Guillaume de Fondaumičre looks nervous. He even sounds a bit nervous. The tall, easygoing Frenchman who heads up Paris' Quantic Dream studio is uncharacteristically stumbling over his words. His phone rings twice as he tries to address the room in a Santa Monica office block, eerily deserted on this Sunday afternoon. He fumbles with it, earning a tart comment from his partner in crime David Cage, writer-director of Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit.
If he is feeling nervous, small wonder. Tomorrow (or a few minutes ago, as you read this), the pair will announce their new game on the biggest stage imaginable, as a key weapon in the glitzy war of the E3 press conference face-off. The word is that Sony is throwing its full corporate weight behind the "huge" title from the experimental Frenchmen. And today they're showing it to a handful press for the first time.
De Fondaumičre needn't have worried. The game, a paranormal thriller called Beyond: Two Souls, has star power to spare - and E3 will surely swoon in its wake.
Beyond's star power comes in two forms: the first is in the person of Hollywood actress Ellen Page (Juno, Inception), who plays its heroine, Jodie Holmes, a young woman who "has a link with an invisible entity," according to Cage. Page isn't just a likeness and voice for the game; she spent weeks with Cage in Quantic Dream's new full-body performance capture studio, acting out every scene.
Her star is rivalled by the game's own. Built in a stunning new proprietary engine, it's as different from the dark mystery thriller Heavy Rain as it is similar to it. It continues in Cage's "interactive drama" vein, and still seems to have a troubling, melancholy note to it - but it also features action and spectacle, supernatural elements and suspense.
More to the point, amid the empty bombast and indistinguishable brutality of another round of E3 previews, Beyond looks and feels very different to its peers. For one thing, the first scene we see is quiet.
When you've signed an actor like Ellen Page, it takes real courage to show her barely acting at all - yet there she is on screen, clothes torn and head shaven, staring defiantly at a wall and refusing to answer the questions of a kindly-looking police lieutenant. She has one line: "I know. They're coming," spoken to a ghostly presence we can't see. A SWAT team arrives on cue and surrounds the room she's in. Fade to black - and eat your heart out, LA Noire, because the quiet intensity of her digitised performance makes its much-vaunted dialogue scenes look like pantomime.
"I don't write responding to anyone's feedback. I write what I believe in. Otherwise you are not a writer any more, you are just a marketing guy."
This is enigmatic stuff, and Quantic doesn't give us much more to reveal. A whirlwind of further clips shows an apparently intense manhunt for Jodie with set-piece action scenes: explosions, a motorcycle chase, something that might be a possession, a shimmering forcefield, telekinesis tearing down a clocktower. Jodie and/or the presence that accompanies her (which she addresses as Iden, or Aidan - Cage says the spelling is "a big question at the moment") appear to have considerable power.
Cage is coy about exactly how the game will play, but suggests it will be in the same idiom as Heavy Rain, with cinematic camera angles and varied control prompts that correspond closely with Jodie's actions, putting the player in the scene. "People will be surprised to see how we treat action sequences," he tells me. "I don't think we do it the same way than other studios. We have our own take on this, we keep the cinematography, we keep our specific approach to controls, to make them part of the mimicry, to make you feel like you are the character... Every single moment has almost different gameplay," he tells me.
All the same, I suggest, with its explosions and fantastical twist, compared to the grim psychodrama of Heavy Rain, Beyond seems a bit more, well... video gamey? "Oh my God, no! Nooo waaay. No, really no," exclaims Cage. "I'm telling you, you'll be really surprised by the story. And there are moments in this game that you've never seen anywhere else, I'm telling you.
"Don't expect us to do anything traditional... We didn't make any compromise. 'Oh, let's put some explosions so we're gonna get more gamers buying the game' - that's really not how we think, otherwise we would have done probably Heavy Rain 2, which would have guaranteed more sales. There is an explosion because I need an explosion, not because I think an explosion will make me sell more."
Cage has a theatrical streak, but you can tell he means it - and with his uncompromising back catalogue, he's earned the benefit of the doubt. "I don't write responding to anyone's feedback. I write what I believe in. Otherwise you are not a writer any more, you are just a marketing guy."
Cage is not a marketing guy, but he is a great salesman. Before we see the footage for the first time, he milks the announcement of Ellen Page as his star with gusto, reducing his soft voice almost to a whisper and offering a dramatic pause before her name. She was who he'd had in mind from the moment he started writing Jodie, he says, for her combination of strength and vulnerability. He describes her arriving at their first meeting like a soft-focus scene in a romantic movie.
"When you direct someone like Ellen it's really like driving a Ferrari... It's really sensitive. You need to be very careful about what you say because she's going to give it to you."
"When she came she was 10 metres away, looking for some strange French people somewhere, and when I saw her I felt, my God, that's Jodie. It's a very strange thing for a writer, seeing your character appear in front of you by magic, almost. As she was walking towards me, it lasted like 10 seconds, but it was a year for me." Cue strings.
I'm kidding, but in conversation later, Cage swells with genuine, starstruck pride about working with Page. "She came in a very simple way... very easy to deal with, very professional, just wanting to give her best. She really respected the medium, which was something incredibly important to me, to have someone saying, 'I'm going to treat that as seriously as if it was a movie, I don't care it was a game.'
"When you direct someone like Ellen it's really like driving a Ferrari... It's really sensitive. You need to be very careful about what you say because she's going to give it to you." He's full of praise for her work ethic too - and it was work, as different as you can get from an easy voiceover gig. Shooting without sets, props or costumes on Quantic's motion capture stage in Paris "requires a lot of concentration and focus" from an actor, Cage reckons. "She kept saying that this is like an acting boot camp." Has she seen the results yet? "No... not yet," he says a little sheepishly. "But I think she will be surprised!"
Another challenge of the role was that Beyond follows Jodie through 15 years of her life; her link with the "invisible entity" has been there as long as she can remember, although Cage hints that she isn't the only one who feels its presence. "It's really not a power, it's a character, it's about living with someone," he says.
He also suggests that the dilemmas and story-altering choices from Heavy Rain will return, this time with the potential to change Jodie's path across the game's long narrative span: "It's very interesting to see how you can play with the same character at different ages, how what you're going to leave with her when she's a certain age will have consequences on her life later on."
Another big writing job for Cage, then. "For Heavy Rain I spent a lot of time trying to find the language I wanted to use. I probably wrote the game twice before getting my script. Here, it was much more straight to the point, it took me less time to write it. But it was as painful as Heavy Rain, probably. It's really an unreasonable amount of work. I really felt it this time."
Would he ever share the job with others? Some games have scriptwriting teams... But Cage is too proud for that, and his games are too personal to him. "There's always something very personal in what I write. It was the case in Heavy Rain, and it's the case again in Beyond. You need to write something that you feel in your guts, in one way or another. There are moments in the life of Jodie that I've lived myself, in a different way.
"When you write about something that you've experienced before, that you feel really strongly in your heart, I think the result is different. It's not just about having a bunch of talented people and saying, just write a game, whatever. It's about writing something personal, something sincere, something you believe in, something you feel."
Cage's work divides opinion, but his passion, ambition and commitment are beyond reproach. And you have to extend that respect to his publisher, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, too. By backing Quantic as far as it needs to realise its story and acquire its star, it's brought a strikingly different tone to this E3 - and the hope that not every publishing house is content to see out this hardware generation with sound and fury, signifying nothing. In a conservative world, that's going above and beyond.