Horror games & branching narrative – Going Beyond The Veil with Brian Holland

Posted on May 12, 2020

Beyond The Veil is a text-based adventure being developed right here in the heart of Melbourne, Australia. The small but nimble team at Sun’s Shadow Studios are creating a story about the dark history of New Orleans and a deep-branching narrative that allows players to mould a personality.

Checkpoint readers will remember our last chat with lead writer Brian Holland about a year ago. Following LudoNarraCon 2020 a few weeks ago, we had another opportunity to ask the intuitive developer about new updates and the narrative genius of Beyond The Veil.

I’ve been lucky enough to play an early build of Beyond The Veil and it’s a unique roller coaster. I’m not usually a fan of text-based games, but this project is tragic, humorous, and enchanting all at the same time depending on the choices you make. There are so many incredible pathways to delve into the haunting New Orleans atmosphere, and I’ve never experienced anything like it.

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Games as bizarre and narrative focused as this require a lot of dedication and brainstorming. So I asked Brian, how and where did the idea of Beyond The Veil start?

“I’d done a few game jams, most notably Asylum Jam that was run by Lucy Morris, and I learned the very basics of development with my friend and now-colleague Tim Cuozzo. A few months later I was on the riverboat Natchez chugging along the Mississippi River during my second visit to New Orleans, and I started thinking about how text-based games allow you to do a whole lot in terms of branching narrative that isn’t viable in bigger games.

I thought about all the horror stories I’d love to tell, and how New Orleans had inspired me for so many years. Soon after, I looked into the funding options, chatted with Tim Cuozzo and Josh Odgers about whether they’d be keen to make a game with me. Now we’re the core team at Sun’s Shadow Studios.”

“Horror is raw. It’s primal. It can act as a Trojan Horse to discuss deeper and more powerful subjects than most people would normally associate with horror…”

Similar to that of Hundred Rabbits, life inspires art and Beyond The Veil is one of the luckiest gifts we may be given. The spider web of narrative options is immense, and I simply needed to know how anyone can think of so many dark ideas.

“Horror as a medium is at it’s best when it’s used to tell stories that would still work regardless of horror elements. I wanted to build a story that allowed for multiple themes, as well as multiple types of horror, to be showcased.”

“A story about trying to figure out who you are and how you present yourself to society is nicely complemented by a cult looking to literally rip your face off and replace it with a mask of their own choosing. The same with a story about trying to face difficult parts of your own past that affect your day-to-day life, peppered with demons that are stalking you and threatening to turn you into something twisted and monstrous if you focus on them too much.

Horror isn’t always heavy-handed metaphor – and it’s not in Beyond The Veil either – but I wanted to showcase different stories and different terrors. No matter how you choose to tell your story, you’re ultimately still writing about the human condition. I don’t think horror gets enough credit for its ability to do so.”

Speaking of the macabre themes of Beyond The Veil, the journey clearly travels through controversial themes. Many games avoid touching anything that may trigger audiences to maximise their accessibility. Yet, Beyond The Veil isn’t afraid to get very dark.

Dealing with many themes and types of horror that people may find triggering, we have warnings in-game and are exploring options for players to ‘opt out’ of certain scenes. It’s important to us that people from all walks of life can play and enjoy our game – I think that’s another reason I wanted to have multiple stories. If someone knows they really can’t deal with body horror, for example, they can avoid that story and stick to the others.

It’s clear Sun’s Shadow Studios is passionate about writing deep games and adventures. The team received funding support from Film Victoria, one of the State’s creative government agencies. With recent cuts to arts funding and struggling businesses in Australia, this effort undoubtedly is a part of giving us new, refreshing stories.

“To be blunt, this project wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the co-funding we’ve received from Film Victoria. While the money is obviously one major aspect, Meredith and Liam from the team are a constant font of positivity, encouragement and advice. I can go to them whenever I have questions or uncertainties about things, and they always, always help.

They so sincerely want the projects they help fund to succeed, and you can feel that. It’s so encouraging as a developer to have that kind of support, and I honestly don’t think I could be doing this without that.

I’d highly encourage developers to look into Film Victoria’s various programs.”

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Players will mould the protagonist, Kara, depending on their choices. These paths twist and turn within this unnerving representation of New Orleans, echoing imaginative inspiration from Brian’s favourite adventures.

Creating a personal connection is one of the best things a game can do. This is why I’ll play almost any game that allows me to change my clothes, it gives me a chance to express myself and create something original within an otherwise shared or linear framework.

What we’ve set out to do is make each path feel unique. Sometimes your choices will be very severe in terms of their impact on the story – choosing to go to the bar alone instead of going on a riverboat tour with your dad, for example.

I actually think it’s the smaller changes that make all the difference. Most of the choices in Beyond The Veil loop back to Kara’s core personality traits. The old adage of ‘show don’t tell’ makes all the difference here.

The main paths through the game are the ones that result in the three completely separate stories. A full playthrough will include all of these paths, and there will be differences based on the order in which you play them… the path you choose will ultimately colour your view of the characters within, and your perception of each of the dozens of endings.”

“Even if there is a passage that only one person ever sees, it means it’s for them. That’s not wasted time for me.”

With such a complicated string of storyline possibilities, perfecting a story of this density is surely troublesome.

“The biggest difficulty with a game that branches so widely (and so often) as Beyond The Veil does, is making sure every possible path is consistent. Josh Odgers, our lead QA and editor, is a godsend at this task.”

“I honestly don’t know how he does it- he plays the game scene by scene, going through every possible permutation, looking not just for errors in the text, but also flags what breaks up the narrative.

I suppose the other thing is the sheer amount of extra time that’s gone into the writing. Beyond The Veil sits at around 280,000 words in total – but a single playthrough will likely only see around 1/3 of that. Writing so much that not everyone will see can be kind of painful, especially for a writer, but it’s all in service of crafting what will be a unique experience.”

Despite being a text-based adventure with so much love put into the writing, the adventure isn’t complete without fitting artwork and music.

Lachlan Page is our amazing lead artist. He’s really taken every one of the briefs and turned them into something amazing. I’m very specific with what we want in the art and he always knocks it out of the park. He litters them with easter eggs for people who go the extra mile and pay attention to little asides in the plot (or otherwise know their New Orleans history).

The music is much the same. Justin Cavenagh, composer, is going for dark tones and twisted tracks that are built upon themes and music styles prevalent in New Orleans. As much as the city is known for spooks and death, it’s also very much known for music.
Brian should be recognised for his extensive work on other adventures. From tabletop experiences to mobile, he’s essentially a veteran in writing narrative. Recently making the big jump from a mobile action-RPG to this self-directed project, the development process is clearly different.
Beyond The Veil is my brain-child. Unlike Dawnblade, Vampire: The Masquerade or other games I write for, I’m not playing in a shared world. I’m only beholden to my own vision, and the ‘rules’ that I create myself. It’s not as though I cannot be creative when working within the confines of an established or shared IP, but it’s a huge aspect that I don’t have to consider, which makes the process very different.

Before I finally wrapped up with Brian and let him return to the writing room, there was one thing I wanted to know from such a creative mind. What does the future hold and what does he want to do next?

“I’d like to move around a bit. I’m at a stage in my career where I’m not geographically bound. So even going to live in Sydney for a while, or a place like New Orleans would be fantastic, I think.

I’m currently writing a lot in tabletop games. I’ve got a project for Vampire: The Masquerade which should be announced very soon, and am at the final stages of negotiating a contract to write a book for another popular tabletop horror IP.

I love writing in games and creating stories that people get to share, interact with and experience. Long term, I’d love to get the opportunity to craft a story with a AAA team. Right now, it’s all about Beyond The Veil, and what we as a team can learn from it.”

Finally, when will the horrific tale of Beyond The Veil release?

We’re currently aiming for a September 2020 release. Of course, given the current state of the world, this may change – but that’s our goal.