Video games deal with death all the time. It serves as something you have to inflict in order to progress, or as a penalty for “doing it wrong.” Got to get to the chopper before it takes off? Headshot that guy behind the pillar and take his cover. Miss a jump and end up in the lava? Damn, you’ll have to restart from the last checkpoint. Those of us who play games are so used to the offhanded treatment of death in games that this doesn’t phase us at all. GFW Magazine ran a pretty good feature on this back in the day, if you want to read more about it.

That’s why I found The Graveyard to be such a welcome departure for the medium. Here’s what the developer, Tale of Tales, has to say about their indie product:

The Graveyard is a very short computer game designed by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn. You play an old lady who visits a graveyard. You walk around, sit on a bench and listen to a song. It’s more like an explorable painting than an actual game. An experiment with realtime poetry, with storytelling without words.

I thought about taking out that last sentence, but I decided that it’s pointless pretending that indie game “experiences” about emotion and interactivity aren’t kind of pretentious.

Anyway, that’s really all there is to it: you can walk the old lady along a very limited path, and when you reach a bench you turn her around so that she can sit. The game is in black and white, and on better computers, you’ll see a grainy filter over the camera. The art direction reminded me of Schindler’s List, and I was surprised when I realized that the old lady wasn’t Jewish (she’s in a church cemetary).

Her movement is slow and awkward, and she will begin to lean on her cane and favor one hip if you don’t pause to let her rest every five steps. This is a woman not far removed from her surroundings.

When you finally get her weary body over to the bench and sit, a song will begin to play. It’s not in English, but it is subtitled. I read the music and lyrics as sad but wry; a song reminiscing archly about lost loved ones and the inevitability of a reunion soon.

After the song, you can get up and walk to the cemetary gate to end the game. That’s it. The whole experience took less than 10 minutes, including download time.

What point is the game is trying to make?

It’s hard to ignore the game’s message that death is an inevitable part of life, but The Graveyard doesn’t lead you by the hand in deciding what to do with that idea once you’ve been confronted with it. This is a game with a strong theme, but no message.

There’s something else going on, though. Tale of Tales has an axe to grind with video games as they are generally understood:

We explicitly want to cater to people who are not enchanted by most contemporary computer games, or who wouldn’t mind more variety in their gameplay experiences. For this purpose, all of our products feature innovative forms of interaction, engaging poetic narratives and simple controls.

A forum post by cofounder Michaël Samyn that discusses the cancellation of an earlier title drips with resentment against traditional publishers, game genres, themes and control schemes. I can’t put my finger on just how, but all this resentment is almost palpable in The Graveyard. It’s like the game is a proof of concept that there’s a different way to do things.

How successfully does its presentation and/or gameplay get the message across?

Well, I felt a twinge of sadness at the song, which is more than I can say for most games that strive for emotional impact. As Wired’s Chris Kohler points out, the limited mobility of the old lady makes the bench seem subjectively far away—which means I was seeing things from my character’s point of view.

There’s no gameplay hook, of course: you have to want to play because you’re interested in the theme of the game. This was true of ICED, too, now that I think of it. That’s probably a weakness.

Does it make an impression?

I thought a bit about death, and what it really means. I don’t do that every day.

The Graveyard is an outstanding art installation. Tale of Tales is doing interesting work, and if it motivates them to be a bit self-righteous about it, more power to them. That’s better than letting gaming stagnate as a medium. I’d love to see a synthesis of this stark, mature sensibility with the polish and appeal that commercial games strive for.

EDIT: The free version of The Graveyard, available for Mac and Windows, is only a trial. The full version of the game adds the possibility that the old lady may die during her visit to the graveyard. I didn’t purchase this little bonus, so I can’t comment on how it may impact the experience.