The prehistoric is not a period that receives much attention in gaming – our ancient forebears being distant and unknown to us. Before seeks to change all of that, offering a charming and complex simulation and survival game in which the player must guide a prehistoric tribe through the trials and tribulations of early humanity. As an archaeologist, I was excited from get-go on hearing the premise of the game. We spoke with Bill Lowe, designer and developer of Before, to talk about polygons, social simulation, and prehistoric life.
Lowe explained that Before is “about pre-historic people and their survival”, where the player will guide a tribe “through the challenges they face in a harsh and unforgiving world”. The core of the game is the guiding of a tribe, a “small group” to begin with, as they “hunt and gather food, build shelter” and develop through time. If they are able to survive long enough, they “can begin to expand and further explore their surroundings”. There will be “no set objective beyond survival”. If your tribe die out, “it’s game over”.
But what kinds of things – threats and resources – will your tribe encounter in the world? Lowe explained that the tribe will face a number of environmental threats, from predators including sabertooth tigers, wolves and bears, to “some level of dynamic weather that could make life more difficult for the tribe”. Lowe suggested that “larger climate events” – we suppose, ice ages, flooding, volcanoes – “are something I’d like to experiment with”. The predators will also have to survive in this world, “so predators will hunt their prey, herbivores will graze and move in herds and so on”. It sounds like Before will create a world in which the tribe is but one part of a more dynamic ecosystem, a link in the food chain. As such, they will eat as well as be eaten – but there are also options to forage for fruit or fish. Lowe hinted that “at some stage” the tribe may well encounter another tribe.
If the tribe can survive this combination of hungry predators and climatic changes, they’ll be able to grow in population and eventually be able “to order the construction of additional buildings and structures around the camp”, including some technological advancements, although Lowe is keeping these under his hat for the moment.
As for the tribes-people themselves, Lowe promises that each unit, each person, “will have a simple personality and some level of social simulation”. While some will be better at hunting, others may well be lazy, or prefer to spend their days fishing. While the aesthetic of the game suggests a level of charming, almost cartoon-like polygons, each member of the tribe will have their own strengths, weaknesses and quirks which the player will have to account for in helping the tribe survive.
In some of the screenshots for the game, we can see the tribe worshiping a kind of floating, radiant crystal. Lowe explained that lore will play a role in the tribe’s development, where “I think of the player as guiding the tribe’s collective consciousness”, so while there isn’t any “god game style interaction”, the tribe will develop culture over time, finding “mystical locations and objects” in the world that will shape and influence how they see and understand the places and experiences around them.
This style of “guidance” rather than god-like micro-management is important to how Before will be played. Lowe explained that the UI will be more like a “guiding hand”, where “the player is shaping the future of the tribe and helping to define its characteristics and behaviour”. The player will issue orders, assign tasks, but AI will play a part in how the tribe actually goes about these activities. As Lowe explained, his big influences have been The Sims and Black & White, where “I really enjoyed the tug-of-war between player agency and AI simulation in both of those games, so I’m aiming to create some of the same tension in Before”. In this sense, there will be a feeling in which the player is not god-like and omnipotent, but must struggle and work alongside their tribe so ensure their survival and prosperity.
The game has been developed in Unity. Lowe is very positive about its potentials and capabilities, having allowed him “to explore ideas that I felt were too ambitious or complicated (for my ability) before”. Because he doesn’t have a strong code background, he explained that it was “really easy to get prototypes running”, working alongside a programmer to bring the final game together.
A gameplay trailer will be in the works once “I feel the gameplay is fun enough to watch”. In the meantime, Lowe is thinking about releasing some development diary videos so that we can get a better feel of how the game will look and play. He’s hoping to have “something out this year”, at least in alpha. At this stage, Before is a PC-only release, but Lowe is hopeful about other platforms “down the line”.
Thanks to Bill Lowe for taking the time to answer our questions. As an archaeologist by training, I’m particularly excited to see how Before will shape up and play in the future, so we’ll certainly be keeping you up to date with new details and information as the year goes on.