Everyone has those games they can’t put down, but should have years ago. Mine is Subset Games’ FTL. Steam tells me I’ve spent 175 hours in-game, and I vividly remember some of them were while I was supposed to be working in a publication’s Manhattan office, plying its starfields when I should have been digging up stories. Where would I be if I’d invested ten, fifty, a hundred of those hours pursuing goals I’d put aside for the quick fix of another run?
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so easy if I’d been playing Graveyard Keeper.
Lazy Bear Games’ Graveyard Keeper is a farming sim that also tasks the player with managing the town’s dead, processing their bodies and burying them in a graveyard you tend. But there’s another wrinkle: While you start in the present, a car accident at the beginning somehow hurls you to a pointedly nondescript medieval town, where you wake up to discover you’ve got a new gig caring for corpses and a ton of questions.
Your overall goal is to return to your own time and your own life, but in the meantime you’ve got a job to do. And a tech tree to climb. And townsfolk to befriend. And a farm to grow. And so on. Eventually, you realize all this mundane but satisfying toil is keeping you from returning—and maybe you don’t want to go back at all. Graveyard Keeper isn’t just about the insidious ways we divert ourselves from important goals—it’s also about the lengths we’ll go to forget we ever had them.
From the jump, it’s unclear if the titular Keeper’s new world is real, or if it’s a pocket reality their mind cooked up while they were incapacitated. People in the medieval town are too quick to accept their presence, nobody asks their name, the neighboring town is simply called The Town, and so on. But the void of answers is quickly filled by the work in front of you. Even though returning was the Keeper’s first quest, other jobs and requests quickly pile up.
As I delve into the game, I meet (possibly imagined) people and collect (possibly unreal) resources. I discover that a material refined with one workbench produces such and such ingredient, which can be used for this or that tech recipe. It’s a flow, and all the more satisfying since the game explains very little. This is one of the game’s ostensible lessons—that you can fall asleep at the wheel and submerge yourself into a meditative work regime.
It seduces you into thinking that all this work is necessary, that it’s building toward something. And the tasks are extremely simple, goading the player into believing that once they get a good sequence going—and what are players if not puzzle-solvers striving for better, faster ways to surpass obstacles—they’ll knock out all the busywork quickly and get to the real point of the game.
Of course, it’s not just unfinished labor that stops the Keeper from returning to their original time and place. They must do favors for people in town to advance certain quests, one of which will supposedly grant access to a portal which could send the keeper home. Mechanically, each are resource-gathering tasks, but soon the locals start recognizing the Keeper and their role in the village. Even if these are facile relationships with (potentially invented) people, they’re still tendrils anchoring the Keeper to a new life and job, with folks depending on them for help and to process the town’s dead. At the end of the day, whether the Keeper is serving real people or figments of their imagination is a matter of perspective. But if the Keeper is building a new life in with new relationships, then don’t they live here now?
It’s easier to maintain getting home to a “real life” as a perpetual goal if the town and its people are clearly fabricated. Evidence for that theory crops up through the game: For instance, when you finally find a way out of the village’s southern exit and step foot on the road to The Town (where magical items to operate the portal are said to reside), a bolt of lightning mysteriously strikes the Keeper dead—and then they wake up in their bed, ready for another day of work. As the days go by in this new world, home fades in memory. Not just for the Keeper, either: I’ve sometimes forgotten that they started the game elsewhere.
It’s a shock to remember, and it illustrates the difference between typical farming sims that pressure you to nest and invest, and Graveyard Keeper’s warning that you belong somewhere else… or at least you used to. Keeping that in mind is a gift and a curse, but a familiar one. On the one hand, making progress toward escape makes the drudgery feel worthwhile; on the other, knowing the Keeper is just going to leave this reality everything in it seem like waste of time.
Goals can be motivating: It’s a credit to human imagination that we visualize endgames to endure the work in front of us, and sometimes that’s the only way to get through the lowly tasks and favors Graveyard Keeper throws at the player. Keeping your eyes on the prize doesn’t just require discipline—it demands conviction that your efforts are paying off. So long as that’s the case, people can put up with some pretty horrible conditions. Even if that means dismissing the here and now, who cares? You’re going places.
But the present is where we actually live. Framing everything you do as being in the service of far-off goals can also convince you that you’re making progress while you’re actually stagnating. As the oft-used John Lennon/Allen Saunders quote goes, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans”—and whether or not the Keeper is closer to the portal, the player is regularly interacting with this possibly-pretend world within the framework of eventual escape.
But the game never lets up, and the litany of work is deliberate: In other sims, you might get advanced tech that lets you skip menial steps, but not in this game. If you want to liberate the Keeper, you’ll have to grind every step of the way, but you choose how you’ll deal with it. For me, I begin to feel a little more agony with every new delay. In my impatience, I resent the day-to-day toil that brings me incrementally closer to my goal.
All games have goals and quests, but most don’t use theirs to tempt players into disengaging with their world. Graveyard Keeper’s prime mission gives players just enough doubt in the fidelity of their in-game surroundings and a motivation to abandon its reality. It grants them the space to decide how much they want to invest. When compared to other farming sims that encourage the player to submerge themselves further into their game-world, Graveyard Keeper’s main goal makes players choose how much they want from it—and to remain aware of that choice.
I think about that as I play the game. If I wanted, I could entomb the Keeper within their work, pumping out refined wood and metal parts and grave decorations forever. But their quest keeps me grinding away to get the Keeper closer to escaping their solipsistic purgatory. I’m responsible for their liberation—and my own, too. Steam tells me how many hours I’ve kept the Keeper away from their life, but that’s just as much time that I’m not pursuing the goals I have in mine. I think about myself in an office building in Manhattan, pouring hours into a starship fantasy while my own quests silently wait for me to get back to them, and set aside pleasure in the present to work toward the future they promise.