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.
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.
The 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.
Johnston’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.”
The 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.
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.