Bie Verlinden like to tell stories, and she has some powerful stories to draw from. The 92-year-old was born on a quiet farmhouse in Belgium that quickly became a volatile point of control between German and English forces during World War II. On any given day, her childhood home could—and often did—become a contested frontline between these forces. It was a stressful upbringing, one she would often use to quietly humble those around her.
“These stories were pretty traumatic experiences for her,” said Bob De Schutter, Verlindenikes’ grandson and a game designer who now researches and teaches at Ohio’s Miami University, with an emphasis on games aimed at older individuals. “By the time I was 12 years old, I started to feel that I wanted to make a game about these stories.”
These stories formed the basis for Brukel, a first-person exploration game (think Gone Home) centered on his grandmother’s experiences, about the trauma she went through. Players return to the family’s now-abandoned farmhouse decades after the war, and suddenly find themselves trapped. (There are light supernatural elements, but it’s not a horror game.) Equipped with a digital camera, players snap photos of various objects in the house, which trigger stories told by De Schutter’s grandmother in her own voice and words.
As we watch Nazis become en vogue and facism gain mainstream clout, the lessons of World War II are more vital than ever, but for a lot of people, it’s something drawn from a dusty history book or a commercialized, politically neutered setting for video games or movies. It doesn’t feel real anymore. De Schutter wants to meet people where they are.
“Honestly,” he said, “if you'd told me for class, instead of reading a boring book or a documentary, you get to play a horror game? I'd be like ‘Yes!’ As a professor of education for me, that's also important—engaging students.”
Ghosts or not, Brukel’s attempt to bridge a historical gap will ultimately hinge on his grandmother’s stories. When I asked De Schutter if one story stuck out in his mind, he told me how, one evening, during a big family dinner, De Schutter’s father was going on about some World War II story, a way for him to brag about how much he’s read about the conflict.
Midway through, De Schutter’s grandmother interrupted the spectacle and began to speak.
At different times, his grandmother’s farmhouse might be occupied by the Germans or the English. This time, though, it was the English, and with combat expected to break out at any moment, the men taking shelter in their home were drowning their nerves in lots and lots of alcohol. They also invited all the other men—De Schutter’s grandfather, the farm hands, the sons—to join in on the festivities, and by the end of the night, everyone “got shitfaced.”
As often happens during excessive drinking, people’s emotions got the best of them, and things quickly escalated. One of the English officers drew a gun and held it to his grandfather’s head, drawing everything to a standstill. He eventually withdrew the weapon.
“My grandma just drops that story on the entire table with everyone sitting there,” said De Schutter. “You could hear a pin drop. My dad—she shut him up pretty well. [laughs]”
De Schutter started on Brukel more than three years ago, during a semester-long sabbatical. Research for Brukel actually started a few years earlier. Though he hadn’t committed to making the game quite yet, De Schutter started interviewing his grandmother about her childhood, recording as many of her stories as possible. Just having them was important.
Part of Brukel’s arc is tracking his grandmother’s tough early years, which started before the war broke out and all hell broke loose. After her mother died at an extremely young age, his grandmother and her older sister were forced to take care of the six (!!) younger children themselves, while their older brother and father tended to the farm. There was no playing.
“My grandmother, her older sister—jesus christ, what they did for the family is insane,” he said. “This is a story about strong women. I'm not necessarily making this game as a feminist statement, but this game is a very strong feminist statement without even trying, you know? What they did with that family, how they managed to get everyone through the war.”
Setting the game inside his grandmother’s farmhouse was a neat idea in theory, but presented a huge practical challenge; there were no photos of the interior of the house, nor any blueprints to work off of. Instead, De Schutter sat down with a sheet of paper and asked his grandmother to describe the house. What did she see? What was around the corner?
“I just started sketching,” he said. “‘Do you like what I sketched?’ ‘No, it has to be like this, it has to be like this.’ The entire reconstruction of the house, she was heavily involved with. We turned those into 3D models and then I go back to her and go ‘Is this what it's supposed to look like?’ She would still make changes and we'd adjust the 3D model.”
She has been just as involved in the storytelling part, too. Again, Brukel doesn’t feature a professional voice actress—it’s De Schutter’s grandmother speaking into a microphone. There is no script. De Schutter asks her to start talking. Sometimes, he would ask her to tell a story a few different ways, emphasizing one part or another, but at the end of the day, it’s all her.
“I did, in total, about three takes of the best parts of the stories,” he said. “The first time she could talk about whatever the wanted, the second and the third time I was like ‘OK, how about this story? Do you remember when you told me about it?’ And then she did it again.”
What appears in the game is an edited mixture of those various recordings, an attempt to strike a balance between authenticity and the most powerful way to tell a specific story.
“My grandmother shared with me all these stories of what it is like living in your country, in your house, and all of a sudden, the frontline is literally in your backyard,’ he said. “The English and the German [soldiers] are fighting over your backyard, killing each other, while you're a 14-year-old girl. You can't make sense of this whatsoever. […] I always felt like the stories she told me, they are literally incredible if you've not lived through them.”
Whether or not the experiment works is an open question, but it won’t take long to find out. De Schutter is currently polishing some final bugs—he was in the middle of writing Steam achievements when we spoke on Skype—and expects Brukel to be released later this year.
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