In 2018, a show called The Terror, based on the novel by Dan Simmons, told a fictionalized version of the Franklin Expedition’s doomed quest for the Northwest Passage. Two ships were lost – one of which was actually named HMS Terror, which would surely tempt fate – and their crews were never found. The Terror took this true story of a struggle to survive in horrific conditions and flavored it with supernatural horror. While I didn’t mind adding a mystical murder bear, many viewers liked the story-driven parts so much that they said they preferred it without any fictional horrors – just the real horrors of cold, hunger, and lead poisoning from a bad batch of canned rations.
Early on in development, the developers at Bellular Studios considered adding supernatural horror about a polar expedition gone awry to their management sim. They decided against it because, as creative director Thomas Hislop explains, “the real ice and the real issues of the setting were often more naturalistically odd than anything that was fantasy game stuff that we might have contemplated. We kept coming back to being like, ‘No, the real story is weirder, we should just go with it.'”
The Pale Beyond asks you to ensure the survival of a ship full of people (and sled dogs) trapped in the ice and eventually forced onto it. “Frostpunk on a boat” would be the superficial way to put it, but there are also elements from games like The Banner Saga, Sunless Sea, and Dead in Vinland that challenge you to make tough decisions and balance resources in tough circumstances. The catchy slogan of The Pale Beyond is “Every decision counts and the ice doesn’t care.”
ice floe, nowhere to go
The history of polar expeditions led by the likes of Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, and Sir John Franklin taught the developers of The Pale Beyond many unusual and often grotesque things. Hislop mentions that frostbite is unpleasant stuff to read and summarizes snow blindness as “sunburn on the eyeballs” while explaining that Shackleton’s expedition brought cocaine eye drops for treatment. “It’s called a really great book The Lost Men (opens in new tab)‘ he says, ‘it’s like the forgotten second half of the Shackleton expedition that was sent across the continent to try and make depots for it. I think there was someone on that expedition who tried using ethanol for pain and shattered all his teeth from the freezing temperatures. Temperature affects everything.”
“It’s brutal,” adds Managing Director Michael Bell. “I suppose our job is to put someone in this very difficult position. When the game mechanics do their job, you’ll make a tough decision, and you’ll understand why it’s tough. History always forgets the animals. I’ve read some of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and they’ll only casually mention, ‘Oh, you know, it got really cold and 30,000 horses got slaughtered.'”
In The Pale Beyond, once the ship is captured and you are forced to send hunting and scouting parties onto the ice, sled dogs become vital to survival. Kennel Master Cordell acts as a mouthpiece for the dogs, telling them they’re adapted to the ice (“It cools them through their paws when they run. They’d overheat otherwise”) while making sure you’re attached to their lives think valuable.
“Every decision has a face,” says Hislop, “so we wanted to make sure you weren’t making a life-or-death-affecting decision without literally looking the person in the eye or associating an actual person with the consequences of the.” Choice.”
Bell likens these decisions to “not sending the wrong character to fix the heat source at the end of Mass Effect 2,” and doesn’t just hint that we’ll be sad about mistakes because they cost us characters we care about but also the possibility that we make the right decisions and get everyone through this frozen nightmare. “I suppose you could say we hit Shackleton more than Franklin in terms of player imagination,” he says. “Not that we’re saying, ‘You’re just going to be like Shackleton!’ But the fantasy of being thrown into this crazy situation.”
“If you save everyone,” adds Hislop, “that’s the feat I brought in yesterday: An Ernest Trial.”
Even if you know a little bit about Ernest Shackleton or the doomed saga of the ships Erebus and Terror, it might add to your enjoyment of The Pale Beyond, but it’s a game informed through the story rather than staying entirely true to it. The setting and time period are deliberately kept vague. Hislop calls it a “historically adjacent fantasy setting” that has advantages over the real world because “it just strips away all the other clutter, all the other set dressing, and then it’s all about this intrinsic, exposed social dynamic. “
It also allowed them to freely draw inspiration from expeditions from different time periods, such as Roald Amunsden’s South Pole Expedition, Peter Freuchen’s Thule Expeditions, and relatively recent voyages in the 1940s and 1950s. That was liberating, says Hislop, “especially when we’re trying to create a narrative of possibility space that’s like ‘top tier Shackleton kinda runs’ versus ‘die halfway and do a Scott’.”
Book by Alfred Lansing Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Journey (opens in new tab) was a key resource, and Bell said, “I remember the audio book as if it had sound effects, and the most surprising thing about listening is that there weren’t any. The words were just so descriptive and deeply haunting.”
The book includes passages describing the pressure building on the Endurance’s hull as ice slowly crushed it, with comparisons as far apart as a woman’s softly crying in the distance and a roaring train that approaching you. These descriptions were given to audio director James Bruce aka Trees. “You walk into the office and he’s just slamming things and scratching things and trying to make these really weird squeezing ice sounds,” says Hislop. “I think we have all the animal sounds for the penguins and seals, they are real recordings from the BBC Sound Archive from expeditions that we found. Penguins sound like velociraptors, it’s terrifying.”
Audio was important because when you’re in a featureless environment, there’s not much to see. The regular game audio standby sounds weren’t usable either. “With Foley in particular, there are very few natural sounds to draw on,” says Hislop. “You can’t do your regular fountain pen like, ‘Oh, we’re going to sing birds and sway trees.’ It’s, ‘Uh, James, can you make wind sound interesting for 10 hours? And not repetitive?'”
Lost in the blinding white of the tundra
The more they researched, the more they saw that these trips were repeating the same story, one where people from different countries and walks of life “everyone go on this trip, literally to the end of the world and have this trauma together and come out.” of which the other end has more in common than literally anyone else on the planet.”
“Each expedition would almost develop its own culture,” says Bell. In The Pale Beyond, these dynamics play out in conflicts between members of the crew, some landlubbers while others are “saltborn” who can be overcome in the name of shared adversity.
“We’re trying to stay true to the feeling that none of the performers were inherently villains or heroes,” says Hislop, “they’re all just human.” The Pale Beyond is a game about leadership and the impact it can have on a person group, he explains, where “People can become the villains of your playthrough or the heroes of your playthrough, but it’s not about the path they were originally meant to be on. It is about the unfolding machinery of the collective group.”
This social dynamic is simulated by a resource that can prove as important as the food supplies that prevent starvation and scurvy, or the fuel that keeps the cauldron turning and prevents frostbite. This third resource is evocatively named Decorum.
“Decorum was an interesting resource,” says Hislop, “because initially it was obviously just like a morale resource. But in exploring ice cream, it’s a very subtle recalibration, but it became a measure not of how happy people are, but how socially connected in terms of that fake contract that keeps you from eating each other.
What fascinates us about polar expedition stories is seeing how the extreme conditions push people to do extreme things, to reveal themselves when they push their limits. Whether they’re hitting on each other to prolong their lives, or performing acts of self-sacrifice like Lawrence Oates – who, suffering from frostbite and gangrene, believed he was slowing down Scott’s Antarctic expedition so much he stepped out of a tent and said: “I’m just going outside and may take some time,” then went into the snow to die.
“It’s like you can’t really quickly pull yourself out of the situation you’re in because you’re really screwed,” says Hislop. “There’s no cavalry coming. Heroics are of limited value in a way, so I think it just forces a brutal focus on characters.”
“It’s a different kind of heroism,” says Bell. “There is no enemy.”
These types of stories have timeless appeal and find new ways to be relevant. As Hislop points out, “The irony hasn’t escaped us that many of these expeditions were effectively startup companies driven into the ice, only to crash spectacularly and burn.”
Barring ice-related or other disasters, The Pale Beyond will be available from steam (opens in new tab) on February 24th.
This article was previously published on Source link