[We're talking to this year's Independent Games Festival finalists, and this time, Eric Caoili interviews Tale of Tales' Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn about The Graveyard, a very short but thought-provoking interactive experience about old age and death, nominated for the Innovation Award.]

Though some would argue that it's far from an actual "game," The Graveyard is certainly a noteworthy, introspective title, presenting the idea of death not as something trivial like in most games, nor as depressing or dramatic as many would expect, but as a part of our existence -- death of old age.

In the trial version of the short PC/OSX game, players slowly guide a hobbling elderly lady through a cemetery, towards a bench. Alone and without ever saying a word, the woman sits on the bench while a poignant song, sung in Flemish but presented with English subtitles, plays.

The full, paid release is nearly identical except for one feature -- the possibility of death for the aged woman.

We spoke with Tales of Tales' designers Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn about The Graveyard, nominated for the Innovation award at this year's Independent Games Festival (part of Think Services, as is this website).

The two discuss how death is currently represented in video games, their response to critics who refuse to classify The Graveyard as a video game, and why they feel the independent games community is in a state of transition:

What kind of background does your team have making games?

Our team on The Graveyard consists of two people who worked on the project full time, Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn, and three freelancers who created specific elements of the game -- Laura Raines Smith with animation, Kris Force with sound, and Gerry De Mol with music.

Laura is an experienced animator who has worked on many commercial games. Kris is a musician who has also done sound design for commercial games, even for The Sims. And Gerry De Mol is a singer-songwriter with no other experience with games than making music for our own “social screensaver” The Endless Forest.

We, Auriea and Michael, have always been interested in the immersive and narrative potential of video games. And our work has often been playful in some way, even when it was just sculptures or paintings or performances.

We started our journey into interactive art through creating websites. Those dealt with pure interactivity and not with gameplay at all, though we did include game-like elements here and there.

Some six years ago, we switched tools and started working with video game technology. Not to make games per se, but to explore the immersive and narrative potential of the medium ourselves, rather than just trying to approximate it as we did in our web-based projects.

What sort of development tools did your team use?

The Graveyard was made with Unity. We used Blender for the modeling, and Laura animated in 3D Studio Max.

Can you talk about the differences between the full version and the demo version?

There’s only one difference: in the full version the protagonist can die. When she does, you lose the ability to close the application as the interface to do that is to walk the lady out of the cemetery gates.

While technically the difference is very small, and while you can get a lot of the content from the trial alone -- in fact, we feel that you need to play both for a complete experience -- the death of the avatar can have a huge emotional impact. It can drastically change one’s experience of the game.

We decided to charge a symbolic amount of money for this feature because we wanted to make a point about the value of games. In most game reviews, the value of a game is directly related to the cost of its production and the amount time you can spend playing.

We are critical of this attitude because it ignores the content of the game and depth of the experience of the player (e.g. how meaningful the game is outside and after playing).

Was there a specific event or source of inspiration that made you decide to create a game about death?

Nothing concrete. There was a memory of visiting a cemetery when we were young, to enjoy the tranquility of the environment. There was a very old but very lucid grandmother who talked about her own death all the time.

And there was also the desire to experiment with an interactive piece that was only about playing a certain person in a certain environment.

What are you trying to communicate about death in The Graveyard?

That’s a difficult question. Because we prefer to offer things to the player to think about for themselves, rather than expressing our own opinion.

Luckily, we live in a time that has interactive technology. Non-linear, generative, interactive media allow us to create art that needs to be completed by the viewer. This has been a desire and even a requirement of art for many centuries. But never before has it been so concrete. For us, art is not about what the artist wants to express. It is about what the viewer can see in it.

The Graveyard offers some ideas -- the lively nature in a cemetery, the calm of the dead, the physical problems of an elderly person, the relationship between city and cemetery, etc. -- but we don’t offer conclusions or a message.

It’s up to the player to decide what it means. As a result, different players walk away from the game with different emotions. Some feel sad, others comforted, yet others confused or frustrated. All of these responses are perfectly valid.

Are there any other games you’ve noted that don’t treat death as trivial?

From what we’ve seen, there are three kinds of death in games.

There’s the death of a character in the story, often expressed in a cut scene. That sort of death is seldom trivialized as it often signifies an import turn in the plot. The stories in games are often trivial as a whole, though. But so are a lot of stories in books and movies. So you can’t fault the medium for this.

I guess the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII would be the classic example of this sort of death, though we’ve never played that game long enough to experience this moment ourselves.

The second form of death in games is the death of your opponents. Especially single player shooter games are ghastly in this respect. If you stand still and think for a moment about what you are doing, you cannot be anything but horrified.

You’re basically a homicidal maniac on a killing spree, running around like a madman shooting everything that moves. To make this experience more acceptable, game designers often use the traditional tricks of political propaganda: they suggest that the morals and ideology of the hero are superior to that of the enemy and/or they paint the opponents as savage monsters with no other desire in life than to attack you.

We are still sickened to the stomach by the memory of hurling hundreds of living bodies through the air with a gravity gun in Half Life 2. But even Mario and Pikmin are highly objectionable in this respect.

The third form of game death is the one that we criticize in The Graveyard: the death of the avatar, the death of you. In video games, this death is hardly ever a real death.

We can’t think of any game that ends with the death of the avatar. Death is in fact a symbol for failure. The only response that the game expects is “try again”.

Some games even require the death of the avatar in order for the player to learn how to perform properly. There have been games -- Grand Theft Auto comes to mind -- that have replaced death by being wounded and resurrection by healing. This makes a lot more sense in the narrative of these games.

Did you have a name for the old woman while you were creating the game? Or your own story behind her?

No. No name, no story. I think this is because we start working with a character that we feel we already know, a character that already exists. Perhaps it’s the same for writers. But the way in which writers communicate this is by describing the character and telling the story.

Our medium of choice, however, is realtime 3D. So we communicate the character and her story through interactive scenes. The fact that this narrative is a lot more vague, in contrast to writing, is something that we fully embrace. In fact, it is this vagueness, this openness that attracts us to the medium.

The song that plays while the old woman seems to provide, if not an idea of who the woman is, then what losses she has suffered. Was this your intention? Was the song composed specifically for The Graveyard, or was the game designed around the song, or ... ?

We had no clear intention with the song. We just knew we wanted a song to play when the woman was sitting on the bench.

And we asked Gerry De Mol to compose and write this song because we felt that he would contribute something interesting to the game. We often work with our collaborators in this way: while we, consider ourselves to be the authors of the piece, we do open it up for contributions by other artists. We love what they can add to the piece and rarely question it. This is why we always choose the people we work with very carefully.

Some players interpret the song as being about this old woman. And about people she knew. That seems very plausible. But this is not intended by us. Perhaps it was intended like that by Gerry. It doesn’t matter. What matters is what you get out of it. Not what we put in it.

Can you talk a little about the audio design of the game, outside of the song?

The production of the audio elements was done by Kris Force. She has talked a bit about this in the postmortem we wrote about the game’s production. The design and implementation in the game was done by us.

Since our primary concern was to create an immersive experience, we tried to design the sound so it would feel as if you are really there, in that place. It’s a rich and layered soundscape that consists of several loops for wind and lots of random sounds placed in 3D, of birds and such. There’s also a church bell that chimes on the hour.

As you move from the gate towards the center of the cemetery, the sounds of the city become more muted and a sort of garden atmosphere becomes more prominent. We were also trying to change the temperature through the sound because we felt the center area would be warmer than the rest since there are no trees and a lot more gravel to reflect the warmth.

So while we may be minimalists in terms of interaction design, I think we are “maximalists” in terms of multi-sensual experience design. We use all aspects of the medium (and therefore rely on all sense of the player) together to create the atmosphere.

Do you have any ideas for what other games could do to make death not seem trivial?

That’s a huge question. To answer it, we’ll need to share a little bit of our view on video game history.

Just the other day I read something by Belgian Professor Jan Van Looy. He claims that the traditional “three lives” structure in arcade games was a literal translation of the three balls that you get when playing pinball.

I’m sure that in those days, the three “lives” of the “characters” on screen where as meaningless as the three balls in a game of pinball. It was just a game. It wasn’t really about something. Games were not a medium for storytelling and transmitting meaning yet.

But while the technology and the desire to create immersive worlds and believable characters has grown, gameplay design itself has hardly changed. Even though we truly believe in Lara Croft and Altair, they continue to just die and resurrect as if they were a yellow pizza disc with a missing slice for a mouth.

The problem is that while game developers were quick to abandon 8-bit graphics, simplistic AI, and chiptune music, the willingness to reconsider game design and structure has been mostly absent.

So much so that when the narrative potential of video games became what it is today, they actually created stories to fit the structure of game (which, as you remember, was defined by pinball) rather than adapting the interaction to fit any story or theme they felt like dealing with.

So here’s the answer to your question: abandon traditional game structures, say goodbye to pinball. It is pinball-inspired game design that forces developers to treat death or most other narrative elements as something trivial.

Now that the technology (and desire) is ready to allow for video games to become a medium of expression, developers need to take up their responsibilities. They need to start with a theme, a story, a piece of content. And then design all interaction so that it supports and expresses that narrative.

If the medium of video games opens up to the enormous variety of stories that can be told, death will automatically become, first of all, less prevalent -- in many if not most stories, nobody dies, least of all the protagonist -- and less trivial, because the expressive meaning of interaction has become more important than its entertainment value.

If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?

There are a few faults in the model of the old woman we’d love to fix. To try and make her perfect. Our skills have gotten a lot better in this respect since The Graveyard was released.

I think we would try to find a more elegant solution for the fact that walking down the side paths in the cemetery is irrelevant. But only because several players responded very negatively to this. I guess they didn’t realize that the game was not about spatial exploration. So we should communicate this better in the design.

There’s many more things we would do differently if we could start over with a bigger budget and therefore more time. I think many people don’t realize how difficult and time-consuming creating realtime 3D games is. I know we always underestimate it ourselves when drawing up our schedules.

Were there ever plans to include any more interactivity than what’s available in the final version?

Originally we were indeed weak and cowardly, without realizing it. In early versions of the design, we had considered adding a kind of puzzle element about reading the grave stones and figuring out where the husband of the lady is buried. With every playthrough, this would lead to a different grave.

But we abandoned that idea because we wanted to focus on the open-ended contemplative nature of a visit by an old woman to the graveyard. We didn’t want it to become a story about this specific woman and her dead husband. We wanted the game to be about death in general, and in particular about the thoughts of the player about death, old age and mortality.

What sort of criticism have you received about The Graveyard, or what criticism do you expect?

The two main criticisms have been “it’s not a game” and “it’s not rich enough”.

The first one comes from a purist “hardcore” game perspective where everything that is not a game does not deserve attention and should not bear the name “game”.

We try to ignore this response as much as possible but often fail because we feel that a) video games should be a field open to growth and experimentation and b) video games seem to narrow down the meanings of game and play to something that is more specific than any historic definition of the words.

The second response comes from the adventure-gaming puzzle-solving audience. They basically like the idea of The Graveyard but they hate its minimalism. They want to find more concrete story elements or clues to decipher the riddle. And while we feel that the player should use their own imagination to enrich our work, we do understand that some people are better at this than others.

We have already responded to this criticism both in The Path and in the design of a future game by including elements that allow people like this to get more out of our games. In an attempt to guide and stimulate their imagination.

What do you think of the state of independent game development?

We feel the independent games community is in a state of transition, perhaps even steering towards a schism of some kind. A few years ago, almost all independent games were basically remakes of old 2D games. And still today, many indie games are platformers, shooters, RPGs or adventures.

The only reason to call these independent was that they were made with very low budgets. But in every other sense of the word, they were extremely dependent. On former game styles, on traditions, and even on the commercial games industry which many indie games refer to in a mock-ironic way.

But lately, independent games have been evolving towards something more similar to independent film, while perhaps commercial games are starting to look like Hollywood more and more.

There’s a lot more experimentation going on. And contemporary indie developers don’t feel as trapped anymore by old ideas about game design. There’s more and more games out there that put content first and form second. This way independent game developers are showing the world how video games can become a medium, perhaps even an artistic one.

How often do you think of dying?

Michael: I don’t think there’s an hour that goes by without me thinking about death in some way. Most often my own death, I think. I’m not a morbid person at all. I think I’m even what one would call an optimist. And perhaps my optimism comes from deeply accepting death as a fact, even as a thing of beauty.

I think acute awareness of death leads to an appreciation of life. I’m also very curious. Curious about death. I’m not entirely convinced that death is the ultimate end. I’m curious about what will happen when I die. I’m even curious about the process itself, about feeling life slip away from you, as one does, I imagine, often in day-to-day life at those moments when we lose control.

I think mortality adds to the nobility of man. Daring to live when facing the unavoidable end is the most courageous thing that anyone can do. And wasting life is the greatest of sins.

Auriea: Whenever something reminds me. Looking at my dead garden plants in winter and remembering what spring feels like; Certain traditions of still life painting; Reading the news. A few poetic metaphors, and off I go.