As mentioned in our Kickstarter games round-up last week, Welcome to Boon Hill is one of the oddest, most morbidly fascinating projects currently on the crowdfunding platform. It’s described (pretty much literally) as a “graveyard simulator.” The primary gameplay elements revolve around allowing the player to wander freely among, read, and contemplate rows of virtual tombstones, all rendered in classically chunky pixel style. Ironically for a game so fixated on death, there is no “Game Over” in Boon Hill, no winning or losing, no goal whatsoever beyond what the players set for themselves. It is purely experiential, merging the creator’s long-lived interest in epitaphs with slow-paced “walkabout”-style gameplay, promising a virtual world that is pretty much unique, even on the indie gaming scene. Interest piqued, I nudged the game’s creator, Matthew Ritter, to help me dig up more details about the project and its oddball approach to interactive storytelling. The following is a record of conversations past, on the eternal subjects of life, death, and Tombstone pizza.
Matthew Ritter: Matthew Ritter is a human. He dresses like a freak and he lives life one day at a time, because taking days two at a time can prove fatal (though if you do find you have taken more than the prescribed dose, you should not induce vomiting). As for other projects I’ve done, mostly flash games and random indie games. Most commonly, I’ve done the art.
NS: Do you have a personal favorite epitaph? What would you like your gravestone to read?
MR: I have many favorite epitaphs. They change a lot. Right now, I’m probably most amused by Mark Twain’s. Well, it isn’t the one on his gravestone; he has another one there. I think this is just a quote of his, but it’d make a great epitaph: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” As for my own? I think currently I’d just go with, “He lived.” Maybe with no name or date.
NS: In one of the Boon Hill updates, you daydream about buying a gravestone for the game when the campaign ends. If you actually did this, what would you have carved into it?
MR: Probably something like, “An entire town is buried here, in memory if not in body.”
NS: The Kickstarter page describes the game in an intriguing way, stating that it’s “about trying to figure out the stories of the people buried around you. Any graveyard has a lot to say if you take the time, Boon Hill is no different.” I know that you’d probably preserve most of the surprises for the players, but is there an example you can share about the kinds of stories Boon Hill will tell?
MR: Well, here’s one that’s going up on the Twitter feed, so it isn’t a secret:
“She was never very heavy.” – Jessie Colton – 1879 – 1887
“Sunlight bless this grave.” – Haley Colton – 1878 – 1892
“Survived by her loving husband.” – Hidey Colton – 1860 – 1912
“Survived by no one.” – Hank Colton – 1855 – 1923
A family, all with the same last name, buried next to each other. Three kids, mom, father, suggesting a family that tried to have kids a few times, but they were always sickly and all died far to young. And a father who died alone…yet, who transcribed his epitaph? Clearly, even though he said he was survived by no one, someone cared enough to carry out his last wishes. Why was he so bitter at the end? Was Hidey as bitter as he was, but since he wrote her epitaph, it comes off more sad? Who did the epitaphs for the kids? The mother or the father? Why did none of the kids survive very long? Luck of the draw, or were they prone to sickness? On top of things like that, the nature of the gravestones: Are they upkept? Dirty? Is it three small ones and two big ones? There’s a progression of history there. There’s a lot being said about this one family and the way they were in life and how they felt about each other after they died. It’s this kind of story I want to tell, but even broader, about the whole town, over decades, centuries. Common references and themes, suggesting the narrative flow of life. Disjointed and not always clear, but definitely there, woven between headstones.
NS: I’ve always seen video games as being particularly suited to a style of storytelling that I can best describe as “reconstructive.” What I mean is that, in a game like Super Metroid, you are exploring the planet Zebes in real time, and there’s a huge amount of story there, but almost all of it has already happened–your job as player is to look at the effects and try to mentally reconstruct their cause. Your game seems to be one of the purest forms of this “reconstructive” storytelling: At the start of the game, almost all of the principal characters are already dead and buried. Was this a conscious decision? Do you think this project would have worked in another medium (say, an animated film)?
MR: I don’t believe this project could have worked in any other medium. It’s the nature of interactiveness that makes it possible. There’s already a pretty good book similar to it (the Spoon River Anthology), but it’s not the same. This is about going around and making your own connections. Each person playing has a chance to interact with the graveyard differently depending on the order they read the graves in and such. In an animated film and other things, you’re not finding and putting together your own clues. The clues are being given to you in a very specific way. So there’s less give and take between the work and the one experiencing the work. It’s a very different experience. I think that is why this could only be done true justice as a video game. We’ll see if I manage that.
NS: You mentioned Spoon River Anthology. Would you say that’s the closest thing to this project that’s already in the world? Can you maybe talk a little bit about the book (assuming you’ve read it)?
MR: I hope I’ve read it. It inspired the game and is amazing. If I only dreamed of reading it, then my dreams are beautiful. Spoon River Anthology is a collection of poetry told from the perspective of people buried in a graveyard. It’s beautiful, haunting, and one of the best books I’ve ever read. I would say, at least as far as my travels on this world go, yes it is the closest thing to the experience, unless some artsy person built an actual graveyard full of fake epitaphs. Which is entirely possible. I don’t know how to do Spoon River Anthology justice; it’s free to read online and very cheap to buy on Amazon. Everyone should read it.
NS: Any other influences?
MR: Everything. Anything and everything. Every book I read, every comic, every movie I see, every play, every conversation. As far as graveyards go, maybe that old Disney animated short where the skeletons play music on their bones? That one was awesome. Also, who doesn’t remember the scene in a Christmas Carol where he is faced with his own grave? Good stuff.
BC: What about games?
MR: For Boon Hill, the biggest inspirations were probably Exile, Escape Velocity, and The Realm, which were all open-world games that you could just travel around and explore, with no pressure to complete any sort of final goal. Well, Exile and Escape Velocity have final goals, but I was young and didn’t get them. They were these big games with big universes, and I would go around and read all the descriptions and just exist in the world. It was fun, and I liked just being in that other world. There’s lots of other games that have given me transcendent experiences, but those three are the ones that gave me a real taste for “walkabout”-style gameplay.
NS: Which elements do you think need to be present for the player to “exist” in a game without the game-ness taking over?
MR: Just existing is when the world itself becomes something worth living in, as opposed to the gameplay. It’s hard to achieve. I thought the most recent Elder Scrolls game did this well by having entire books written in-universe you could read if you wanted to. I think the key to existing in the space is having a lot of in-universe things to do and read and see, but not making them mandatory. So the context of the world is there to be explored if the player wants to, fleshing out the backstory in a completely unobtrusive way, rather than being shoved down the player’s throat. Finding ancient tomes can be fun; having to listen to hours and hours of forced exposition sometimes feels…well, forced.
NS: The idea of a virtual graveyard and the format of a nonlinear, goal-less “walkabout” game seem to go hand in hand. Which came first?
MR: The idea for the graveyard came first, and then I thought, “Man, that would be boring and weird. What could I do to give it a goal?” My first instinct was to make a game where you’re searching for a treasure in a graveyard. After a while, I decided to drop any pretense of a goal and just go with the aspect of the idea that interested me the most.
NS: It’s hard to talk about gravestones and computer games and not think of The Oregon Trail. Almost everybody has some experience with this game, and one thing that sticks in everybody’s mind is the way in which it handles the arcade machine concepts of the Game Over screen and High Score roster, combining them in a really thematic, morbid way. One thing that was really cool was that these games, which were usually in an elementary school computer room, would start out fresh, but over time would accumulate tombstones that built up to suggest a personality of this trail, this journey, that was unique to that community of players. Your project, while headed in a different direction with pre-written epitaphs and such, is still playing in the same space, so to speak. Where does the player fit into the story being told in Boon Hill?
MR: I’ve actually toyed with the idea of putting the most famous Oregon Trail gravestone into the game, the one that references the old Tombstone pizza commercials. I’m resisting it, as that’s just so silly, but it might end up in there if I stay up too late one night. As for the player fitting in, that’s really up to them. Because they can enter and leave at any time, and because they start out with a note that has a name that’s on one of the gravestones, the player can only assume they are a mourner. They’re a member of this town, exploring the graveyard and learning the history of where they live. That’s the easiest-to-assume narrative, but it isn’t the only one. They could just be a morbid person, or someone asked to check up on the grave by someone else, and so on. The player is a part of the space, and hopefully there will be enough for them to create their own narrative of just why they’ve come to this place.
NS: What is crowdfunding to you? Why did you choose Kickstarter to launch this project?
MR: Crowdfunding is, to me, the idea of old of the “patron” setup. Only now, instead of one or two rich guys, everyone can pitch in. It’s helping us support the people who we like so they can do things they’d never be able to do without that support. I think it’s exciting. I was inspired to use Kickstarter as a platform to launch the project because I often would have people drop out of a project early on when we were working on our own merit. This serves the dual function of having capital for the project and proving that people are interested.
NS: What were your thoughts when the project hit its funding goal?
MR: Going into it, I mostly had fear. When I’d met my goal, I had a new kind of fear. Now I must deliver the product I have promised. I’m confident I can do it, but there are doubts, as there always are. Will the project fall through? Will I let everyone down and ruin my career before I really have one? It’s hard to present the confident exterior that people want. Boundless confidence and swagger, that seems to be what people prefer. I don’t plan to give up or buckle, but the doubts run deep. On the other hand, it’s all given me confidence there’s an audience for the game, that I have something original that people are excited to see. That’s wonderfully inspiring. I will do everything I can to deliver upon that.
NS: What do you hope will be your backers’ first thought when they open the game in August?
MR: “Wow! This game got finished on time? I better buy six copies.” That would be preferable. Unlikely, though. I want them to enjoy it, because if they enjoy it, I might get to make more games. There’s a lot of things I want to try and do, much of it weird, and weirdness is much easier to get away with if people like you. If they hate me, admittedly, it won’t stop me. Nothing will stop me! Seriously, the first thoughts I think would make sense are, “I hope this is interesting.” As even though interesting can be a backhanded compliment, that’s infinitely better than boring.
Funding for Welcome to Boon Hill will close in less than 8 days, so head over to the game’s Kickstarter page now to make your pledge.