The Graveyard

They say the best camera is the one you have with you, and I believe the same can be said for game consoles. I own a DS and a PSP, but now that I actually have a daily commute that could finally provide a good outlet for my portable gaming habits, I have found that I rarely game on anything but my iPhone. It doesn’t have the best games and it has significant drawbacks versus dedicated gaming hardware, but it wins out purely because it is the most portable of the portables. I always have my phone on me, and all the games are stored internally—not having to carry around additional game cartridges, however small they have gotten, is a big plus. When the T stops on Longfellow bridge, I don’t think “Oh, I wish I’d brought my DS,” I just fire up Canabalt.

There are a couple of games I have been playing lately that I have particularly reacted to, and as I am currently stuck on a bus in deepest Connecticut I thought I might take a break from replaying Spider to reflect a little on a handful of iPhone ports that have most interested me: Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard, Popcap’s Plants vs Zombies, and Lazy 8 Studios’ Cogs.

I left some comments about Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard over at Creative Applications’ post about the recent iPhone port, and as it happened CreativeApps’ Filip judged my reactions interesting enough to reward me with a download code for the full game. I first played the free version of The Graveyard shortly after it was released, and for a game that takes under ten minutes to complete it really impressed me. (If you haven’t tried the game you should go form your own impressions—the core game is free on both computer and iPhone.) Cast in the role of an elderly woman, your only goal in the game is to walk into a graveyard, sit down on a bench, reminisce about lost loved ones, then stand and walk back out… hardly a complicated exercise, but the execution managed to really pull me in.

The first time I played I was extremely frustrated with the speed of my avatar, limited to a shuffling limp after having become so used to sprinting, flying and otherwise racing through other games. This is the first win for The Graveyard: I was frustrated because I felt old. Anything other than taxes that makes a fairly recent college graduate feel old is worth recognition, but the identification with the character actually strenghtened as I played. Looking back on my first play session, I started the game frustrated by how my avatar’s age limited my movements, but by the time I left the graveyard I was content to take things at the pace they came. In ten minutes Tale of Tales essentially walked me through the process of coming to terms with aging. While it will be quite a number of years before I can verify these reactions, that was my first takeaway.

Death is treated in a very matter-of-fact way in the game, and the song you listen to once you reach the bench recounts all the deaths your character has witnessed over her long life. Newborns, elderly relatives, sick children: everybody ends up the same in the end, with no more than a stone in the ground and an old woman’s memories to memorialize them. The song ends with the woman’s contemplation that she will soon join this row of stones. In a graveyard death is not frightening, it is all around… your character has come to terms with the coming end.

In the free version of the game, this is how it ends: you stand, you shuffle back to the main gate, and you close the game, returning to the triple-A shooter du jour or indie masterpiece of the moment. That is exactly what I did, but when I was browsing games several months later it had left a strong enough memory to spur me to head over and grab the full version. In an unfortunately typical situation my life exploded too much to take advantage of my new purchases, the game sat on my drive for several more months, and I didn’t end up playing the full version until I redeemed Creative Applications’ App Store download code earlier this week. The full version of the game adds only one feature: mortality. Unlike in the free version, once you put money down you can die.

In fact, every time I have played the full version, I have died. I cannot speak to the experience on a PC, but I can comment on the peculiarities of the mobile port. The first time I saw my avatar’s head slump forward I was on the train, playing with the sound off on my morning commute. The dischord around me on the T and the silence of the game (remmember that a large portion of the game’s content is a song about the dearly departed) made the whole experience rather surreal. It had been long enough since my initial playthrough that I couldn’t recall whether this was normal, so for a time I waited for her to stand, thinking perhaps the music hadn’t ended yet. When it became clear the old woman had passed away, I turned off my phone and got off the train, rather perplexed by how much less effecting the game was out of context. I made sure to wear headphones the next time. With the music and the atmospheric sound effects it was more definitive when she passed on… the music stopped, she seemed to consider getting up, then slumped forward instead. After having identified so tightly with the character in the free version, this time I found myself reacting much as one does to the news somebody you don’t know has finally passed away. Anticlimactic, expected, and peaceful, this was the antithesis of player death in almost any other game.

There are a few things about the implementation on the iPhone that I feel weaken the overall experience. First, the game does not override the currently playing music in iTunes. While I am normally greatful that games allow me to play my own tunes, in this instance I feel that random shuffle rather cheapens the experience. The Graveyard is such a concise statement that it would hardly be that much of an inconvenience to mute the sound for a couple minutes.

The other thing, and this may be true of the desktop version as well, is that if you die the game starts where the last one let off: You see yourself sitting on the bench, lifeless. In my opinion this diminished the feeling of finality the death had the first time I witnessed it much more than starting fresh would have done.

Is this a game that should have been ported to the iPhone? I feel that in some ways writing a game in Unity encourages the creation of ports, and this may be a case of “Well, we could, so why not?” After all, it’s nice to have a larger market, especially for indie studios with niche audiences. The chaos and unpredictability of your surroundings when you play an iPhone game stand opposed to the atmosphere of The Graveyard, and the game’s failure to override your own soundtrack, tends to weaken the impact of the game.

But then again, isn’t that the point?. Death is no more distant on the subway than it is in a graveyard. Whether you’re listening to Brahms, birds or the Black Eyed Peas does not have one iota of impact on your base mortality. So in the end, the juxtaposition of a carefully limited work of art with the sprawling chaos of the real world might go farther to emphasize the game’s message than the most carefully controlled environment ever could.

Whether it really belongs on the platform or not, I am glad Tale of Tales released The Graveyard for my phone. I don’t know how much this rerelease will earn the studio, but I hope that people will take a chance on these “artsy” games. Every game like The Graveyard and Rohrer’s Passage makes the App Store a better place.

Get The Graveyard in the App Store

This became far more verbose than I had anticipated, and having started in deepest Connecticut I now find myself rolling through Manhattan. With that in mind, I will defer commentary on the other games until a later time.