This article is part two of an ongoing feature on the digital media art of Belgian studio Tale of Tales, run by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn. The discussion of these works, apart from showcasing their intrinsic merits, will serve as a springboard for brief thoughts on the relationship between digital media, games, art, and narrative.
While development and play on The Endless Forest [read my article on that work here], the first public release by Tales of Tales was still going strong, Auriea and Michaël had been working on new concepts. One of them, which borrowed elements from their unfinished project 8, would later become The Path, which was released in 2009, and which will be the subject of our next and most extended feature on this Flemish design studio. The other was a shorter, more modest project, and quicker to develop for a final release as well. It was the digital vignette called The Graveyard, and the first of the Tale of Tales titles to be distributed semi-commercially online, beyond the confines of their own website.
The Graveyard is a simple program that has a limited interactivity. As a ‘player’, we control an elderly woman who is visiting a graveyard, presumably to check on the graves of people she’d known, and also as a bit of respite from the world outside the confines of the graveyard, which has become increasingly fast-paced over the course of this woman’s life. As we hit the controls, the woman stumbles forward slowly, unsure of her footing it seems, leaning on her cane. We can send her into side paths, but the fixed camera viewpoint prohibits any in-depth exploration of these areas. Instead, we are forced by the program to go deeper into the graveyard, slowly leaving the sounds of the world behind as these fade away. The excellent sound direction in the program makes this transition graduate but very clear. Once we reach the chapel and the bench, the sounds of traffic and dogs barking are replaced by relatively silence, and the soothing twitter of birds.
Here, in the central area, the core content of The Graveyard is presented. We let the old woman sit down on the bench, and we dive into her memories, to the tune of a song in Flemish by Gerry de Mol, which couples narrative poetic lyrics on various deaths and the cleaning of gravestones to an idiosyncratic folky instrumentation. We listen to the song play out, with English subtitles for those who happen not to be born in the Low Countries, and that’s it, the dream ends. We are allowed to walk the lady back towards the outside world. That is, unless we’re running the paid version of the program, in which there’s a good chance the woman will hang her head for one final time during her dream. Perhaps it was for the best, and she led a good life, gaining a quick, painless death in the end.
If that all sounds a bit morbid, well, it is. That’s the beauty of The Graveyard. Rather than being a game of any traditional kind, it uses the 3D digital medium to create a moving tableau with a certain amount of interactivity, and which manages to express a restful and heartfelt emotion about death and dealing with death. A rather elaborate memento mori, if you will.
Approached with expectations of a game where there is something to be gained, or even an æsthetically overwhelming tour of a graveyard, this program will end up disappointing you. However, that would be ignorant of the merits that are contained in the limited setup of The Graveyard. The combination of a grainy black-and-white visual experience - not unlike old films - with subtle and expressive sound design and an evocative song manage to make it into a highly stylised digital representation of thinking about death. And that might just be what Tale of Tales were after: exploring the possibilities of using audiovisual digital media to express something different than is traditionally done. Comparisons with all sorts of media forms present themselves readily: short film, vignette, painting, postcard, and very distantly, video game. In the end, though, The Graveyard is a rare example of something new that fuses aspects of many of these.
You’ll be able to experience the free (non-lethal) version of The Graveyard by downloading it from its official website, or from digital distributors like GamersGate. Incidentally, the full version costs little more than a postcard with envelope and stamp, just to put things into perspective.
If you’re interested in reading a bit about the development process of The Graveyard, including short interviews with Gerry de Mol (music), Kris Force (sound design) and Laura Raines Smith (character animation), you might want to read the post-mortem on the Tale of Tales blog.
Images courtesy of Tale of Tales.