How to Make a Video Game While Rationing Water and Amidst Rolling Blackouts

'Beautiful Desolation,' a sci-fi story about the post-apocalypse and fascism, was unmistakably made in South Africa.
June 3, 2021, 1:00pm
Artwork from the video game Beautiful Desolation
Artwork courtesy of The Brotherhood

Much of Beautiful Desolation was made amidst catastrophe. South Africa was in the grip of a water crisis, the result of multiple years without meaningful rainfall. People lined up with containers, hoping to walk away with anything. There was talk of "Day Zero," a date when places like Cape Town would, in essence, run out of water. The Brotherhood, a two-person studio responsible for several moody adventure games, happens to be based in Cape Town.

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"There were days where [we] had no electricity and had to severely ration water supplies," said The Brotherhood co-founder Chris Bischoff in an interview with Waypoint. "I sometimes think we should have actually thanked our water tank and petrol generator in the credits."

(And yes, the studio is called The Brotherhood because the two co-founders are brothers.)

Beautiful Desolation is the third release from The Brotherhood, an ambitious slice of sci-fi post-apocalypse. The Brotherhood's previous games are dark horror stories in space, and while Beautiful Desolation is also set in the future, it's a future much more close to home; Beautiful Desolation is The Brotherhood imagining a future for its own home of South Africa.

"Our goal with Beautiful Desolation was always to make something unique," said Bischoff, "something that players had never seen before in the sci-fi setting and our home was perfect for this."

Bischoff's family arrived in South Africa in the 1840s, after emigrating from Germany. 

It's a place of beauty, but, at times, a pain in the ass for making games. The Brotherhood isn't the only place to call South Africa (and frequently Cape Town itself) home. The popular action game BroForce, made by Free Lives, is from the area. Same with puzzle platformer Semblance by Nyamakop, and the satirical violent cleanup sim, Viscera Cleanup Detail

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Bishoff called development in South Africa "uniquely challenging." Only recently, for example, did the studio get broadband internet, which made uploading and downloading gigabytes of data, required in making even the most modest modern game, a total pain.

"On paper, we’re considered a developed country on various fronts, yet even some of our most basic infrastructure is seriously unreliable," he said. "The country suffers from regular, planned power outages that last for hours on end, so we need to work around those. We have often joked that Statis [another game from The Brotherhood] is one of the few games out there built on a petrol generator."

Rolling power outages are normal for The Brotherhood. One minute, the lights are on. The next, they're not. It's a big reason why their games are made using laptops; it allows them to jump from one power source to another, depending on the circumstances. Bischoff actually has an uninterruptible power supply device snuggled under his desk in case of a blackout.

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In the event even this fails them, their files are being continually backed up.

"100 meters of extension cables became the norm for us!" said Bischoff. "Power off, grab the extension cables, and run them around the house before the UPS turns off!"

But the influence of where Beautiful Desolation was made goes beyond power hiccups and slow Internet. Bischoff and his brother wanted to make a game that reflected the world and history around them, what they grew up with, in a variety of ways. The visuals, for example, use a form of photogrammetry to convert photos into 3D images, allowing them to put pieces of Cape Town into the game itself. This video walks through the tech process behind this:

The game opens with players on a beach built from scans of an actual beach close to their home. A dog-like carcass you find later is, in fact, a mummified wild dog from hundreds of years ago in a local museum. And a giraffe skull featured in the opening menu is actually a skull on display at the same museum as the dog. Some touches were even closer to home, with texture for some of the characters generated by a 3D scan of Bischoff's own face.

"When you use a country like South Africa as a backdrop for your story," said Bischoff, "it's tempting to try and grow a direct narrative from the negative perspective of its legacy. Our concern with this approach is that you end up creating a parody of events, instead of being sensitive to the nuance of its history."

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South Africa was under apartheid until the early 1990s—it's recent history. For decades, white supremacy was ingrained in South Africa, with informal segregationist policy later becoming formal laws that would, for example, prohibit large swathes of land from being held by Black South Africans and prohibiting sex and marriage between whites and other races.

Bischoff heard about this period from his family, and stories of police brutality especially stuck out.

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"When you hear [those stories] you can't help but feel the helplessness that the general population had," he said. "The racial bias of the government was horrific towards Black people but the control over the entire population, no matter their race, was absolute."

This history informs the backdrop of Beautiful Desolation. South Africa has 11 languages, and so, as does Beautiful Desolation. One group, called the Agnate Robots, are remnants of the world's fascistic past, living history of Beautiful Desolation's own apartheid government.

"Given that the majority of our sales will come from the English-speaking market, will players be able to even connect with a protagonist who speaks with such a heavy accent, or uses slang that they may not even know?”

"Using these tales as a basis, we instilled the fascistic robots of the game with these traits," said Bischoff. "A premise of Beautiful Desolation being, would a tyrannical government produce a tyrannical AI if given the chance?"

One of the most conflicted intersections, however, came when The Brotherhood was trying to decide the cast of voices that would try to bring this place to life. The studio knew Beautiful Desolation would have a lot of dialogue, and the right voices were key to selling it.

But who are the "right" voices? Early on, The Brotherhood was encouraged, despite the game's unique setting, to make its voice acting sound, as they put it, more "international." 

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"I believe the advice to keep the VO 'international' was to stay away from the heavier local accents that we initially wanted," said Bischoff, "or even limiting things like the slang words (including local cuss words!) and vernacular references we used."

The pressure to conform to a perceived mainstream and the resulting flattening of non-Western culture isn't new, but it's less common for developers to speak about it.

"Given that the majority of our sales will come from the English-speaking market," he continued, "will players be able to even connect with a protagonist who speaks with such a heavy accent, or uses slang that they may not even know? These discussions even bled into the handling of translations. How does a Russian translator correctly and faithfully translate a Jamaican Patois character?"

These questions kept stacking up, and so The Brotherhood found talent agencies that specialized in voice acting. Some work would, hopefully, be removed from their lap. But as the first voice samples came back, it became clear to Bischoff that Beautiful Desolation erring on sounding "international" was removing their ability to properly capture their home.

In the end, they trashed the voice work done so far and decided to handle it themselves.

"We went out of the way to source people with unique sounds to their voices on various message boards and Twitter," said Bischoff. "We even sometimes adjusted the characters' looks to fit an actor whose voice we just loved. We encouraged the actors we found to pepper in their own slang words, their unique ways of structuring sentences and so we’d even adjust the final script to them."

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Some of the voice acting might be hard to parse to some players, but to The Brotherhood, that's what the subtitles are for. The game remains authentic without losing the audience.

"Most countries grow up on American media so they are used to hearing US accents," said Bischoff. "A large audience for our games is non-English speaking so I think that the different acting pool and accents we used for our characters added an even more 'otherworldly' feel to the game. You can tell a lot about a character from the timbre of their voices, even if you don't understand the words they are saying!"

The game also features (but not exclusively) voice actors local to South Africa. One of the main characters in Beautiful Desolation was part of South Africa's Border War, a very real conflict that went on for decades, and ended up voiced by a veteran of the Border War.

Beautiful Desolation ultimately features thousands of lines of dialogue, an overwhelming amount for The Brotherhood's two employees to keep track of over the course of several years of development. It's not hard to imagine how, left unmanaged, it could lead to names and places being pronounced in wildly different ways. And that's exactly what happened.

Instead of worrying about it, Bischoff leaned into the "problem" and treated it like a solution. 

"We figured that different people would pronounce names and places differently and this oddly enriched the world further," he said. "We let the actors themselves use their artistic license to embellish the words we had written, and imbue them with life."

Beautiful Desolation is out this week on Switch and PlayStation 4. It was released on PC last year.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)