The Graveyard is both beautiful and incredibly irritating -- and it's worth playing, both because it is beautiful, and because the reasons why it's irritating are worth thinking about.
First, the beauty: In The Graveyard, a very old woman with a cane walks painfully down a path in a graveyard; about her, the graveyard is portrayed in finely detailed greyscale CGI, with an entirely believable soundscape of birdsong, barking dogs, and distant emergency vehicles -- clearly, a graveyard in an urban setting. She comes to the end of the path, and awkwardly turns to sit on a park bench. After a moment, a song begins to play -- a bleak, Brechtian tune, with minimal instrumentation, sung in Dutch by the Belgian recording artist Gerry De Mol. (There are English subtitles.) While the music plays, an image of the old woman appears at right (as in the image above), and superimposed on the foreground are images of graves and other aspects of the graveyard. At the end of the song, the old woman rises, and walks painfully back through the garden to the gate.
Emotionally effective, and beautiful both for its imagery and its music.
Why, then, is this incredibly irritating? For this reason: Supposedly this is -- well, don't call it a game, but an interactive application. The old lady does not simply walk down the path; you press the W key to make her walk. She turns with A or D, moves backward with S -- this is a WASD interface. She sits spontaneously when properly positioned over the bench, however.
At the beginning of the graveyard path, there are paths to left and right -- but if you turn and take one, the old lady may walk down it, but your camera does not follow. Indeed, it smoothly slides back to a more distant view, and the old lady quickly disappears behind the wall surrounding the graveyard -- you can no longer see her. Indeed, extricating her from this position is difficult, because she has to turn back to return to the main path, but you can't see her to see how she is positioned. Moreover, if you become frustrated at your inability to rectify the situation, and try to quit, you find that you cannot; there is no way to quit from the application, except by returning to and exiting the graveyard gate. (Or Alt-Tabbing out and forcing an external quit, of course.)
As you approach the park bench, which is situated in front of what appears to be a chapel, there are visible paths to the left and right around the chapel; if you take one, there comes a point where the old lady begins to "skate," still attempting to walk, but visibly making no progress.
Now here's the thing; by giving the player (if we may call him such) the illusion of agency, by placing control of the character's motions in his hands, an application makes an implicit promise: That your choice of actions matters. Since this is essentially an art project, perhaps it need not matter much -- but it should matter to some degree. The implicit promise is that we can turn down that path to the left or right, or skirt around the chapel; perhaps doing so takes us no where in particular, perhaps the only point at which something interesting happens is that park bench -- but for the application simply to not let you see to left or right, to bar you from moving past the chapel, breaks the illusion of presence, and denies your control of the character.
The character is not in your control, in any meaningful sense. The character exists simply to move to the park bench and trigger the music.
This should not be an application; this should be a video. It would lose nothing if it were; it would still be beautiful and moving -- without the frustration.
Does it gain anything at all through its illusion of agency? Perhaps one little thing: we have been trained to identify more closely with the game avatars we control than with external characters in a linear film. Perhaps the act of pressing down the W key to move the old lady forces us to identify with her more closely, and perhaps that reinforces the pathos of the scenario.
And perhaps not. If you're going to let me turn left and right, I want to do so. And if your -- game, if that's the word -- doesn't let me, then you're simply playing the age-old, tedious game of the linear arts: You are telling me a story, you are completely in control of the message, anything I do affects it not the least; it's artist-to-accolyte, broadcaster-to-audience, lord-to-peon, it utterly defies the single thing that makes games unique and valuable: that they democratize the experience by making the players willing participants in its creation.
The Graveyard is worth playing -- but it is "playing" in the sense that you play a movie, not playing in the sense that you play a game. It is beautiful -- and also a clear demonstration of why no one should ever make such a thing.