Developer: Lazy Bear Games
At the start of August, I got this game in my inbox that I had been wanting for over a year. “The most inaccurate medieval cemetery management simulation of the year!” had been the logline sold to me, and the mixture of pixels, dark humor, and Stardew Valley-esque references were enough to make me lust after the chance to play this game. I wanted to write about Graveyard Keeper, and all of the bizarre, interesting possibilities within that only a video game can give you.
I opened the game up, eager to see what hijinks I would get into. I was excited by the idea of playing something unique; the concept of morbidly managing a cemetery had me procrastinating at my day job, waiting to get home to tear into this game.
|Just look how happy this skeleton is!|
When I got home and finally had a chance to play Graveyard Keeper, I closed out of the game in frustrated disgust within the hour.
Nearly three months later, I found myself staying up past 2 am for the chance to dig another yet hole in the ground. It had been the fourth body I had interred that day, following the same monotonous process of embalming and corpse preparation. As I exhaustedly shoveled dirt over the cold body, my bloodshot eyes stared at my computer screens, now the only source of light in the entire house. I smiled widely to myself.
What happened? What could get me to dislike a game so much, and yet find it so blissfully fulfilling at the same time?
A Brief History of Anticipation
During PAX East 2017, I had had the opportunity to play this game after sneaking into the Tinybuild to see what was coming out soon, my eyes gravitating towards Graveyard Keeper. The Stardew Valley craze from the previous year was still going strong, and a lot of attempts to keep reviving the genre that Harvest Moon started were being made by hopeful indie studios.
From that set of games, Graveyard Keeper stood out. The reason was simple: the absolutely morbid tone, mixed with generous splashes of gallows humor. The demo I played had me learn how to harvest organs from a body (for what? I had no idea – the possibilities were endless!), and have a talking skull lead me through a dungeon-esque environment and cause some havoc. After killing a townsperson by being horribly misled, the demo ended.
Here was a game that had not just potential, but what felt like lightning in a bottle. The gaming community as a whole likes biting humor, and games that play with your assumptions. So much of the game felt like a wink-and-nod to Harvest Moon, while also creating something new. Burying bodies instead of planting turnips? Duping townspeople while making money? This was a formula set to succeed.
Graveyard Keeper released August 15th this year to little fanfare. It had a cult following – which feels very appropriate because of the theme – but it sank quickly. I understand why.
This Is No Happy Sandbox
What I played in that first demo didn’t prepare me for what happened when I first logged into the full release. A melancholy, almost mournful cutscene awaits you as you start your journey. Instead of being a hapless city kid being thrust into a rural inheritance, you are someone who has been somehow abducted. You wake up in a world that seems to have expected a new keeper of the old graveyard, nodding their heads somberly and giving you tutorial-esque advice. Your character asks what’s happening to him, to which they all laugh and turn a blind eye, expecting you to fulfill your tasks or die.
|There's an unsettling sense of loss that hides behind the odd gameplay - it compels me to find out more.|
This was a bizarre turn from what I had been prepared for. Harvest Moon and its predecessors are a power fantasy. It might seem like a strange thing to say about a farming game, but it’s true: you start off with nothing, and through the strength of your own hands and know-how, this dilapidated farm you’ve been given begins to thrive. You build relationships as townsfolk adore you. Some may fall in love, and you even are able to help bring new life into this quiet village, through new buildings or children of your own.
Graveyard Keeper subverts that immediately and severely. Sure, you will manage to slowly but surely build up your humble abode, but the feeling is wildly different. There’s a sinister sense of resistance that comes from your efforts, where each attempt to better your surroundings is met with problems. A new body is brought you to every few days by a talking donkey; just as you begin to discover how to make money by burying bodies, he suddenly demands payment in the form of carrots and some oil for his cart.
“Sure,” you say to yourself. “There’s some farmland right next to my house! I’ve played simulators before, I know how to plant crops”. You’d be right, except for the fact that you have to find the person in town who has the land rights to the farm before using it. “Sure,” you say with a sigh. “I’ll just find that person and fulfill their demands”, but that individual only appears on one day during the six-day week. This is only one example: there’s a church bishop who demands you restore the church without telling you how. There’s an inquisitor that asks you to make flyers – a skill that no one has, or will, explain to you – all while casually threatening you that he’ll burn you at the stake for looking into dark secrets.
|This is not a happy village that's filled with romance options.|
This isn’t even getting into the tech tree. Oh, all hail – and all curse – the tech tree.
Remember that I needed oil to get my donkey’s cart fixed up? What they don’t tell you is how to get what you need. Not even a hint. Burying bodies is sort your bread and butter; while you can unlock crops or harvest raw materials to sell in bulk, bodies are the fastest way to get your coffers full. So imagine my surprise when that source was cut off from me. Spending in-game weeks trying to find a way up the tech tree, to get enough experience points using certain tasks to unlock the ability to press my own oil out of vines… how to earn the ability to grow grapes and hops along the hillside…
|The tech tree gives you a real sense of progress as you unlock new options. It also will drive you insane as you see solutions, just out of reach.|
After a month of toiling, of trying to eke by enough money to keep advancing, I stumbled across a vendor outside of town that had oil. I nearly screamed.
And yet… and yet, despite all the negativity I have said above, I find myself becoming more and more enamored, more and more obsessed, with this game. I had wanted to hate Graveyard Keeper, but instead, it’s moving past just being a game to become a motivation tool.
Problems Are The Point
If you walk into Graveyard Keeper expecting a casual, laid-back game about becoming the coolest or most valuable member of your community, you will be sorely disappointed. That is not what this game is, even though most expect it to be a sillier Stardew Valley. No, Graveyard Keeper challenges you. Where other simulators give you the keys to the kingdom, this game hides the prize, mocking you that it is just out of reach. Graveyard Keeper has literally killed me for attempting to complete a quest in the obvious, straight forward way.
This game fights your progress. As you believe you’ve fixed one problem, such as unlocking the ability to use the church for prayer, you suddenly realize there’s a new resource that you need to advance up the tech tree: faith. As you realize how to get faith, you also begin to realize that the church can be optimized for collecting more faith and cash every week. To do that however, you need to unlock a new set of blueprints for confessionals and decorations, rather than use your valuable tech points to solve the original goal you may have had.
What goal, may you ask? It might be hard to remember, but Graveyard Keeper has one over-arching goal, and it isn’t to make a happy life for yourself: it’s to escape. The real world is somewhere outside of this grind-fest, and the puzzle as to how to escape seems to be split up between some of the characters in town. Every townsperson demands services rendered for any small question however, and each service might be something you have no idea how to start accomplishing yet: brewing potions, binding books, carving marble…
The list of questions you have doesn’t seem to go away, but instead expand. The week which felt so long suddenly goes by too quickly, as you desperately try to create enough items to please one quest-giver. Sure, you now have a graveyard filled with bodies and enough money to buy the tools you need, but now it’s about charting out when to get what items. When to head to the dungeon. When to find time to work on that side project of preparing the next row of crops to make food with.
|Will anyone applaud you for fixing this bridge? No. Is it still worth it? Yes.|
Stardew Valley feels like an airy montage of progress, making me smile dreamily about how easy it must be to live a simple existence. Graveyard Keeper reminds me of my own to-do list. Of how when I fix the gutters on my house, I realize I have a leak in my roof. When I finally get the leak in my roof fixed, now its figuring out how to pay for that fix.
I’ve been reading a book lately, to help refocus myself and my ADHD. It’s got a bit of gallows humor in it too: “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck”. It’s a book that’s all about self-improvement, of a sorts; rather than promising riches or demanding you shout affirmations into the mirror, it relentlessly goes for a brutal and straight forward approach. It reminds you that life isn’t always fair, and that while your situation might not be your fault, it is your responsibility to fix things if you want to proceed. It’s all about being practical in how you should look at life, to find a better perspective to start from.
There’s a line that stands out from the book, that I haven’t been able to get out of my head:
“Solving your problems just leads to having better problems.”
A Grave Sense Of Accomplishment
It’s funny to me how certain games we expect to have severe struggles with, and we demand streamlined play from others. Dark Souls doesn’t hesitate to make you earn even the first few levels of your character; people play it anyway, purposefully making charts or careful plans to chart out the order in which they struggle deeper into the maps. When I log into X-Com, I'm practically begging to lose squad members to aliens.
To enjoy Graveyard Keeper, all you have to do is change your perspective. This game isn’t meant to be a power fantasy; instead, it’s an ever increasing series of puzzles that don’t come with instructions.
My last few sessions have felt really good to play. The weird atmosphere of Graveyard Keeper persists: I have full sets of alchemy equipment and vile potions made from organs bubble underground. I still have no idea how to make the many available potions, leaving me with piles of useless goo. I resist – for as long as humanly possible – the desire to log onto the Graveyard Keeper wiki site, an invaluable resource for when you just can’t figure out how to solve one of your many problems. I earn a decent amount of money now with my cooking and my corpse burning, but the townspeople still won’t give me the answers I seek.
Graveyard Keeper is not a walk in the park. It demands effort. It demands planning, and charting out your responsibilities. You have to figure out in advance how much time you have before the next week catches up to you, and you miss your window of opportunity to find your way home. Graveyard Keeper makes you painfully aware how valuable your stamina and your time are. What can you figure out today, and what should wait to tomorrow? What problems need fixing first, before moving onto the next?
I’ve loved my last few sessions of Graveyard Keeper not because its an escape, but because it is a puzzle. Once I solve a few of my woes, and figure out what my next set of troubles will be, I feel accomplished. I check to see my graveyard is trimmed, the gravestones repaired and glistening. Then, I log off and go clean my room.
Sure, it’s a pain to deal with problems head on. When we play games, it's to escape for the ones in reality for a little while quite often. It takes a special game then, to purposely shine a spotlight on the grind. To have that gameplay loop remind you very clearly that sometimes your problems seem to be too much to bear, and that even when you tackle those struggles, maybe it all won't fix itself right away when you try.
If you don’t try however… well, then you’ll never get anywhere, will you? There's no way you can wake up into the life you really want if you don't try.