You step out of the confined pod, disorientated and blinking. As your vision clears, a desolate view forms to greet you. The burning wreckage of your ship – your home – lies scattered cruelly across the surface of an alien landscape.

You must have come down hard. Picking your way through the remains of the ship, you look for answers, a weapon, a radio. Instead, you find a body. Your body.

Well, you think, at least the clone bay still works.

Unfortunately, it seems like that’s about all that does. If you want to get off this planet, you’re going to have to explore it. You need to find equipment. You need to find your beacon. The forests look hostile, but you’ve got your gun.

And if the worst comes to pass, well, at least the clone bay still works.

Beacon is a sci-fi action roguelite developed by Monothetic and released on PC in December 2021. I acted as the writer and narrative designer on the project from its initial inception through to final release, helping define and refine the overarching story and writing all of the narrative content that appears in the game, including diary entries and email communications, item and mutation descriptions, and more.

Developing Beacon, I had some specific goals in mind. I wanted:

  1. To ground the game’s story in the basic mechanics of playing a roguelite.
  2. To build a cohesive universe around the player’s journey, without relying on lore dumps and out-of-place exposition. And finally,
  3. To provide players with only as much story as they wanted to experience, and avoid forcing anything onto those that weren’t looking for it.

Grounding the story in mechanics

When starting development on Beacon, much of the team had played games like The Binding of Isaac, Rogue Legacy, and Spelunky. We knew we wanted to make a roguelite, and we knew we probably wanted it to be science fiction in some way. With this as a starting point, I developed the game’s central conceit around the idea of cloning: that is, just as the player is dying and repeating a run, so too is the main character, Freja, within the narrative of the game. This was primarily inspired by Rogue Legacy, which had the in-universe explanation for runs being that you play as the progeny of the previous player character, taking up the quest left behind by their parent.

A complication did arise from this approach, however: once you provide a narrative explanation for one game mechanic, it becomes obvious when you don’t treat other game mechanics with the same consideration. If respawning is explained as part of the overarching narrative, then why not the changing landscape that comes from randomly generated levels? Why do robotic enemies have DNA that you can harvest in the same way that organic enemies do? It’s much easier to accept a narrative that is divorced from gameplay entirely (as in The Binding of Isaac), or to tie it together in a way that is ambiguous and open to interpretation (as with Spelunky’s opening line, “The walls are shifting…”) than to answer some questions explicitly while ignoring others.

In the case of Beacon, I ended up going with this split approach: discrete examples like robot DNA were indirectly explained through item descriptions, while more abstract ideas like the landscape shifting were left unanswered (though in my head canon, it’s a way of representing that Freja has no memories of her previous lives, and therefore would not be familiar with the landscape). I’m not sure how successful this overall approach was in the end product, but the idea of tying the roguelite loop into the premise of the game is regularly positively remarked upon by players.

Building a universe

When defining the world in which Beacon takes place, I wanted everything the player learned to be framed by Freja and limited by the situation in which she finds herself. There shouldn’t be an opening crawl explaining the state of the universe, or crackling earpieces with exposition from unseen NPCs. Rather, we should learn about the wider world through context clues in pieces of narrative text that have already have a different primary purpose. The idea was to give the feeling that Freja has been an extant character within this universe prior to the game’s events – she wouldn’t directly remark on the hyper-capitalist societies that gave rise to the game’s corporations, for example, because she grew up in them and has known them her whole life.

The state of the universe, then, is primarily conveyed indirectly through written passages that have their own function within the game world, be it internal corporate emails or a manufacturer’s product description. As such, the information that is conveyed is often ambiguous and intentionally leaves wide gaps. The benefits of this approach were two-fold: first, it avoided prematurely narrowing down the scope of the world during development, and limiting what could exist within it; second, it allows the player to fill in the gaps themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously, and draw their own conclusions on the world beyond Freja’s immediate surroundings.

This dripfeed of indirect information was very much inspired by From Software’s games, and the Dark Souls series in particular. However, where the item descriptions and loading screens in those games are written from an external viewpoint, as though by an historian looking back on events at a remove, in Beacon almost all text is written as actually existing within the universe. The idea was, for example, every weapon in the game had an NFC-style tag that contained its item description as written by the manufacturer, and upon acquiring the item Freja could then read its product description. By doing this, we were able to give a lot of character to the item descriptions depending on who the manufacturer was. And, in turn, different manufacturers gave different tidbits of information about the wider world in amongst their marketing copy. The result is hundreds of item descriptions that hopefully avoid becoming dull by all being written in the same voice and style, while still providing information on the item at hand and the wider universe.

The exception to the in-world text rule is the mutation event text. This is a short descriptive passage that is shown when a player acquires a new mutation during the cloning/respawn loop at the end of a run. These are instead written in the second person, describing in intentionally unpleasant and uncomfortable terms what is happening to Freja’s body when the mutation occurs. In a game with a low-to-nonexistent budget, these provided a bridge between the standard human Freja and the mutated one that steps out of the clone bay, without having to spend time and resources animating the 100 or so different possible mutations appearing on the player character. They also help to convey an aspect of body horror that is reflected in Freja’s other narrative content, but less so in the moment-to-moment gameplay.

Praise for Beacon

“Here’s the even twistier twist. Each time you hit ‘GO’ on the cloner-doodad to bake in your choices, there’s a chance of one or more mutations creeping into the mix […] accompanied by some beautifully gross descriptions of limbs rotting off and falling to the floor to be replaced by new, wet insectoid appendages, or your eyes bursting like hot grapes, and a bunch of big metal spikes piercing out of your stomach. It’s graphic and disgusting and I love it.”

– Steve Hogarty, Rock Paper Shotgun

“What the page for Beacon tragically undersells is the quality of its writing. I did not expect this game to be this funny with every piece of text included. And not even the kind of laugh-out-loud, jokes-on-top-of-jokes funny that can get tiresome. Beacon delivers on a way more subtle humor in its worldbuilding. The way equipments are presented contributes to a definition of the setting and frankly it slaps.”

– shizumaru, review

“One thing that stands out in this game is the writing. The description of past versions of Freja’s hopes and fears, reminiscing upon finding pieces of her old life scattered around the world, even the descriptions of new guns and abilities are not only detailed but almost poetic at times. There are TL;DR versions of abilities and weapons, but I usually read the descriptions since they provide additional lore, something I rarely do in roguelites. And I think feeling that connection to Freja’s character just makes the world so much more fun to explore and fight through.”

– zilannoj, Steam review

“Writing: Witty and full of life. Gives a good voice to previous clones, appropriately gruesome descriptions to the mutations granted to new clones, and many weapons are given a description that seems like it could be right at home in any gun catalogue of the future.”

– Rhynerd, Steam review

Tools used:

  • Scrivener
  • Unity

Languages employed:

  • English