The lead character in Bob De Schutter’s new video game is “tough as nails.”
“I’m six-foot-eight myself. I’m about 220 pounds and, yeah, she can pretty much pin me down with one arm — which I learned the hard way, obviously,” De Schutter, a professor of applied game design at Miami University in Ohio, told As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal.
He’s talking about his 93-year-old grandmother, Bie Verlinden.
His new PC game Brukel explores her adolescence on a farmhouse Geel, Belgium, during the Second World War.
Verlinden’s mother died when she was very young, and she and her older sister had to step up and raise their six younger siblings while their brother and father tended to the farm.
“All of a sudden, the Second World War broke out and, you know, their backyard pretty much turned into the front line, and there were British soldiers and German soldiers killing each other there,” De Schutter said.
De Schutter grew up hearing his grandmother’s war stories about living in a home that was intermittently occupied by German and British soldiers.
She’d tell him about getting caught in the crossfire of vicious gun battles and hiding in the basement with her family as explosions rang out outside, covering their faces with wet rags to protect against the gas and the smoke.
One story in particular stands out for De Schutter.
“It’s a story about a drunken English soldier who, well, just got drunk and put a gun against my grandfather’s chest for no reason whatsoever. If he would have shot my grandfather at that point, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
“The first time I heard that was actually at a dinner table with the full family, and you could hear a pin drop at that time because nobody had ever heard that story before.”
First-person exploration games
Brukel is a first-person exploration game — an accessible, narrative driven format in which a character moves through a world and interacts with the environment to trigger audio or cut scenes that unravel a story.
The genre has taken off in recent years, with awards and critical acclaim heaped upon small, intimate titles like Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch.
When the game begins, you play as De Schutter visiting his grandmother’s old farmhouse to photograph what he finds inside.
“Whenever you take a picture of an object, you’ll hear my grandmother’s stories about why that object is relevant to her and that’s how you’ll learn about life in the ’20s and ’30s, he said.
“But then at some point you feel it’s time to go home because you have enough pictures, but then you get locked in the house and the ghosts of the past come to life and you’ll have to deal with everything that my grandmother went through during the Second World War.”
There are no voice actors in the game. Instead, De Schutter uses actual recordings of his grandmother telling her story in her own voice in her own Flemmish language.
He also worked with her closely to recreate the farmhouse as it existed back then.
“Obviously, I’m aware that memory is something very fragile. Now, thankfully my grandmother is mentally still very fit, and most of these stories for her are not necessarily as much remembering as re-experiencing,” he said.
“Whenever I interview her, she often closes her eyes. And she told me a couple of times as well, she sees everything happening again when she starts talking. I guess she’s traumatized by a lot of these stories.”
‘A lesson in empathy’
For De Schutter it was important — now more than ever — to tell a story about war and conflict that centres on regular people caught the fray.
“Growing up with my grandmother’s stories, I’ve always felt that … nobody wants to be in a war zone like that, and that’s something that’s completely out your control,” he said.
“I always feel that it’s unfair when people who are fleeing from being in that kind of situation are seen as people that are trying to profit from another country’s resources or something like that, because, well, my grandmother couldn’t flee.
“I have a lot of sympathy for people who find themselves in that situation and want to get out of it. So I feel it’s a lesson in empathy that is helpful for a lot of people in this day and age.”
It was also important for him to make a game that centres another often marginalized voice — that of the elderly.
His academic work has long focused on the relationship between aging and play, and he is an outspoken advocate against industry stereotyping of older video game players.
“A lot of older adults who work in the industry actually have told me that they feel that they’re just being pushed out as well, because games are typically seen as a young man’s medium,” he said.
“So for me to be able to make a game that has an elderly person playing the lead is a very important thing.”
His grandmother, he said, has become something of a local celebrity after the game was featured in several Belgian media outlets, as well as gaining national exposure on sites like Vice.
But it was no easy feat working with Verlinden and measuring up to her exacting standards.
“With earlier versions, I just sat down with her and just showed her what it looked like, me playing it and her pretty much criticizing everything,” he said.
“Now we got to the point the last time that she saw she was just really in awe it and just like, ‘Wow, this is my childhood home.'”
The game should be available for download by the end of 2019.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Bob De Schutter produced by Katie Geleff.