[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.
2. How to make an idea come to life
The very same night of the concept revision, we started working on the dossier that we would submit to the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (or "VAF", in Dutch) to request funding to build The Graveyard. Unlike some other independent game developers and artists we don't have a "day job". Making games is a fulltime occupation for us, simply because the things we want to make are incredibly time-consuming. So we need funding to work on our projects. A large chunk of the money tends to go to our wages.
The request was submitted on 4 June 2007. Submitting funding requests was nothing new for us. When we realized that getting funding was more a matter of luck than anything else, we made a point of submitting a request for funding with every deadline, which was every three months. We have a long list of ideas, so there's always something to submit. And sometimes we get lucky. We had already learned that smaller projects with lower budgets make a better chance at being accepted. So we chose The Graveyard this time.
The Flanders Audiovisual Fund focuses mainly on film. It is a vital instrument in the local creation of cinema because without government support it would be impossible to create Flemish films, given that the territory is so tiny and film production so expensive. Yet cinema is an extremely popular form of entertainment, here also. The support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund offers a guarantee that we don't get flooded by alien culture. I like to think that games fall into this category too.
Sadly, the Flanders Audiovisual Fund does not agree, yet. So we generally have to submit our requests for funding in their "Experimental Media" category, which mostly exists for video art and museum-type media art, a category with a much smaller budget than film.
On 11 September 2007, we received the good news that the Flanders Audiovisual Fund had accepted our proposal. They were going to grant us 15,000 Euros (out of a total budget of 18,000) for producing The Graveyard. We needed this amount for two months of full time work for two people (plus the company overhead) and hiring a few freelancers for specific tasks.
We received commentary from the commission that makes the decision about a request for funding. A few things stood out in their assessment of The Graveyard. First, the good news:
Some members of the commission stress the artistic and graphic qualities of Tale of Tales. Through previous works, they have proven to be capable of creating a fascinating universe. The commission recognizes the special position of Tale of Tales within the international games landscape. One member stresses the diversity in the work of Tale of Tales, with big projects like The Endless Forest and small and focused ones like The Graveyard.
But despite of the final positive response of the commission, there was still a fair bit of criticism.
The commission is divided about the concept and execution of the project. Most members are convinced by the simple, humoristic and clever concept. The idea of exploring the theme of dying in an interactive digital piece is relevant and intriguing. Tale of Tales deconstructs the medium of games. Other members believe that the project doesn't offer much artistic added value or content and is only based on a superficial experience of shock.
One member considers the project to be more of a parody on Tale of Tales' own work than on the games industry or game aesthetics. The members of the commission also differ in opinion about the public reception of the piece. Part of the commission is afraid that the discrepancy between concept and experience will be too great, causing frustration with the players.
And the eternal fantasy that art people have about digital projects:
One member of the commission thinks that the project can also be realised without the support of VAF.
This always comes up. Because we make games and because we insist on distributing them digitally rather than rarifying them on media art festivals or in galleries or museums, some people think that our work can support itself. We hope some of it will be able to in the future. But as you will see in the final chapter of this article, about sales and response, The Graveyard is not one of those projects.
Pre-production interactive prototype to get a general idea of the gameplay and explain the concept to our collaborators
Choosing Technology and learning how to use it
We had made a very simple blocky prototype of the game in Quest3D, the authoring application we use for making The Endless Forest and The Path. But since The Graveyard was such a small project and very simple in terms of technology, we decided to take the opportunity to experiment with a new technology. We had already been looking at Unity in the past but it wasn't until we heard that it also supports development for Wii that we got really interested. So we wanted to try it out, to see what we could do with it.
Experimenting with new technology also fit within the research into different types of programming that we are doing with media arts collective Foam in Brussels. The best way to find out the advantages and disadvantages of an authoring tool is to develop a real project with it from concept to publication.
An extra motivation was the satisfaction of a long-term curiosity: would there be an audience on the Mac OS platform for our work? We had always suspected that there was one but had never been able to test it (because Quest3D is exclusively Windows-based). You will find out in the final chapter of this article how that turned out.
While games made with Unity can be run on several platforms, the authoring application only runs on Mac OS. Auriea had been a Mac user since forever. But Michaël had always been using Windows. Working with realtime 3D and Quest3D had moved our activity in the direction of Windows, so the prospect of doing a Mac project was exciting for Auriea.
We knew from the start that programming in Unity would not be a lot of fun for us. Because it is script-based and we are used to the visual programming in Quest3D. But literally everything else in Unity came as a welcome surprise. As opposed to Quest3D, Unity is designed for making games. This means that a lot of things you would have to build for yourself in Quest3D are a standard component of Unity.
At first, this felt a little bit limiting and even patronizing, but as we realized that we were in fact making a game that wasn't that much different from other games, we welcomed the convenience. Also, as opposed to Quest3D, Unity has been designed. Designed with the user in mind. Unity is not just an interface to a bunch of technical features, which is what Quest3D often feels like. Unity is an authoring application for humans to get stuff done.
The most delightful aspect of this well-thought-out design is probably the asset managment (which is nothing but headaches in Quest3D). Unity does not use the concept of importing assets. Instead you put all your models and sounds and textures and scripts in your project folder and the editor finds them for you. Every time these assets change, they are automatically updated in the game.
This is especially nice for Blender files, which are supported directly by Unity. You can easily switch between Blender and Unity and make changes. It's a fluid process. The same is true for scripting. Even its Collada support (which we needed to get our character animations out of Max) is excellent. We could probably have shared the project folder between the two of us, but our network tends to be a bit flaky for Macs, and we like to keep a repository of our projects.
So we decided to use Unity's Asset Server technology to share the project. It's a very nice repository system built into the application. Sometimes an update requires a restart of the editor, but even that isn't very problematic as Unity keeps a cache of your project that allows it to load things in the blink of an eye.
The final game as it is displayed in authoring application Unity
At the top left, a schematic view that allows you to see your game world from any angle, even when it is running. Underneath that, the game as it is seen by the player. In the middle, the bottom window is basically an overview of your asset folder and the top window shows the assets that are actually used in the game. To the right, you see the exposed properties of the selected game object, in this case the avatar. You can change these properties while the game is running, which is very handy for experimenting.
3. Making the game
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.
What went right
We know that there's a tendency in the independent game developer community to think that making games costs no money. But this only applies to people who make games in their spare time or who are supported by their families. We don't have any spare time, simply because we choose to make games that require a lot of work. And we do have families, but we're the ones supporting them, not the other way around. So we need funding to be able to do our work.
We had received support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund before. So we knew how and when to submit proposals. And we had a good idea of the kinds of things they like. Our own focus tends to be on simply building a living and breathing world that feels nice. But there's very little understanding for this type of work in funding organizations.
We tend to be most successful when the cost of the project is low and the concept includes a little twist, a bit of irony, a tongue-in-cheek gesture. We often kid that we are doing these enormous amounts of hard work but we're only getting funding for telling a clever joke.
In The Graveyard, the twist was the added death feature in the full version and the fact that when the protagonist dies, she is still dead when you restart the game (in fact, we originally intended the game to require a re-install when that happened, but that didn't work on Mac OS which doesn't really use installers anymore). That added a kind of meta-narrative to the game that the people who decide on the funding seem to need.
It takes about a week to write and submit a proposal, so it's not trivial. But in the end we did get the funding quite easily, even if it was only a small amount of money. We actually liked that fact, because it forced us to keep the scale of the project small (after all we were still in the middle of the production of The Path).
Cover image of the project proposal: a simple outline of the entire game. We used the game's simplicity of design as a provocation
Not to be underestimated are the contributions of Laura Raines Smith, Gerry De Mol and Kris Force. We were able to just throw ideas at them and they would come up with a creative solution and beautiful assets. Without requiring any real management. We are not very authoritarian. We like it when people work independently and take initiative. But that only works if those people spontaneously produce work that fits with the project. We were very fortunate.
Exploring game design concepts
The Graveyard is the realization of a dream, in a way. We had been discussing and blogging about games without rules, games without goals, games that are about being rather than seeing. But we hadn't really finished a game design that explored this thoroughly. The Graveyard gave us an opportunity to do so and to understand the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach. Not only in terms of game design as an art form, but also in terms of reception by the public.
We were amazed by the response we got to The Graveyard, from the press as well as the audience. There will be details in the last chapter of this article, but we can already say that we are more than happy with the attention that the game received.
A lot of people really liked the experience. And many of those who weren't entirely convinced appreciated our efforts and expressed hope for the future. We got a lot less negative response to The Graveyard than we did to, say, The Endless Forest. I guess perhaps the hardcore gamers (who are very adamant about "criticizing" The Endless Forest), just shrugged and went elsewhere this time.
Demonstration leading up to The Path
Part of why The Graveyard was received so well is probably that we have been slowly but surely building a reputation for ourselves. The selection of The Path in the IGF and the double spread about the game in Edge magazine probably helped people to take our work a bit more seriously.
In a way, The Graveyard served as a sort of teaser for what people can expect from The Path. It deals with a similar theme and has a similar graphic style and gameplay. We also used it in