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How word choice transformed the exploration-driven world of Beacon Pines

In this narrative-driven game, a single word can be the difference between fun and failure. Here's how the team designed for that.

Beacon Pines sees players shaping the story of Luka and his cute animal friends by changing the words of a magical storybook. A single turn of phrase or word choice can bring a disturbing end to the kid’s journey, so carefully selecting the right word at the right time will be vital to ensuring everyone has fun staying out late and solving mysteries—and that they don’t all meet an unpleasant end.

Games change direction all the time in development, but Beacon Pines took some particularly unique twists and turns on its way to the finish line.

Game Developer spoke with Matt Meyer, Creative Director on Beacon Pines, to talk about the game’s unlikely musical origins, the challenges of designing a story that can shift based on the right word choice, and how an outside perspective helped clear up a major design challenge that came from the word choices.

Beacon Pines changed shape a great deal over the course of development. Can you tell us what happened and what made it shift?

Meyer: It’s hard to believe given what Beacon Pines is now, but the original concept for the game was a rhythm-based RPG battler. I even have an old playable prototype of the rhythm battler. The problem was that we never quite found a design that clicked. However, we did fall in love with the characters and exploring the world. So, we dropped all the rhythm battle stuff and decided to focus on the story.

Beacon Pines Original Concept


It was a really tough decision for our small team (myself, Ilse, and Brent). Not only did it mean six months of work was mostly wasted, but it was also the part of the game that stood out. Now we had a new problem: a world that felt good to explore, and characters worth getting to know, but no hook. That’s where the Charms (collectible words) come in.

Players can reshape the direction the story is going through choosing words to insert into blank points in the story. What thoughts went into designing this mechanic?

The original idea for Charms (basically, a collectible word) came in the form of a question. What if, instead of selecting from a list of actions or a set of prewritten responses to impact the story, the player inserted a single word into an important moment? And what if those words were something the player collected in that very same story? Pretty quickly, we noticed there were a lot of potentially interesting answers to those questions, and a lot more questions to follow. That felt like a good start to something interesting.

Has this mechanic changed over the course of development, or has it largely stayed the same throughout? How so?

The Charms, and their related mechanics, are the result of a lot of iteration. The original idea of collecting words that are used by the player to alter the story still holds. The sweaty work was prototyping out all the ways in which that idea might be designed. Things like, does the player retain charms, or are they single use? Or maybe they only last one day. Are adjectives, verbs, and nouns treated differently? What if you could skip back to another branch in the story in order to use a new charm you just found? I could honestly go on for hours. A lot of tests were dead ends.

What thoughts went into designing the story when players could alter its direction with key words? How do you create a narrative that can change directions in multiple ways from a single point?

The moments we call Turning Points (when the player uses a single word to completely change the story) were some of the trickiest parts to design and write. That’s because they have a lot of criteria to satisfy. As reference, here’s a simplified Turning Point from the game: “The sky answered for him as the clouds began to ___.”

So, what are the criteria for a good Turning Point in Beacon Pines? Here are a few:

  • A logical sentence that makes use of Charms that the player can obtain (trickier than it sounds).
  • Each Charm should lead to a completely different story branch.
  • It’s fun when Charms are used in unexpected ways. When you get the “break” Charm, the thought of playing it to change the weather probably didn’t jump out.
  • An opaquer, but critically important criterion, is that the sentence cannot spoil what comes next (there are some big twists in the game hidden behind specific Charm plays).

The answer to your second question is simpler, because we usually design out the branching story results first and then create the Turning Point to satisfy those results. In the example above, we knew we wanted one result to be a storm that forces the children inside and another a clear sky allowing them to walk home together.

What thoughts went into the words players can collect? How did you choose words that felt like they could redirect destinies?

Through creating the game, we developed a taste for what makes a good Charm word in Beacon Pines. One of our favorite qualities is words that can have different meanings depending on the context (“break” being used to describe parting clouds is a good example). This led to opportunities to reuse Charms in different Turning Points without being used in a redundant way.

We also discovered that it’s interesting when the consequence of the Turning Point isn’t obvious at the point of playing a Charm. A good example of this is the scene with the bullies, when the player can choose to “bust out the strange. The player has no idea what will happen next. The reason we felt comfortable doing this is thanks to another mechanic, The Chronicle, which allows players to jump to any Turning Point whenever they want and choose a different Charm. That way, it’s more freeing when choosing a Charm, because you know it’s easy enough to come back and try something else.

Beacon Pines Word Charm


What ideas went into shaping the writing itself so that there were opportunities to use multiple words but still have the structure make sense? How did the word choices play into the way the story was written?

In addition to all of the iteration mentioned above in developing the word mechanic, it took us a long time to find a good metaphor for the collectible words. Initially, words were represented as cards that you could find in the world. But the concept of cards in video games comes with too much baggage.

Players, understandably, would think of them more as abilities, just to name one misconception with word cards. There was also an extended period of trying to represent words on a mechanical device. We had lots of designs and even a 3D-modeled version of a device prototype.

Beacon Pines Word Charm Visual


Along the way, we gave the collectible words in the game a proper name: Charms. Yet, we still missed the obvious next step. It wasn’t until showing the new build to friends that one of them said, “Why don’t you just represent them visually as charms”. We all felt pretty silly for not realizing it ourselves. Charms were a great way to represent collectible words, without the baggage of cards or limitations of a mechanical device. They were nice and shiny and gratifying to collect.

beacon_pines_4.png

With so many possibilities in play, how do you make word choice feel meaningful without letting it make the whole story get out of hand?

That’s where The Chronicle becomes useful. The player can use The Chronicle to jump to any Turning Point/branch whenever they hit an ending, find a new Charm, or just want to try another option. It was one of those additions to the game mechanics that just clicked once it was implemented. The result is that the game is not as much about deciding which Charm is correct at any given moment, but more about navigating the possibility space of the story.

Internally, we often refer to Beacon Pines as a Metroidvania take on a narrative game. In a Metroidvania, you discover powers that let you go back and unlock previously restricted areas. In Beacon Pines, you discover Charms that let you go back and unlock previously restricted story branches.

What drew you to tie Charms to meeting characters and talking to characters in the game? Why not just give the player all the words outright?

After prototyping lots of different ways to acquire Charms, we always came back to the idea of finding them in the environment. That might be by interacting with characters or just poking around different parts of town. It just feels better that way, as opposed to getting them at the start of the day, for example.

Another important aspect of finding Charms along the way is how it ties into The Chronicle. Aside from the player's knowledge, Charms are the only thing that is taken between branches. Having the Charms live outside of the bounds of story branches lets us do more interesting things with the story, as with the Metroidvania twist on narrative mentioned above.

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