Beacon Pines is the tragic story of a pair of young (animal) children who fall afoul of some nefarious characters working out of an old abandoned factory. It’s also the story of those same children attempting to investigate these peculiar goings-on, until they uncover secrets that lead to their untimely demise. And it’s also a story about these kids taking actions that accidentally hurt one of their rivals, and a tragic sacrifice. But then it’s also about none of those incidents, as well. Because this adventure-cum-visual-novel is the most extraordinary conflation of overlapping versions of a reality, in which your storybook choices redetermine the playing out of its narrative.
Luka is a really cute young deer. The sad death of his father, and then the sudden disappearance of his mother, mean he finds himself being raised by an unfamiliar—but very loving—grandmother. Along with his best friend (and fox—literal fox) Rolo, Luka is dealing with grief, but wanting adventure. Together, they explore the woods, work on their elaborate treehouse fort, and discover ancient conspiratorial mysteries that question the very reality of the small, woodland town in which they live.
This all plays out as a third-person adventure, set within a storybook. An ever-present (and wonderfully acted) narrator delivers the story with her mellifluous tones, setting up the scene and then letting you play. As you chat with the locals, run errands, read comics in the library, and discover gruesome gelatinous glowing goo in the woods, you will occasionally be asked to make a significant choice. Do you respond to a situation of danger with “Hide,” “Chill,” or “Ponder”? Each new option is bestowed with what the game calls a “charm,” added to your collection when someone utters a key word during encounters, some pivotal, some just for fun diversions. Whichever you choose opens a new (Iiteral) branch in the storybook, which could lead to a (literal) dead end, or advance the story in a unique direction, or a combination of the two. (It’s a very literal game.)
Every single scene is just the most beautifully rich illustration, the sorts that would have kept you staring and hunting for details as a child with such a book in your bed. It’s gloriously drawn, and the character close-ups are yet another layer of rich, stunning art. I kept taking screenshots not for illustrating this article, but because I wanted to just capture the prettiness.
Indeed, the transitions between the game and when it freeze-frames and pulls out to reveal what you’re seeing as an illustration in the book never feel any less special, no matter how often they happen.
The sweet-faced presentation, along with the silken narration, belies a peculiarly sinister game, in which danger and death are never far away from these cutesy besties, and their growing gang of companions. What very much appears like a child-friendly game will quickly reveal itself to be otherwise, not just with its use of cursing (indeed, “Shit” is one of those charms that can be used in a few situations), but also with the overriding foreboding that permeates throughout. The stunning hand-drawn art adds to this veneer of fairytale safety, making the twists and turns of the plot all the more delightfully jarring.
At each point where a charm can be used, the game offers you a very limited choice, sometimes only two. However, picking up later charms sometimes allows you to jump back to the tree in the book and apply them to an earlier point, to create a whole new pathway through the tale. Or indeed, to meet another grim end. At which point the game declares, “The End,” before the narrator protests at this (differently each time, unlike too many other games that have used this gimmick), and allows you to try another charm at another point.
The joy of these false endings and returns to earlier moments is the shift in mood. Where the story may have grown dark, foreboding, even miserable, this allows things to suddenly spring back to jolly life once more, where characters who had previously found themselves emotionally broken or physically harmed are now back to their former, sprightlier selves. It also develops this extraordinary way of telling a story, where multiple parallel realities fill in ever-more detail for you, if not for the characters.
The most obvious concern for anyone playing is trying to remember all the potential versions of the story that have played out, and here Beacon Pines misses an obvious trick. The tree from which you can return to all the previous decision points doesn’t indicate which previously chosen options lead where. Sometimes it’s a case of picking between two charms, one of which leads to a “The End,” the other leading the story further on to another branch. But remembering which was which isn’t simple, and grows even more confusing when there are three options.
Adding to this potential confusion is trying to remember which knowledge the characters have in any given path, and which events preceded the situation you’re currently in. The game does a good job of reminding you of the most significant, and will also use the omniscient narrator to nudge when a character you’re chatting with is unaware of something you learned in a different timeline, but it’s the smaller details that get lost. Luka and Rolo might be investigating a situation at the treehouse, but is this in the timeline when they had the big falling out, or is it the one where they both got caught at the factory? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to the scene, but it’s still a shame there’s no neat way to check. All of this could have been handled by the tree, if it gave little summaries of the consequences of a choice you’ve fully played through.
Oh, and be careful, as it will not double-check before jumping to another path if you make an errant selection on the tree. I recommend immediately quitting if this happens, then the game will restart at the beginning of the chapter you had just started. Of course, even this isn’t simple, given I think I’ve seen at least four different versions of Chapter 6…
Yet despite those possible improvements, what’s here works so incredibly well. It’s not quite the impossibly complicated version perhaps hinted at by the demo, but that would have been unwieldy and unpleasant. Instead, the way you experience entirely different versions of the story, through concurrent realities, allows a previous version to feel like a dream you once had as you experience the next. It’s really quite the most extraordinary way to tell a story, as completely daft as its details may eventually become.
This is a splendid creation, superbly written, with spellbinding art, and a unique approach to telling a story. It’s also a fascinating exploration of grief, loss, and more than anything else, how we react to change. That and secret underground organizations and their evil plans to control towns through fertilizer production.