First, apologies for the long silence here at Archaeogaming! You can expect good things from AG HQ this summer as I play Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar MMOs in anticipation of Destiny and ultimately No Man’s Sky, all of which offer massive environments to explore while documenting the archaeology in them.
I’ve been looking for an archaeology-centered game, something with archaeology and archaeologists as the focal point and not just a random non-player character, side-skill/profession, or excuse to find “treasure” and “magic” by way of looting ancient monuments and artifacts. I was (pleasantly) surprised by what I found: Buried. You can play it here for free.
Buried was created by Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham as part of the July 2014 Heritage Jam, an event “bringing heritage, visualisation & media specialists together to collaborate, curate & create new imagery.” Copplestone (concept, writing, coding art) is part of the world-class talent vortex in York and describes herself as an “archaeological information systems person, VR enthusiast, and video-gamer devloping interactive archaeology games in VR.” Felixstowe-based (UK) Botham (coding, game elements, art) is a junior game designer at Guerrilla Games Amsterdam.
Created using Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories, Copplestone and Botham built Buried is a proof-of-concept game for “using ergodic literature for archaeology”. “Ergodic” is a fancy way of saying “choose-your-own-adventure” (remember those, kids?), where the reader can follow many different paths during the course of a story, following a thread wherever might lead, where re-readings of the story can lead to alternate endings.
Buried is intentionally lo-fi. It is text-centric and populated by charmingly Old Skool ASCII graphics, occasionally animated. The player clicks through the splash screen and learns that s/he is a field archaeologist, one concerned with death and burial of humans and human material. After a warning about potentially macabre scenarios (none of which are gratuitous), the player continues. We learn about the framework of the story, where Buried becomes a teaching game, story-based, using player engagement to instruct about archaeological theory, methods, and research. Even though the game is a “proof-of-concept”, there are 248 choices to be made, 17 conclusions, and 50 outcome modifiers. The game as it is has a robust, clever narrative structure, some intriguing storytelling twists, and a complex sense of humor. Just like in real life (and unlike most modern games), there is no backtracking or reverting to a previously saved version. You are committed until the story ends. Replay is encouraged. The archaeology is well researched and clearly presented.
There is a brief tutorial instructing players about the user interface. Some of the text is interactive in occasionally unexpected and delightful ways (e.g., waving your pointer over text on one frame make text bold, and you can watch it fade back to normal — and this happens for a reason!). Click on white text for definitions or options to progress in the story.
You then enter your name (real or fictitious), select a title (Dr., Mr., Mrs., Miss, Lord), a drink (water, scotch, soda, coffee), and the location of your fieldwork (Frankfurt, Rome, York, Atlantis), and off you go. You are immediately beset with choices including procrastination. In fact, procrastination features heavily in many of the story’s threads. Such is archaeology research and writing. You get email and opt to read or ignore, reply or not. You can choose theory or practice. You can be drawn in to your work, or drawn away by personal issues. You can accept or pass on projects. As playful as the story is, it does strike close to home to practicing archaeologists, and could serve as a warning to those considering the field.
Human death, burial, and human and material remains form the second act of the story, and as you play, emotions resonate, something many professionally produced games attempt to capture, yet often fail to do so. The humor masks deeper feelings surrounding death and loss in some scenarios, and also highlights professional successes in others. We play and feel, and we learn.
I have played the game several times, all to different outcomes. Some threads are longer and more complex than others, and as if to mimic real science, the more work the player puts into the story, the more one gets out of it. In this case, we learn about archaeology, theory, and practice (Michael Shanks is invoked at one point). In other cases procrastination wins. It’s neither good nor bad. The outcomes just are, and we move on.
Buried is both a game and not a game. It is a playable book, and one with exceptional replay value. Archaeologists and archaeology are both portrayed realistically, and at the same time are neither boring nor sterile, proof that archaeology can stand on its own without resorting to gimmicks or stereotypes.
Once finished, click on the “Paradata” link to read more about the underpinnings of the game and concept. It is extraordinarily interesting. Copplestone writes, “the overall goal of the project was to explore the extent to which text (including hyper-text, ascii and text generated images) could be considered a visualisation media, whilst also exploring the impact player agency and choice has on the development, understanding and personal visualisation of a narrative.” There is more to the story than the story. It explores how readers “see”, text as visual tool as opposed to mere words on a screen. The story itself is an allegory for burial, something I had missed until reading the Paradata section. Buried is playful, but also provides plenty to discuss regarding what is a game, and how our personal experiences are brought to bear on choices made within this kind of media, and on this story specifically.
If more gaming companies and developers would spend as much time on story as they did on graphics and audio, the entire gaming community would be better served. This is why indie games are succeeding where their juggernaut cousins fail. Buried is deceptively complex in rendering the visual, and does so in subtle, clever ways. I find myself wondering what kind of data Buried collects from its users, namely choices made, threads followed, drinks chosen, time taken between choices, time spent with media in the game, time spent reading, etc. What patterns appear, and what does that say about us as gamers, as archaeologists (real or imagined)? I’m eager to see Copplestone’s results when they are ready to share.
Now stop reading, and go play Buried for yourself.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming