LudoNarraCon 2020: Beyond the Veil

Although I’m happy watching my other-half play horror games, you’ll rarely find me on the controls. I have no problem admitting that I’m a coward: an overactive imagination and fear of what might be lurking in the dark mean I’d rather be watching from behind my hands.

But despite that, and rather weirdly, I do enjoy a good horror story. For example, SOMA left me thinking about its dark corridors and the philosophical questions raised by its narrative for weeks after we played it. The House Abandon episode in Stories Untold reminded me of that feeling of the hairs standing up on the back of your neck when you played text adventures as a kid. And I really enjoyed the way Resident Evil 7: Biohazard used playable flashbacks to progress the story.

Combine this with a long-time desire to visit New Orleans one day, and it’s then easy to understand why Beyond the Veil was a title which stood out for me during this year’s online LudoNarraCon. The text-based horror game is set in the city and developer Sun’s Shadow Studios revealed in their live broadcast that it’s a love letter to its history and enduring spirit. Their aim with their project is to get as close as possible to a tabletop RPG experience in a video game and this was something evident during the session at the end of April.

A demo sadly wasn’t available for this title during the event but around 90 minutes of alpha-build gameplay were shared along with a few insights. The story begins when Kara, a 20-something college drop-out, loses her job at McDonalds and apartment in Los Angeles and has no choice but to move back in with her father. It turns out that he is now relocating to New Orleans for his retirement and it isn’t long before we find out that Kara’s mother died a few years previously.

Players are presented with small sections of text which convey the plot along with either two or three choice options at a time. At the start of the section we saw, it was clear the choices made were going to set up the kind of relationship she has with her dad. She could tell him she wasn’t interested in spending the day together and put a bit of distance between them; or she could go on a tour boat across the Mississippi and set aside a few hours for father-daughter bonding.

As you make your way through the title, you’ll notice that some of the options are greyed out so the number of choices you have is reduced. This is because your decisions affect the branching narrative, Kara’s personality and the way she reacts to the world around her. Pressing a button while in game will allow you to see her character sheet including statistics against traits such as Empathy and Belief, meaning each player will end up crafting a protagonist who is unique to their experience.

LudoNarraCon, live broadcast, Beyond the Veil, video game

I think ‘my’ Kara is going to end up being a person I can connect to. The writing for the character is particularly relatable and down-to earth; her descriptions of the items and people around her gave a great sense of place because they felt as though they were being spoken by a real person. Although there was no voice-acting in the demo and I don’t think every line of dialogue will be voiced in the final product, Erika Ishii showed off her talents in the broadcast and she’s a perfect choice for the protagonist.

You’ll get to take in still oil-painting-like scenes in the background while considering your decisions throughout the game. There’s something a little strange about them though and certain images create a feeling of unsettledness, perhaps due to their slightly skewed angles or blurred details. This perfectly suits what’s happening in the story: not only does Kara feel uneasy after her move to a new city, there are hints that something else of a supernatural nature is going despite everything seeming fine on the surface.

Several non-player characters (NPCs) were met during the broadcast and the Steam page advises that you’ll be able to choose from one of three as companions. This ties up with there being three separate but intertwined horror stories to experience in Beyond the Veil – along with a fourth once you manage to unlock the others to tie them all together – so I’m guessing each NPC will guide you through one of them. There are also 18 different endings, so it seems as though there’ll be plenty of replay value.

The demo shown during LudoNarraConended after Kara agreed to go on a Ghost Tour with a happy-go-lucky chap named Al that evening. As you’re warned about there being no turning back after stepping up to the threshold, you get the impression that all isn’t well and something bad is waiting to happen to her. Although we’d been shown only a snippet of the title, it left me wanting to continue the story and find out what was going down in the shadows of New Orleans.

It has proven difficult to find out more about the title because there’s no official website right now and the information provided on Steam is limited – but what I’ve seen so far is enough to have me intrigued. Beyond the Veil has been added to my wishlist and I can’t wait to see what Sun’s Shadow Studios have planned for us… probably from behind my hands.

Stories Untold and the joy of text

I loved text adventures when I was young. It started with the Ghost Hunter choose-your-own-adventure by Edward Packard then progressed to games such as Zork. I used to scour our local library for the Usborne type-in books and I pored through the pages of code for story snippets.

There are a number of text adventures available on Steam nowadays but sadly, they’re not the same. I remember the excitement I used to feel as a kid when rolling the dice for a new page-number or typing in the next command and not knowing whether the result would be good or bad; and that just isn’t there any longer. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking or perhaps I’m becoming jaded in my old age, but it seems as though current text adventures are missing the thing that used to make them so special.

At least, that’s what I thought until I completed Stories Untold by No Code earlier this month. Let’s say that my opinion may have recently changed.

It was added to my wishlist in April where it sat for a few months before being purchased in the summer sale. But as is common with plenty of titles picked up in this way, it languished in my backlog until a couple of weeks ago when I had a conversation with Bradley over at Cheap Boss Attack. He referred to Stories Untold as one of his favourite games of the year and gave it a recommendation; so during a break between arguments with the other-half over whether Destiny 2 or The Elder Scrolls Online would be going on the PlayStation 4 that evening, I hit the ‘install’ button and roped Pete into playing with me.

Advertised as ‘four stories, one nightmare’, this experimental title manages to bend the genre into something new and unique. It cleverly combines text-adventures, point-and-clicks and psychological horrors into a rather remarkable experience which is likely to stay with me for some time to come. If you’re a fan of series such as The Twilight Zone and Stranger Things, of 80s nostalgia and retro games, or text adventures in general, you need to play it – I couldn’t agree more with Bradley’s recommendation.

The ending, when it arrives, is like an oncoming train. You can’t deviate from the path that fate has set out for you: as much as you want to tear yourself away from the inevitable conclusion, it’s simply impossible and you must see it through. The fear slowly rises as you make your way through the four episodes and see connections, until the hairs on the back on your neck stand up each time you’re asked to enter a new command.

I think that’s exactly what’s missing from other text-adventures. The items I mentioned at the start of this post used to invoke such fear in me as a kid but it was addictive: as much as I was scared by the spooks in Ghost Hunter or the Grue in Zork, I wanted to see them through to the end. The fact that there were no visuals meant it was up to the player to use the text to see the story in their own minds and that somehow made those worlds all the more frightening.

There was always the feeling that if you looked up from the screen, you’d start to see elements of the title in the real world; and that’s what Stories Untold successfully manages to recreate. It’s extremely hard to resist the urge to look over your shoulder as you play through The House Abandon episode or not to expect your phone to ring when the handset does in-game. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling it for future players except that No Code have crafted some very clever moments.

So say no more I will, and I’ll just encourage you to give it a go for yourself if you have the opportunity. I really hope the developer considers making a second season because I can’t wait to see where they take us next.