Developers: Illusion Ray
Website: The Beast Inside
Genre&Topics: thriller, adventure, mystery, supernatural, horror, paranoia, madness, Cold War, spy story, interactive narrative, cinematographic experience
The Beast Inside is an indie title that surprised me. It’s from the Polish studio Illusion Ray, formed by veterans of game development coming from different past experiences in the gaming industry. This is a very appreciable trend in recent years. More and more talented developers are escaping big companies in search of greater creative freedom. They found their own studios to go beyond the usual soup of mainstream titles. That’s the way video games are evolving their own narrative language and renovating interactivity and gameplay. Unluckily industry and market are still dominated by conservative companies and audience always proposing and searching for the same jurassic ludic approach based on boring challenges and recycled mechanics and gameplay. Just think at the clamor aroused by the incessant revival of old franchises such as Silent Hill, Bioshock, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, etc. A lot of resources wasted in uninspired recycling of old titles; resources that could instead be invested to support creative teams and innovative inspired ideas. Luckily from time to time illuminated developers choose for more modern and intriguing approaches. That’s the case of Illusion Ray and TBI. It’s an AA production, so far fresher and more enjoyable than many AAA mainstream titles. For example, I’m actually playing Control by Remedy; it’s the usual boring re-heated soup centered around old mechanics, old challenges, old storytelling entrusted to cut scenes, getting rid of the infinite possibilities of our beloved interactive medium. On the contrary, TBI was pure oxygen to me, a breath of fresh air. This could sound heretic to you; however you should used to my peculiar approach to games as interactive narrative experiences. Don’t misunderstand me. TBI is not the usual expressive game I’m used to review. It has no refined aesthetics or deep contents. It’s an adventure for adventure’s sake, pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake. However it’s an example of smart inspired entertainment with a fresh cinematographic style. Narrative is at the core of the experience. The goal of developers is to immerse players in interactive storytelling. They want you to feel like the protagonist of a cinematographic experience; however the experience is extremely interactive. You can see the passion of developers for cinema in the starting sequence reminding of the bird’s eye view in Shining.
TBI is a single player 3D adventure in first person view, but is very suited to be played by two players; that’s because you live the experience in the shoes of two different characters in two different epochs. I played it with my nephew. Even if not used to this kind of games, he was enthusiast and enjoyed it so much. That’s the proof that interactive narration wins over the usual challenging entertainment; not by chance my young nephew is actually searching for other games like this! Challenges and puzzles are still there, but they are consequences of the story, not the contrary. Usually games are built around challenging mechanics, and story is just a dressing confined in cut scenes; on the contrary TBI is centered around interactive story, while challenges, puzzles and mechanics are built around story. I’m not saying that TBI is a masterpiece; you can clearly see that some challenges and puzzles are still forced, such to cause some ludo-narrative dissonances. And story is far from being a masterpiece. Nevertheless I always felt immersed in the exciting and frenetic narrative flow. Even watching the gameplay of my nephew was entertaining just like to watch a movie. Don’t worry, I played it twice for experiencing the whole game in first person, and I can say you that it’s absolutely funny and entertaining.
Let me explain why I enjoyed this title so much. In short, it applies many interactive narrative solutions I described in my article Interactive Narrative Techniques For Developers
As said, you play in the shoes of two different protagonists in two different ages (alternation of avatars and scenarios). So you have two stories in one! In the end of ’70s you experience a spy story during the Cold War. Here you have the most adventurous gameplay. In 1860 you experience an apparently supernatural story with horror atmosphere reminding of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s very reductive to classify TBI as horror game; it’s not scary at all, but it’s not a defect. It proposes a thrilling story full of mystery and apparently supernatural events able to glue players to the screen for 10-12 hours. It’s not easy to classify TBI, it’s a mix of genres. Developers applied a very good principle: let the player experience in first person view every action and event in an interactive way as most as possible, getting rid of too much interruptions of gameplay and of many cut scenes. The latters are still there, but they are few and short and there is no solution of continuity with gameplay; cut scenes are so perfectly integrated in gameplay that you cannot notice transitions. Interactive narration and good direction act as glue, giving you the impression that there are no interruptions. The small indie studio developed a lot of mechanics and scripted scenes. The interactive richness of TBI is mind blowing! Developers took inspiration from a lot of titles: Alien Isolation, RE7, Outlast, Firewatch, Amnesia, Call of Cthulhu, Layers of Fear, Remothered, etc. You can explore a great variety of scenarios: eerie houses, woods, mines, farms, a gothic inn, secret passages, swamps, etc. Yuo visit even a firewatch tower in the woods where you find traces of Herny, the protagonist of Firewatch; it’s a passionate tribute to the game by Campo Santo, lately devoured by Valve 😦 .
In TBI, graphics and rendering of scenarios, textures, light and sound are at the state of art, rivaling AAA titles. You can execute a lot of actions that correspond to a lot of mechanics: exploring environments with the oil lamp, lighting candles with matches, moving furnitures, cutting ropes and chains, making your way through the vegetation with machete, climbing, launching hooks to lower ladders, digging, walking and crawling through narrow passages (scripted scenes), swimming through the swamps to escape underwater wraiths, avoiding the frozen breath of a ghost, etc. You experience even a shooting sequence where you handle a gun and face a boss, and running sequences where you must escape monsters or chase after spies. There are also some classic QTEs (quick time events) like those in Quantic Dream games. You have to face even some traditional puzzles and challenges; however they are never repetitive. Maybe sometime you can think they are weird, forced, dissonant, but they are embedded in storytelling and you face them only once. Usually in games as Control (that I’m playing just now) storytelling is built around few repetitive mechanics aimed at challenges. On the contrary, in TBI you execute and face a lot of mechanics and challenges always different. Challenges and mechanics emerge from storytelling, not the contrary. They underline different actions of main characters and narrative events. In the Cold War storyline you use a “quantum localizer” to search for spies; this mechanic reminds of the proximity sensor in Alien Isolation, but it adds also other weird “lovecraftian” features. It can seem weird and dissonant, however you use it only a few times, it’s not a dominant mechanic/challenge that characterizes the whole interactive experience; it’s just one of the many actions your character can execute to keep the adventure going on. On the contrary in Control you’re always executing the same mechanics, using telekinesis powers and shooting, no matter of narrative events entrusted to cut scenes; it’s all leveling up, fighting boss, accomplishing repetitive missions, exploring repetitive environments, etc. So much boring! On the contrary TBI is a continuous discovery and surprise, you can never be annoyed.
There are several NPCs you can interact with. Voice acting is very professional, dialogues are well written. Interior monologues and thoughts of the playable characters are very effective for narrative purposes. The sensation to be part of a movie is strong. However 3D models and animations of NPCs could be better; facial expressions are not so convincing. Even the several mechanics I listed above are somehow limited, not always smooth and convincing. Don’t forget that we are talking of an indie production funded on Kickstarter and developed by a small studio. Despite the low budget, the result is astonishing; everything works quite good, but obviously you cannot expect for the refinements of AAA titles. I want to be clear; we have to applaude the creative team for the amazing technical results not so far from AAA productions. There is no proportion between resources and results. The work by Illusion Ray wins over whatsoever mainstream production in terms of yeld. Mainstream productions have a lot of resources but they are frequently wasted in the usual re-heated and uninspired soup.
As you can see the plate is very full. TBI wants to do and be a lot of things. This is more a pro than a con in my opinion. I can stand some weirdness, inconsistence and dissonance in front of so much freshness, of the ambition to go beyond traditional gaming, of the succesful attempt to build a transversal playable experience. Let’s examine in detail the interactive storytelling.
You can clearly see the effort of developers to make narration fully interactive. Flashbacks, visions and narrative events are triggered and experienced in real time, with no interruption of gameplay. E.g. while crawling through narrow passages, you witness in real time events concerning other NPCs. As said before, everything is so smooth that you distinguish no more between passive and active scenes, film and video game. In the end reality and madness entangle each other so much that you switch from one to the other in real time without even realizing it. In some scenes developers learned an important lesson from Layers of Fear but they took it to the nth narrative degree! E.g. you enter the inn but instead you go down into the mine while space and time get upset and distorted. Amazing! The interactive cinematographic experience is granted with great mastery. An apparently secondary scene impressed me. You’re just talking to your wife; but it’s not the usual static scene. While talking, you are interactively painting the walls of your house! It has purely narrative purposes, it describes a scene of home life, deepens the psychologies of the characters, establishes a lore, a relationship. Who would have devoted time and resources to develop such a seemingly irrelevant interactive sequence in a video game? Illusion Ray did! Applauses!
TBI oscillates between paranoia and madness from beginning to end; however it’s an easy experience aimed at pure entertainment. Don’t expect for deep contents or expressive aesthetics. Story is intriguing and compelling but shows some inconsistencies. Developers tried to make the plate very full introducing mulptiple endings. You can interpret events in different ways, bringing you to different endings. However in order to sustain multiple endings, they made story somehow vague and unresolved. I enjoyed the game so much, but I have the vague feeling that something didn’t work so good.
I have some suggestions for the developers. Multiple endings or alternative scenes depending on players choices are misleading, they are not necessary. That’s not what make narration interactive. On the contrary, they introduce unnecessary complications. It’s better to focus on just one meaningful story with only one ending and no alternative scenes. I suggest to build the story around deep contents, deep psychologies, complex characters with complex relationships. Refined aesthetics should be functional to expression of contents, characters’ psychologies, atmosphere, lore and storytelling. Don’t overdo with challenges for challenges sake, take care of coherence of story, characters, relationships. The most important thing is to immerse player in interactive storytelling, make player feel like the protagonist of a movie in real time. And that’s the greatest challenge won by The Beast Inside and Illusion Ray studio. We need more development studios like this. We have to sustain their work! You can see on their website that they are working at several projects with the same narrative approach as TBI and trying to enlarge the studio with new job positions. That’s good but don’t disperse energy in too many projects, don’t go too big; focus energy and creativity on one project a time, try to entangle interactive narration, deep contents and expressive aesthetics to make video games the absolute narrative synaesthetic artistic experiences they deserve to be.
If you love games as Firewatch, if you search for action and variety of mechanics, if you like intriguing interactive storytelling and fresh and transversal approach to the medium, if you’re bored of the usual soup delivered by mainstream titles, don’t miss The Beast Inside and sustain Illusion Ray studio!
What’s the right rating? Not less than 80/100 for sure. However I enjoyed it so much and it’s usually underrated, so it deserves