A Dying Art

Don't get too attached. Ooh, spoiler.

I bought The Graveyard this week. It’s a low-key, miniscule release from indie developer types, Tale of Tales. And it’s not really a game, even though you’ll probably try to approach it as such: you’ll let your fingers settle into their usual position on the keyboard, and proceed to wonder why your avatar is moving so slow, and why you can’t shoot a machinegun at everything in sight. Answers: because she’s an eighty year old woman, and because this isn’t a game. It’s been described as an interactive poem, which seems a lot more fitting a description, although you’d probably get a punch in the mouth if you tried to say that to someone who hasn’t experienced it.

I stress that I bought it this week, because I’d had the playable demo for a few weeks before. Unlike most other demos, it wasn’t just the first level or a representative section that was playable – it was the full thing, from start to end. That only amounts to a little over five minutes, granted, but the point still stands. What forking over the three Euros asking price for the game afforded me was the ability to die (and in the game!)

Admit it: you'd shoot her if the game awarded you an Achievement for it, woudn't you? WOULDN'T YOU?!?

Tangent time: games do death very well. Whether you’re commanding your Medieval army into foreign lands with an eye on some new territory, unloading a small nation’s supply of bullets into an enemy’s skull, or thinking up some new and creative way of murdering your Sims – if you’ve played three games in the last year, chances are you’ve killed at least one person. (Although that person was probably made of pixels, rather than flesh, despite what Jack Thompson and the Daily Mail would have you believe.) And it’s all very convincing and satisfying – as graphics continue their inexorable march towards Uncanny Valley, so too do in-game deaths reach new levels of entertainment value. Seeing a soldier flail around with semi-realistic Ragdoll Physics has an inherent hilarity that’s difficult to exhaust.

What games don’t do very well is making you think about death, or more specifically, “life and death”. Beyond the simplistic equation of “him dead = me alive”, games don’t really give you time or reason to ponder mortality much; on they whole, they’re pretty much at the Rambo stage of adolescent buffoonery – lots of shooty-violence, with the slightest hint of plot draped over it, and BOOM! Instant game. The odd time, you’ll have an affecting death in a game – think the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, or Broken Sword 3: The Sleeping Dragon (and notice how neither of those two deaths are caused by the player) – but for the most part, death is a mechanic. A means to achieving some larger, end-of-game objective, rather than being the objective itself.

Some games do their best to prove otherwise, of course – Soldier of Fortune‘s somewhat racist approach to gameplay ended up being more like a human dissection simulator than a standard shooter, and the Manhunt franchise’s controversial take on the subject has garnered enough attention without me adding to the noise. But even these games, with all their gruesome, gory details and seemingly insatiable thirst for claret, are more fetishistic than realistic. Cartoon rather than documenary – exploitation more than meditation. The gaming world’s equivalent of Hostel or Saw, basically, except with Michael Clarke Duncan instead of Danny Glover. Violence porn, and nothing more meaningful than that.

And for the most part, it’s hard to argue with that: shooting and killing and hurting people in games is fun, dammit. But it would be nice if the industry could collectively move past the predilection for violence it’s displayed so far: the need for the familiar touchstone of the brutal cessation of men’s lives that gets inserted into most games, whether it fits or works right, or not. The kind of demented thought process that made UbiSoft Montreal think that it was the violent, slightly misjudged swordfighting of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time that everyone fell in love with, and proceeded to gut the franchise of the lovable fairy tale atmosphere, ratchet up the bloodshed and swearing, and crap out Warrior Within. I mean, those games are fine, but it would be nice to get more than a handful or so titles each year that provoke some kind of thought outside of the game: something like Bioshock‘s deconstruction of Objectivism, or The Longest Journey‘s ruminations on innocence.

If you're wondering when you beat a zombie to death with that cane, this probably isn't for you.

And this is where I think The Graveyard comes in. Admittedly, it’s a 10 minute long non-game, but the fact that it’s available on Steam (along with Tale of Tale’s follow-up, The Path, which is a whole other discussion) and therefore both visible and very accessible to people who normally wouldn’t seek this sort of thing out, means it’s something of a step into the mainstream for this kind of arty, quote-unquote pretentious project. Let me explain what happens in The Graveyard. You “play” a grandmother, visiting a graveyard. There are birds, there’s ambient street-noise, there are lines and rows of gravestones. It’s rendered in a muted greyscale palette, as befits the solemn theme, with brilliant use of light and shade to create, in tandem with the sound effects, a wonderfully evocative atmosphere. You limp up a path, with the aid of your cane, and sit on a bench.

Then the magic starts. You relinquish control, and sit back and watch, as a beautiful song starts to play, dealing with life, death, our relationships with graves, over a waltzing rhythm that in some way reminded me of 1980’s Tom Waits. The song ends, you stand up, and you walk back out of the graveyard. It’s a touching and thought-provoking experience even in its demo form. But as I said, when you purchase the full game, you purchase the ability to die: sort of an anti-god cheat. And it changes the experience in a profound way.

Firstly: the lady can die at any point. It’s completely out of your control, completely random. The first time it happened, for me, was in the middle of the song. She was just sitting there, looking out at the rows of headstones, then she bowed her head, and passed. The song kept playing. The birds kept flying about, and the clouds kept passing overhead. Most importantly, the game kept running. And running. If we’re used to death being an endgame of sorts – you die, you restart from a checkpoint or savegame, and try not to die this time – then The Graveyard takes it one step further. If you die, you stay dead until you quit the game and start over. Dying prevents you from finishing The Graveyard, but it finishes her life. It’s remarkable peaceful, serene… final. No do overs, because it wasn’t your fault she died. She didn’t take a bullet, she didn’t sacrifice her life for the greater good – it was simply her time

It’s a startling reminder of the fragility of life. And because of that, staying alive throughout the 10 minutes takes on a whole new significance. As you walk out of the graveyard, the song still worming its way around your brain, watching the old lady limp slowly, almost painfully, away from what we assume are memories of what she was once walking home to, you begin to wonder if staying alive is the happy ending or the sad ending. And then the screen fades to black, and you’re left to decide for yourself. Just like any good poem, the content is there, but the reading is up to you.

Considering the colossal death toll of your average Call of Duty or Gears of War, it’s surprising that a single in-game death can provoke such a strong reaction – especially when you realise you know nothing about the old lady. It’s a success of pacing, atmosphere, and sheer minimalist focus, and it’s near-impossible to convince someone who’s never tried it that it can be so rich an experience. But it can, and it is, and every gamer owes it to themselves to at least give it a shot, so-to-speak. It might not speak to everyone in the same rewarding way that it spoke to me, and it’s certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.

But it’s very refreshing for your in-game death to be worthy of a thought more complex than “Oooh, I’ll have to play through this bit again, now.”

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One Response to A Dying Art

  1. matt says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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