Finding the stories of the dead: how a game set in a cemetery will tell a new kind of story
A few years ago I took the family on a Disney vacation, but we stopped in Savannah, Georgia on the way to Florida to explore the city. We spent an entire afternoon wandering around Bonaventure Cemetery, one of the more famous gothic cemeteries in the country, made famous by the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but after a few minutes even the kids settled down and began to walk around and ask questions about the gravestones.
Why were these two men buried together? Why do so many of the epitaphs talk about the war, even if the deceased hadn't fought? We stopped for a moment at a plot that was peppered with smaller gravestones. None of the family’s children survived more than a few years.
You begin to see the relationships between people, or you trace the path of a disease. You see the human cost of events you've only read about. The experience was both sad and fascinating; you literally couldn’t take more than a few steps without finding an interesting story.
I didn't expect that experience would ever be made as a video game.
The game ends when you leave
“To put it as simply as possible, Boon Hill is a game about reading gravestones,” the Boon Hill Kickstarter page states. “There might be a few other elements in the final product but the bulk of the game would be just walking through a graveyard, reading epitaphs and thinking about who these people were and never will be again.”
That’s it. You can’t win, although you can eventually find the gravestone you’re looking for. You also can’t lose, as there is nothing that deals your character damage or attacks you in any way. Well, outside of a sense of existential dread, but that’s not a direct attack on your HP as much as it’s a spreading sense of meaninglessness that infects your soul.
But I digress.
The game itself isn't just an excuse to meander around a cemetery, as the hints at a hidden story and the connections between the dead sound fascinating.
I don't want to imply the game is aimless. Boon Hill is about inferred stories, about the connections people have that continue even after they die. The graveyard tells many tales woven by those who've long since passed on: stories of love, life, sorrow, and joy, told over generations.
The threads of narrative are woven throughout the gravestones for you to discover, if you have the inkling to look. A row of graves all with the same last name, most of them having died very young, suggests a specific set of circumstances. An epitaph that reads 'Survived by no one' is dour, yes, but clearly someone carried out their last wishes. Here, people are tied together by something as simple as similar birth dates, the places they were born or died, and even the styles of their grave markers. Subtle stories abound in the rows of stone.
It's an interesting way to handle narrative in a game. You can simply explore the countryside, or you can stop and read every grave stone. How little, or how much, you get out of the experience is really dependent on the player as much as the game's design. If you back the game on Kickstarter at certain levels you can write your own gravestone, and thus participate in populating the game's world while communicating with the future players.
I backed at the $50 level. I love the concept, and the idea of writing my own epitaph in a piece of art that others will experience proved too attractive to resist. There's also a sense of wish fulfillment in play: I plan to live to be 150 or so, and drift away in my sleep on the date of my choosing. This will be the same day my wife passes away. They'll find us in bed together, as if we're sleeping.
No one gets that kind of death, of course. But it's a pleasant fiction, a happy ending. The sort you'd expect to see in a video game.