As I’ve written before, I always feel under pressure to obtain good the endings in video games. Many gamers dislike linear storylines because they’re given no opportunity to affect the outcome; but for me, they provide comfort in knowing I can’t make a wrong choice.
That’s not to say I can’t enjoy releases based around branching narratives though. For example, I finally managed to complete Detroit: Become Human a couple of months ago and loved both its characters and plot – despite feeling very stressed at certain points and uttering a few rude words during our streams. It wouldn’t have been the same game at all without big decisions that felt like life-and-death situations and knowing there was a risk of having at least one of your protagonists die before reaching the end credits.
The good thing about Detroit was that through its pace, the storyline delivered enough information to make the player feel as though their choices were based on knowledge. You might not know what the consequences of your decisions would ultimately be, but you had enough detail to be able to think them through rather than simply ‘picking an option’. This led to some very interesting conversations in Twitch chat as we discussed what we should do, what the outcome would be and how non-player characters would react to us as a result.
It was a completely different experience playing Beautiful Desolation a few weeks later. This should have been a release I thoroughly liked given its science-fiction setting and isometric point-and-click gameplay; and it had been made by a developer whose previous work had been great. I’d been impressed by STASIS after backing the Kickstarter campaign for The Brotherhood’s first project in November 2013, and so had jumped on board with a pledge when they announced their second campaign for Beautiful Desolation in January 2017.
The title opens on Mark Leslie and his fiancé Charlize in Cape Town during a rainstorm, on their way to rescue his older brother Don from whatever trouble he has now managed to get himself into. A huge flash of light and violent shockwave causes their car to run off the road as a weird triangular structure appears in the sky. Fast forward ten-years and we find out that Charlize sadly didn’t survive the accident; and Mark now wants to make it on board the mysterious Penrose to find out what it’s really all about as a method of dealing with his grief.
He’s able to reach the artefact with the help of Don and a helicopter – but after being cornered by its security system, they’re thrown far into the future with a dog-like robot companion called Pooch. Human civilsation as we know it is long gone and in its place are societies formed of machines and strange hybrids who worship frightening gods. Mark’s surroundings now hold echoes of a desolate part and glimpses of an even darker future; can he unravel the secrets of this new world and find a way home for his pack?
Beautiful Desolation’s highlight is without a doubt its artwork. The developer used photogrammetry to take hundreds of photographs of scenes and objects before generating 3D-models and textures from them, so every screen has a real piece of Africa in it. The result is a game which is stunning and looking closely at the locations visited reveals tiny details such as rabbits hopping through the grass, mist rising from overgrown ruins and flowers swaying in the breeze. I’m not sure I’ve played a video game which has felt so alive before.
This does come at a cost though: at times I struggled to see the items I was looking for or pinpoint interactive objects because there was just too much happening on screen. It got a it overwhelming as the game progressed and the story became more complicated. A certain level of detail can help draw you into a digital world and immerse the player in it’s narrative, but too much and you find yourself constantly jolted out of it each time you have to move a little closer to your monitor to progress.
Speaking of the story, Beautiful Desolation works slightly differently from traditional point-and-clicks and is more like an RPG in some ways. You take on missions and many of these can be progressed simultaneously instead of one at a time so the narrative doesn’t really come together until the final section. Once again, it can feel overwhelming because there’s just so much you can do at once. A quest-log would have been very handy for keeping track of what still needs to be completed and for whom, especially after periods away from your keyboard.
Because my immersion in this future Africa kept being broken due to screen repositioning and losing track of my objective, I felt unprepared when choices arose. And they weren’t small choices either: these were the kind of decisions where your action meant the prosperity of one race and complete annihilation of another. This was the climax in each of the five areas and, after failing to take in enough information to figure out which society I sided with on the first couple of occasions, I gave up and started picking at random.
This wasn’t right. The decisions in Detroit felt important and I wanted to pick the option which seemed as though it would be best for the protagonists; but here, I wasn’t given enough knowledge to really care. You should at least feel some sort of guilt when picking which a race has to die but the choices in Beautiful Desolation felt too binary, too one-or-the-other without any moral grey in the middle. On top of this they didn’t appear to have much of an effect on the ending so I didn’t get that emotional punch from the consequences of my actions.
If decisions in video games don’t carry any weight, is there any point in including them? Is a selection which has no impact and the illusion of choice any different from a linear storyline which doesn’t pretend to be anything else? For me personally, I’d rather know which kind of experience I’m getting into upfront. Give me a narrative that the developer wants to share so I can join them in their journey; or make that journey more personal to me and let me have a say in which destination we’re heading for.
Beautiful Desolation was by no means a bad game and it wouldn’t stop me from backing future crowdfunding campaigns by The Brotherhood. I’d just rather the decision-making was taken out of my hands so I can sit back and enjoy the ride.