stars’ two veterans of the film industry. Oscar-nominated actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe lend their talents to the game’s chief protagonists and their performances are no less than what they give on the silver screen. “I, personally, have never seen such consistent characterisation. It’s really striking, in my mind, what they bring to the project,” says de Fondaumière.

A testament to the filmic quality of the game came with being chosen as an Official Selection at the Tribeca Film Festival, which meant a one-hour screening of game footage in front of an audience of discerning film fans in April. The team were hugely honoured and encouraged by their ‘film’s’ reception. Beyond has also been selected for the Tokyo Film Festival later this month. “We opened our arms to film and apparently film is opening its arm to us,” de Fondaumière smiles.

Beyond Two Souls

As well as top actors, Quantic Dream enlisted the help of experienced scriptwriters and others familiar with film production – including a selection of people involved with James Cameron’s 3D epic Avatar – to create a truly a cinematic experience. Every detail has been covered, down to the game’s soundtrack which includes work from Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe, who composed music for the film Inception, among others.

Story, however, is the crux of Beyond: Two Souls. “It’s really conceptually complicated to tell a story through gameplay and, when you think of it, most games don’t succeed simply because it’s hard to tell a story through jumping, driving and shooting,” says de Fondaumière.

Most action-adventure games give players the narrative through cut-away scenes between the action, and de Fondaumière thinks this can be hard for non-gamers to accept. “They might be interested in the story elements, but the gameplay puts them out of this element,” he explains. “What we’re trying to do is combine the two, and offer players the possibility to tell the story through interacting, through choices and consequences – so that’s the challenge.”

Mass appeal

While video games have a far-reaching audience, it pales in comparison to the mass appeal of cinema. There’s a vast number of people out there who almost never or never play video games, but de Fondaumière thinks that Beyond can appeal to these people and give them a launchpad into gaming.

Even an added feature that lets users control the game using their smartphone was selected with these users in mind. “I think, especially for non-gamers, sometimes they are intimidated by [the DualShock] controller with a lot of buttons, so we wanted really to give them the possibility to enjoy the game with something they’re familiar with – and the most familiar interface we could find was the phone.”

Beyond Two Souls

De Fondaumière believes some people don’t play video games because they can’t find anything that appeals to them, but Quantic Dream’s games are targeted towards an adult, mature audience of gamers and non-gamers alike. To appeal to this broad cross-section of individuals, themes adressed in the game include death, mourning, friendship, love, and what it means to grow up and be different. “Those are things that you seldom see in games,” he says. “Those are themes that you find in movies, you find in TV series; this is what we bring to games, and I think it’s through these things that we can appeal – that we do appeal – to a larger audience.”

A challenging reality

“In the entertainment field, I think there’s nothing more complex than to create a game,” admits de Fondaumière. Attaining the level of realism desired for Beyond: Two Souls brought its own unique challenges, and casting two well-known faces meant painstaking precision was needed to ensure their digitally made counterparts looked just right.

“Working with Ellen and Willem has been both frightening and really motivating,” says de Fondaumière. Getting the look right was one thing, then there was capturing the emotion in their performances.

Beyond Two Souls

De Fondaumière admits that the small team at Quantic Dream didn’t even realise how challenging this would be, but this pressure just pushed them to achieve even more than they expected. “I think we’re getting to a point where we are finally mastering this realism, which I think is going to be very interesting in that it is going to enable us to do exactly the opposite: non-realistic,” he says, teasing what could be in the pipeline.

“We still see certain limits that we hope to be pushing the boundaries of even further on PlayStation 4. It’s a continuous battle,” he adds.

Speaking of PlayStation 4, de Fondaumière is excited to introduce this next-generation platform’s social capabilities to his own games. “More and more, you want people to not only be part of the experience but really participate in something and exchange the experience with others,” he tells me. “It’s a field that we’re very interested in, that is certain.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.