Deputy Editor Oscar Frost interviews Joel Beardshaw, lead designer on ‘Desta: The Memories Between’ and a part of 2023’s UK BAFTA Breakthrough cohort.

Written by Oscar Frost
Hi! I'm Oscar, and I'm one of your deputy editors for the coming year. I was also a sports editor for two years, and a writer for a year before that.
Last updated
Images by ©BAFTA/Vivek Vadoliya , 2023

BAFTA Breakthrough, supported by Netflix, is BAFTA’s flagship initiative for highlighting new talent working in film, games, and TV. This year marks BAFTA Breakthrough’s tenth anniversary, having supported over 200 people across the UK, US, and India.

So Joel, my first question to you was, what do you think made yourself stand out to be part of the BAFTA breakthrough cohort?

Well, I wasn’t expecting this question. Yeah, I think for me, there are so many people, especially in games, doing amazing things. I think some of these things are the projects that I got to work on, like Desta, which is a project that’s really close to my heart and the team’s heart, with that diverse look at Northern England through a tactical, light kind of gameplay. I’ve worked in games for a very long time in some ways, but I’ve been working here since 2007, so a fair while. But this was the first project that I’d seen from prototyping all the way through to release. On my previous projects, I’d always joined a bit after the concepting phase, but this, along with other people on the team, was something that I got to see through right from the start to the end, but I think it kind of, especially on the game design side shows a lot of my interest and sensibilities.

The game design side shows a lot of my interest and sensibilities.

So I mean, you mentioned Desta, and, you know, congratulations on winning an award at develop for Desta. Was this the proudest work in your career so far, is there another sort of project that really sticks out to you is your favourite?

On the whole, it probably is the proudest for those reasons that I’ve spoken about before. It’s something that like I’d seen from start to finish. And being with that same team, a lot of the same team worked on Assemble with Care, especially the lead team on that. So, it was Danny Grey, who was the same game director, Chris Cox, who was the same artist. I really enjoyed working with both on Assemble with Care, and then getting start a new project with them, and push it through. It was a really special game to be able to take it through from start to finish. I think, also, it was a game that has this ensemble cast of characters who kind of came from a lot of our own experiences, so there are bits of all of us in different characters. Drawing on different relationships we’ve had with friends and family members and getting to see them reflected in parts of the game was really special, especially characters like Miss Kay, who is the art teacher who appears in the third chapter. A lot of that is based on my own experiences. My parents were both teachers, and that kind of relationship living with and growing up with someone who is invested in your education in that he can’t lie to them about what’s going on. You can’t get them over in the way that maybe some other people can. But also that thorough encouragement stuff, which definitely felt like it came from a place of me, even though I wasn’t on the writing team. We pulled a lot of those characters from various members of the team.

So how much of your personality do you get to sort of intertwine into your games?

Especially as a designer, I got to find ways to put parts of my personality into every game I’ve worked on. But maybe earlier in my career it was much more superficial. I worked on kart racing games and micro machines games and things that have previously and the amount of yourself you can put in there are normally just things you like, rather than anything else. So yeah, that move into that space of like more narrative games, especially game set in the real world like Assemble and like Desta, you get to include those human relationships. You get that chance to reflect on yourself and what those relationships mean to you and maybe how they affected you. And I think Desta was definitely part of that, I think, to a lesser extent Assemble with Care. Maybe less in the the secondary characters, but especially in the the tone of that game.

You’ve talked a little bit about how long you’ve been in the gaming business, so I was wondering how the world of games has evolved during your career and how you kept up with those changes?

Yeah, so I’ve been gaming since 2007. I lived and worked in Birmingham for nine years actually, I know you’re based in Birmingham as well. I lived around kind of King’s Heath Stirchley way, that was where I was based. And worked at Swordfish and Codemasters, which are famous for racing games. Codemasters were very famous for their racing game theories and had a really great time there. I think games is always changing. There have been some phase shifts, I think, especially in the last year or so we’ve seen a lot of contraction, a lot of layoffs, and also in that people may be playing a bit safer as well. But, I feel like it’s a mode that the games industry goes through in the long term. I think it’s a thing that a lot of entertainment industries go through, they kind of contract a little bit, and then they find a new rhythm and they expand again. I do think we’re in that unfortunate time of contraction, I think we should be working to kind of push out of it and find new ways to be creative and tell personal stories rather than just play bankable stories. And so, I’m really pleased that, myself and a studio like UsTwo, but also the other the other games candidates, games breakthroughs, both this year and in previous years, have often been people telling personal stories, small stories, off the beaten track stories.

I’m really pleased that, myself and a studio like UsTwo […] have often been people telling personal stories, small stories, off the beaten track stories.

So do you think that sort of personal approach is the way forward then for games?

I don’t think it’s ever, ever, ever gonna be. I don’t think games is ever going to not have that blockbuster element to it as well. I think it’s like theatre. It’s like TV. It’s like film in that as the medium grows, we find new words for things and we find new audiences, and it kind of it slowly but surely grows, the breadth of what mainstream success can be. And part of that is, very personal games. We’ve seen the rise of that kind of like, cosy, wholesome game stuff that it’s kind of risen up in the last few years, that wasn’t a label that I would have applied to UsTwo games previously. But maybe we fit into it in retrospect. It’s not something we’ve been aiming for. But we’ve been trying to make the kind of games we’ve been trying to make for many years. And we kind of fall into that gap in the sensibilities of those through that space. I do think I enjoy a big, like amazing blockbuster. I’m really enjoying Baldur’s Gate 3, like I wouldn’t want to live in a world without those kinds of things. But I also wouldn’t want to live in a world without platforms where you can find, personal games made by single people on their own, creating things that tell little stories or playing with, like a cool little mechanic that that is expressing something about themselves.

I don’t think games is ever going to not have that blockbuster element to it as well. I think it’s like theatre. It’s like TV. It’s like film in that as the medium grows, we find new words for things and we find new audiences.

I used to play international cricket 2010 which was by Codemasters, so I was wondering if there if there was a particular game that inspired you while you’re growing up that sort of led you into career in game design?

Yeah, I think for me, there are two different games. A game growing up was Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy. I was always just totally sucked into this tiny little world. There was this island you can explore which had like this kind of weird dream feeling about it. Link is dreaming, and he’s trying to wake up. But then while I was at university, I encountered a game called The Endless Forest, which is by Tale of Tales Games, which is really hard to describe. You open up the game, and it only opens up as a screensaver, so you have to leave your, your PC idle for a little bit. And when it boots up, you are a deer in a forest and you wander around. You sing songs with other deer and there’s a lot of nonverbal communication: lots of emotes, and lots of finding things. But then you can only give them to other people, you can’t use them on yourselves. And with this kind of strange, ethereal multiplayer experience where you meet strangers that you could never interact with again, and never know who they were again. But it really opened my mind up to that games can be little experiences and strange and ethereal, but also have like this great sense of place and identity. I think all those things really inspired me and that game was really pivotable pivotal in my university days.

UK Breakthroughs 2023

  •  Adjani Salmon, writer/performer/exec producer – Dreaming Whilst Black
  • Bella Ramsey, performer – The Last of Us
  • Cash Carraway, creator/writer/exec producer – Rain Dogs
  • Charlotte Reganm, writer/director – Scrapper
  • Cynthia De La Rosa, hair & makeup artist – Everyone Else Burns
  • Ella Glendining, director – Is There Anybody Out There?
  • Funmi Olutoye, lead producer – ‘Black History Makers’ (Good Morning Britain)
  • Georgia Oakley, writer/director – Blue Jean
  • Holly Reddaway, voice and performance director – Baldur’s Gate 3
  • Joel Beardshaw, lead designer – Desta: The Memories Between
  • Kat Morgan, hair & makeup designer – Blue Jean
  • Kathryn Ferguson, writer/director – Nothing Compares
  • Kitt (Fiona) Byrne, 2D artist/game designer – Gibbon: Beyond the Trees
  • Michael Anderson, producer – Desta: The Memories Between
  • Pete Jackson, writer/creator – Somewhere Boy
  • Raine Allen-Miller, director – Rye Lane
  • Rosy McEwen, performer – Blue Jean
  • Samantha Béart, performer – The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow
  • Talisha ‘Tee Cee’ Johnson, writer/director/presenter – Too Autistic for Black
  •  Vivian Oparah, performer – Rye Lane
  • Abhay Koranne, writer – Rocket Boys

US Breakthroughs 2023

  • Amanda Kim, documentary director – Nam June Paik: Moon Is The Oldest TV
  • Aminah Nieves, performer – 1923 and Blueberry (Film/TV)
  • Apoorva Charan, producer – Joyland
  • Cheyenne Morrin, senior games writer – Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
  • Edward Buckles Jr. documentary director – Katrina Babies
  • Gary Gunn, composer – A Thousand and One
  • Jingyi Shao, writer & director – Chang Can Dunk
  • Maria Altamirano, producer – All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
  • Santiago Gonzalez, cinematographer – Shortcomings
  • Shelly Yo, writer & director – Smoking Tigers
  • Sing J Lee, writer & director – The Accidental Getaway Driver
  • Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, writer & director – Mutt

India Breakthroughs 2023

  • Abhay Koranne, writer – Rocket Boys
  •  Abhinav Tyagi, editor – An Insignificant Man
  • Don Chacko Palathara, director/writer – Joyful Mystery
  • Kislay, director – Soni
  • Lipika Singh Darai, director/writer – Some Stories Around Witches
  • Miriam Chandy Mencherry, producer – From the Shadows and The Leopard’s Tribe
  • Pooja Rajkumar Rathod, cinematographer – Secrets of the Elephants
  • Sanal George, sound editor/mixer/designer – Gangubai Kathiawadi
  • Satya Rai Nagpaul, cinematographer – Ghoomketu
  • Shardul Bhardwaj, performer – Eeb Allay Ooo!

Enjoy this article? Check out these Redbrick interviews:

Interview: UoB Swimming Star Ollie Morgan

Interview: Harry Hill and Steve Brown of Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera

Interview: Esther Manito