Visit a graveyard and contemplate your twilight years.
PC Release: March 21, 2008
By Ian Coppock
The search for novel video games results in some true oddities. Goat Simulator, a gloriously glitch-prone game about goats adorned with jet packs, or Soda Drinker Pro, a game that’s literally just drinking soda in poorly rendered worlds. The oddities of the gaming world extend beyond the absurd, though; there are also plenty of “high art” pieces trying to push the envelope of game design. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they wander off into the sunset leaving the player dazed and confused. The Graveyard might co-inhabit all three of those categories.
The Graveyard is a spooky little art game created by a Belgian company called Tale of Tales. Well, they’d probably take issue with being called a company. They’d probably also take issue with being called an obnoxiously pretentious pair of hipsters, but they have a tendency to fly much closer to that latter label. The Graveyard is one of Tale of Tales’ very first projects, but they insist that their work isn’t video games. At one point or another they’ve insisted that their games be referred to as “living tableaus” or “momento moris for your digital hands”.
Buckle up, folks. We’re about to take a deep dive into either clear-eyed genius, or unadulterated insanity, depending on who’s being asked.
The Graveyard is a simple little game that follows an old woman as she visits a cemetery. As the woman, players can wander among a few rows of tombstones, but that’s about it. The gameplay is quite limited. While limited gameplay is by no means a deal-breaker (look at ISLANDS: Non-Places), it bears mentioning that what little gameplay The Graveyard has is quite clunky. The controls for this game are awful, with alright forward and backward movement but very wide-circling, slow turns. Yeah, the protagonist is an old woman, but just because the character has a hard time getting around doesn’t mean that the player should too.
Like a lot of games reviewed on this page recently, The Graveyard was built on the Unity engine and only has that tiny pre-launch options menu. Resolution and graphics quality are players’ only recourse for visual fidelity, but luckily, The Graveyard is not visually complicated, so this isn’t as much of an issue as the controls.
Anyway, the goal of The Graveyard is simple. Spend a few minutes looking at tombstones and then pop a squat on an old church bench. As soon as the player sits on the bench, a ghoulish little Belgian folk song will start playing over the scene. Though the song’s lyrical matter about death and final destinations is appropriate for a game like this, the singer is off-key and the guitar strums sound hollow. Meanwhile, the player just sits there as the camera zooms in on the old lady’s face and lyrical subtitles play out at the bottom of the screen.
And… that’s it. The entire game takes about 5-10 minutes to complete. The song plays for a few moments, the old woman picks herself up and leaves, and the game’s over. Sometimes the old woman will suddenly keel over and die, but that only makes the game shorter. That’s The Graveyard.
Okay, so despite being only a few minutes long, there’s a lot to unpack with a title like The Graveyard. Why so short? Why the minimal interactivity? What is the point of this game and what is the player supposed to take away with them once the credits roll?
Tale of Tales has a habit of making the point of their games frustratingly vague, but it’s a bit clearer with The Graveyard. The point of the game is death, or contemplation of death. Visiting the graves of friends long gone and thinking about one day joining them. For anything else that can be said about The Graveyard, at least it’s not all that difficult to figure out. The theme of old age and life’s impending end can be felt with the old woman’s hobbling movements.
However, there’s something about the production of The Graveyard that feels unbearably half-assed. Just because a video game touches on a “deep” emotion does not mean that it can get away with neglecting everything else about its production. For although The Graveyard does explore the theme of death, the game’s tiny length combined with its bare-bones production does not a profoundly life-changing experience make. Video games don’t have to be long to be profound, but sitting on a bench and then leaving five minutes later leaves playing The Graveyard a hollow experience. It certainly precludes the power of its death motif.
To be fair to Tale of Tales, they make no effort to disguise how short the game is, and it was a side project built during the development of a much larger game. But the fact that the game is so short means that it has no time at all to build an emotional connection with the player before it’s over. This combined with the archaic-looking visuals, clunky controls, and tiny options menu makes it impossible to take The Graveyard seriously as a profound or emotional gaming experience.
The Graveyard deserves props for playing around with the boundaries of what defines a video game, but the time it spends doing that registers as barely a blip of pushing the envelope. The Graveyard is proof that video games need much more than an abstract motif to be profound. They need to let themselves run long enough for an emotional connection to form (The Graveyard does not) and they need to involve some measure of interaction from the player. The Graveyard tries to be artistic, but the effort it puts forth in doing so feels so minimal that the game just ends up being pretentious. It’s not worth the time, and it’s certainly not worth five dollars (one dollar per minute).
Nice try, Tale of Tales. But the effort put into a video game is proportional to how much of an experience players get out of it. Artistic vision alone does not guarantee a game profundity. Especially when it’s as brief and shallow as The Graveyard.
You can buy The Graveyard here.
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