Beautiful Desolation: big decisions, little choice

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.

20 for 20 vision: part one

2019 wasn’t a great year in terms of video games for me. The trend of producing sequels, remakes, spin-off and ports makes it seem as though less space is being devoted to new ideas; and the ridiculous level of hype that’s the norm for releases nowadays leaves me cold.

But this month is the start of both a new year and decade, so it’s time to look forward to brighter days and new releases. Forget Cyberpunk 2077 and The Last of Us Part II: indie games will continue to be the focus for me because they aren’t afraid to take creative risks in order to bring us something new and inventive. There are plenty waiting on my wishlist right now and it seems like the perfect time to share some of these, so here are the titles I’ve got my eye on for 2020.

1. 12 Minutes

Although I wasn’t particularly impressed by Microsoft’s E3 presentation in June, 12 Minutes by Luis Antonio was the one title which stood out for me. Players take on the role of a husband who’s due to spend a romantic evening with his wife but things take a turn for the worse when a detective breaks into your home and you find yourself caught in a time-loop. Use the knowledge gained from repeating events to change the outcome – or relive the same terror over and over again.

2. 3 Minutes to Midnight

I didn’t think I was going to enjoy 3 Minutes to Midnight when it was recommended to me by nufafitc from Emotional Multimedia Ride. But after playing the demo at EGX in 2018, it earned its place on my wishlist thanks to its light-hearted humour and detailed cartoon visuals. It seems like it’s going to have an awful lot of appeal for adventure lovers with a fondness for the classics. I went on to back the Kickstarter campaign in October and can’t wait to get my hands on Scarecrow Studio’s release this year.

3. Backbone

I backed 2018’s Kickstarter campaign for Backbone for three main reasons. First, everyone knows how much I love a point-and-click game; second, I’m partial to a good bit of pixel-art too; and third, you play as a detective raccoon. I had the chance to check out the prologue a few months ago and if the full release is of the same quality then we’re in for a treat. I highly recommend giving it a try yourself but be prepared for some pretty dark subject matter: take a look at Luke’s preview on Hundstrasse for more details.

4. Beautiful Desolation

I was a Kickstarter backer for The Brotherhood’s first campaign in 2013 and really enjoyed isometric science-fiction adventure STASIS when it was released in 2015. It’s therefore no surprise that I pledged to their next project when it was announced in 2017. Beautiful Desolation is set in a post-apocalyptic future where mankind has hurtled forward on an alternative trajectory, and it looks gorgeous thanks to its use of photogrammetry to take hundreds of pictures before generating 3D-models.

5. Beyond a Steel Sky

We’ve had to wait 25-years for a follow-up to Beneath a Steel Sky, but Beyond is a Steel Sky is almost here. I had a chance to play Revolution Games’ sequel at EGX in September and then got to see Charles Cecil speak about the game in a developer session. This idea of ‘subversion’ has been a big influence: the team wanted to implement puzzles that not only felt as though they belonged to the world and the story, but which could be solved by changing the behaviour of objects and characters around you.

6. Book of Travels

Eastshade was my favourite game of 2019 thanks to its atmosphere and artwork, and was the reason why I backed the Kickstarter campaign for Book of Travels as soon as I saw the promotional video. It seems like Might and Delight are going to give us a lovely experience. Advertised as a ‘tiny multiplayer online’, its world is being built with a lot of content but few players on each server so temporary alliances are meaningful and your encounters are turned into powerful experiences.

7. Cloudpunk

Driver protagonists seem to be having a moment in the spotlight – take a look at Neo Cab and Night Call, for example – and Rania from RPG Cloudpunk is the latest one in my sights. Your first night in the city of Nivalis working for a semi-legal delivery company will see you meet humans, androids and artificial intelligence (AI), each with their own story to tell. It sounds as though it’s going to be a game more about narrative than action and what you find out may change everything.

8. Fable IV

I know I said my list was made up of indie titles, but I’m a huge Fable fan and couldn’t leave this one out. The only reason I tuned into Microsoft’s E3 presentation last year was because of the rumour there may be news about the game so I was sorely disappointed. Maybe the announcement of a series resurrection was a little premature; or perhaps there were so many other games to unveil that Microsoft decided to hold onto the next instalment until there’s more progress to show off. Hopefully we’re hear more details very soon…

9. Firmament

It’s no surprise I showed my support for Firmament on Kickstarter after backing Cyan’s previous campaigns for Obduction and Myst 25th Anniversary Collection. The story begins when you wake up in a glacial cavern, crowded with metal pipes and clockwork gears. Massive doors open to a chamber containing an ancient table holding a tea-cup on one end and a frozen body slumped over the other, the corpse’s hand clutching a strange device. Expect a title full of atmosphere and mystery just like the Myst series.

10. Gamedec

I love cyberpunk and detective games, so RPG Gamedec by Anshar Studios was added to my wishlist right away when it appeared in my Steam suggestions one day. You will hunt down the criminals of virtual worlds: spoiled businesspeople, mothers who want a better life for their children, or corporations with plans to rewrite humanity. Each decision you make shapes your character’s personality and the world around them, with the title continually adapting to your choices.



Let’s stop right there before the excitement gets too much! The next ten on my list for 2020 will be shared on Wednesday, so keep your eyes open for more games for your wishlist then. Which releases are you looking forward to this year?

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A new adventure

In the middle of February, Christon from Gaming Detour kindly nominated Later Levels for a Sunshine Blogger Award. This gaming enthusiast from Australia, who also looks after Coding Detour, has a great range of posts on his site all the way from retro gaming up to today’s releases. Get over there right now and give him a follow if you’re not already doing so!

This award has given me an excuse to write about one of my preferred subjects because I can answer more than half of this blogger’s 11 questions with responses which refer to the adventure genre. For example, it was The Secret of Monkey Island that properly introduced me to gaming as a kid (you fight like a cow); my favourite developers include Red Thread Games (even though there’s a release I can’t finish); and one of the most memorable releases I’ve ever played was To The Moon (I cried my heart out).

Christon asked about the games in my backlog I’m most looking forward to playing. As LightningEllen from Livid Lightning and I collaborated on #LoveYourBacklog Week last month, I therefore thought I’d focus this post not on the titles which already make up my library but on those I’m looking forward to adding to it in three near future! This post is dedicated to Gaming Detour, and what follows is a look at some adventure games I’m really excited about in 2019.

3 Minutes to Midnight

When I was originally recommended 3 Minutes to Midnight by nufafitc from Emotional Multimedia Ride, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it. But after sitting down with a demo at EGX in September it earned its place on my wishlist thanks to its light-hearted humour and detailed cartoon visuals. A quick Google search revealed that Scarecrow Studio’s point-and-click is currently due to be released at the end of April so we hopefully we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on it.

Beautiful Desolation

I was a Kickstarter backer for The Brotherhood’s first campaign in November 2013 and really enjoyed isometric science-fiction adventure STASIS when it was eventually released in August 2015. It’s therefore no surprise that I backed their next project when it was announced two years ago. Beautiful Desolation is set in a post-apocalyptic future where mankind has hurtled forward on an alternative trajectory, and it looks gorgeous thanks to its use of photogrammetry to take hundreds of pictures before generating 3D-models.

Eastshade

Unlike the other titles included in this post, Eastshade has already been released and is now available on Steam. And unlike many other video games, you’re not cast in the role of a hero trying to save the world or mighty warrior with super powers. Instead, players step into the overalls of a travelling painter whose mission is to capture the world on canvas using their artist’s easel. This open-world exploration-adventure by Eastshade Studios sounds like a peaceful experience and truly delightful.

In the Valley of Gods

I had a huge fascination with the history of Egypt when I was young – not so much about the mummies themselves but the gods and mysticism. So when I heard that Campo Santo’s next release would be set in that location I added In the Valley of Gods straight onto my wishlist. Players step into the role of an explorer and filmmaker who, along with their old partner, has travelled to the middle of the desert in the hopes of making a seemingly-impossible discovery and an incredible film.

Observation

Stories Untold turned out to be one of my favourite games of 2017 thanks to a recommendation from Bradley from Cheap Boss Attack so, as is the case for many of the games on my wishlist, I’ve got my eye on the developer’s next release. The idea of uncovering what happened to Dr Emma Fisher and her crew through the lens of the space station’s artificial intelligence (AI) in Observation sounds intriguing – and there are bound to be a few surprises if No Code’s previous title is anything to go by.

Someday You’ll Return

I had the opportunity to finally finish J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars recently (you can watch my playthrough on Twitch), after receiving a fix for a game-breaking bug from the developer recently. It was so enjoyable: the combination of point-and-click, science-fiction and female protagonist was perfect for me. I’m now looking forward to CBE Software’s upcoming release even more: psychological horror Someday You’ll Return looks as creepy a- )s hell and it has already been added to my wishlist.

The Bradwell Conspiracy

Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to try The Bradwell Conspiracy at last year’s EGX event because the seats were always taken – but what we managed to glimpse over other attendees’ shoulders looked amazing. What triggered that explosion? Has the mystery of Stonehenge finally been solved? And is Bradwell Electronics actually the kind and compassionate company it likes to make itself out to be? We’ll be able to find out in A Brave Plan’s release very soon.

The Occupation

I had the opportunity to try White Paper Games’ The Occupation at Rezzed back in April 2017 and it wasn’t only me who ended up enjoying this politically-driven narrative title. My stepson first asked if he could have the headphones so he could hear the sound; then decided to sit on my lap so he could see better; and eventually ended up taking over the keyboard completely. Who knows, when the full title is released this year I might actually get the chance to play it for myself.

Trüberbrook

Trüberbrook is bound to be one of the most unique-looking releases you’ll have the pleasure of seeing in 2019. All scenery is built by hand and real lighting is used to simulate different times of day and weather conditions. These are then digitised using photogrammetry – the same process being used by The Brotherhood for Beautiful Desolation above – before being blended with characters and visual effects. If you’re a fan of Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Stranger Things, I’d recommend checking out btf’s project.

Whispers of a Machine

I played The Samaritan Paradox by Faravid Interactive a while back and really enjoyed it; and I played Kathy Rain by Clifftop Games and enjoyed that too. So when I heard that the two developer were coming together to make a new adventure, it was added to my wishlist straight away. Whispers of a Machine tells the tale of Vera, a cybernetically-augmented special agent tasked with investigating a string of murders which obscure a sinister truth: will her unique blend of skills and intuition be enough to solve the case?

ZED

I heard about ZED after backing the Kickstarter campaign for the Myst 25th Anniversary Collection, as it’s the vision of part of the time behind the original Myst and is being published by Cyan Ventures. In a bittersweet story coming to both virtual reality (VR) and PC only, players must reassemble an artist’s fragmented memories inside the dreamscape of a creative mind come undone. Take a look at the screenshots on the official website and you’ll be adding it to your wishlist straight away too.



Thanks once again to Christon for the Sunshine Blogger Award and for giving me an excuse to write about my favourite video game genre! Now over to you: what’s your favourite genre and which releases are you most looking forward to this year?

Beautiful Desolation: mapping out the future

In January I backed the Kickstarter campaign for Beautiful Desolation before I’d even finished watching the promotional video. I’d been a backer for The Brotherhood’s first project in November 2013, isometric science-fiction adventure STASIS, and so I didn’t need to see the end of the sales pitch by Chris Bischoff to know it would be something special.

This point-and-click is set in a post-apocalyptic future after the Penrose monolith appeared without warning in the sky in 1980. Governments laid claim to this impossibly-shaped structure, assembling an investigation team to learn more about its origin and purpose; they were able to reverse-engineer the technology discovered and this accelerated our understanding of physics, materials and computing by centuries. Mankind hurtled forward on an alternative historical trajectory and the world rejoiced – but discovered at the heart of the Penrose, a terminal revealed an unencrypted line of text: “I WILL FIX THIS. MARK LESLIE.”

Beautiful Desolation, video game, map, aerial, mountains, clouds

Last week I received one of the regular updates on the project, this time on the subject of its maps and they’re stunning – take a look at one of them opposite. The developer advised that a major inspiration in their design was bringing back the excitement of exploring the original Fallout’s map, and theirs provides a ‘tangible link’ to everywhere you’re able to explore in the game’s post-apocalyptic world. Bischoff wrote: “Geography and history will entwine to reflect in the environments and their march through time. Working on the histories of the different areas and how they’ve grown out of this ruined world, is both exciting and challenging.”

Maps are often something we take for granted in video games. We use them to get our bearings, figure out which way to go next, perhaps even fast-travel to our intended destination – but it’s rare that we take a step back and just admire them. They clearly take a lot of planning in order to work properly and I get the impression that more effort goes into them than us non-developer types could imagine. Not only are they functional, but they’re a treat for the eyes too.

One person who has picked up on this is Dimlicht from Game Cartography whose blog showcases some of the most gorgeous in-game maps. Her latest post is on Horizon Zero Dawn and if you’ve read anything I’ve written recently, it’s pretty obvious I’m wrapped up in this title. She wrote: “At first glance just an ordinary in-game map, nothing really special about it. But up close it turns out to be a surprisingly detailed aerial photo-ish kind of map. Did I already mention how beautiful this game is!?”

Horizon Zero Dawn, video game, map, aerial, mountains, clouds

And she’s absolutely right. Zooming into the atlas reveals all kinds of details such as rocky outcrops, curious structures and abandoned buildings, while the clouds seem to float across the surface. A number of times I’ve been on my way to the next quest, only to stop to check direction and then get distracted by something intriguing on the map. It could go some way towards explaining why I’m almost 80 hours into the title and only two-thirds of the way through the main storyline; but on the plus-side, I’ve discovered some excellent modifications in this way.

The next time you’re playing a video game, take a moment to admire its map and all of the hard work that went into creating it. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there.

Beautiful Desolation on Kickstarter

It’s been a while since I backed anything on Kickstarter. I used to be quite a fan of the crowdfunding platform but over time the quality of the campaigns dipped and I eventually stopped visiting. I just don’t have the time to trawl through all the rough to find the diamonds any longer.

It’s therefore really useful when we’re contacted about projects we might be interested in, such as that for Beautiful Desolation by The Brotherhood. I was a Kickstarter backer for their first title – the isometric science-fiction adventure STASIS – back in November 2013, so obviously the announcement about their new campaign caught my attention.

So much so in fact that I backed the project before I’d even seen the promotional video. I guess I should go do that now so I know what I’m writing about… give me a moment.

< Five minutes later >

So, Beautiful Desolation is a point-and-click adventure set in a post-apocalyptic future after the Penrose monolith appeared without warning in the sky in 1980. Governments laid claim to this impossibly-shaped structure, assembling an investigation team to learn more about its origin and purpose; they were able to reverse-engineer the technology discovered and this accelerated our understanding of physics, materials and computing by centuries. Mankind hurtled forward on an alternative historical trajectory and the world rejoiced – but discovered at the heart of the Penrose, a terminal revealed an unencrypted line of text: “I WILL FIX THIS. MARK LESLIE.”

Players are able to explore a beautiful wasteland to discover villages and destroyed cities while uncovering the secrets of strange and abandoned technology, solving puzzles and using items to work their way through the plot. The iconic African setting gives the opportunity to explore an exciting new world full of creatures and environments inspired by Sub-Saharan flora and fauna. The Brotherhood are using photogrammetry to take hundreds of photographs of scenes and objects before generating 3D-models and textures from the photos themselves; this means that every screen in Beautiful Desolation has a real piece of Africa in it.

If you haven’t yet heard of The Brotherhood, I’d highly recommend checking out STASIS – you can find our interview with developer Chris Bischoff, and our interview with voice-actor Ryan Cooper here on the site. There’s also the recently-released CAYNE, a free horror-adventure story set in the same universe.

The Kickstarter campaign for Beautiful Desolation is due to finish on Saturday, 18 February 2017 so there’s still time to make your pledge. The good news is that, with $64,396 received from 2,244 backers already (at the time of writing), the project is well on its way to its $120,000 target. Head over to the official website for more information.