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Telling stories with gravestones: How Boon Hill raises the dead

Professional video game and comic writer Matthew Ritter has had a rather unusual obsession, ever since he was a kid: gravestone epitaphs.

Professional writer Matthew Ritter has had a rather unusual obsession, ever since he was a kid: gravestone epitaphs.

His game, Boon Hill, which was successfully Kickstarted back in 2013, is all about reading gravestones. There are no goals, no challenges. Nothing in the game overtly evolves or progresses, as we might see in other walkabout games such as Proteus or Dear Esther.

But what's interesting about Boon Hill is Ritter's take on what "story" means in video games. There's no arching narrative here, just the gravestones, the names, and the epithets. There's the random, such as:

Cabaret Parcel
1910-1998
"I will miss cake."

But then there are the instances that paint a picture of the deceased:

Neal R. Neal
1906-1996
Sixty years she taught, they didn't always learn, but she taught on.

And then you see two gravestones side by side:

Joshua Lee
January 6th 1963-October 20th 1999
Together.

Stacey Olin-Lee
February 23rd 1961- October 20th 1999
Together.

Not everyone is fixated on gravestones enough to make a video game about them, but everyone, to varying degrees, is curious about those who have been before us. When you look at a gravestone, you get the tiniest peek at a life that might have lasted decades, or perhaps just minutes. Boon Hill, or at the very least the idea behind it, teases and appeals to the curiosity we all inherently have about the dead, and the people who they touched when they were alive.

"There are stories of course," said Ritter in an email interview. "In many ways each gravestone is a story. It starts out and gives you the length of time the person was alive, it gives you the beginning and the end. Then you learn the name the person had, which tells you things about them, about what their parents were like and a little about their family.

"Then you get an epitaph, something they or more probably their family put on the grave in an attempt to immortalize them forever. Which gives you some other information. That is a tiny story in of itself."

In that sense, Boon Hill takes the idea of environmental storytelling so advocated by games like Gone Home a step further. If you were to boil Boon Hill down to its basic system, it's really just a series of (sometimes related, sometimes not) notes with dates, names, and a phrase, which you can read in any order you wish. These notes all have one thing in common: they're representative of a dead person or pet (yes, there's a pet cemetery). In a sense, you turn these notes over and read them, one at a time, and your brain fills in the blanks, drawing assumptions about this dead person or animal, drawing connections with deceased described in other "notes."

Once a player gets past the apparent mundanity of walking around a 2D graveyard, and surrenders theirself to curiosity, small stories do take shape at Boon Hill. That's no accident.

"It's not really Aristotelian in the way its a story," Ritter said. "There isn't so much a beginning a middle and an end. It's a graveyard of a town. It's intimate and yet cold. It's incredibly personal and yet distant. It's sad and sometimes it's interesting. Yet, it's an important kind of fiction, because we insist on doing it. We as humans do it, and thus it matters to us. If it matters to us, it's important.

"A gravestone doesn't mean anything to the dead person. It only means something to the people who read it. In that way people long gone, people who weren't famous, or weren't rich, can still continue to change the world around them."

At one point, Ritter said he considered making the game mind-numbingly "artsy," like The Spoon River Anthology, but in video game form. Then he figured no one wants to play that. So then he considered making it more like a graveyard treasure hunt, and the gravestones are just an ambient aspect of that.

In the end, he said "screw it," and decided to make what he wanted to make, which is the Boon Hill "graveyard simulator" that will see release (possibly) in the next six months.

Ritter has learned some lessons along the way as well, about making games as a writer. "Learn to program," he said. "Game design, game writing, game everything is programming. You shouldn't write a book without at least knowing the basics of the language you're going to write in, games are the same way. You don't need to become a master, but you should figure out how computers think, it helps."

He added, "Also, remember that the player is not casually consuming your work. It should not 'flow over them' for the most part. They wish to interact with it. Games can do things in narrative other art forms can't and for that reason this part of it should be explored. Games are still young and new, don't be afraid to try something silly or stupid.

"The worst that will happen is people think it's silly and stupid and you can try something else next."

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