Beacon Pines is a new game from Hiding Spot Games, and it combines a cute, fable-like aesthetic with a creepy storyline that involves conspiracies, sci-fi elements, and more. This indie game took over four years to be finished, and the small team of three at Hiding Spot Games had to juggle the roles to optimize the development process and also streamline it. Much like other indie releases, Beacon Pines thrived thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that was completely funded quite early, providing the team with funding that allowed them to finish the game.
Oddly enough, despite the fact that Beacon Pines is now a full-fledged story-driven game where players can explore the various branching paths of the narrative, the early prototype consisted of a rhythm-based RPG battler. The idea ultimately didn’t click with the developers, but some of the characters did stay, including Beacon Pines‘ protagonist, Luka, an anthropomorphic deer who ended up trading jeweled attires for a more modern outfit. Game Rant spoke to Hiding Spot Games’ Matt Meyer and Ilse Harting, who talked about the challenges of a long development process, setting deadlines, and more. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What is the origin story behind Beacon Pines?
Meyer: It’s a long, strange origin story. The original prototype for the game was a rhythm-based RPG battler sort of thing. We actually had a working prototype of it, it was pretty cool, it looked cool, and it also had Ilse’s amazing art, but we never found it sounded like a great idea. Along the way, Ilse created these really cool characters, like Luka, the main character in Beacon Pines, who started off as the character you would play in this rhythm-based RPG battler game.
Ilse had these beautiful illustrations for Luka and other characters in the game, they were all a lot more fantasy-looking back then, but that’s where the characters came from until we found out all the things we liked about them. It turned out that the rhythm-based battler part we didn’t really like, so we dropped that, and we leaned into the exploration and the characters. In-between these battles in the prototype you would explore the world and meet characters, and that’s the part we really liked.
So we were like “It kind of stinks to get rid of the hooky-sounding part of it,” as people hear rhythm-based battler RPG and go “It sounds cool!” but when they hear it’s a story-driven game with these characters you try hard to sell it feels daunting. But I think we found some hooky ways to do the branching stories and the characters with Beacon Pines, in the end, so we’re quite happy about it. Ilse is working on an art book for the Kickstarter backers, and I think she will include the early Luka art.
It’s basically Luka, but with a more fantasy wardrobe, like jeweled attire. There are wands, and the enemies carry weapons you might use to cast spells. Everyone is like “So, are you going to make the other game?” and we tried, that’s the whole point. We tried, but it didn’t quite click. Maybe we’ll go back and do something like that, but I wouldn’t spend six months working on that only to find that the things we like the most are characters and exploration.
Q: Did you make characters that did make the cut in Beacon Pines, or were there characters that didn’t fit based on the fantasy aesthetic?
Meyer: The original prototype had Luka and Luka’s gran, and they are the ones that stuck around for Beacon Pines, eventually. There are a couple of enemy characters, these cool bird people that Ilse had created, but they didn’t make it into Beacon Pines. That is really why the game has the aesthetic it does, though, as it started as this fantasy thing.
We pivoted the game, and we pivoted the art style a bit. I say “we,” but it’s mostly Ilse’s doing with the art and the characters. Ilse does the art, and then Brent is my co-writer on the game. We both wrote all the dialogue and the text in the game. We all met a bunch to talk about everything regarding the game, so there’s not one person getting all the credit, except Ilse on the art because she’s amazing.
Q: Why the name Beacon Pines?
Meyer: Oh boy. Names are so hard. The prototype we just called Luka, originally, which I kinda liked, it’s unique and it’s the main character. It’s easy to remember. When we started pivoting the designs to this more narrative thing, the town started to become a character on its own – Beacon Pines is the name of the town in the game, so, it felt more indicative of what the game was. Beacon Pines has more the vibe of the game. It’s about this town and some strange things going on in it. Beacon Pines the name has a couple of double extra meanings in terms of the story that plays out, so we struggled a lot with the name.
It feels like such an important decision, and it is, but we gave more importance to it than we needed to. It was actually called “Welcome to Beacon Pines” for a while, this was years ago, and then a game called Welcome to Elk came out, and it felt like this was too similar, so we just chopped off the “Welcome to” part, and we just called it Beacon Pines. They’re also very different games, I played a fair bit of it, and it’s a great game. I recommend it. It just happened to sound similar, the “Welcome to” part of the name.
Q: What were the sources of inspiration for Beacon Pines?
Meyer: The art, the town, and everything were largely Ilse’s doing. This was the first game she’d worked on when she started with me on that prototype, four years ago. She just got out of school, and this is the first game she worked on. I really loved her art, so I wanted her to use more of her intuition rather than me giving her direction on stuff. We discussed stuff, and I barely needed to say what we needed, and she created this entire world. Making a video game is such a hard thing to do, especially when you’re a small team of three. It’s by necessity that everyone needs to share different types of work, but the design too, I wanted everyone to feel like they had ownership over it and we’re a part of creating it from scratch.
Harting: For me, it’s mostly a combination of multiple things that inspire me. One of the earliest things we thought of is the miniature thing, a diorama, these tiny things where you can take a peek and see people or environments. The theme kind of stuck, so we went with it. Once we established that Beacon Pines was intended as a sort of storybook, it felt like it made a lot of sense, style-wise. All these puzzle pieces came together quite naturally while working on the game itself. For us, as far as the characters and the environments go, it’s a mix of our childhood memories and our own towns. It’s a bit of a mix between childhood in America and childhood in Europe, where I’m from. It’s not one specific place that I took inspiration from, only the things that seemed to fit, that looked cute or nice.
Meyer: Yeah, I think we always favored vibe over consistency. If it feels good, then it’s probably the better choice.
Harting: Yeah, I didn’t want to lock it down to a specific place and time or era and feel like “Oh, this is my time, it’s my childhood,” rather more things that would hint towards a specific childhood and a timeline in the real world, or a place in the real world. As far as other media, I’m not much of a movie-watcher, but I do like indie games. In the beginning, I had games like Undertale in mind, which sparked a lot of inspiration character-wise.
To me, it’s more important to write interesting characters than interesting plots. It’s the characters who drive the plots instead of the other way around. I also love visual novels quite a bit, so the whole aspect of the characters talking to each other in portrait form and you following them around is more dialogue-based, and it comes from those sources. I would say these are the main inspirations. The rest is mostly filled in by Brent, as he has deep knowledge of movies and whatnot. He’s just “Oh, it’s just like this one scene in this one movie, let’s play it that way.” It’s been a mix of everyone’s experiences with different media.
Meyer: We work a lot with tropes. Like, try to grab great tropes that people like and recognize, and hopefully do something more interesting than repeating the trope, using it as a sort of touch point for people. You can start with a trope and then undermine it intentionally because you know everyone knows about this trope, so you can try and do maybe not the exact opposite, but something that’s new and interesting that comes from that trope, but it’s completely different.
Q: Is Beacon Pines a coming-of-age story?
Meyer: It is a little bit. We never talked too much about it in that sense, though. One of the big themes in the game is it is a story about change, which obviously ties both to the mechanics and the story, and that’s sort of parallel to the idea of a coming-of-age story. These young characters have to go through many changes in their lives, but they may be a little younger than the typical coming-of-age story, so we didn’t really think about it in those terms. We thought about it more in terms of the overarching mysteries and specific characters, circumstances, and how they are dealing with them.
There are all these different plotlines and character arcs going on, and it’s one of the cool things about the way that the branching works in Beacon Pines. Every branch is a completely unique story, so you’ll get little glimpses into different characters and different parts of the mysteries depending on which branches you go down. It’s a lot of the design too. A lot of the branches are designed to be a way to serve the whole story. So yeah, not exactly a coming-of-age story in the way we thought about it.
Q: What do you think of the parallels drawn between Beacon Pines and Stranger Things?
Harting: I do see the parallels quite a bit. The seemingly coming-of-age story and the dark undertones, but when we designed our characters and environments I hadn’t even seen Stranger Things, so I’m not sure how much of an influence it had. I wouldn’t say we based Beacon Pines in the same realm as Stranger Things.
Meyer: It’s funny because Stranger Things is one of the things we used to elevate our pitch to people. The original line we used to connect with people, although certain people were too young to get the reference was “Winnie The Pooh meets Twin Peaks“. It was a one-liner to tell people what’s going on here because it’s an interesting combination, then we discovered not many people in our audience are old enough to know Twin Peaks, but Stranger Things is still alive and kicking, so we switched over that, which I think is still just as appropriate to communicate that weird mix of Winnie The Pooh‘s cute and adorable characters in a fantasy world, and then the horror and creepiness from Stranger Things. If you get the reference to Twin Peaks that’s a better one-liner, but a lot of people picked up on Stranger Things as a reference.
Harting: I think in the beginning it was hard to describe the audience. Like, what the audience for this game was. I had trouble saying what the audience was because it seemed very niche, so having a one-off sentence to say “These are things we’re trying to hit, and if you like them you’ll probably like our game as well.” Even if it’s not completely accurate, it helped us in the marketing department.
Meyer: It does help to frame the audience pretty well. It’s the thing about trying to frame your audience instead of the opposite. We need to make sure that this isn’t a kid’s game. It might look like it at first glance, but it’s definitely not. There are a lot of adult themes and creepy stuff. It just happens to be Ilse’s beautiful art and lovable towns as the framework for telling the story.
Harting: I like the juxtaposition of having this cute style and then the story being less cute in a sense. But we do have to tell people “It’s not just cuteness, I swear!”
Meyer: Stranger Things also has a vibe that’s pretty imbued in myself and Brent, as we were born in the 80s. Maybe it’s more of a trope or just a theme that was used a lot in the 80s, and it was kids being in charge of saving the day. That’s still a theme you get a lot these days too, but it’s sort of a timeless theme that everyone can relate to because everyone has been a kid and felt like sometimes it’s up to them to do stuff, as no adult trusts you to do anything. That maps to Stranger Things pretty well too.
Q: How was it to transition from the fantasy world you were building to the current environment of Beacon Pines?
Harting: I think it came quite naturally. I’m more at ease and in my comfort zone when it comes to real life than in stuff like fantasy. At first, I thought we were doing fantasy, and it seemed appealing, it appeals to a lot of people, but when we shifted to a more close-to-home setting, it was easy to adapt and make all the characters more relatable and let them have a set of more day-to-day problems. There’s a more direct inspiration to take from your surroundings, the people around you, and how they interact. I think it became easier to design the role for the characters when we established it wasn’t going to be fantasy, more like a town environment.
Q: How does inserting words into text work from a gameplay perspective?
Meyer: It’s the core idea that started the whole way that the mechanics work in the game. It was the idea of there’s a word missing as opposed to a selection of three, choose between two different lines of dialogue in the conversation. Instead of that, it was “What if you found words in the world and use those words at some point in the story where a word is missing?” We explored that idea for a while, then it clicked in some interesting ways, and then it turned into this whole branching narrative.
One of the decisions along the way was “Does playing a charm (we call the words charms) change just the conversation that you’re in or the relationship with the characters, if you’re on good terms with them or if they hate you? Or, what we ended up doing, there are fewer of these decision points where you play a charm, but they completely alter the story?” It has a kinda fun allure to it, the idea that a single word completely changes everything from that point on. It’s kind of a fun idea that you can explore in the game, which also turned into the idea of the Chronicle.
The Chronicle shows you all the points, and it lets you jump at any point instead of staying around that point, strategically reset the game to explore different options, so we just built it into the mechanic. The Chronicle lets you jump around and replay choices, and it’s actually how we want you to play through the game. If you use the Chronicle, you might find a new charm in a completely different branch, and come back to a branch that you were stuck on earlier to see a totally different result by using a different word in a conversation.
Q: Does the game have multiple endings?
Meyer: It does, yeah. We only roll credits on one of the endings. It’s the ending that we sort of think has our ideal, canonical ending, but the game has a whole lot of endings. There are quicker endings, and there are endings you see very early in the game, even in the demo, but then the proper ending, the canonical branch, has a couple of different endings. We communicate that, like “Ok, this is a potential ending, for more charms you might have to see the other options.” So yeah, there are multiple endings, but only one canonical ending. It’s the curse of trying to write a branching story.
If you really want to design a story, then you might see it as like, “Well, there’s a direction that I want to take this story, not ten,” but we tried to embrace that and squeeze as much juice as we could out of it and say “Every branch is the best version we can make of that branch, so let’s write it as the canonical version of its own little story path.” We do a lot of things to try and ensure there’s information you can find even if you get a hard end, and if you go back to another branch you can still discover things, see different character arcs, and maybe find charms that you would use in other places.
Q: Was it challenging for you to develop Beacon Pines? Would you do it all over again?
Meyer: That last part is hard to answer. I’ve been thinking about it a lot because this game took so much, it probably took ten years out of my life making this game because it was so much work and so stressful. I honestly don’t know if I would do it all over again, as sad as that sounds. But there were things that were really fun about making it, and there were things that were really hard and difficult. I can’t speak for Ilse, but for me writing the story and doing all the other parts of the game is not just taxing, but it was tricky, and I think in some cases we got lucky with the design because sometimes things just worked.
It took us a long time to get to that point. We had a whole RPG battler prototype that didn’t work, but once things started making sense in the design, then it became a little clearer how to solve other problems. The writing became the biggest problem with how the Chronicle works, like “When do you get charms? How do you get them? What drives you through the branching narrative in a player that doesn’t completely confuse the player, but actually gives them the right information at the right time?” Ilse was pretty important in guiding us toward what we needed to track all of this, like a document to track all the steps.
I’m very much about taking each branch and following it to its natural conclusion, but it was super helpful when we created that diagram because it wound up being the only we could track the branching storylines and the intricacies of our mechanics. We worked with that, and then the Chronicle was the turning point, and the charms too. It’s all in this giant diagram of how the story interconnects. That was one of the hardest parts, apart from just the grind.
Harting: I mean, I would definitely do it all over again because it was such a learning experience. I feel like I grew a lot, and I definitely want to make more games. Maybe not the same kind, but just in general. I want to make indie games. But I don’t think I had as much pressure on my shoulders as Matt, so maybe I’m biased and only saw the fun bits of the development process. I think it was the perfect in-between of having a lot of say in the game, with my opinions being valued and stuff, and then not carrying the burden of the stress that made it enjoyable. Maybe it’s different next time.
Meyer: I’m happy to hear that. We talked about other game ideas that we have. Ilse’s got some cool ideas. We’ll see where the future takes us. Maybe we’ll make another different sort of game, but this was definitely a learning experience for me too. We were so lucky to have Ilse and have any of her time that we could because she’s so good at what she does, but we can’t keep her forever, we need to get all the good art and ideas out of her while we can. Even though, as I said, I feel very lucky that she stuck with us the whole time, over four years.
Q: What would you suggest to fellow developers looking to start a Kickstarter campaign?
Meyer: I would recommend it, maybe not exactly as we did it because we overpromised things. I think everyone on their first Kickstarter makes a lot of mistakes. The Kickstarter took a good several months out of my schedule just to manage and do all the things that we promised we would do. It was by necessity for us, we were out of money at that point, and we had a really cool start to this game, so that seemed like our best option. I think it worked out even better than we had expected, so we’re very grateful to all the backers, and it’s a good thing we did it because the game might not exist if we didn’t do a Kickstarter.
Harting: The Kickstarter was very stressful, though.
Meyer: The unique element of Kickstarter is that it’s all or nothing. You either hit your goal or you don’t, and you put all this work into it for nothing. I’m definitely getting stressed about the release coming up, but at least there you sell a certain amount of copies of the game, and there is no cut-off point where you either get paid or not.
Q: Was it difficult for you to put a release date on Beacon Pines?
Meyer: Yeah, if we weren’t with a publisher, it would have probably been pushed back a lot. On one hand, it’s a good thing to set a deadline because you can’t drag the game on forever, the development of it. It may have been a lot less stressful for me, but I did also just want to finish it. When I do something for so long I just want to finish it, I want to be done with it, I want to do something else, I want to have this weight off my shoulders. A deadline is good, but it was stressful. And then, every time you set a deadline, especially with something as complex as making a game, no one ever hits it.
Harting: Yeah, some developers had it hard, and people had to learn that it takes time.
Beacon Pines is available now on PC, Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
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