Video game development used to be out of reach for the common enthusiast. Rendering and programming software was expensive and there were reasons why companies like Electronic Arts, Activision, and the like could afford the most advanced toolkits and licensed console development kits. That divide no longer exists thanks to a multitude of free, downloadable software (including full-on game engines like Unity and Unreal) that lets anyone become a game developer. The indie scene has always been a bastion of unique creativity, turning out games and experiences triple-A publishers deem too risky or personal for mass consumption (Soda Drinker Pro suddenly comes to mind). As with triple-A games, there are winners and not quite so winners, but at least an indie developer doesn’t have to worry about getting fired or shut down by some studio exec if a game doesn’t do well.
Where The Bees Make Honey is one such independent project, the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018. Developed for PC, Xbox, and PS4, the game is a contemplative piece focused on the innocence and imaginative spirit of childhood before the manacles of adulthood and responsibility were slapped on our ankles. The adventure opens with a young woman named Sunny who is stuck in a dead end telemarketing job and even worse, forced to work overtime alone (which, now that I think about it, seems odd and a little unreal). This is the perfect moment for Sunny to reflect on her life and lament the loss of her youth spent wearing a bee costume and exploring the world with a carefree spirit. After a routine attempt to turn on a generator that, uh, powers the entire high-rise office building where she is the sole occupant... hmm, we are whisked away on a surreal and abstract adventure of self-reflection. What follows are a series of non-linear instances built around moments of Sunny’s life, such as a wintry ride on her bicycle and her first solo trick-or-treating adventure. These transitional sequences are usually bookended by puzzle stages that are far too few in number and involve shifting perspectives to collect a series of golden honeycombs. Where The Bees Make Honey is a mashup of two gameplay experiences, one does well while the other actively ruins the goodwill cultivated by the former.
Far be it for me to criticize someone’s personal project — lord knows I know nothing about the time and energy required to design a game — but I found Brian Wilson’s game to be a messy and plagued by a host of issues from texture glitching and mediocre gameplay to severe frame rate drops and lock-ups. The problems began almost immediately. Starting from the adult Sunny’s perspective, you’ll do busywork in the form of finding three items requested by an employee for no real concrete reason. I was surprised with how much I struggled with this basic task because the first-person controls are super-sensitive and required a feather touch. On top of that, I was met with constant lockups each time I tried to pass through a particular set of cubicles. The problems continued well after the start of the game, adding in transitions that would cause the game to stutter and suddenly interrupt or trigger audio cues.
The bulk of the game consists of Sunny’s recollections of youth, interpreted here as small gameplay vignettes that offer little in the way of continuity. In one sequence, you’ll play as a bunny trying to find her lost young. In another, you’ll steer an RC car through a obstacle course running on a bad physics engine. Gather honeycombs on an empty street. Avoid scary jack-o-lanterns and patrolling zombies. Of these, the rabbit and RC car sequences are awful because of their camera relative tank controls that have no place in 2019. Scenes like this, played against an introspective Sunny, are inarguably the worst part of Where The Bees Make Honey because they expose flaws possibly related to the developer’s inexperience. Also, the disparate, disconnected nature of the content feels like the developer had a million ideas but couldn’t settle on one to focus their attention.
That said, I’d like to specifically call out the puzzle sequences in Where The Bees Make Honey. In a game that equates time with the passing of seasons, you’ll spend those transitions in a 3D, isometric puzzle space that has you shifting the perspective of a small piece of land to create pathways and connectors to reach three golden honeycombs. This aspect of the game is really well done and inventive, even if it feels derivative of Polytron’s Fez. By tapping the left and right shoulder buttons on the PlayStation 4 controller, you’ll create passages, trigger elevators, and open gates. The visual design of these stages is lovely and far more pleasant and evocative than any other part of the game. If the entirety of Where The Bees Make Honey were comprised of these puzzles, I would have liked it a lot more. Loved even! Unfortunately, they exist as diamonds in a swampy mire.
I take no delight in dumping on the games people make, especially indie titles. It’s easy for me to sit here and harp on Where The Bees Make Honey’s frustrating faults because I don’t know the struggle, blood, sweat, and tears involved with making a personal project like this. But my role as a reviewer is to provide a fair and honest opinion of the games I play and in that regard, Brian Wilson’s game is a bit of a mess and is a victim of its own technical issues. It’s sometimes a heavy-handed, shaky adventure that trades on the common theme of recapturing our childhood wonder. Where The Bees Make Honey has some interesting ideas with presentation and puzzles. However, the persistent high level of frustration I felt with trying to navigate the majority of the adventure because of issues out of my control completely overshadowed any of the good stuff.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.