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.

Conversation and critique: CAYNE

Nufafitc has been on the blogging scene for seven years now and so it’s highly likely you’ve already come across his Emotional Multimedia Ride site. I think I may have found someone who’s as big a fan of the adventure genre as I am: we’ve had a number of conversations about our favourite titles and what we’re looking forward to next.

After one such discussion, we thought it would be great to collaborate on a post and the following conversation is the result. We’d both played isometric horror-adventure STASIS already and loved and disliked it for different reasons; so how would we feel about The Brotherhood’s return to the grim world of the Groomlake in prequel CAYNE? We got together online to discuss our thoughts after playing the game and you can read on to find out more – watch out for spoilers if you haven’t yet played it yourself.

•••

nufafitc: Heya, I’m currently up for some review chat if you have time.

Kim: Let’s do this! Can I throw out a question to start us off?

nufafitc: Awesome, please do. I’ll check my screenshots and remember what I’ve actually played.

Kim: Can you remember how long ago it was that you played STASIS?

nufafitc: I wrote the review of STASIS in 2015 for the Halloween special. So yes, two years ago.

Kim: Ah, the same as me – I just checked and I think it was in October or November 2015. I didn’t realise it was so long ago!

nufafitc: Yes and I don’t remember much of it, except that it had some really good sound design.

Kim: Oh yeah, the sound was excellent! That bit when John did the operation on himself… *shudders*… How do you think that length of time affected your enjoyment of CAYNE?

nufafitc: I don’t think it has affected my enjoyment in any way. As a matter of fact, I guess I liked and disliked CAYNE for the same reasons as I found the original game interesting and problematic. Talking about gratuitous violence and bloodshed, I just remember picking up all sorts of body parts back then.

Kim: You said ‘gratuitous’… does that mean you thought that some of the scenes in STASIS were unnecessary?

nufafitc: Well, let’s just say that I found a lot of the gore and blood too much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE fan of horror movies and gory games. But yes, I found it too forced at times.

The thing about STASIS was that I felt it tried to be so controversial that it just used these scenes for controversy’s sake. Which was a shame, because the atmosphere was spot-on. It just tried to borrow so many things from sci-fi and horror movies (and games), that it lost its uniqueness.

Kim: I thought the operation scene was great and Ryan Cooper (John’s voice actor) did such a good job. But I do agree that there were a lot of ‘borrowed’ aspects to the game and they didn’t necessarily all work together. I remember getting to the end and thinking, ‘But what about this? And what about that?’

nufafitc: Yes, the voice acting was pretty good. I think technically it was a really great game. The main problem with the storytelling I had was that you had to browse through endless text in diaries and such.

Kim: That I didn’t mind too much… but the PDAs didn’t give as many answers as I would have liked. Mutated clones; a mysterious fungus; a giant insect queen; log files referring to ‘The Twins’… There was just so much and I got confused as to how it all fitted together. I know the developers said CAYNE would explain further, but I’m still not sure I understand entirely!

nufafitc: You’re right, it only gave hints at something bigger. I especially liked the final part with the BioShock-like museum where you learned about the man who did all these things for the greater good. But yes, let’s talk about CAYNE and whether it actually added to the experience or not.

Kim: I think for me, I would have enjoyed CAYNE more if I’d played it closer to the original game. There were so many elements to STASIS and trying to recall them all while playing CAYNE was difficult.

nufafitc: Well, that’s the problem with prequels, isn’t it? Ridley Scott is still trying to better his Alien movie and fails in understanding his own mythology.

It might have been interesting to see how this would have affected playing it. But to be honest, I couldn’t be bothered to go through STASIS again.

Kim: I enjoyed it… but I can’t say I’ve felt the urge to go back to it in the past two years. CAYNE made me remember how much I’d enjoyed STASIS, but also how confused it had made me! Ha ha ha

nufafitc: For me it was the same feeling two years ago: ‘What’s with all the blood, gore, swearing, and sick people?’ Speaking of ‘swearing’, I think this time they really exaggerated.

Kim: Yeah, I’d agree with that – there were a couple of points where the F-bomb shocked me because it was thrown in so casually!

nufafitc: Absolutely, and other words we might have to edit when this goes online!

Kim: And speaking of people: who was Hadley? When I started playing CAYNE, I thought she was connected to John somehow but that wasn’t the case!

nufafitc: Never heard of Hadley either. You’re asking the wrong person!

Kim: Oh good, I thought I’d missed something by not knowing who Hadley was.

nufafitc: Wasn’t it a bit misogynistic as well? I mean, some of the stuff people wrote and what some of the sickos said?

Kim: The language and tone were definitely… harsher… and it seemed a little out of place at some points. I mean, I didn’t find CAYNE as scary or as gory as STASIS; but then there were these parts where it felt like a PDA entry or conversation entry were thrown in for the shock factor. One thing is for certain though: I wouldn’t have wanted to work with the crew of that ship!

nufafitc: Ha ha yes, and getting pregnant was worst-case-scenario.

Kim: But to get pregnant by someone who was paid to do it? Ouch…!

nufafitc: On that note, what did you think about the main protagonist being a pregnant woman?
Was it something different or just for controversy?

Kim: At first it was a bit of a shock, because it’s not something you usually see in a protagonist! But then I liked the fact it was different and also that Hadley wasn’t entirely accepting of her pregnancy. Usually when pregnant women are depicted in media, it’s as the ‘joyful mother to be’.

nufafitc: I agree, that was quite an interesting concept, although… she moved quite fast and climbed a lot for a pregnant woman. I was fearing the worst – I mean, you know how slow adventure protagonists can move sometimes and I was like ‘Ah, please, where’s the skip-the-slow-pregnant-walk key?’ But I was pleasantly surprised about her speed, although again it would have been nice to double-click on exits.

Kim: Do you think if she had moved slower, it would have added to the horror factor?

nufafitc: It would definitely have added to my ‘losing patience’ factor. I think one could have used her state for some more interesting, tense scenes, although she was put through some sick stuff. Not Ellen Ripley stuff, but still…

Kim: That’s interesting – you think the developers could have used Hadley’s pregnancy to better effect? (This is turning into a bit of a weird conversation!)

nufafitc: Yes – as we already noticed, except for her belly and her insistence on not really wanting the child at first, she didn’t behave any differently.

Kim: Yes, that’s true. Her pregnancy only had an impact again at the end, during the twist…

nufafitc: We’re talking about a game full of sick people, larvae, blood and gore decorating the walls… it was only a matter of time until we hit that point in our conversation! It had its story moments but what about puzzles?

Kim: Hmm… mixed bag, from my point of view. What did you think?

nufafitc: I have mixed feelings about the puzzles in CAYNE. I thought there was too much backtracking and looking for items that can often be overlooked, something lots of point-and-clickers suffer from. Were they original? I don’t think so. Were they difficult? Not really. Did they fit the story? Mostly.

Kim: What did you think of the protein powder puzzle?

nufafitc: Ah, the oldest trick in the adventure book… like getting the key from the other side by using a newspaper.

Kim: Clichéd?

nufafitc: Yes, kinda. I think the solutions weren’t so hard, it was just finding the items in the environment.

Kim: That’s what I thought too. The puzzles made sense to me but some of the items didn’t.

nufafitc: Sometimes I already knew what to use but had to go through each screen and collect it. At least you weren’t carrying around more body parts. Although it wouldn’t have been too difficult, the place was littered with them.

Kim: But you were carrying around grub breast milk… ewww…

nufafitc: Aaaah, gee, thanks for reminding me. I completely forgot about that. And the way you got it… yuck.

Kim: Not to mention cutting open that big womb thing… talking about it now, you realise how gross it all was!

nufafitc: Seen that, been there, done that.

Kim: Just a day in the life of nufafitc (joking!).

nufafitc: Well Halloween is soon, so I have to do some research!

Kim: So how would you say CAYNE compared to the other games you’ve been playing for Halloween?

nufafitc: It was a filler but no killer. It wasn’t really scary to be honest, although the atmosphere was good; STASIS had more impressive scenes or at least some that had jump-scares. I think it’s like STASIS in that you kind of enjoy it in a twisted way but will ultimately forget it. I mean it’s for free and for that you can do much worse, as it has some good graphics, especially the cut-scenes, music, and nice voice-acting. The puzzles might not be the best, but they’re not bad either. The story and characters, well… okay.

Oh, I just found an interesting screenshot that made me smile because it hinted at better humour than in the dialogues. There’s this holographic tin of Jukka Cola and it says ‘WHO NEEDS SLEEP? JUKKA COLA. IT’S REFRESHING ADDICTIVE. May cause chronic insomnia, headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, hallucinations, hypertension, gastrointestinal bleeding, peripheral neuropathy, cardiac dysrhythmia, congestive heart failure, toxic epidermal necrolysis, catastrophic haemorrhage and death.’ I think it’s a good example that there was some twisted humour that could have worked better to make fun of technology without using curse words.

Kim: Yeah, the Jukka Cola scene did give me a bit of a giggle! It was a light-hearted point in a game with a ‘heavy’ atmosphere, but the humour still retained a lot of darkness.

nufafitc: The next screenshot shows Hadley picking up a stripper pole and… yes, actually putting it in her inventory. Subtle adventure game mechanics…

Kim: Don’t you just hate that? ‘No, I can’t pick up that item because it’s too big.’ ‘Why yes, I’ll take that stripper pole.’

nufafitc: Well, she already had that baby to carry around so don’t ask me where she had room to put it. To answer your question: Yes, I think if a game tries to be realistic and atmospheric, then that’s rather silly. I also thought that Hadley’s comments were repetitive at times, like ‘That is nasty.’

Kim: I was expecting her to come out with ‘Like, totally!’ at some point. Ok, that was a bit harsh of me!

nufafitc: ‘Guys, come one, give me more of those bucketloads of swine blood and maybe throw in some maggots while you’re at it. I still have some clean spots left.’ That was harsh too, sorry!

Kim: But funny! So what we’re saying is that CAYNE was a good game considering it was free, but ultimately a little forgettable?

nufafitc: Yes, I think we can sum it up like that.

Kim: I have to say though, playing it reminded me how much I enjoy isometric adventures. You don’t see many of them nowadays. I don’t quite know what it is but the perspective adds something to the horror.

nufafitc: I think with the perspective you could actually zoom in and out, and that could be used more. Sanitarium, that was a really good game.

Kim: Oh Sanitarium was great – it was just so freaky!

nufafitc: And Sanitarium was quite original, even if puzzles were even more infuriating and controls were pretty bad. Still, I like replaying that game once in a while. Time for a Halloween special, maybe next year!

Kim: Yes, that’s something positive about CAYNE and STASIS – they’re good-looking games. Gorily good-looking, but still…

nufafitc: I’m looking forward to The Brotherhood’s next game. I mean they have the technology, they only need to refine their writing.

Kim: I backed STASIS so I’ve backed the Beautiful Desolation Kickstarter too. I like the fact the developers are going for something different this time, more sci-fi and less horror.

nufafitc: I think if they’d tone down on the violence, gore, and language, this could be a good game.

Kim: We’ll need to play that one when it comes out, and have a chat about it too!

nufafitc: Good last words I think, with the future chat review!

•••


So as discussed above: CAYNE is ultimately forgettable, but it’s a free title which offers a few hours of gorily good-looking graphics and creepy atmosphere so you can’t really go wrong. It’s something worth picking up this month – and something else worth doing at this spooky time of year is heading over to Emotional Multimedia Ride for nufafitc’s Halloween special.

This collaboration was a lot of fun to do so I’ve been thinking about the possibility of making it a series… if anyone would be interested in taking part in a conversation and critique post and have a suggestion for a game we could play, I’d love to hear from you!

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.

Interview: Ryan Cooper (STASIS)

Adventure-horror STASIS is the work of brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff, also known as The Brotherhood, and was in development for around five years before its release at the end of August 2015.

I first heard about the title after receiving a press release in connection with its Kickstarter campaign and decided to become a backer myself as soon as I’d watched the promotional video. Many other gamers obviously had a similar reaction as the project ended up raising a total of $132,523 from 4,298 people – almost a third more than the original $100,000 target.

We published our review of the game last month as part of our Halloween special, giving it a worthy ‘Buy it now!’ award. A lot of recent releases in the horror genre have resorted to overdone gore, with puzzles of blood and close-ups of gruesome death scenes, or so many jump-scares that they become expected after the first thirty minutes. The Brotherhood’s project tries to buck that trend – and it does an awesome job, all the more impressive when you consider that it has been created by such a small team.

In our review round-up, we said that that STASIS is an incredibly atmospheric title and attributed this in part to the audio. We also highlighted that voice-actor Ryan Cooper puts in a decent performance as John Maracheck, considering how many unimaginable things the protagonist is put through! Ryan got in touch with us to thank us for the review so we took the opportunity to ask him more about the project and some of his other work.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into voice-acting?

Ryan: “My day-job is in architecture and I voice-act of an evening and weekends. It’s not full-time but it’s more than a mere hobby. Mods were where I began as I gathered the skills and equipment needed to break into the indie game market. It’s been gradual, and I am reluctant to call myself an established actor yet. Staying abreast of the latest developments in indie games is a part-time job in itself.”

Are you a gamer yourself? If so, do you have any favourite titles or genres?

Ryan: “I always get excited when a Bethesda game comes around. They have this unique ability to grip me for months like a vice and then dump me just as quickly. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite genre of game as such, but anything that balances innovative gameplay with good story-telling will be near the top of my list. Since the advent of platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, it’s remarkable how Indie developers have been able to inject bold new ideas into the games industry. Some of the more memorable titles of recent years have come from the grass roots.”

Have you played STASIS? What did you think of it?

Ryan: “I was an early-bug tester and a beta Kickstarter backer, so I played it a couple of times before release. For a one-man development, STASIS is a minor miracle really, and serves as inspiration to other small teams. It has been spoken about in the same breath as peers like SOMA, which had several team members with years of experience between them. The game has a timeless quality and won’t really age in years to come. Chris should be very proud of what he has achieved.”

What was it like working with The Brotherhood?

Ryan: “It was always an open-door working relationship with the Bischoff brothers. Chris trusted me enough to get on with my performance, which was liberating. I drip-fed him the lines so he could implement them on his schedule, and this became an organic way of building the voice work into the game. If I were compelled to revisit takes, he was more than happy to receive them.”

How does John Maracheck compare to your previous roles?

Ryan: “It’s funny. I looked back at my previous work the other day and John is the only character who actually converses with other characters. Being mostly narrators, the others address the player directly. So, the action / reaction dynamic of John’s dialogue is what sets him aside from my other roles.

“I wanted to impart a rawness, a genuineness to John and be satisfied I’d done all I could to make him sound like a real person in an unreal situation. If I had screwed up in making John relatable, I don’t think I could have forgiven myself. There was only $130K+ behind the game and thousands of expectant backers.”

Some of the scenes within STASIS are particularly harrowing. We have to ask: how did you feel when presented with ‘that’ surgery scene? What was it like to record?

Ryan: “It was the toughest scene for me because it was so hard to imagine. A character sobbing over all manner of upsetting revelations is achievable because the actor can draw on their own upsetting experiences and the tears are real. But performing open spinal surgery on yourself while you are still awake? Has that ever actually happened?

“To prepare, I studied a similar scene in the movie Prometheus, albeit the character’s motivation is different. Shaw is desperate to remove her foreign-body from a position of religious and motherly disgust. Her reaction is natural, and therefore the horror lies more in the revelation of the creature than in her slicing herself open. John’s foreign-body is not causing him any immediate consternation, besides blocking the path to his daughter. The decision is on him – and thus the player, to push the button knowing full well what’s coming.

“I pictured Rebecca [John’s daughter] as I was screaming, as that is the only way John could get through it without passing out. This is however a scene I would have recorded differently if I had the time again. It’s a bit tamer and more inward than I would have liked at points; I should have just gone hell for leather until I blew my voice box. The sequence itself though is wonderfully realised in its sheer body horror and becomes one of the game’s most memorable scenes.”

Do you have any techniques for getting into character before a recording?

Ryan: The best technique to get into character is to understand the character. If the client provides a full script, read it, re-read it and reflect on who it is you are playing. If you go into the session happy that your recording space meets your needs, you can concentrate on inhabiting your character. Ensure at the very least the space behind you is well padded to reduce reflections back into the mike (assuming it’s a Cardioid). Even a couple of heavy quilts will help. I made an expensive collapsible coffin for myself out of wood and acoustic foam and the quality difference between that and my earlier recordings is scary. Make sure your computer does not have a jet engine for a fan. Use a laptop if possible.

“My preferred approach at this point is to be practical, step up to the microphone and just accept the first take or ten will probably suck while I build momentum. I guess that’s how novelists get past writer’s block, by spewing out any old rubbish until they have their ‘eureka’ moment.”

Of all of your performances, which has been the most challenging so far?

Ryan: “Jonah in The Old City: Leviathan. Getting into the head space of someone who has spent too much time alone, but has a keen philosophical mind and forms these unique insights into the meaning of life. He comes from a very different place to the average person and therein lay the challenge of making him relatable.

“I put Jonah into terms I could understand, as an actor of sorts. More specifically, someone whose life has become an act, who created Leviathan to avoid the pain of the unknown. Maybe we all create our own personal Leviathan as we get older. Jonah’s life views become his lines, rehearsed to the point of banality, the theatrical pauses more deliberate with the years. Only when he is exposed to the uncertain does the child in him break out. Jonah manages to rekindle a deep ember of childlike curiosity that helps him get off his ass and leave his self-imposed prison.”

Which performance are you most proud of?

Ryan: “Tough call. Probably Maracheck, because I was afforded a wide range of emotions in a somewhat traditional role. There is a familiarity in his character type, but few characters suffer as he does. It was the role that left me the most exhausted and ultimately satisfied. I am also pleased to have been a part of Kholat starring Sean Bean, though I lament not being able to meet him. One does not simply meet him, I suppose.”

What’s your favourite vocal performance from someone else in a video game?

Ryan: “Certainly Troy Baker as Joel in The Last of Us. Grounded, nuanced and utterly believable. You know this guy would stove your face in with a house brick to protect his loved ones. If that performance had been up on the big screen, critics would have raved over it.”

Which existing character would be your dream role?

Ryan: “Batman. My favourite character in all of pop culture growing up and to this day. There is a complexity and contradiction to the character that makes him durable and open to interpretation. He does not represent an incontrovertible ideal. One day he’s a hero, the next a fascist vigilante, the next a rich kid who can’t grow up. He is deeply flawed, perhaps creating more problems than he solves by using fear and violence instead of his wealth and influence. There is a constant tension between two opposites in him.”

What’s your opinion of the voice-acting / motion-capture debate?

Ryan: “Some of the criticism has surprised me. It got to the point where people were questioning the validity of voice-acting altogether. Several Twitter comments read something like, ‘What does voice-acting convey that text boxes can’t?’ While I am not deluded enough to think games are not predominantly about the gameplay, the story and the visual-audio quality are crucial in immersing the player in a different world. You cannot seriously suggest The Last of Us would be an equally affecting experience if it had text boxes instead of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Not every game can tell its story through its environment like Journey.

“Detractors of #PerformanceMatters call the voice-actors whinging, irrelevant prima donnas because the game developers, the most important part of game development, are paid even less. It is a straw man argument. Of course the devs are the most important part of game development, but for whatever reason they have not unionised, or they too would be in a position to rectify their poor pay and working conditions, and we’d all be in full support. The truth is the multi-billion dollar industry that is gaming does not pay its professionals, including voice-actors and developers, remotely well enough for what they bring. Those profits more than likely go into the pockets of people who do not deserve it.

“It is something of a catch-22. A talented young actor who is equally expressive in body and voice would have to be a fool to enter a career in voice-acting because it pays so poorly compared to screen acting, despite games making twice the revenue. This disparity reflects in the standard of acting at the top of the games industry. It just isn’t quite as good as it should be, and rarely am I wowed by a voice-actor’s performance. The Last of Us redefined what I thought was possible for video game acting, but I have not played a game like it before or since.”

Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of becoming a voice-actor?

Ryan: “After the last answer, you would think the best advice might be: don’t! However, I am in it because I enjoy it. There is a real thrill when a game where you’ve voiced for is released and heck, maybe even praised by some. The best advice in life is do whatever makes you happy. If that is voice-acting, you will find your way. If you are a part-timer like me who has to dispatch a résumé hundreds of times on the off-chance someone may need an actor, be prepared to handle disappointment. Of the inquiries I make, maybe 10% respond. Of that 10%, 75% say ‘thanks, but no thanks’. You have to be lucky to catch them at the perfect time of their development cycle. Or you could spend money putting yourself onto voice-acting websites like Voice123 and hope your samples speak louder than your competitors’.

“You must have a steady source of income to supplement your endeavours because building your reputation from nothing is slow. You’d think Troy Baker sprang up from nowhere in recent years, but he has been voice-acting since the nineties. I have been acting for two years, and have two character credits and a handful of narrations. At least with a day job, I can pursue attractive roles that will inspire me and might enhance my reputation. Your demo reel can start to sound decent after a while, and that is what gets your foot in the door.”

If a STASIS sequel were to happen, would you return for it?

Ryan: “Absolutely! I loved working on the game and with the Bischoffs. I doubt Chris is done telling stories from that universe, though I am unsure how a direct sequel to the story told in STASIS would work without undermining the themes established during the game. Maybe with this game as proof of his abilities and with more capital behind him, Chris could open things up in scope. A story set during the Eugenics War would be neat.”

A big thank you to Ryan for his time, and to The Brotherhood for making an amazing game! If you haven’t yet tried it we highly recommend that you check it out. Keep an eye out for the upcoming downloadable content (DLC) – if it’s anything like STASIS, there are plenty more scary nights ahead of us.

Review: STASIS

Title overview

  • STASIS by The Brotherhood
  • Published by Daedalic Entertainment
  • Released in August 2015
  • PEGI rating of 18
  • Adventure, horror genre
  • Available on Mac and PC
  • More information can be found on the official website

  • Initial impressions

    Adventure-horror STASIS is the work of brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff, also known as The Brotherhood, and was in development for around five years before its release at the end of August 2015. During an interview with Chris back in November 2013 he told us:

    [The game] came about as a side-project in late 2010, as an artistic distraction to keep me occupied during a December break. It naturally expanded as I grew more involved and fell in love with the world! Since then, not much time has passed where I haven’t worked on it on an almost daily basis.

    I first heard about the title after receiving a press release in connection with its Kickstarter campaign, and I decided to become a backer myself as soon as I’d watched the promotional video. Many other gamers obviously had a similar reaction as the project ended up raising a total of $132,523 from 4,298 people – almost a third more than the original $100,000 target. The game has gone on to receive positive reviews from critics and players alike, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it’s the baby of such a small team.

    I’d like to refer to a section of our full disclaimer statement here: ‘From time to time, members of the team may choose to back projects on crowdfunding platforms… This is done using their own funds; their decision to back a campaign is a personal one and doesn’t reflect the views of the team as a whole. However, we may choose to review a video game that was obtained through such methods and will always reveal this within an article if it’s the case.’

    Plot

    Players step into the shoes of John Maracheck, a space-tourist who’s abruptly awoken from deep sleep within a stasis pod on the seemingly-deserted Groomlake. Broken machinery, bloodstains on the floor and distant wails are evidence that something terrible has happened here. John quickly finds himself thrown into a terrifying nightmare: where is everybody? What has happened to his wife and daughter? And what dubious research has the shady Cayne Corporation been carrying out aboard the re-purposed mining ship? Our protagonist is in tremendous pain and time is running out, as the Groomlake plunges further into the swirling blue methane clouds around Neptune.

    Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are found scattered across the ship, usually on abandoned desks or – more gruesomely – on the bodies of poor victims. Log entries and emails held on the devices share details on the individuals’ daily activities as well as larger, catastrophic events in the Groomlake’s history. It’s a perfect way of drip-feeding the story to the player and creates a wonderful atmosphere of despair and lost humanity but, despite being very well written, the PDA messages just can’t compare to the huge vessel itself. I found myself torn between wanting to read them to find out more about what was going on and getting back to the game itself so I could explore the sinister Groomlake further.

    Minor spoiler ahead – please move on to the next section if you wish to avoid!

    Overall I enjoyed STASIS’ plotline, with inspiration from sources such as Alien and Event Horizon being very evident. But there are an awful lot of elements contained within it: horribly-mutated clones; a mysterious fungus spreading throughout the vessel; a giant insect queen; log files referring to ‘The Twins’; and several others. Despite searching for as many PDAs as possible I’m still not entirely sure how they all fit together and there are a number of subjects which are left unexplained. However, the developer has revealed that upcoming downloadable content (DLC) will further illuminate the events aboard the Groomlake, so hopefully some of the loose ends will be tied up in the near future.

    Gameplay

    In the whole STASIS plays as a traditional point-and-click adventure, featuring both inventory and puzzles. The former is located in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen and isn’t particularly large so it feels less like you’re carrying around a bunch of random objects until you find a use for them. On the downside, you’re unable to examine items once they’re in your inventory; and you won’t receive constructive feedback about why particular solutions fail as John will say something like ‘I can try to make it fit but it will only end up breaking’ – even when it doesn’t make sense for the object in question.

    On the positive side though, pixel-hunting is limited: (most) inanimate items within the environment are highlighted by vivid descriptions at the bottom of the screen, while those you can interact with or pick up are indicated by a hand icon to show that action can be taken. However, this isn’t always the case and a couple of objects caught me out. At one point within the game, I was completely stuck on a puzzle and felt as if something was missing; but after clicking on the environment by accident, I came across a new item which enabled me to push forward.

    Speaking of the environment, some of the PDAs found around the Groomlake are vital when it comes to working out solutions for the puzzles. The now-deceased crew may have left important information about how security systems work in their personal data logs, or clues might have been left on notes or diagrams stuck to the devices themselves. A number of other players have complained that most of STASIS’ challenges are obtuse but I think a lot of this comes down to how observant you are. Pay attention to what you’re reading, and you’ll usually be able to figure out how to proceed – and putting the hints together yourself provides a great sense of achievement.

    The number of interactive items in the environment and objects within the inventory decreases towards the end of the game thus making it somewhat simpler, so there’s some slightly uneven pacing in terms of challenge. The final puzzle is straightforward as there’s really only one solution and the show-down you were hoping to have with your nemesis never really materialises. But one thing that doesn’t let up is the dark, foreboding atmosphere: it’s enough to make you overlook these minor negatives and want to see John’s perilous journey through to its emotional climax.

    As for my favourite puzzle: play STASIS for yourself and I’ll bet you arrive at the same answer. I don’t want to give too much away so I apologise if what follows is a little vague. You’ll need to find the solution within a set amount of time or John faces dire consequences, and the answer lies somewhere within the environment. The problem is that the situation you’re presented with is so shocking that your eyes are drawn to it and it’s hard to look anywhere else! It’s gory but not overly gratuitous –well-handled in terms of both timing and how it fits in with the title’s storyline – but it’s some pretty-messed-up-stuff that will stick with you.

    Unlike the majority of adventure games, the title contains a number of inventive ways in which you can die and this is in part due to the way the puzzles are structured. For example, you may have figured out that you need to combine a lighter with a gas-leak in order to blow your way through a wall; but do this in an incorrect order and you’ll get caught-up in a fiery explosion. If you find yourself in a death scene, STASIS will reload and put you back at the point just before the event. The only problem is that sometimes this is before a lengthy cut-scene or dialogue that can’t be skipped and after you’ve seen it once, you don’t particularly want to have to sit through it again before getting back to the action.

    In a paragraph above I used the words ‘foreboding’ and ‘perilous’, and the title does a marvellous job at setting an ominous tone. It never seems to amount to much however: death scenes are triggered by the player themselves; breathing in the spores from the mysterious fungus doesn’t seem to do you any harm; and walking past mutated research subjects poses no threat. The feeling of tension therefore gradually dissipates over time but this is when the title pulls you back in. Just when you think you’re safe, a security hologram will come rushing at you or a dead body will fall from the ceiling – resulting in a nice little jump scare every once in a while. Such situations are used to good effect and the game doesn’t rely on them for its tone.

    Visuals and audio

    When I first played the demo, STASIS reminded me very much of Sanitarium in terms of its visuals. I mentioned this to Chris during our interview and he told us:

    Simply, I like the isometric point-of-view. Fallout, Diablo, Commandos – these are games that shaped me as a young artist. To be able to create and then explore my own world from that point of view… it’s a dream come true.

    He went on to explain that an isometric layout has a way of making you feel small, and it does a great job of ramping up the atmosphere here; the world around you feels so much larger than your character, and who knows what’s lurking in the darkness.

    The vivid item descriptions mentioned in the section above do a great job at bringing the world to life and some of it is so horrific, it’s probably a blessing it can’t be seen close up from the player’s birds’-eye-view. It leaves plenty to the imagination and that’s kind of worse! The flickering lights from broken machinery; shadows hiding god-knows-what in their darkness; blood-splatters across the floor and up the walls; all the small details add up to create a menacing environment which leaves the hair standing on the back of your neck.

    The Groomlake is a particularly gloomy environment, fitting when you consider that the run-down vessel has been abandoned in space, but this does have the unfortunate effect of making John quite hard to spot when a new scene loads. In addition, the protagonist’s path-finding seems to be a little off in certain places; instead of taking the quickest route to the point clicked he’ll head the long way around. These small issues didn’t do anything to dampen my enjoyment of the game but they do have a tendency to break the player’s immersion slightly.

    The audio is another of STASIS’ high-points, with a brilliant score by Mark Morgan that combines magnificently with sound-effects. In our interview with Chris, he said:

    I got a message from [Mark] on Twitter, saying how much he enjoyed what he had seen. It was an incredible surprise and an honour… When he offered to score the game, I almost fell off my chair! The games he has worked on have been such an intricate part of my artistic life and in many cases their fingerprints can be felt on STASIS.

    The title is never entirely quiet and the sounds contained within pull the player into its world. From creaks from nearby machinery, to the squelch of something grotesque underfoot, to distant wails of terror echoing throughout the ship; it all adds to the atmosphere and makes for a wonderfully-immersive environment. And when you hear the children talking through the walls, asking why they’ve been forsaken… you’re bound to feel a shiver down your spine.

    Considering how many unimaginable things the protagonist is put through, voice-actor Ryan Cooper puts in a decent performance as John Maracheck (take a look at our interview with him here). Especially heart-breaking are the strangled cries as he comes across one horrific sight after another, each more terrible than the next. There’s a slight disconnect however between the character’s behaviour and what’s happening onscreen. At one particular point during the game, a revelation is discovered through a PDA entry that’s absolutely horrendous; but because this plot-point isn’t told through the main storyline, John’s behaviour doesn’t accurately mirror that horror.

    Replay and innovation

    In a Steam Discussion thread on STASIS, the developer revealed that ‘every PDA entry and event was planned for the last five years’. Chris also stated that ‘if you play [the game] again with the ending mind you will pick up many more subtle hints’, so there’s some incentive there to have a second playthrough to discover all the log files and piece together the entire story. Players also receive a Steam achievement for each death scene they uncover so there’s no harm in walking into that vat filled with grey goop or giving the insect queen a little stroke.

    With regard to how innovative this release is, it’s a little hard to give a definitive answer. We’ve seen isometric video games before; inspiration from movies such as Alien and Event Horizon is obvious; and the science-fiction and horror genres are often combined. But what STASIS does well is atmosphere. Rather than resorting to the usual gore and jump-scares, the former is rarely shown directly onscreen and the latter are used infrequently so when they do arrive, players get a real shock. The developers have decided to leave a lot to the imagination and that makes it all the more frightening.

    Final thoughts

    STASIS has garnered a lot of attention since being released at the end of August. It was chosen as a finalist for MomoCon 2015 and has received plenty of positive critiques, with branches of both IGN and Eurogamer giving it an eight out of ten. Alec Meer from Rock Paper Shotgun said that ‘[the title] punches so far above its weight that I almost can’t believe it exists’; and at the time of writing, the game holds a ‘very positive’ rating on Steam from almost 300 reviews.

    If you like your adventure games sprinkled with a bit of horror and plenty of dark atmosphere, then yes. A lot of recent releases in the horror genre have resorted to overdone gore, with puzzles of blood and close-ups of gruesome death scenes, or so many jump-scares that they become expected after the first thirty minutes. The Brotherhood’s project tries to buck that trend – and it does an awesome job, all the more impressive when you consider that it has been created by such a small team.

    I’m very much looking forward to the DLC and to seeing what the developers come up with next. If it’s anything like STASIS, there are plenty more scary nights ahead.

    Review round-up

  • We played the game on PC
  • I backed the game on Kickstarter in November 2013
  • Detailed visuals and an awesome soundtrack
  • An incredibly atmospheric title
  • A little uneven in terms of challenge
  • Easy ending
  • Grade: buy it now