When Matthew Ritter found himself wandering through a cemetery a few years back, he discovered a grave that had his name on it. "The death date was very close to my birth date," he tells me. "That was odd."
Shortly after this brief communion with mortality, Ritter read the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, a book of poetry that takes the form of a series of epitaphs. "He mostly writes them kind of like a poem written from the perspective of a dead person," Ritter explains. "You get to know the town pretty well by the time the book is done." Ritter had grown up wanting to be a writer, and after a failed TV pilot, some comic book work and a spell at Telltale Games, he was finally freelance. He started to wonder: could you use a graveyard as a way to tell stories? And could you do that in a game?
"I thought: Oh hey, doing this as a game could be interesting," he says. Then he thought: Wait, no human will want to play that. "After that, I designed and outlined a detailed game of treasure hunting," he laughs. "The treasure map would be randomized but the graveyard static. Using the graveyard as clues to find the treasure." Ritter eventually realised he was designing a game to trick people into experiencing a narrative. "So, I thought. Why not just go full in? Make it personal, don't sugar coat it. Just make the project I wanted to make. It's small, I'll be financing it myself and with help from Kickstarter. So, why not?"
Kickstarter brought in around 1,000 pre-orders, and then Ritter got to work on Welcome to Boon Hill, a project that looks, in passing, like an old JRPG, but which encourages players to walk between rows of grave stones, reading the epitaphs and making their own connections. It's a graveyard simulator, as the marketing blurb has it, and I've found it strangely oppressive to play. That's a compliment, I suspect. After a few minutes of wandering, I feel very much surrounded. The pathways between graves start to look like ribcages, and it's impossible not to hunt for meaning everywhere I turn. A row of family grave stones starts to feel like a dark-spirited joke as I walk from one end to the other. I begin to dread the punchline. Another section has identical headstones lined up neatly. All blank. Why?
The game was meant to take about six months to complete but ended up swallowing two and a half years. I ask Ritter if this was due to the difficulties of blending a narrative in with the design of a physical space.
"Some people find the graveyard I designed sparse and empty feeling," he says. "Some love the way it's designed to force you into exploring, and how you suddenly realize just how big the graveyard grounds are.
"As for the narrative design and the physical location, first thing I did was work on a genealogy of the town. I decided on some family names, history, the big events that happened to the town, the macro things. Disease, the gold rush, the world wars, the civil war, the railroad coming into town, the mine drying up, a local fire, just the things that would cause a lot of people to come in or leave or have dramatic life experiences."
After that, Ritter wrote a lot of obituaries. "Not for everyone in town but for a lot of people. I then followed the families I had made and had them have people marry in and marry out and so forth. This gave me a nice skeleton of the town and what it had gone through."
He also ended up with the history of a town that had seen a lot of hardship. "It had originally been two towns and a lot of rugged individualists and slowly over time had turned into a single town known as Boon Hill," he says. "I wanted the graveyard as a physical location to reflect this. There are tons of family plots. There's a graveyard for each of the big towns before they joined together. Also, there's a rollback of history. With a lot of the more recent graves near the front of the graveyard and the older graves hidden out towards the middle and back."
With the game now available on Steam, I ask Ritter what he wants players to take from it. "Some kind of emotional reaction," he says. "The perfect player could even hate the game. The game is meant to be very open. The experiences equally so. I don't have an ideal experience because the game is meant to be different for each person. I know some people who have put in... way too many hours. Others who have played for twenty minutes, and both have felt fulfilled. Plenty of people have not been fulfilled, of course.
"They get out of it what they put into it, really," he tells me. "Do they want to spend time trying to figure out the stories of the people who are in the ground. Or just listen to pretty music. Or even just close the game and send me hate mail. All valid playthroughs of Boon Hill. Graveyards have been around for a long time. You can go to them and get the same sort of experience, and you should! There's so many stories around us that we'll never know the full depths of. So many lives lived that sculpted this world we never heard of.
"Sadly, most graves don't have epitaphs though. Very disappointing."