Theories of a Gamer – Ambiguously Unambiguous Evil

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I’m not quite ready to give a full review of Graveyard Keeper by Lazy Bear Games; I’m about eight hours in, and I can’t stop playing. Just know that I’m missing a lot of time in Minecraft and Final Fantasy XIV performing autopsies, burying “sinless” corpses in the local graveyard, throwing “sinful” corpses into the river, and giving sermons at the local church in the hopes that someday mods will be developed that make this already very engrossing game perfect.

So yeah, I guess that’s a good early review, at least.

I’ve never played a game that gives you the gameplay options it does without throwing out the following message in nearly any way:

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I say nearly because the main character, the titular graveyard keeper, upon learning what his job entitled (namely, the dismemberment and disembowelment of human corpses in order to dispose of them) complains about it. Just once, though. After that, you, the player, are free to harvest all that meat, blood, bone, and brain matter to your heart’s content (and the corpse’s heart’s content, too, don’t forget those). No need to worry, however. It’s all in the name of… SCIENCE. Besides, they’re dead; they’re not going to need all those entrails and flesh. Why not put them to better use instead?

If you’re at all familiar with Fallout 3, you might remember the story of the little town of Andale and the families that lived there: not only were the only two remaining families incredibly inbred, but their source of food in that dark urban wasteland was none other than the visitors and raiders that happened upon the small collection of still-standing homes and shacks. Don’t agree with the lifestyle the residents of Andale enjoy? Don’t worry, you’ll soon change your mind… once they invite you to dinner.

You get one but two trope/memes out of Andale: “DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT” and “STAY OUT OF MY SHED” (specifically SHED.MOV, NSFW but entertaining). Choosing the “good” ending for Andale ends with defending yourself from these well-dressed and well-mannered knife-wielding maniacs.

The Wanderer: “Bring home the bacon? Those are people, not bacon! What the f-ck?”

Jack Smith: “Hey! I’ll have none of that language in this house!”

The Wanderer: “I can’t believe I’m being called a potty mouth by a cannibal…”

Jack Smith: “Okay, that’s it. I warned you. Now I’m going to sock your jaw, mister.”

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Mmm, strange meat.

Unfortunately for Jack, his wife, and his neighbors, death by the Wanderer’s combat shotgun and his companion Charon ensues. Yes, that’s the “good” ending, the murder (admittedly in slightly self-defense) of all the cannibal adults. The two children go to live with their grandpa Old Man Harris (yes, they are cousins, and they were set to be married once they grew up, meaning their parents were siblings, incest did in fact occur…). From one point of view (the karma-aligned “good” choice), these children will grow up as normal as one can in the Wasteland without the influence of their cannibalistic lineage. But at the same time, while the parent’s crimes were great, these children are left bereft of their parents in a very unforgiving world without a source of food, employment, or protection. Would Old Man Harris and the children abandon Andale? Likely, if only to distance themselves from their destructive heritage. Will they move to Rivet City or Megaton for protection? Likely, as Andale is fairly remote and dangerous for an old man and two kids. Will they all have trouble integrating into normal society? Very likely; the only contact with the outside world the children had was with visitors that disappeared pretty quickly and reappeared as a breakfast menu item.

Of course, the binary karma system of Fallout 3 doesn’t take into account many of these particulars, and time constraints in game design mean the family never moves away from Andale in-game, despite how little sense it makes to remain there. In Black-And-White-Land, cannibals = bad and dead cannibals = good, no matter the other consequences.

Old Man Harris: “Better an orphan than a cannibal I guess?”

Graveyard Keeper, on the other hand… is definitely not Stardew Valley.

Right after learning how to butcher- er, autopsy a corpse, you’ll learn how to cook! And what’s the first thing you’ll learn how to cook? Baked meat! And where does this baked meat come from?

…th-the corpses!?

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Just don’t tell ’em you’ve turned into a cannibal. Keep that on the way down low.

Worse, you learn that the village for which you gravekeep is in the midst of a meat shortage, and the only way you could sell meat is if you had a royal stamp proving that it was well-sourced and fit for human consumption. After all, there’s been rumors going around of someone forging a stamp and selling suspicious meat… and we wouldn’t want to be caught selling strange meat, would we? No, especially since everyone’s pretty sure the Graveyard Keeper doesn’t own livestock! Haha! No, we wouldn’t want that, would we?

But we can. That’s a thing you can do in Graveyard Keeper. Not only are you encouraged to chop up and eat corpse meat (for a guy from the present day looking to return to his own time, he sure takes to cannibalism like a duck to water), you can “disguise” the meat with a royal stamp and sell it to the tavern owner as “legit” packaged meat for a pretty good profit. And as long as you toss the bodies into the river or cremate them afterwards, the bodies from which you procure the meat won’t spoil your pristine graveyard with all their icky red skull “sins”.

And you get all of this without a single hint of this:

I’m not sure which is worse: Fallout 3 with its ambiguous and overly-simplistic expressions of morality, or Graveyard Keeper with its unambiguous uncomplaining evil that would become obvious to even the most ignorant villager if they tailed behind the graveyard keeper for even half a day. In Fallout, you can choose to be a raider or a slaver, and spend all day slapping slave collars around the necks of children and the elderly. You can murder almost every NPC you meet. These are things you can do. In Graveyard Keeper, you can strip the skin off of the recently deceased and refine it into sheets of paper upon which you can write a church sermon to present to your ignorant congregation. You can turn human flesh into delicious burgers that restore your energy. These are things you can do.

But one game tells you what you’re doing is evil and one doesn’t. Two important questions: should a game alert you when you’re doing “bad” things? And should the game be responsible for telling the player what they’re doing is evil?

#1: I don’t think so.

#2: I believe so, to a point. What that point is depends on the message the game wants to send. And Graveyard Keeper is anything but a solemn soul-searching narrative of inner darkness.

Of course, Fallout 3 and Graveyard Keeper are two entirely different beasts, and not entirely comparable. But I find it fascinating how cannibalism in Fallout is a trait that must be sought out and used, all consequences be damned… And in Graveyard Keeper, it’s pretty much acknowledged from the beginning that harvesting meat from the dead is a good and expected way to make money. Is this lack of a “morality system” a fault on GK’s part? Or is the ambiguity the only thing that separates it from Stardew Valley and other resource management and crafting games?

I’m not sure! But time willing, the game’s review will be my next blog!

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