Any­thing but a Stone Age sim­u­la­tion


Mac, PC

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

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