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Playing in a Dreamscape

Desta: The Memories Between was a highlight from of our first-ever Games Lab! Here, players follow the titular protagonist as they fall into a dream world every night. It’s a vibrant space that is filled with the uncanny memories of people and places that Desta has encountered in the real world. Dodgeball is how we navigate this zone of uncertainty. Desta, along with various other intriguing characters, takes turns aiming and throwing the ball – unlocking new dialogue with each hit. In this way, the game becomes a tool for having difficult conversations and forging connections through honesty and vulnerability. We caught up with Joel Beardshow, a Lead Game Designer at ustwo games who has worked on Desta and the BAFTA-winning Monument Valley series, who talks us through finding inspiration in team sports; creating space for communication and the importance of feedback in getting the gameplay just right.

ASFF: Could you introduce yourself and give us an overview of what ustwo games is all about?
My name is Joel Beardshaw and I am a Lead Designer at ustwo games. At ustwo games, we are driven to make interactive entertainment a more approachable space for people who aren’t already regular players. We want to bring those qualities we love about games to people who may not have considered them before as well as create titles that are well crafted and enjoyable for those who have spent the majority of their lives playing.

ASFF: In Desta: The Memories Between, we get to see the protagonist form relationships and learn more about the dreamworld through the power of dodgeball. What drew you to this sport? Did you consider any other options earlier in the development process?
We started from the point of view of wanting a team sport where the player would be interacting with their whole team, and co-ordinating between them. Dodgeball seemed to fit for so many reasons. Firstly, it involves passing as a core mechanic. We were also excited about the idea fun of having multiple balls in play and the fact the game involves eliminating your opposition. Desta’s DNA is the overlap between the camaraderie of team sports and the problem-solving of turn-based tactics – dodgeball lives perfectly in that overlap.

Desta is a game where the first half of it was developed during the Covid 19 lockdown in the UK, meaning we were all craving human connection and the ability to go outside. I wanted to create something that felt like a game played by school kids in a playground, especially after reading The Infinite Playground by Bernie De Koven and Holly Gramazio, which really inspired early work on the project.

ASFF: Why did you choose to explore the theme of dreams in Desta: The Memories Between?
A story and motif we kept returning to in development was that of having a meaningful conversation with someone while throwing a ball back and forth, maybe someone who wouldn’t normally talk about their feelings. This relatable moment connected to that feeling of being half asleep and running a conversation over and over in your head, trying to find a different outcome or express yourself fully. Desta is practising in this dream space the conversations they are finding it difficult to have in the real world. This is something that we all felt was an important narrative space to explore and very personal to us.

ASFF: The art style gives the game such a soothing feel. How did you approach the game’s visual aesthetic?
It’s interesting that you use the word “soothing” as I feel we tried to find a balance between the game portraying a dream world full of Deasta’s anxieties, without making it an off-putting place to spend time. Lots of care and attention was paid to getting this balance right, with the audio, character art, environments and menus all having a complementary effect on each other. We wanted to make the spaces and people feel like slices of real life, recognisable to players, but with something just a little uncanny about them.

ASFF: Desta is for players of all experience levels, from beginners all the way to those who dare to play in Nightmare Mode. How did you ensure the game could be rewarding for all kinds of players?
To be honest, we found this quite a difficult balancing act. However, I feel we reached a really good balance with the game after we launched on mobile, got feedback from players and then improved the difficultly and structure of the game. If you played in those first few months, thank you! 

Our guiding light was the phrase “fun, physical and fair”, which we used to asses how the ball felt at all stages of development. The predictable-yet-unpredictable nature of throwing a ball across a stage keeps even the simplest action a satisfying one to pull off. This meant that even if you are a high-skill player in the early game, the physics of throwing will make every match feel fun and engaging.

ASFF: Can you give us a taster of any projects ustwo games is currently working on?
I can’t say much about our in development projects, but there is something new for Monument Valley fans coming very soon. We also have two other teams of different sizes working on broadening the horizons of what ustwo games puts out, and what sort of places to take players to next.

Learn more about Desta: The Memories Between

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