Anything but a Stone Age simulation
There’s something of the caveman about Bill Lowe, the lead developer of Before. The long, unkempt hair and shaggy beard bear a striking resemblance to the digital cave people he’s showing us on screen. But beneath the wild exterior lies a fiercely thoughtful individual determined to create something that challenges current gaming wisdom.
Before, as Lowe terms it, is a “strategy/ survival simulator” set in an imagined Stone Age, the kind Far Cry Primal took advantage of earlier this year and Wild will use next. It follows a six-person tribe and the tribulations of life in a pseudo-neolithic setting. It’s about guiding this group through the most basic of human needs – food and shelter – but it’s also about the social dynamics that arise out of such a situation, and the big life-changing moments they go through: birth, death and, importantly, the discovery of expression.
If it all sounds a bit The Sims, it shouldn’t be surprising. Lowe cites Maxis’s seminal life sim as a key influence in Before’s design, but with an important caveat. “I love the mechanics in The Sims, and I love the social side, but I just got really sick of simulating capitalism,” he tells us. “That’s what I do every day – buy food and get a job.” Lowe also references Black & White, the 2001 god simulator from recently defunct Lionhead Studios. “What I love about that game is that it’s kind of obtuse and opaque. You’re not really aware of the mechanics; you’re not being fed numbers and stats.” Lowe also cites modern Roguelikes as a key influence: here, too, death is permanent. It might come from a pack of wolves ravaging your camp, or a sudden turn of bad weather.
Drama, though, won’t just be hewn from difficulty. Your tribe’s subsequent rituals and
ceremonies, and emotional response to these highly charged moments, will drive home both their grief and yours. “Say you put 12 hours into a singleplayer game and your leader dies – that should be a big moment for you, and you should recognise that in the funeral ritual.” Lowe wants to inject meaning back into game deaths, beyond the mere loss of progress.
This connection with your tribe is born, in part, from their own behavioural idiosyncrasies, specific to each player’s game, and the selection of traits at the outset is a big part of this. Strength is a key attribute, vital to the manual labour of the time, but there are other more fuzzy traits on show, too: brave, moody, and night owl stand out for the potential psychological complexity they offer. These characteristics are hereditary, passed on through the generations. But personalities merely tilt characters towards certain types of behaviour; they don’t provide concrete outcomes. In early parts of the game your tribe will still be reliant on player direction, a kind of “collective consciousness”, as Lowe jokingly terms it. “We want you to feel you’re teaching by osmosis,” he says. “By just being in the world and interacting with things, you’re kind of shaping how they behave.”
The chunky, cartoon look of Before belies a complexity that’s working overtime under the hood. Beneath the rolling vistas and delicate morning light is a labyrinth of densely woven AI code giving life to the actions, motivations, wants and desires of the tribespeople. Indeed, the bulk of development since work began professionally in September 2014 has been spent on AI systems. Lowe admits to having been a novice in this field prior to production. “It’s been a real journey,” he says. “I think it’s really changed me as a person. I think differently. I compartmentalise; I’m more logical and kind of cold.”
But if Before’s development has made Lowe more clinical in how he approaches his own life, it’s all in aid of creating the most believable, and, yes, human characters possible. There’s a warmth that permeates the game, be it the morning yawn and stretch of one tribe member, or the sight of children learning to play with one another. And it’s discernible in Lowe’s reasoning for choosing the game’s prehistoric setting, if only after a little coaxing. “I guess it’s that thing about people having a role in their society and their community, which we probably lack now,” he says. “Also, I just think it looks nice.”
As our time with Before draws to a close, the tribe are gathering around the campfire to cook. The red of the flames slowly dissipates into the dark of the wilderness and their survival, at least for now, seems assured. It’s an intimate moment and quietly celebratory, pointing towards a togetherness few games try, let alone prove able, to muster.
“It’s that thing about people having a role in their society, which we probably lack now”
Tribe members will congratulate each other if everything’s going well, but things can quickly turn sour if the camp’s fortunes suffer
ABOVE CENTRE Lowe cites Timothy J Reynolds as a key influence in the aesthetic of Before. Don’t let the lowpoly visuals fool you, though – there’s much beauty to be found in the world.
ABOVE Before’s day and night cycle is an integral part of gameplay. The cold poses a risk to the tribe’s health, while nocturnal animals ensure the tribe must have someone keep watch
TOP LEFT Confidence is key to activities such as hunting. Repeated failure to land a kill will make your tribe less likely to carry out an activity, with potentially catastrophic results.
ABOVE Different biomes offer varying environmental challenges to your tribe but also affect their culture. Body markings, music and buildings are all specific to land type and climate
LEFT Mammoths behave realistically by moving in herds and sticking to grassy plains. Hunting them requires teamwork and coordination that only an experienced tribe will be able to manage. Lone wolves need not apply
Bears provide a threat not only to your tribe but to other animals thanks to the game’s carefully designed ecological system