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Beautiful Desolation: big decisions, little choice

As I’ve written before, I always feel under pressure to make the best decisions and obtain the good endings in video games. Many gamers may dislike linear storylines because they’re given no opportunity to affect the outcome; but for me, they provide a sort of comfort in knowing I can’t make a wrong choice.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy releases based around branching narratives though. For example, I finally managed to complete Detroit: Become Human a couple of months ago and loved both its characters and plot – despite feeling very stressed at certain points and uttering a few rude words during our streams. It wouldn’t have been the same game at all without big decisions that felt like life-and-death situations and knowing there was a risk of having at least one of your protagonists die before reaching the end credits.

The good thing about Detroit was that through its pace, the storyline delivered enough information to make the player feel as though their choices were based on knowledge. You might not know what the consequences of your decisions would ultimately be, but you had enough detail to be able to think them through rather than simply ‘picking an option’. This led to some very interesting conversations in Twitch chat as we discussed what we should do, what the outcome would be and how non-player characters would react to us as a result.

It was a completely different experience playing Beautiful Desolation a few weeks later. This should have been a release I thoroughly liked given its science-fiction setting and isometric point-and-click gameplay; and it had been made by a developer whose previous work had been great. I’d been impressed by STASIS after backing the Kickstarter campaign for The Brotherhood’s first project in November 2013, and so had jumped on board with a pledge when they announced their second campaign for Beautiful Desolation in January 2017.

The title opens on Mark Leslie and his fiancé Charlize in Cape Town during a rainstorm, on their way to rescue his older brother Don from whatever trouble he has now managed to get himself into. A huge flash of light and violent shockwave causes their car to run off the road as a weird triangular structure appears in the sky. Fast forward ten-years and we find out that Charlize sadly didn’t survive the accident; and Mark now wants to make it on board the mysterious Penrose to find out what it’s really all about as a method of dealing with his grief.

He’s able to reach the artefact with the help of Don and a helicopter – but after being cornered by its security system, they’re thrown far into the future with a dog-like robot companion called Pooch. Human civilsation as we know it is long gone and in its place are societies formed of machines and strange hybrids who worship frightening gods. Mark’s surroundings now hold echoes of a desolate part and glimpses of an even darker future; can he unravel the secrets of this new world and find a way home for his pack?

Beautiful Desolation’s highlight is without a doubt its artwork. The developer used photogrammetry to take hundreds of photographs of scenes and objects before generating 3D-models and textures from them, so every screen has a real piece of Africa in it. The result is a game which is stunning and looking closely at the locations visited reveals tiny details such as rabbits hopping through the grass, mist rising from overgrown ruins and flowers swaying in the breeze. I’m not sure I’ve played a video game which has felt so alive before.

This does come at a cost though: at times I struggled to see the items I was looking for or pinpoint interactive objects because there was just too much happening on screen. It got a it overwhelming as the game progressed and the story became more complicated. A certain level of detail can help draw you into a digital world and immerse the player in it’s narrative, but too much and you find yourself constantly jolted out of it each time you have to move a little closer to your monitor to progress.

Speaking of the story, Beautiful Desolation works slightly differently from traditional point-and-clicks and is more like an RPG in some ways. You take on missions and many of these can be progressed simultaneously instead of one at a time so the narrative doesn’t really come together until the final section. Once again, it can feel overwhelming because there’s just so much you can do at once. A quest-log would have been very handy for keeping track of what still needs to be completed and for whom, especially after periods away from your keyboard.

Because my immersion in this future Africa kept being broken due to screen repositioning and losing track of my objective, I felt unprepared when choices arose. And they weren’t small choices either: these were the kind of decisions where your action meant the prosperity of one race and complete annihilation of another. This was the climax in each of the five areas and, after failing to take in enough information to figure out which society I sided with on the first couple of occasions, I gave up and started picking at random.

This wasn’t right. The decisions in Detroit felt important and I wanted to pick the option which seemed as though it would be best for the protagonists; but here, I wasn’t given enough knowledge to really care. You should at least feel some sort of guilt when picking which a race has to die but the choices in Beautiful Desolation felt too binary, too one-or-the-other without any moral grey in the middle. On top of this they didn’t appear to have much of an effect on the ending so I didn’t get that emotional punch from the consequences of my actions.

If decisions in video games don’t carry any weight, is there any point in including them? Is a selection which has no impact and the illusion of choice any different from a linear storyline which doesn’t pretend to be anything else? For me personally, I’d rather know which kind of experience I’m getting into upfront. Give me a narrative that the developer wants to share so I can join them in their journey; or make that journey more personal to me and let me have a say in which destination we’[re heading for.

Beautiful Desolation was by no means a bad game and it wouldn’t stop me from backing future crowdfunding campaigns by The Brotherhood. I’d just rather the decision-making was taken out of my hands so I can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

7 thoughts on “Beautiful Desolation: big decisions, little choice Leave a comment

  1. Always disappointing when a game is presented a “choice-driven” but actually the choices are fairly hollow! Detroit was definitely really good at giving your decisions a lot of weight. I’ve played it like three times now and got really different outcomes each time.

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    • I honestly think I would have enjoyed Beautiful Desolation more if it had done away with the choices. There’s nothing wrong at all with a linear story, as long as it’s a good one and well told!

      Three times with Detroit? Damn. I’m not sure I’d be able to bring myself to play it again; some of those scenes were just so stressful to go through…

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  2. Yes, Detroit did the choices-have-actual-weight thing so well. I remember with one I actually just stopped, put down the controller and thought about it for ages before I carried on the game!

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    • I know that feeling. We streamed Detroit, and I’m usually very careful about not swearing while we’re live. But I was confronted with a choice and couldn’t help but blurt something out – it was such a difficult decision to make and that was my immediate reaction! I’d love to see more games like Detroit, despite how stressful they can get. 😉

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  3. I think you touch on an interesting point, Kim, with regard to having context and information. If you’re making big narrative decisions with wide seeping ramifications it makes sense to have that kind of contextual information so that you, as a player, can make decisions meaningfully. If your decisions have no meaning then they feel less impactful and less good.

    On the flip side, I do still believe there is a place for decisions that don’t always provide context, but it has to be for interesting gameplay. If there are interesting gameplay moments linked to responses that aren’t “good” then there is a reason to both pursue them and stick with them once you’ve made them. I thinking more-so of rpgs in this sense, but I don’t see an immediate reason why that couldn’t also be integrated into point and clicks (aside from budgetary reasons).

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    • My main issue with the choices in Beautiful Desolation was how they ultimately led to nothing other than a ‘here’s what you picked’ wrap-up at the end of the game. These were huge decisions to be making and it felt as though they should have had more impact, as well as that I should have been more invested in making them. I decided the fate of entire nations with what amounted to a coin toss…

      I think the best choices in video games are those that create a butterfly effect. Not those where you don’t know you’re making them – I’m really not keen on those – but the ones which seem small and then lead to consequences you might not have guessed at. That’s not to say I enjoy them though. I find them incredibly stressful and would much rather play a linear game usually. 😂

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