In Beacon Pines, the story and decisions made are mapped out on a tree, showing branching paths from single moments that changed the course of the story. For developer Matt Meyer, that was true in real life, too. His path to developing Beacon Pines began with a single, simple, consequential decision made years ago, almost on a whim.
“I worked a corporate job for five years or so in Chicago, and sort of just snapped one day,” Meyer says. “It wasn't really the job's fault. It was the traffic. I was in my car an hour and a half every day…I hate traffic so much. So I just snapped one day. I was like, ‘I'm moving,’ and I moved to Austin, and didn't really have a plan.”
Sans plan, Meyer was hoping to write music, specifically for games. After a bit of noodling around, though, he realized if he made a game, he could put his own music in that. He eventually teamed up with Brent Calhoun and Ilse Harting, and thus Beacon Pines was born…as an RPG rhythm battler.
“It looks cool, and it sounds cool, and the idea was kind of cool, but we never quite found the thing about the design that clicked,” he says. “I tried a lot of different ways of doing it, and it was a functional game, but it didn't have a spark.”
But what stood out to Meyer and the others were the characters that Harting had created, especially Luka: a little deer creature. So the team took a risk: they threw out everything that wasn’t working, and started from almost scratch, focusing on the characters and environments first.
“Which was scary, because it was not only a bunch of work thrown away, but it was like we threw away our hook,” Meyer continues. “A rhythm battle arena game…sounds cool to people. And you tell them, we're making a narrative game. They're like, ‘Okay, but then what?’ So, we needed something else interesting to bring to the table.”
That something else was Beacon Pines’ unique narrative structure, which I’ve gotten a sample of from playing the first few hours already. Luka has gotten a bit of a revamp from his rhythm game origins into the young hero of the titular burg, which is bursting with cozy-cute aesthetic perfect for autumn – twee sweaters, funny animal people, a cozy hearth, and children’s mischief that quickly evolves into a sinister mystery.
A rhythm battle arena game…sounds cool to people. And you tell them, we're making a narrative game. They're like, ‘Okay, but then what?’
As Luka explores the gorgeous, storybook art work of Beacon Pines, he stumbles upon “charms” – essentially single word descriptors of the experiences he has. For instance, he finds “junk” in his bedroom, an early encounter with dandelions gets him “tickle,” and sitting in a comfy chair by the fire brings about “ponder.”
Then, later, the player uses these words to unlock branching narrative paths. Some of the choices are less consequential – for instance, he can choose either “junk” (for a piece of string) or “tickle” (for a feather) as bait for fishing. Far more important are “turning point” moments in the story where a word will determine which of multiple branching paths Luka’s tale will take. The tutorial version of this – answering your grandmother as to what you’ll be up to that afternoon – is pretty benign and doesn’t impact the plot (well, yet, to my knowledge). But future decisions will, and drastically. It’s a heavy burden – Meyer tells me that while sometimes you can make plays on words to humorous effect, being fickle with your choices can get some characters killed.
But if that happens, that’s not the end. Critical to Beacon Pines, and what makes it so fascinating to me, is the ability to go back and revise these choices at any time, including by using words that you hadn’t yet obtained in that moment. It’s an exciting prospect, forcing me to mentally revisit scenes that took place hours ago to see if new words I’ve found have any place in them.
Meyer refers to it as almost like a “narrative Metroidvania,” a descriptor he’s a bit nervous about using due to what audiences might come to expect, but which felt beautifully appropriate to me after playing a few hours.
“Because you're exploring all the branches of the story, and by exploring the different branches of the story, you unlock previously locked off branches of the story by finding new parts,” Meyer explains. “The charms you carry with you, despite going to a different branch where you maybe didn't find that charm the first time. And it's similar to Metroidvania, because in Metroidvania, you are unlocking powers that let you get to new areas that you couldn't get to before.”
Beacon Pines Screens
Meyer adds that they did have to put limits on where the story could go – they’re a tiny team, and couldn’t handle a huge narrative with hundreds of turning points. But there are still plenty of interesting branches, backtracking, and mistakes to be made as players solve the puzzle of what precise story will result in a happy ending for Luka and friends. There’s a sinister mystery lurking in Beacon Pines, the discovery of which dovetails nicely with themes of growing up, friendship, and change. Meyer calls it “Winnie the Pooh meets Stranger Things.” I get some Night in the Woods vibes off it, even though the protagonists are younger.
Beacon Pines has been a tough journey for Meyer and his team. He says he’s happy with and proud of what he made, but adds that it’s the “hardest I ever worked in my life.”
“It's such a wild thing, making games, because at least every game I've made, well, most of them have taken years,” he says. “Why would you do something that takes years, and you have no idea if it's going to be a success? What a ridiculous, stressful thing to do. But I keep doing it, because it is a blast in the process.”
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Like most developers I speak to, Meyer hopes Beacon Pines does well enough to help fund a new creation so he doesn’t have to rush to make it before money runs out the way he has before. But first, he’s taking a break. A bit like Luka in the opening of Beacon Pines, really – with the game having launched this past week, he’s about to be in a space of change, just before the next adventure.
“Someone asked me recently, at the end of the game, what do I hope people think about it?” Meyer says. “And I just said, ‘At peace.’ The game, at its sort of canonical ending as we think about it, we all leaned in hard to the feeling of being at peace. Things are good. Hopefully most people feel that way.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.