Graveyard Keeper is a wonderful thing, even in its current alpha state. You can tell what you're in for just by glancing at the patch notes on the home screen: "Fixed crash when extracting brain/fat/etc." I love that breezy "etc." "Fixed camera freeze when talking to Astrologer." And the home screen itself is no less delightful than the patch notes: night-time in a medieval village done up in pixel-art. The edges of a church and a waterfall are picked out in blue, lit by the nearby moon. It is a calm, but somehow potent view: the promise of morbid adventure. It reminds me a bit of that sense of expectation you get wandering around Melee Island at night.
You arrive in Graveyard Keeper from the modern world, where you are in love and in traffic and not very good at watching where you are going. Following an auto collision you awake in a medieval village and find yourself in charge of a small rundown graveyard. Every day a new body arrives from a wry, socialist donkey. Every afternoon there are tutorial tips to engage with, dispensed by a talking skull who seems to have been a bit of a boozer in his past life.
The pitch, I think, is Stardew Valley meets Six Feet Under. The graveyard needs fixing up - a process that will require the steady accumulation of resources and the unlocking of the skills needed to make anything handy of them - while the nearby village is filled with eccentrics and tantalising mysteries. Graveyard Keeper is particularly good at dangling threads, in fact: the local pub owner tells you that a nearby Astrologer may be of help to you; the church in the graveyard is locked, but may be accessible if you dig your way into its crypt. I am a few hours in and there are so many separate things I am working towards. The inquisition is in town: do I want to become a spy? Do I want to take on a garden as well as my graveyard? Do I want to see what's going on over by the nearby lighthouse?
It is all about pacing, Graveyard Keeper. People move around like clockwork, so if you want to meet someone to continue a quest you have to remember when they like to turn up as well as where. Then there's the resources game: wood, metal, stone so far. All of these can be handled in various ways, but you need to unlock the right skills in order to do anything fancy with them, and then you discover that there are these nested hierarchies within them too. You'll need certain resources to make your own nails, for example, and you'll want to make your own nails because there are certain things you can only make if you have nails in the first place. Making stuff also eats away at your energy levels, which can be renewed either by eating or sleeping. And then there are your tools, all of which need repairing after too much use.
But the background tick that keeps it all moving along is death. Every day a new body delivered, the donkey ringing a bell as it drops off the corpse in its sack. You carry it down to the morgue where you do what you can with it - at first you're merely extracting flesh; maybe you could sell that as food at the inn? - but eventually you'll be harvesting bones and skin and all sorts of other delights, all of which fit into this complex economy. Then you have to bury it. And here's where Graveyard Keeper gets devious.
Your graveyard is in a state. And it's your job to improve it, by mending graves and fitting stones and generally making sure that death looks palatable. But with each new body you bury, the work you have to do increases, as an unmarked grave lowers the tone of the place as much as a grave with a broken headstone.
So yes, you're encouraged to grind out the resources you need to fix the place up. But aren't you also encouraged to break the rules a little. Just outside the graveyard's gates is a river with a broken bridge. You can fix that bridge - you'll need to, in fact, if you want a decent source of metal. But the river itself is an ideal place for the dumping of bodies. And then there's the organs you're harvesting - what to do with them?
It's a distant relative of Stardew Valley, then, but it is darkly funny and touched with the supernatural. Graveyard Keeper is a world of restless spirits and skulking around in the dark. It's intoxicating, even in this unfinished state.