Beacon: Better Than an Art Game

Beacon: Better Than an Art Game screenshot

Beacon

Game released: 2009

Text written: Sep 28, 2009
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: Chevy Ray Johnston

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: Developer's Website
Jordan Magnuson's picture

Can one person make a game that is qualitatively better than many triple-A titles? How about if that person has forty-eight hours to do it in? How about if we force them to make this game around a certain theme, and we don’t give them that theme until just before they start work? And for good measure, let’s say they can’t use a single premade resource: no bringing in code, or graphics, or sounds of any kind. Sound impossible already?

Many of you may know about LD, and you see where I’m going with this. For the rest of you, there’s a game creation contest out there that has all the restrictions I’ve cited above. It’s called Ludum Dare, and it takes place every three to four months, with the last iteration (#15) having happened a few weeks ago. For Ludum Dare 15 the theme was “caverns,” and one man, Chevy Ray Johnston, won the contest with a game called Beacon, a game so nice it makes me giddy to play.

In Brief

As always with a game this short, I’m going to say that you should just go play it. But for you stubborn types who insist on reading this review first, I’ll give a short description of the game. On its surface, Beacon is your basic platformer: you control a little dude and walk and jump from one level to the next. Like any platformer worth the time of day, you’ve got a ledge hang at your disposal, so that’s cool. But this is all fairly inconsequential. What sets this game apart is its namesake: The Beacon. At the game’s start you find yourself alone in darkness, disoriented, after some kind of “fall”; you can hear things coming for you, and you think, melodramatically or sincerely (it’s hard to tell—after all, you are a bit dizzy), that you will die. Then lo! Out of the darkness comes a light, a beacon of hope, something to guide you.

And so your journey through blackness begins: the caverns are alive and vast, with creatures of the night that scurry out of sight as you approach them, leaving you with the merest glimpse of retreating tentacles and wings. You cannot chase these creatures, or explore the caverns at your leisure, because darkness is deadly: leave the life-giving force of your guiding light and you’re done for. The Beacon moves slowly at first, and then faster… initially it guides you down paths you can follow, but soon it starts straying through too-narrow passageways and up unscalable cliffs, and this is where the challenge of the game stems from: there are other light-giving crystals in the caves, and you must learn to dart between these and your Beacon with the right timing to keep the darkness at bay. 

Atmosphere

Screenshot: Title screenThe first thing I love about this game is its atmosphere: the delicate simplicity with which Johnston handles the themes of caverns and darkness and light, and loneliness. The title screen gives the player a nice preview of the treat that they’re in for: the hypnotic buzz and hum of the beacon mixed with the sound of water drops as they splash into an underground lake, the soft pulsing of light, and the wonderfully commonplace yet beautiful focal point: two underground flowers caught in the middle. At once Johnston’s attention to detail is made clear, as well as something more: a certain Chestertonian celebration of the small and the prosaic.

As you start the game these qualities are made continually more manifest. Some people complain that the first couple levels of the game are so slow, but their senses are faded, and their attention spans too short. I love the fact that Beacon starts at this molasses pace: the game fights MTV and our ADD culture by saying slow down. Look at the mushrooms. Smell the damp. Feel your surroundings. Like Seiklus, the game is about being in a place, existing, and seeing the wonder in things we’ve grown accustomed to.

The pacing, in my opinion, is perfect: slow and contemplative to start, it gradually speeds up, and introduces in stages the myriad details that make the game shine. For something made in forty-eight hours, Beacon’s attention to detail is nothing short of amazing—obviously so when you start to encounter the creatures that inhabit the caves, but even from the beginning in the clumps of grass, mushrooms, flowers, dripping water, and little clouds of dirt that your character leaves behind when he jumps (or splashes when he swims).

This same attention to detail is present in the game’s engine design, which feels so natural (platform hang in a forty-eight hour game?), and allows it to fade to the background where it belongs—never did I find myself fighting with the controls, or with my character’s behavior.

The Beacon

Screenshot: Following The BeaconJohnston’s attention to detail would probably have been enough to carry the game quite a ways by itself: to make it a decent Seiklus-like, where you explore a world of underground beauty. But Johnston wasn’t content to stop there, and his implementation of Beacon’s central set piece took the game from “nice clone” to the realm of small brilliance.  

First, The Beacon is brilliant from the perspective of atmosphere. It is essentially a limiting device, which whets the player’s appetite, while preventing them from gorging themselves to the point of boredom: we can see, but not touch, go so far, but no further. Limited in this way, the world looms out of the darkness boundless and filled with infinite fascinations… our imaginations paint in the black spots with any number of fabulous mysteries. Once again, the attention to detail is crucial here: if the world that we are allowed to see was barren and bland, we would assume that the curtain of darkness hid more of the same; but because everything shines with the afterglow of Johnston’s caring touch, the opposite is true. The power of the seen and the power of the unseen thus conspire together to create a world more vast and spellbinding than anything Johnston could have overtly crafted (especially in forty-eight hours, but that’s hardly relevant, as Beacon defies its time frame at every turn).

Secondly, The Beacon is brilliant from the perspective of gameplay. It at once creates a seamless way to control the game’s pace and provide the player with challenge. So Johnston can create the slow and methodical, challenge-less first levels, and—by simply manipulating The Beacon—the fast paced and challenging final levels. The challenge retains an incredible integrity with the game’s aesthetic and themes, because every challenge stems directly from The Beacon itself, which is the game.

And this integrity is what ultimately makes the use of The Beacon truly brilliant: what it does for atmosphere and gameplay are nice, but it is the fact that The Beacon serves so well to create atmosphere, control pacing, create challenge, and connect to the game’s themes all in one swoop that provides the formal unity which makes it inspired: there is no dissonance, no multiple game components awkwardly conjoined, nothing that disconnects gameplay from mood or meaning. In my opinion the significance of this achievement cannot be overstated, because I see a lack of formal unity as the most fundamental problem for many games: a problem that manifests itself as that itch that won’t let you focus completely on your in-game situation, or that disturbance that breaks the spell of the diegetic world, or that nagging voice that keeps reminding you that you’re “just playing a game.”

Themes

Screenshot: Not always an easy thing to followThe game’s themes are perhaps obvious, but because of their integration with gameplay and aesthetic, their exploration is thoughtful and unobtrusive at the same time. Darkness has been explored in many games, but rarely has it felt so palpable. The small circles of light, and the fact that you cannot exist apart from them, recollects Jeanne DuPrau’s effective Ember books

Then there is companionship, hope, and their counterpoints, explored in surprising depth for so small a work. What I mean by that is that they are not explored simply. Initial isolation and despair turn into hope and comfort as the light first approaches: “what is this beacon | of life | hope?” Surely a light that will guide me home. But no: The Beacon’s gentle and constant guidance turns into haste, just as the world becomes more menacing. Wait for me! Help! And then it leaves you, turning up when you must go down. Does this thing care for me at all? At one point The Beacon leaves the screen and does not return till the next level, leaving you to clutch and scurry between light-giving crystals on your own, abandoned. Comfort and companionship thus turn to loneliness again, made all the more painful by the initial belief that this thing was there for you.  

[spoiler warning from here till end]

And what of the game’s ending? Is it further evidence that all hope is vain? Or is the giant fish just there for a laugh and a twist? The suddenness would suggest the later. Johnston’s thoughtfulness would suggest the former. The humor is too blatant to ignore, but is there also something underneath? The theme of hope dashed would seem to fit with the rest of the game, but at the same time the giant fish is more aggressively antagonistic than anything else encountered (The Beacon just seems indifferent in the end), so there is something of a disconnect with what we’ve seen so far.  To me, the ending highlights the notion that the game is not trying to take itself too seriously… that it is, like Eskil’s Love, the examination of “a serious thing in a casual way,” rather than the overly serious examination of insignificant things that characterizes most games.

Conclusion

I see Beacon as a small, but very shiny treasure. The game makes me smile in a way that few other games have done of late. It is beautiful, it is atmospheric, it is innovative, it is attentive to the little things. It is a small game that deals with large themes in a better way than I’ve seen most large games do. It is consistently unassuming, yet consistently succeeds where grander visions have failed. It does not want to be an “art game,” and yet it achieves more successfully what art games desire to achieve than most of them ever will, because it does not forget itself. It has an integrity much stronger than most games, and so it doesn’t break under its own weight, as many lesser games tend to. It revels in being a game, in being interactive (it could never be anything less), in play, in fun, in creativity, while at the same time subtly—almost subversively—pushing towards something more. It is ironic, given the game’s message of misplaced hope, that Beacon inspires me to place my trust in it: to believe that it is a harbinger of better games to come, rather than… a giant man-eating fish.

Know of any relevant "further reading" links not listed here? Please let me know.
Jordan Magnuson' avatar

Jordan Magnuson is the founder and editor in chief of NecessaryGames.com. He is currently traveling around the world on a shoestring and making small games about the experience. You can find out more at GameTrekking.com.

What did you think of this article?
Your rating: None Average: 4.5 (4 votes)

Older Comments (eventually these will be imported to Disqus)

I think ending also made clear the reason that all the other life fled the light.  At first it seemed like the creatures were evil, but your beacon of light protected you.  At the end, you realise that it is the beacon that they ran with good reason and, if anything, the beacon should be considered evil.

Regarding the ending itself, I think it might have been more effective if the beacon didn’t come back, and the screen just faded to black, leaving the character alone with his desperate, misguided hope.

Great review. I’m completely on board with your praise for the game’s technical merits, but I’m going to have to disagree with you about your interpretation. That giant fish at the end is, after all, an anglerfish. (In fact, if you look quickly you can see the esca–the "beacon" you’ve been following–settling back on the fish’s illicium.) You have in reality been following the most dangerous thing in the cave the whole time; you are the moth admiring the Arachnocampa. Of course the literature associated with "guiding" lights in dark places–Will-o’-the-wisps, kitsune-bi, pixy-lights, corpse candles, etc.–most often associates the phenomenon with misdirection or the passage to death, which raised my suspicions about this beacon right away.

I think "Beacon" can be viewed as a fairly simple metaphorical tale about spirituality in a naturalistic world. You are humanity, lost and highly edible in the dark. You see something amazing–"a beacon!" you cry, and, "hope!" You attribute will and beneficence to your Light, and it becomes a spiritual force that bears the promise of something greater. But this attitude does you no good; the universe is merely a mechanistic eat-or-be-eaten place, and ultimately your hope is your undoing and the giant anglerfish demonstrates its superior adaptations. You would have been better off clinging to your prudent fear and clinging to one of the light-producing crystals; you might have been "spiritually" empty, but at least you’d be alive. And continued existence is really the only thing of value in the world of "Beacon."

(I’m a little surprised by your praise for this title’s interactivity, as there’s only one way to reach the end of the game [unless you stop at a crystal] and as you pointed out the beacon serves to limit your speed and actions.)

To be honest, Jordan’s interpretation of the game was almost spot-on, although I do like your more spiritual interpretation as well. It just wasn’t intended to be read that way. The whole premise of the game is for the player to develop a relationship with the beacon, and in having their otherwise inevitable death to the darkness spared, that relationship is almost immediately initiated by a trust in the beacon, that it is good and there to help you, to save you. In doing so, the player’s focus is meant to be turned to the world around them, their senses focused in on this small man, his efforts as he pulls himself up from every ledge, and a sense of overwhelming loneliness despite the fact that this dark, echoey cave is brimming with life.

You’re definitely right about the strong metaphorical past behind the "beacon of light" being a bad and evil thing, and actually perhaps that is something I should have given more consideration to, as I didn’t realize how much symbolism such a thing carried. There are definitely downfalls of not being very well read or educated, and having people misinterpret my creations as such is definitely a clear consequence of that.

I feel that had I severed your dependence on the beacon by giving you alternate paths to the end, or other outcomes to the game, I would have also severed the strength of this relationship. When the beacon leaves you behind, many players feel a sense of desperation, an almost anxiety at its departure, which is one of the things I pushed for the most while designing the game in that 48 hour rush. But in order to make that departing effective, I elongated the beginning of the game, which is another thing Jordan read into quite clearly.

Beacon isn’t about life and death, it’s not even about staying alive. I don’t try to inform or preach any message in the game, such as the inevitability of death, the error in misplaced trust, or anything like that. The game isn’t meant to judge you or anybody, it’s merely an exploration of a particular strong aspect of humanity, and that is our often potent ability to place trust in things, people, in our moments of weakness. A child in a grocery store with his mother? His mother is the beacon, the other shoppers and their own children are the creatures of this particular cave, your meetings with them fleeting and all too short. The aisles you don’t go down are the unexplored regions of the cave, unreachable to you. Or maybe you are a person at a party of people you don’t know, and you’ve accompanied a friend who is all too at home with them. You cling to that person, you’re afraid to lose them because they’re the only thing that you can trust in. It doesn’t matter whether your friend abandons you, or if they are a good or bad person, or if your mother dies in a car accident on the drive home. Those are all consequences of a particular instance of reality, but your trust and reliance you place in your beacon at any time is the same.

I could have given beacon a happy ending, one where you escape into the surface and the beacon retreats into the sky. But that wouldn’t have changed the meaning of the game at all. Telling people that placing their trust will result only in disaster is no more of a lie then telling them that it will guide them to freedom and happiness. But it is in human nature to trust, and to cling to what keeps us strong in our weakest moments, and Beacon is about how even the most misguided trust can allow us to see a part of the world that is unknown to use, to be scared of it, to wonder about it, and to get lost in it. Sometimes that trust ends in tragedy, and sometimes it ends in discovery. But what I explored was how powerful this trust can be, how painful it is when taken away or lost, and the anxiety that can result from questioning this trust.

So the ambiguity of the game’s ending, and any meaning it carries (which seemed to be even lost on Jordan in his VERY praise-filled, yet accurately interpreted review of the game) is definitely a fault of mine. Some people might even say that the ending was the weakest part, which only serves as a cheap joke in contrast to the rest of the game, and I could hardly call that innacurate. In all honesty, I didn’t know how to end the game at all, because I’d already accomplished what I’d wanted to by the time you’d fallen through the tunnel of lights, and I didn’t want to force any type of message in the game, just to encourage insight into a particular aspect of humanity that I found interesting and inspiring.

So I guess it was a way, like Jordan has stated, to keep people from taking the actual outcome of the game too seriously, and to keep myself from taking my creation too seriously as well. Beacon isn’t an art game meant to criticize people, other games, or anything like that. I don’t carry any pretentions or beliefs that the way I see or do things is better than anybody else’s, I just wanted to inspire people, to make them feel desperate, scared, lonely, but in a way that made those things beautiful and engaging aspects of reality, rather than in a cynical, sad way.

I am not exactly the most intelligent or artistic person, and I am usually better off making score-em-up arcade games, so Beacon was really breaking ground for me personally as well. You have no idea how good this review makes me feel about the game and the meaning I poured into it. Thank you!

This is an amazing game!  Thanks for linking to it and reviewing it, Jordan, and thanks for the creator commentary, ChevyRay!  I hope we see more thoughtful, atmospheric platformers from you in the future ^__^

(err, by which I mean "additional ones like this game", not implying that this game wasn’t thoughtful/atmospheric enough—quite the contrary!)

Thanks for the developer commentary ChevyRay: it’s really interesting to get insight into the creative process, like you provide!

@Krendil: you may be right about the ending, but I actually like the ambiguity, and the uncertainty in the Beacon. It’s one of the things that makes the game seem less simplistic than it might have been, in my opinion: Beacon’s message, like everything in real life, is not entirely clear.

@Sapid: I think your spiritual interpretation has merit. As far as the game’s ending, I have a hard time with "You have in reality been following the most dangerous thing in the cave the whole time." Are you saying that the Beacon you’ve been following is literally the anglerfilsh’s esca? I see how they can be compared, metaphorically, but the literal equation seems a stretch, if not impossible, seeing as how you haven’t even been traveling through water. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

As far as praising the game’s interactivity, I should have perhaps expounded on that a bit, rather than making a passing comment. You are of course right that the game is quite linear, and that your actions are constrained further by The Beacon. What I meant by my parenthetical remark is simply that I cannot picture this game succeeding in any kind of non-interactive form, as some games could perhaps succeed. The question that arises, of course, is why, when the interactivity is so limited, is it so important? There are many games, by contrast, where you are more free, but where the interactivity feels more artificial, and less essential to the work. I used to think it was possible to analyze a game’s interactive components "objectively" to see how important interactivity was to the title (and consequently how important the title was from the standpoint of furthering our understanding of interactivity). I now think that such a view is too simplistic, precisely because of games like this.

Wow, great to see the developer here, and thanks for your commentary!

@Jordan: Actually, I was being very literal (in keeping with my mechanistic interpretation) and viewing the anglerfish as a sort of fantasy creature that is like a real anglerfish apart from its man-eating size and the fact that its esca is detachable, and can float around on its own. I could invent an entire theory about a symbiotic relationship between the fish and a glow-worm like floating creature, but that would cause me to become even sillier than I already am.

 

Ah, a detachable esca "creature"… that’s actually quite an interesting idea, Sapid, which I hadn’t thought of (except in a more metaphorical way). I do like how this theory could serve to unite the ending with the rest of the game… I’ll have to think about this further—thanks for the idea.

Site by David Lerin Web Design. All articles copyright their respective authors, some rights reserved.

Theme based on AD Blueprint by Avioso Designs. Logo background from an image by roland.

This site is powered by Drupal and runs best on Firefox. It lives happily at AN Hosting.