[In this postmortem of Tale Of Tales' thought-provoking art-game The Graveyard -- which is free to download in a basic version for PC and Mac -- the creators detail what went right and wrong, revealing funding wins, download statistics, and more.]
Birth of an idea
Your avatar is an old lady who walks through a peaceful graveyard (soundscape à la Endless Forest). That's it. That's the core game design.
The above was the initial concept of The Graveyard. At that point we also considered adding some gameplay to "make this more poignant and to give people something to do". We were thinking of a game where you would try to find the answer as to where the husband of the protagonist was buried. And every time you play, it would be a different grave. When you find the grave, the lady would do something (smile, cry, talk, etc.) -- a different thing every time.
After coming up with this idea, we realized why we thought it was strong. Like The Endless Forest, The Graveyard was designed around a core activity of walking through a certain environment. This simple activity is made meaningful by defining the avatar and the environment. A deer in a forest. An old lady in a graveyard. Both immediately imply meaning.
This happened on 24 September 2005, two weeks after the launch of the very first phase of The Endless Forest. We keep track of these things in a wiki. A year and a half later, on 29 May 2007, we added a note:
Does the gameplay described in the original version really add to the emotional impact of the game? Doesn't it, on the contrary, reduce the impact: perhaps giving players something to do, creates a layer of protection against the emotional impact?
This happened two weeks after finishing the first prototype of The Path, which lead to the decision to remove all buttons from the game's interface and with them much of the player's control over the avatar. For the same reason: the gameplay distracts from the story.
So the concept was revised:
A graveyard. You steer an avatar representing an old lady. You move her around but she walks very slowly. The camera is fixed to the avatar. No rotating, no zooming (re-enforcing the feeling of limited motion of an old body).
You walk through the graveyard. The camera follows you.
All the other aspects of the game were described at that point as well. The sound design, sitting on a bench listening to a song, quitting the game by walking out of the cemetery and even the idea of the lady's death and charging for that feature. There were some additional thoughts that were omitted from the final version: text on the tomb stones and feeding birds. We also considered making several chapters in which something different happens on the bench every time. And charge a very small price for each. We still like that idea.
Early concept sketch
When we talk about "story" with respect to our games, we don't mean linear plot-based narrative constructions. When we say story, we refer to the meanings of the game, the content, its theme. We believe that expression in any mature art form is driven by this content, by the story. In computer games, however, the reverse is often true: stories are chosen because they mesh well with a certain game structure or mechanic. Since games are about winning, they tend to feature stories about heroism and good versus evil. And even those stories are forced to fit the tight corset of game rules.
We are personally not very fond of war stories and the like. But we do believe that the interactive medium can be used for many things other than games. So we try to develop forms of interaction that express different kinds of stories.
We don't mind calling our work games because we believe that contemporary computer games have already crossed the borders of traditional games. Most of them just don't realize it yet. They don't realize that the most interesting aspect of their design is the way in which they express the story: through the environment, the animations, the color, the lighting, etc.
All those things that contribute to immersing the player in a virtual experience. Compared to this amazing new quality, ancient game structures seem rigid and out of place. But we feel that the commercial success of the games industry is holding the medium back from evolving into a true artistic medium. Most of any modern game budget is spent on the elements that express the story, on the simulation.
But very few developers are willing to publish the product without the game structure that they are so accustomed to (and for which they know there is an audience). As much as the game structure protects the player from experiencing the story, does it constrain developers within the confines of triviality, of toys?
With Tale of Tales, we try to develop a new form of interactive entertainment. One that exploits the medium's capacity of immersion and simulation to tell its story. This is why we made the gesture of charging a symbolic amount of money for one extra feature: the death of the protagonist. That small change alters the experience greatly. We wanted to make the point that it is the experience that matters, not the length of the game or the number of levels or enemies or weapons, etcetera.
It is probably safe to say that our work, and especially The Graveyard, focuses on the experience of being more than on seeing. Everything that you do in the game is there because we think it helps you experience the situation. We offer the player an opportunity to play their part in a narrative. Perhaps the request to "play a part" replaces "playing a game", and perhaps the performance we expect of the user is a theatrical one, not one based on a sportive challenge.
Of course there was also some irony involved in choosing the traditional trial/full version format. Especially considering the fact that The Graveyard parodies or criticizes certain well-established game concepts. In many games, death is simply a temporary game state, a way for the game to express your failure.
We were motivated by this shocking disregard for the meaning of death to make something that explores this concept more deeply. Not just your own death but also how we live our lives among people who will die or have died. Death is a fascinating part of life. We find exploring the emotions and contradictions triggered by it interesting and moving.