At one point on its Steam page, Beacon Pines is described as ‘Twin Peaks meets Winnie the Pooh’. Now, if ever a comparison would get us playing a game, it would be that one.
Beacon Pines has had us intrigued from the moment a demo dropped onto PC. On the surface of it, this is a cutesy narrative adventure that could have been an Animal Crossing Halloween event. But scratch a little further, and it’s clear that this is a very adult adventure, full of dark themes, fruity language and the loss of innocence.
It’s not your average adventure game, then. Beacon Pines is the kind of game that would welcome an interview with its creators, as we have so many questions about its creation and reactions. Colour us lucky, then, that we got a chance to do exactly that.
Hi, could you please introduce yourself and your role on Beacon Pines?
Matt Meyer – creative director, co-writer
Ilse Harting – lead artist
Brent Calhoun – co-writer
Could you give us a quick rundown of the game?
Matt: Beacon Pines is a cute and creepy adventure game. The vibe is something like Winnie-the-Pooh meets Stranger Things. You play as both the reader of a mysterious storybook and its main character, Luka. Some odd things have been going on in the town of Beacon Pines, and it’s up to you and your friends to get to the bottom of it. By exploring the town, you’ll find charms with words engraved on them. You can use those words at special points in the book to completely alter the path of the story.
What immediately grabbed us about Beacon Pines was the charms: artifacts that represent words and terms, which can then be used to change your own story. Where did that idea come from?
Matt: The original idea for the mechanic came from the question: How might a narrative game work if, instead of selecting from a set of responses during a given conversation, you insert a single word which changes the context of a sentence? It turns out this simple question resulted in a wild number of potential directions for the game mechanic. Are these words found in the world? Do you start each day with different words? Are the words single-use? Should the words be categorized in any way (adjective, verb, noun)? It goes on and on.
One of the hardest parts of making the game was not just exploring all of these questions, but actually narrowing down that possibility space to what we hope is the best version of what the game could be.
Brent: Once we started playing around with what we could do with Charms, we realized we could make a game that was about exploring all the ways a story could go.
How do you go about creating a story that branches in such an intricate fashion? How do you ensure a player carries an understanding of that narrative?
Matt: This was probably the most embarrassingly difficult part of making the game. We have a big complicated diagram of all the story interconnections, and when I look at it now I can’t help but chuckle that it works.
There were innumerable difficult design and story decisions, for sure, but I was also consistently relieved when something about the design would just click. Once the story got to a certain point of complexity, adding or changing any part of it felt like placing a piece on top of a precarious Jenga board.
Beacon Pines does look beautiful. Who is responsible for the art? What were their inspirations?
Ilse: The art style has its inspiration from a couple of different things. The initial direction for the world is inspired by miniature dioramas. All the places in town are their own little diorama making you, the player, see only glimpses of this world. This story is based on a childhood summer adventure, if you think back to your own memories you’ll most likely not remember everything, just the things that seemed interesting to you as a child.
We wanted the art to reflect this by not showing you everything and fading the edges, you just experience the parts that are wondrous and important to little Luka.
Along came the idea to turn the world into a book. Making all the places to explore look like images in a book just felt so natural and fits into the whole storybook narrative.
Furthermore, the portrait art is very much inspired by the visual novel genre. The more we leaned into a narrative driven game the more appealing the talking portraits became as a lovely way to show more of the characters their expressions and gestures that otherwise would not exist with just the overworld sprites.
There are some adult moments and themes, but the art is almost storybook-like. How are you approaching the challenge of getting the game seen by the right audience?
Matt: We’re painfully aware of the fact that Beacon Pines looks like a kids game, even though it’s not. Luckily, we’ve discovered that there are lots of people who find the combination of “cute and creepy” appealing or at least intriguing.
Brent: Starting with a storybook feel gives us plenty of interesting places for our story to grow into. Many of the themes the game revolves around deal with the concept of change. From the transitions that happen when a young person grows up to the upheaval of a small town that is forced to catch up with the modern world.
We got some nostalgic feelings from Beacon Pines – the sense of adventure you get from breaking the rules as a group of kids. Did any of this come from your own childhoods?
Matt: We wanted to inject as much of our childhood memories into the moment to moment gameplay (kicking up a field of dandelions, poking around where you shouldn’t, chucking things at electric fences, etc.) One of the major pillars in designing Beacon Pines was how it feels to be in the world, and those moments are a big part of that vibe.
How dark does Beacon Pines get? It has the ‘Horror’ tag on Steam, but is it truly horrific?
Matt: It gets fairly dark and spooky at times, though I’d say it’s more creepy than flat out horror. Due to the dynamic branching in the story, the game does a fair amount of genre-hopping. Some branches are creepy. Some are cozy. Some turn into a heist movie. It all depends on the charms that are played at key moments.
Brent: We wanted to make a game with stakes. Where players feel like things matter. So there is definitely some danger here and there.
A challenge for a single-player narrative game like this is often to give players a reason to replay. Are there reasons to return to Beacon Pines?
Matt: Though the game is mostly designed to be played as a whole, there are a few ways that replaying the game can be enjoyable.
First, we’ve laid in a lot of dramatic irony, humor, and inside jokes that players will really only notice after multiple playthroughs.
Second, there are fishing and cooking minigames, which depend on the non-story-critical charms you find throughout the game, but take a more playful spin on the way charms are used.
The demo for Beacon Pines has been in players’ hands for a while now. Has producing a demo helped the game? What impact has the community had on its development?
Brent: Throughout the entire process, player feedback has been super important. It has been really useful to be able to watch all the playthroughs of the game people have shared on Youtube and Twitch. Those provided us with invaluable insights on what was and wasn’t working.
Also, I don’t think I can overstate how awesome it has been to see people being enthusiastic about Beacon Pines! If game development is a marathon, our community has been the paper cup of ice-cold gatorade we desperately needed.
What’s it like to be on the brink of releasing your debut game?
Matt: Anxiety inducing.
Brent: What he said.
When can we expect to get our hands on the full game of Beacon Pines?
Matt: We don’t have an official release date to announce yet, but it’s not far off.
You have all the money in the world to make a sequel to Beacon Pines. Where does the game go?
Matt: We have lots of ideas for interesting expansions and/or a sequel. But, to be honest, we’ve been so deep for so long making this game, I think we need a bit of breathing room. I look forward to a day when I’ve put enough distance between myself and Beacon Pines that I can come to it with fresh eyes.
Until then, I can’t wait to see other people’s reactions to the game when it comes out!
Many thanks to Hiding Spot, the developers of Beacon Pines, for taking the time out to answer these questions.
Having just finished the latest season of Stranger Things, we’re up for an animal-swapped game with a similar vibe. Bring on Beacon Pines! You can be sure that we will come to you with more news and information about Xbox and PC release dates when we have them.
For now, it’s probably worth a visit to the Beacon Pines Steam page.