What went right and what went wrong
Because of our unfamiliarity with Unity, production of The Graveyard took a bit longer than it could have. We started prototyping and experimenting in the trial version of Unity in December 2007 but the game production proper started in January 2008. It had to be interrupted in February during the Game Developers Conference because The Path was selected for the Independent Games Festival.
Making a suitable demo and video clip together with the trip took about a month. And after that -- like so many other GDC visitors -- we were sick for a week. So, in total, production of The Graveyard took between two and three months for two fulltime developers and three freelancers: character animations by Laura Raines Smith, sound efffects by Kris Force and music by Gerry De Mol (each of whom will be featured later in this article).
The first thing we did was visit the cemetery of a small town in Belgium, where Michaël grew up. He used to like visiting this place. To get a feel of the kind of atmosphere we were going for, we drove over one day. Michaël still remembered how to get there. The cemetery of Izegem is a very peaceful and quiet place. There's nothing sad or sinister about it. And there's a certain harmony of human death and natural life that is very poetic. The layout of the Izegem cemetery seems to mimic the layout of a city: streets lined with grave next to grave, families buried close to each other and tombstones that look like little buildings.
The cemetery of Izegem, Belgium, served as the main inspiration for the environment of The Graveyard. Perhaps we have made a new kind of landscape painting?
We made a single concept sketch for the environment, just to capture the mood. And then we did a lot of research into pictures of old people. It took a while before we decided on the type of person she would be, how old exactly, which class, which ethnicity, etc. We wanted her to use a cane but she shouldn't be handicapped. Etcetera.
Michaël's grandmother of 98, who talks about death every time we meet her, obviously influenced some of the design decisions. But the avatar needed to be more of an archetype than an actual person -- so that the player can project their own experiences into the game.
From the start we knew we wanted to ask Gerry De Mol to make a song for the game. We had worked with him before on The Endless Forest, for which he made all the music. His music is often based on traditional folk music from all over the world and his lyrics are always very subtle and understated. He is one of very few artists who has the courage to sing about ordinary life and help us see the poetry in it. We knew that he could really express the right mood for The Graveyard. And we had wanted to use the Flemish language in a game for a long time.
We showed him our blocky prototype and the pictures of Izegem and explained what we wanted. It's always a bit tricky to commission another artist. Ideally you want an artist to make whatever comes natural to them. That's how they make their best work.
So when you ask them to do something specific, you limit them in a way. This may be the reason why the first arrangement of the song that Gerry made was not suitable for the game. It was much more dark and somber than the version we ended up with. We didn't want this game to be only sad. We wanted to have a broad mix of emotions. So we asked Gerry to lighten up the song.
For the animations, we also worked with a long time collaborator: Laura Raines Smith. Years ago, after a lot of trouble finding somebody who can animate characters in a style that we like, we haven't worked with anybody else yet. She made the animations for 8, for The Endless Forest, Drama Princess, is working on The Path and of course did the animations of the old lady in The Graveyard.
Our games don't have words in them. Or hardly. And there's no clear storyline because we want people to fantasize. So the animations are very important to express the personality of the characters and their mood. Laura excels in making animations that do this. She always adds those little things that make you feel for the characters. Animation is a form of artistic expression to her, not simply a way to make characters do things.
For The Graveyard, she started by sending us lots of motion capture files of old and sick people. But most of them were too exaggerated. We also doubted for a long time about whether the character should limp or not. And if so, how. Turning the character around is very slow. We wanted it to feel really hard to do, even if that doesn't make sense, realistically.
For the sound, we originally wanted to work with the person who did the sounds for The Endless Forest. But he was difficult to reach, so we asked Kris Force, who is assisting Jarboe with the music for The Path. As it turned out, she is an excellent sound designer and engineer and delivered lots of interesting assets.
The most important aspect of the sound design is that there is a gradual shift between coming from the outside, with its noisy city sounds, to moving towards the center of the cemetery, which is silent and warm. We still wanted the city to be audible in the distance, because this situation should not be isolated. That's why you hear the dog and the sirens and the clock tower (which chimes on the hour).
We always try to build a working version of the game as soon as possible. Even if it looks and sounds terrible, being able to get an early feel for the interaction is vital to development. We prefer to design as much as possible in the game engine, rather than on paper.
In the beginning, The Graveyard was in color. But when we were playing with post-process shaders in Unity (we really like post-processing images in real time! :) ), we fell in love with the black and white style. Probably because of watching too many Godard and Bergman movies...
The Graveyard is a simple project with very few features. But it was still hard to get everything done in time (i.e. before we ran out of money). A lot of elements, especially in the programming, are a lot more simplistic than we might prefer. And there were several elements that we would have liked to add. But we're used to finishing projects with long lists of features that were not implemented.
Our growing To Do lists contain everything we would like to see in the game, but the items on them get prioritized and reprioritized as the project continues. We work our way down the list. But there's always a large amount of features that remain theory. It's not always a choice of what would be the nicest thing for the game, but often a question of whether we can get it done on time and whether it delivers sufficient impact compared to the effort to create it.
Aesthetically, we find it very important that our games feel real. But they don't necessarily need to look real. We're more interested in finding a painterly style that is true to the medium, than a realistic or cartoony style that borrows from cinema. And while we like working with the realtime three-dimensionality of a game world, we are also acutely aware of the fact that the result is always a two dimensional picture. That's why we are more inspired by paintings than by the laws of physics. It's about creating an effect, not about whether or not it's realistic.
Lighting is very important, for instance. But we tend to use very few actual lights in our games: one or two directional lights, some ambient light. The rest is all about messing with the colors of the 3D objects and the color and density of fog. These are very dynamic in our games. That's how we get the effect of clouds passing in front of the sun, for instance. It doesn't matter that the black spots on the floor don't correspond with the shapes of the clouds. As long as it feels right, so right that you don't really notice it. It's not so much about creating a picture to be scrutinized, as it is about creating a mood that you can believe in, spontaneously.
The game was finished on time to be released on Good Friday, which is the Catholic commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ (we like playing with religious traditions). Before we released it, however, we sent it around to a few friends, to ask for opinions. The response was mixed, to say the least. The biggest problem seemed to be that the people we asked didn't appreciate the fact that the game only generated questions and did not supply any answers. They seemed to think of art as a kind of riddle that they needed to solve. But we only asked people who are used to playing games. More about the response to the game in the final chapter of this article, though.
Now it's time for the traditional overview of what went right and what went wrong in this project -- starting with the good news.